Since the moment I thought up this blog, I knew that I would write about Briton. I almost dreaded writing this because I knew the emotions that I would have to endure just to get through it. But here it is. I hope you join me in this (long) post paying tribute to this sweet boy and his beloved families.
On April 24, 2011 my husband, my son and I walked into my mom’s house for Easter dinner. Before we had a chance to sit down, my husband got the phone call that no person ever wants to receive. It was a friend of his, a state police officer, who told him there had been a very serious ATV accident in the mountains near T or C and Briton was in it.
Before we get too far into that terribly tragic day, let me first tell who Briton was to me. In December 2003, while in graduate school, I met a fellow student, Brandon, also pursing his MBA. Come to find out, we were taking all the same classes. It was the end of the semester and finals season was upon us so we partnered up to study. He had recently moved to Las Cruces from Truth or Consequences, NM. He and his wife had separated and were sharing custody of a chubby cheeked, blue-eyed 4-year-old boy named Briton Keith. After spending a good amount of time together during that semester, the holiday break was upon us. During the break, Brandon and I had many late night conversations where we really got to know each other. At this point in my life, I was in a ‘man eating’ phase. I would pick ’em up, chew ’em up and throw ’em out. But I had a lot of respect for Brandon. He was clearly not one of ‘those guys,’ so I actually didn’t even consider dating him.
After receiving some good advice from a friend that I should consider slowing down and having a meaningful relationship, I pondered the option of dating this Brandon fellow. In thinking about it, I always came back to the fact he had a child. At the not-so-wise age of 23, I had a very long and very specific list of characteristics my ideal mate would possess. He would be tall, handsome and know how to dance. Most importantly, he would not have any children. I didn’t want to have to accommodate an ex-wife. I didn’t want to split up holidays, and I certainly didn’t want to be in the middle of fights over whose turn it was to buy tennis shoes. I had many hesitations but I hadn’t considered the impact a sweet little boy named Briton would have on me. There were a million reasons to run in the other direction but spending time around Brandon and his son didn’t feel awkward or strange at all. It was comfortable, natural and quite easy. Our relationship progressed quickly and to my surprise, we were all moved in together six months later.
Brandon and I had Briton most weekends, we figured out holidays and school breaks. Though Briton’s two families lived an hour apart, we made it work.
A few short years and a VERY big, very unplanned surprise later, Brandon and I were expecting a baby. Briton had recently become a big brother on his mom’s side now he would have double brother duty. It was at this point that Briton started calling me Momma, too. The first time a few of my girlfriends heard it they gave me the “Oh wow. Really?” look. I considered it a privilege that he would even put me in that category of his mind.
Time went on and it all worked. Briton’s four parents did what parents should do: put Briton first. He was always our priority. Were there moments that there were heated discussions over whose turn it was to buy school clothes? Yes. Was it perfect? No, but it was about as close as one could get to it. During sporting events, our families sat together. We held each other’s children. We all did it for Brit. We choose kindness over bitterness.
Back to that terrible day in 2011. After the phone call Brandon rushed to the door. We had to get up there as soon as possible. It was clear that Brandon was in no condition to drive so I took the keys. From what we understood, we were about 90 miles away from the accident. The phone would ring every few minutes with tears on the other side but no solid news. Finally, we got the call from Belle, Briton’s mom, that he hadn’t survived. At this point in our trip we were only about half way there. Naturally, my husband was very upset. It was at this very moment that I had a realization borne of experience. I had worked in home health for a few years and had come to recognize that at the end of someone’s life, you either get the very best or the very worst from their families.
There was quite a bit of silence and tears over the next thirty minutes, but I knew in my gut that Brandon was going to set the tone for this journey. He could go one of two ways: blame, point fingers and be ugly, or let love prevail. The ball was in his court.
We ended up meeting the ambulance at the local funeral home, where everyone poured out of their vehicles as quickly as possible. Jason, Briton’s step dad, got out of his truck and came over to Brandon with Briton’s boots in one hand and his soul on his sleeve. He wept as he apologized over and over. That was the moment, the moment that I will forever remember; a moment that was so gentle and seen by so few yet made such an impact on what was to come. It was the moment that Brandon chose to be kind, compassionate and decided that we would all grieve this terrible loss together. He then hugged Jason and the two of them wept. We all made this relationship work in that sweet Briton’s life. How could we fail him in his death?
In the aftermath of Briton’s death, all his parents have had their personal struggles. Mine came when an outsider would ask me how Brandon was and how terribly sorry that they felt for him. To me, it felt like they were completely disregarding my own feelings as one of Briton’s parents. I started questioning my own relationship with Brit. Maybe I was merely the step mom? Maybe I was making up our special moments together to make myself feel better? Both families saw the same grief counselor at separate times. I brought up how I didn’t feel worthy to grieve his death as I was “just his step mom.” The counselor told me that it was very apparent that Briton had four parents. That one sentence from a person I barely knew let me begin my journey to grieve his loss.
You don’t get over the loss of a child. You don’t move on. Your life is never the same. The only thing that takes the fifty pound weight off your chest is time. Fortunately, the two families have very similar feelings about keeping the memory and character of our sweet boy alive by doing charitable activities in the communities where he lived. The families have an unspoken bond, a connection that can’t really even been explained in words. I have so much respect for Belle and Jason.
It took me a while to find Briton in my life once he passed. I hadn’t yet lost someone so close to me. Brandon told me that at the end of the first BKY Memorial Golf Tournament, he saw a 10 point buck on the golf course. I knew right then it was Briton. After handing out the first BKY scholarships in T or C, our car was escorted out of town by a flock of doves, and I knew it was Briton. Every once in a while, I will look out my window and see a quail sitting on my rock wall. I know it’s Briton. On random business trips to Albuquerque while thinking about his cute smile, a few deer will cross the road, and I know its Briton.
As crazy as it sounds, I see, feel and honor Briton through wildlife. Last summer, our two families met at a restaurant to talk about the upcoming golf tournament. The entire time, one single dove sat on the patio wall right next to us. As I got up to leave, I searched the perimeter for the dove but couldn’t find him. I shrugged it off and headed over to the exit. When I got there, I saw the little bird had moved to the inside of the patio and was waiting by the exit door. Again, I knew it was Briton. It was him watching over his families that afternoon. It comforts me knowing that he’s still with us.
I know that Briton’s three other parents have their own experiences and memories of him. These are just mine. It feels appropriate to share my personal journey with Briton in this space. It’s a way to remember him, to continue to grieve, and to remind me that he’s with me on this cancer journey. His kind heart consoles me. He might be gone, but he’s with so many of us every single day. And I know tomorrow, he’ll be with me, as I look to the rock wall outside my window.
I could not decide on what to name this post. But in the end I decided on “Our Sweet Briton” because he was all of ours. All fours parents, all three siblings, all of the grandparents, the community of T or C and our Friday night Las Cruces family. He was “all of our boy” and he is sincerely missed.