The photo that makes Ric Torchon happiest right now is the shot of his younger son, Jackson, looking up at his big brother, AJ, taken during a family trip to Kauai.
Split seconds of happiness are about all Ric and his wife, Jeannette, can muster right how as they mourn their 19-year-old son, Alec Jacob, who died Dec. 1 in an apartment next to the UC Santa Barbara campus. A mix of alcohol and some sort of drug are believed to be the causes of his death, but the toxicology report will takes week, he said.
Ric and Jeannette would be happier if people who knew their older son, a 2011 graduate of Novato High School's Marin School of the Arts, would remember him for who he was rather than how he died. For those who didn't know him, that might take a while, Ric acknowledged.
Ric isn't sure when the happiness will grow into minutes, days, months or years. Right now, the seconds of happiness are better than none at all. Only parents who have lost a son or daughter truly understand the agony. Ric tried to convey the turmoil at the memorial service on Dec. 7 at Temple Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. He said, in part:
I have no heart, yet I must mourn
I have no life, yet I must live
I have no path, yet I must lead
I have no strength, yet I must be strong
I have no tears, yet I must weep
I have no mouth and I must scream.
"I've heard people say, 'You'll get over this,'" said Torchon from his home office on the city's east side as he looked at his hand-written script from the memorial service. "What people mean, of course, is that at the very specific time of grief, that's what you say to people, but you don't ever get over it.
"The other one is, 'Time heals all wounds.' We all laughed at that. It's not true. What it does is allow for the hole in your heart to be filled with the love that life has to offer."
A group of AJ's friends contributed to a letter that was read aloud at the memorial, and Ric said the words were critical to the family's healing because they help tell who AJ really was. It includes these passages:
"He was loyal, charismatic, passionate and gifted in more ways than imaginable. He was brilliant, showing us the definition of genius through the words he spoke and the actions he took. ... He put us first. He was the type of person who would help us with our work before starting his own. ... His impact on our lives is indescribable and his infectious laugh is unforgettable."
Ric has a copy of an AP English essay that AJ wrote at Novato High, dated Sept. 29, 2010. He describes his love of music, attributing his interest to his father's CD and record collection. He learned the trombone in fifth grade and took up the drums soon afterward. Jazz drumming became his passion at MSA, earning him awards and chances to play in the recording studio.
"To this day, my love and passion for music has taken me down different, less-common paths of education and prompted higher thinking," he wrote. "My experience as a musician is perpetually stimulating the drive I have attained to accomplish any goal I set for myself — sometimes even beyond what I initially think possible."
Following on the jazz theme, AJ's three uncles on the Torchon side of the family, plus a cousin, combined efforts on a letter shared at the memorial.
"Much like his drumming, AJ had an energy that could bang and crash, roll and tap or be as quiet as his steel brushes swirling around the snare top," they wrote. "The jazz of his life encompassed the same rhythm, and even though he could move with chaotic revelry, he could just as easily switch tempos and play the phrases of incredible kindness and love. No matter what he did, AJ kept his beat."
Among the upbeat moments since AJ's death were a convergence of his friends who chalked the letters A and J on a prominent hill just behind San Marin High School.
"That blew my mind," Ric said. "They hauled 50 pound bags of chalk up there and did that as a tribute. I'm sure it was therapeutic for them, and it meant a lot to us."
AJ was a sophomore majoring in biophysiology at UCSB. Five days after his death, the Torchons received a letter that brightened their day. Signed by Mary Nisbet, dean of undergraduate education, the letter stated that a certificate would be issued in recognition of AJ's progress toward his degree. "That was classy," Ric said.
Another classy move was made by MSA, run by Novato High Vice Principal Mark Peabody, Ric said. Peabody, whose music programs are heavily reliant on donated funds, has asked that contributors funnel some support to a new foundation set up by the Torchons in AJ's name. (Read more about that on Patch this Friday).
The family has been inundated with condolences, Ric said. Rather than feeling drained right now, they feel overwhelmed.
"As I said to a friend, 'Why is it that because of his death, I feel so much of his life?"