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Today is a Crying Day


darlenestark

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One month ago today was my 26-year-old son Ali's funeral. He was killed on December 29, 2011 in a head-on collision with a truck on an icy road in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In the moments before impact he reached back to the middle of the back seat where his six-month-old daughter River was strapped in her carseat. He must have used all his strength to flip her carseat over to the right side, and he shielded her with his body. The car was completely crushed, except for that back right side - he saved his baby's life...

Today has been a crying day. The tears streaming down my face won't stop. Reading the words of others on this site, I am unable to find words. The following is the eulogy I wrote for Ali, my beautiful son, beloved brother of my seven other children, guardian angel to his baby girl River:

Ali was born when I was 26 years old - half my lifetime ago. I remember the nurse said "It's a boy!" and then there was silence - no crying-screaming baby like I was expecting. He was quiet as a lamb, just looking around at his new world with those big beautiful eyes. At home he made it a full house - with two brothers and two sisters keeping him entertained, he smiled early and he smiled big. He didn't just smile with his face - he would scrunch down and pull his arms to his chest and turn his head to the side, as if he was smiling from head to toe - he was actually laughing. He rarely cried - he just made little "I'm unhappy" noises to let us know he needed something. His good nature and easy-going spirit were there right from the start.

The word “good” does not even begin to describe Ali – I used to tell him he was like Mary Poppins because he was “practically perfect in every way”. We all recognized that he was special early on – Ali knew it too but he never bragged about it. He was confident and self-assured, but humble and unassuming. He had a way of capturing the joy of living every day of his life. He was a shining star.

Tim was the one who taught Ali how to draw. Salah taught him how to be funny and silly. Yasmene was the teacher, with a classroom set up in her room and library shelves filled with books.

Ali was only about a year younger than Shamah - they were very close and were often mistaken for twins. Early on, Shamah and Ali both had speech difficulties - none of us could understand them, but they created their own language and could understand each other perfectly. When Ali was 3 he was tested for learning disabilities and we discovered that he had a genius-level I.Q. I volunteered every day in Shamah's HeadStart classroom, and Ali was allowed to tag along. It was then that his extraordinary abilities became so apparent - he was so much brighter than most of the 4 and 5 year-olds in the class.

Throughout his school years, his reports cards and parent-teacher conferences were always pretty much the same thing over and over - outstanding student, gets along well with others, helpful, kind, a joy to have in class, wish I had a classroom full of Ali's. In second grade he was admitted to the Gifted and Talented Program at his elementary school. He was an honor student in high school, but I never saw him crack a book. I asked him one time why he never had homework, and he said he did all his work on the school bus or in study hall. It was pretty much a given that wherever Ali went throughout his life, even among his university professors, he was the smartest person in the room.

When I think about Ali as a little boy, the one word that stands out is “joyful”. He rarely just walked – instead he skipped, hopped, and danced along the way. We called him Twinkle-Toes. At about age two, he started wearing his Superman pajama top all the time, and I made him a red cape to go with it. He wore it everywhere, even to school until first grade. He also loved his Batman, Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle outfits, but mostly he was Superman.

One of our favorite stories about Ali was the time we started playing the Superman movie and watched him run to his costume stash, but by the time he came back dressed as Superman, we had switched to the Batman movie, and we watched him run back to change into Batman, only to return to find the Superman movie was playing. I don’t remember how long the Superman-Batman switch went on, but I remember that Ali was in his own little world, oblivious to the fact that he was entertaining us all.

He was always entertaining us – at about age 4 he mastered all of Donald O’Connor’s dance moves in the old movie “Aladdin”. He didn’t do things to draw attention to himself – he just did the things that made him happy, and as a result he made all of us around him happy too.

He loved our frequent trips to the Milwaukee zoo and museum and to “Mosquito” park for swimming and fishing and playing on the beach. We spent many summer days in Milwaukee park-hopping. I’d pack up the station wagon with kids and food and spend the day at playgrounds and pools and swimming lessons. Ali loved to run off by himself, letting his vivid imagination take him to far off places.

Our favorite activity was the Barnyard Friends Show, a traveling menagerie of farm animals with a guitar-playing singer dressed as a farmer who told jokes and sang songs like “Old McDonald”. Anytime they were scheduled to appear at one of the nearby parks, we would be there. The people who did the show became our friends, and they gave all the kids the opportunity to perform and show the animals. Ali would bring his toy guitar and wear his little farmer hat.

Ali was so happy when Omar came along – he gladly relinquished his “baby of the family” status. And it wasn’t because for the previous two years we had him convinced that a billboard advertising a local hospital with a picture of a bare-butted baby was actually him. Ali genuinely loved being a big brother – when Sloby and Zorana came along, Ali was their primary babysitter. He just enjoyed spending time with them – teaching them to draw and read and write.

Ali had a great sense of humor, and combined with his quick wit, he became a master of sarcasm. He also learned to run real fast to escape retaliation from whoever was the object of one his zingers. One of our all-time favorite stories was the time we were sitting around the kitchen table in Milwaukee, and I don’t remember what Ali said or who he said it to but he bolted toward the front door, tripped on those baggy wide-legged skater pants he always wore, and ended up on his hands and knees with our Alaskan Malamute Cobain on his back humping him. Ali was laughing so hard he couldn’t get up, and we were all laughing so hard we cried.

I remember when we moved in with my mother in Sister Lakes, sitting in the living room watching Jeopardy, one of her favorite shows. Ali was just an eighth-grader, but he could usually give the question before Alex Trebek even finished reading the answer. My mother had to start watching the morning version of Jeopardy while Ali was at school so she could at least hear Alex finish the answer. I was amazed at Ali’s knowledge base, and whenever I asked him how in the world did he know so much, he said he just knew.

Ali never once said “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do” – he always found something he enjoyed. In the summer with the windows wide open, whenever my mother and I would hear a group of kids down by the lake we’d wait for the sound of Ali’s footsteps coming down the stairs to go join in the fun. He was able to enjoy hanging out with others, but he was also able to enjoy doing his own thing by himself.

In Michigan he shared the upstairs loft bedroom with his four brothers – after Tim and Salah moved out, Ali became the leader of the pack, spending countless hours with Omar, Sloby, and Zorana. I remember all the times I could hear him explaining things to them – whether it was a homework problem or a movie plot or just the ways of the world, Ali always seemed to have the answers. I will never forget the sound of his laughter echoing through our home.

Ali is credited with coining the term “mom joke” - referring to my constant string of not-funny, corny jokes. “Mom joke” is said after anyone’s failed attempt at humor and has become a regular part of our family’s vocabulary – over the years our friends have started using the term as well.

Ali was so independent. He rarely asked for anything, and anytime I asked him to do something for me, he did it, even if he didn't really want to. I might have had to wait until the next commercial, but I never had to ask him twice. He first learned construction from helping his two older brothers. He spent one summer working at the Sister Lakes Community Church, volunteering hundreds of hours building their Family Life Center.

Even as a teenager, Ali never got in trouble - no teacher or bus-driver complaints, no police contacts, no complaints from neighbors. I take that back - there was that time the last summer he spent at Cable Lake when a neighbor asked me who had been down by the beach making all that noise the night before - she couldn't hear what they were saying, just the laughter echoing all around the lake. It was Tim and Ali - and Captain Morgan.

During the summer before his senior year, Ali was chosen as one of only a handful of students in the Upward Bound Program in southwest Michigan to attend a 6-week math-science program at Northern Michigan University. He loved being at Northern so much, he came back home with the intention to go to college there. I think I spent most of his senior year trying to convince him to stay closer to home.

When it came time to drive him up to Marquette, the car-rental place didn't have the mid-size car I had reserved, so they gave us the keys to a brand new Lincoln Towncar - Ali would arrive at his new life in style. The long drive went so quickly - with Ali as my navigator and his CD collection at the ready, we made the journey listening to and singing to all our favorite music. At Northern we found his dorm and met roommate Bobby, and with Ali settled in it was time for me to leave.

I never told Ali this, but I didn't leave Marquette right away - I drove around for half an hour and found myself right back in the parking lot outside his dorm. I just wasn't ready to leave him. I sat in the car about an hour, then decided I should probably go check on him in case he discovered he needed anything when he unpacked. I was almost to the door of Van Antwerp Hall when I heard his laugh - I just stood there looking over into the window of his dorm room, where Ali and Bobby and a couple other guys were sitting around shooting the breeze - I had never seen Ali so happy. I turned around and headed back to the car for that long ride home without him.

Christmas of 2006, Ali brought Tricia home to meet the family - I remember thinking that he must have really prepared her for the inevitable 21-questions-from-mom and the incessant joking and kidding around, because Tricia handled us all so well. Ali was in love for the first time - and I had never seen him so happy.

Ali and Tricia’s wedding in August 2009 was like a dream to me – my stunningly handsome son and his beautiful bride. I remember him sitting up on the dais, looking around at all his family and friends and Tricia’s wonderful family – I had never seen Ali so happy.

Christmas of 2010 with a baby on the way, it was Ali who was glowing like a pregnant woman. And I can only imagine the joy that filled his heart when River arrived last June, but I could hear it in his voice when he told me the news, I could see it in every photograph on Facebook, I could see it in his eyes and his smile when he brought his baby girl down to Cable Lake for the first time in September.

The week before Christmas we gathered in Wisconsin - Ali was in the hotel pool, but he wasn’t swimming – instead he was leaning his arms on the edge of the pool, watching Tim play with Grace and Kyra, and watching the rest of us sitting poolside with Tricia and River. He was smiling, and he looked as if he was feeling the love and the joy all the way down to his toes. I never saw Ali so happy.

The last time I saw Ali, he was holding River in his arms and watching the Packer game. As I was leaving, I stepped back from the door and thanked Ali and Tricia for making the trip down and I thanked Ali for his Secret Santa gift to me – a large frame with pictures of my three beautiful granddaughters and spaces for the twin boy and girl on the way.

I’m not a person who can express my emotions easily – the words “I love you” are always there, but they seem to get stuck in that place in my heart that is so broken right now. I can’t remember the last time I said the words “I love you” to Ali, probably some time when he was a boy. But I know Ali knew how much I love him , how much we all love him. Just like he was able to understand Shamah’s garbled language when he was a little boy, he was able to understand our family’s language of love.

On that day when my world was changed forever, the first realization that emerged through the shock of it all was that he was my baby and I'm never going to see him again. But I was wrong. I see him all the time. I see him sitting in his baby swing laughing at his brothers and sisters. I see him skipping down the sidewalk as little Superman. I see him playing hacky-sack out in the front yard with his brothers. I see him down by the lake playing his guitar with Tricia and their beautiful harmonies. I see him walking down the aisle with the love of his life. I see him holding River with the look of a man whose life was complete, whose dreams had come true.

Yesterday morning in Yasmene's backyard in Wisconsin I was looking toward the eastern sky as the sun was beginning to rise. I was thinking of Ali and the words I would write in this, the most important thing I've ever written. The biggest, brightest shooting star I've ever seen in my life came down from the heavens and disappeared into the blue-pink horizon. It was then that I was able to make peace with God for taking my baby away from me - I thank God for giving beautiful Ali to me here on earth for 9,695 days of my life.

The only way I’ve been getting through these days is by asking myself “what would Ali want me to do”. Ali would not want us to wonder about why - or what would-have could-have should-have been. Ali would not want us to dwell in regret over things we said or should have said, things we did or should have done. Ali would want us to honor him by living each of our days remembering and emulating his joyful spirit, kind heart, and zest for life. Ali would want us to give River all of our memories and our love for him, so that she will know her daddy, the beautiful man who saved her life for us. Ali would want us to think of him and smile.

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Ali's Mom-I read every word of your beautiful eulogy for your beautiful son. I'm so sorrry for your loss. My only son Westley died Jan 13, 2010 in his sleep. I still have not quite made my peace with God. I know He owes no explanations to the likes of me for why things happen and how they happen. And still I can't quit asking. I have a daughter, Westley's older sister, and she is married with two children now. My granddaughter is almost four and 'remembers' Westley, she was 18 months old when he died. She recognizes his pictures, but I'm sure her recollection of him will fade since she was so young. I don't post as much as I used to, there are sadly so many new people lately with recent losses. It helps sometimes to post and sometimes to read, and sometimes to take a break, so that's what I do. I hope this site helps you through the months ahead, as it has helped me.

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