Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Time to Reflect

Having had the chance now to look back at the November 14th service, I can say that it will certainly remain one of the most memorable and touching experiences of my life. Sharing it with over 1700 people, and then going home to see it reported as the top item in newscasts from across Ontario – it’s almost surreal, and hard to imagine ever being a part of another experience like it.

As the year draws to a close, we also get a chance to look back at the hectic weeks that followed October 13th. The efforts of the Barrie Police Service in searching and trying to find Brandon must certainly be commended – a lot of officers tried very hard, both in organized searches and in following up tips and leads. Since Brandon’s body was found on November 5th there hasn’t been any new information released, even though police did indicate they would still be looking in to a number of questions. I have to admit that, unlike the Barrie Police, I’m not completely at ease with the information released by the OPP (who took responsibility after Brandon was found outside of Barrie jurisdiction). And while in an earlier post on this blog I did suggest that any new information was worth knowing, I now have to also recognize that Brandon has been laid to rest, and similarly it may be time to lay to rest any lingering questions about the exact circumstances of his passing.

It is through his memory that Brandon Crisp lives on, the memories of his life and how he touched the lives of so many others.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pausing a Moment to Remember

The holiday season is a time for family, friends, and especially kids, and certainly this will always be one of the most difficult times of the year to reflect on Brandon's story. Even though much of my days are filled with the usual bustle of this time of year, I find that my thoughts still touch on Brandon at some point every day.

With more than a month since the service in Barrie, many of Brandon’s friends have changed their Facebook profile pics back to their usual photos and away from the pics of Brandon put up in remembrance, but even now a few remain. And the public Facebook “In Memory of Brandon Crisp” group still gets postings, such as this recent one by Jordan, a student from a different high school than Brandon:

“I didn't know you and still don't but that doesn't change the fact that you touched my life. I think about Brandon and his family every day now at least once, but usually more.” ... “Brandon may be gone from us, but he will never be forgotten!”

That sums it up right there. As we celebrate Christmas and the Holidays, I'm proud to join so many others that keep Brandon, his family and his friends in their thoughts.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Photographs, Memories, and Virtual Footprints

Brandon Crisp Brandon Crisp

As the search for Brandon was continuing, and then after he was found, I would at times ponder Brandon's Facebook account - there he was, listed as a Friend to so many of his classmates that had joined the Facebook groups set up around his story. 259 Facebook friends, about average for a high school student these days. A small slice of his life, frozen in time on October 13th.

As it turns out, his Facebook account was deactivated last week, probably by his family. So now what are left are wispy ghosts of his online presence - a tag in some photos here and there. Though some teens fill their profiles with pictures of themselves, and appear all over in photos by others, I get the feeling that this was not the case with Brandon. A couple of pictures were posted to the public group Where is Brandon Crisp, and a couple were released by his family to help in the search - these pictures can be seen at the Flickr link at the side of this page.

The iconic picture that has been seen by everyone is the photo of Brandon by the lake, wearing a stripped blue shirt. This is a great picture. I love it as a photograph - the composition, the lighting, the blue sky - but much more than that it does a great job of presenting Brandon in a way that people can truly relate to. Teenage boys don't like to be described with words such as "sweet", "cute", or "innocent", but those words came up often in the service, and they are captured in this picture. People being the visual animals that they are, this picture in no doubt contributed to the huge outpouring of concern and sympathy for Brandon.

But as much as I love that pic, my favourite pictures of those shared publicly are the ones above - everyday snapshots. In each of those I find small details that make me smile. I know that these pictures are like reading a single paragraph from a classic novel - they can't even begin to tell the full story of Brandon's life; but instead they give a little glimpse, a tiny sliver of insight, into this life that was taken all too soon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Finding Promise through the Noise

When I started this blog, I had expected to be a bit more analytical, a bit less emotionally involved. Well, that didn't go exactly as planned. I did, however, look with some interest into how other forums and blogs were covering Brandon's story. I've already talked about the cowardly anonymous trollers and the posts they would make on Facebook groups, but there were also discussions on more traditional internet forums; most of these were still partially anonymous behind screen handles or nicknames, but they were made by users that generally had long posting histories and were clearly making points of view that reflected their opinions.

Discussions on forums and blogs centering around more mature topics, such as politics, lifestyle, and so on, were nearly always sympathetic to both Brandon and his family. While there were dissenting opinions on the video game angle, in general parents would talk about how similar situations had happened to them in the past, or could happen to anyone in the future.

There was also a lot of discussion of the Brandon Crisp story on Video Game forums, due to the strong connection made early on between Brandon and his play of the Xbox game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. These forums are populated by nearly all males, generally in their teens or early twenties. The tone here was much different, with comments disrespectful of the tragedy, of Brandon, and of his parents. I only wish I could bring these comments forward to those individuals in 20 years time, when most will have families of their own, to see how they would feel about the criticisms they made.

But maybe I shouldn't be looking towards Video Game junkies in the first place as an example of the promise of future generations. I should look instead at the young men and women such as those that filled Brandon's service in the hundreds, dressed in their dark shirts and dresses with yellow ties and scarves, paying their respects to a fellow student that many barely knew.

At the service I was seated between two students, both about Brandon's age, sitting on their own without friends or parents around them. The one on my left, dressed in a meticulous dark suit, was there before me, and spent the next three hours in somber and solemn reflection. The one on my right arrived shortly after me with his father, who was unable to stay for the service. This young man would often pull out a tissue throughout the service to dab his eyes. These young people, and the hundreds of others filling the hall to overflowing, were there not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be, to share their sympathy and their sorrow. They are the true embodiment of the hope and promise that Brandon leaves behind for the rest of us.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Autumn Leaves

When I first heard about Brandon being missing, the trees outside my window were filled with leaves of red and gold, a bright palette of colour and hope. Now I look out and the trees are bare, the leaves are gone, the sky is gray, and a light dusting of snow is falling to the ground.

And though winter here in Ontario can be long, we do all know that at the end of it all, spring and colour will return. It has now been 29 days since I first became aware of Brandon's story, 29 days on my thoughts and in my heart. Every one of those days I would go to sleep and wake up with his story on my mind - first the hope, and then the despair. But soon, for most of us, Brandon move from our everyday thoughts to take on a more subtle and silent role. As I've said in past posts, he will become a part of the fabric of many of us, causing us to maybe hug a bit longer and a bit harder, and in unknown ways affect the rest of our lives for the better.

For the Crisp family, however, it will be a long time before days will go by without giving way to many thoughts of their lost son and brother. All we can hope is that it will be pleasant thoughts and fond memories of a great kid that will sustain them in the weeks and months to come.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Brandon's gift to the rest of us

"You have managed to permanently mark a place in so many people's hearts all over the world, people who don't even know you" - from Natasha Crisp's letter to her younger brother

Last night, every major Ontario-wide evening newscast - CBC, CTV, Global - all featured the report of Brandon's service as their leading/top news story for the day. Even the national newscasts made mention of the story. The Toronto Sun home page added a special tab titled "Brandon Crisp" between its News, Entertainment, and Sports sections. It is truly incredible to think that Brandon's story has truly touched the hearts of so many. The new Facebook memorial group (much more closely administered now), again features over 16,000 members, and almost 2000 'wall posts' of sympathy and remembrance.

What gifts are there to be taken away from Brandon's story? Certainly we all need constant reminders of how precious life is, and how easily it can be taken away. Parents are hugging their kids just a little bit tighter, and re-evaluating some of their priorities in life. As one of Brandon's schoolmates said after the service, "It's almost like a wake-up call to be more appreciative of your family... now you see what parents go through." Brandon's story also tells us about the good in people - volunteering in the search, supportive of the family, an entire community in mourning. Yes, this is not the first nor will it be the last story to teach us these things, but these are lessons we constantly need to be reminded of.

It's hard to imagine a better messenger than Brandon Crisp to bring these important gifts to the rest of us that he left behind.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Brandon laid to rest

The forecast was for rain, but instead it was a gray, overcast day, with just a hint of the sun trying to peek out at times. A fitting day for a service of grief and mourning that was also a celebration of a young life taken all too soon.

I drove up to the service this morning, the trip - two hours each way - passed in the blink of an eye as I spent the time thinking about Brandon and his family. Arriving an hour and a half before the service, there were already hundreds in the church, adults and teens, waiting silently and solemnly.

During the service, a family friend read letters from Brandon's sisters and his parents, written to Brandon. There is no mistaking the immense love that Brandon's family has for him, and the scope of their sense of loss is hard to imagine.

Hundreds of students were wearing yellow ties, scarves and ribbons, both a reminder of the hope during the search for Brandon, and a tribute to Brandon as one of his favourite colours. Over 1700 attended the service, friends, students, and even some strangers like me that had been immensely touched by Brandon's life and tragic passing.

Brandon's twin sister, Samantha, wrote in her letter, "His death has changed the lives of many and touched so many people's hearts and I'm so honoured to call him my brother."

Brandon has indeed touched the lives of more people than he could have possibly imagined.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Brandon's twists of fate

As with many tragedies, Brandon's story is not one of a single event, but instead a sequence that could so easily have ended very differently. Brandon was certainly not the first or last teen to storm out of their house after an argument with their parents... while some media has played up the video game aspect of the story, this is a bit of a 'red herring' in that it could have been so many other things instead. Too much TV, internet chat messaging, cell phone use, staying out with friends, or whatever - the battles between teens and their parents happen every day, and there are so many things that can become obsessive or disruptive in a teen's life.

Though we may never know where Brandon was going, fate first stepped in with the breakdown of his bicycle on the Oro-Medonte trail. Then as darkness fell Brandon ended up off the trail and in a thick wooded/brush area. And, in the tragic end, Brandon suffered an accident, likely falling out of a tree, that caused his death.

While hindsight always offers the potential of doubt and second-guessing, the fact is that there was every likelihood that this story would have ended before it even began, with Brandon returning home soon after he left.

The cruel twists continued during the search, with so many searching so close to where Brandon was finally found and yet he remained missing.

If there is any sliver of grace to be found in the story, it is that hunters finally came upon Brandon's body on November 5th, before winter snows blanket the ground. Finally fate had decided that it had been cruel enough, and that it was time for closure and healing to begin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Brandon Crisp tragedy touches many

In my first post to this blog I mentioned that it is difficult to articulate exactly why Brandon has affected me personal as much as it has. Is it simply a case of good PR on the part of the parents to encourage the search effort, resulting in a 'media darling' of a story? After all, many youngsters go missing every year, and many of those receive very little press.

I certainly consider myself to be somewhat 'media-savvy', and not prone to be affected by the 'heartstrings' stories. Yet Brandon's story has certainly affected me. More than that, many of the seasoned police officers working closely on the case admit to being deeply involved on an emotional level. Sgt Dave Goodbrand, Barrie Police spokesman, admits to thinking often about Brandon as he went home to his own children. Det-Const Scott Aldridge, one of the case's lead investigators, a 22 year veteran of policing, called the case "an emotional roller coaster". Barrie Staff Sgt Dave Hossack, who led many of the police search and rescue efforts, admitted that "every police officer, at the end of their career, has certain events that will stick with them; for me, this will be one of them."

Maybe it's because Brandon reminds so many people of others that they care about - their kids, their friends from their youth, maybe even themselves when they were 15. A bit short and slightly-built for his age, he's the type of kid that you think deserves a little extra protection from 'up above'; when tragedy strikes, it just seems a bit more 'unfair'.

At a candlelight vigil on November 10th, Brandon's 17-year-old sister Natasha stated "I'm so proud of him, and amazed that he touched so many people's lives". He truly has touched the lives of thousands, and speaking for myself I certainly don't feel that those emotions have been misplaced.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The best and the worst of Facebook

During the search for Brandon, the Facebook group "Where is Brandon Crisp" grew to over 20,000 members. Originally started by some of Brandon's friends and classmates, the early wall postings and pictures were from friends, students and family, hoping and praying for Brandon's safe return. Many of these messages, some written "to" Brandon, were deeply touching and filled with emotion.

Later, as the group got bigger, it certainly became less personal. There were questions and theories, ideas and far-flung suggestions, information and mis-information. A darker side also began creeping in as some posters made criticisms of Brandon, his parents, and the police, and some of these posts were upsetting to the family, as they were following many of the threads.

But the darkest was to come after Brandon's body was found. The group's wall, threads and photos starting filling with cruel and insulting postings towards Brandon and his family, cowardly postings from anonymous names.

Facebook had first provided the best of the internet - people sharing their grief, their thoughts, their sympathies and condolences, friends and strangers alike. A forum for thousands to share how their lives were touched by this young man. Then the worst of the internet appeared - trolls from sites of dubious distinction such as 4chan and encyclopediadramitica, sites where the greatest claim is that the hate and insensitivity of their users can easily hide behind the shield of anonymity, bringing their lack of decent civilized behavior to a group that was clearly intended to provide comfort and support.

The main Facebook page was soon shut down, and while schoolmates started a new "In Memory of Brandon Crisp" group, the trolls followed. At the time of this writing there are over 15,000 members of this new group, which is heavily monitored by a number of officers and admins, no longer allows photos, and presently shuts the wall down overnight "in order to keep the wall clean and free from anything but tasteful messages".

It's a stark contrast between the lost hope and promise that Brandon's life has come to represent, and the insensitivity and disrespect that these trolls can bring to his memory.

Contemplating the final hours

With the media release of the autopsy results on Saturday, Sgt Dave Goodbrand of the Barrie Police also mentioned that the family were "having a real difficult time with it, as you can imagine." OPP Constable Mark Maeers also said "we're going to try to answer as may questions for the family as we can" regarding Brandon's final hours.

Once the police have conclusively ruled out foul play, the fact that the are willing to devote more time and effort to find out more details is commendable. Some might suggest that there is not much to be gained here, and that the information would not have any further benefit. While there is some validity to that reasoning, I have trouble voicing why I don't agree. The Coroner determined that the cause of death was severe injuries to the chest, likely from a fall from a tree. While still tragic, there seems to be a strange sliver of comfort to be gained from the fact that the earlier theories of hypothermia turned out not to be true. The thought that Brandon's last hours would be spent disoriented, alone and slowly succumbing to exposure only a very short distance from a road and a farmhouse seemed to be a last, cruel twist of fate on this sad story.

A fall from a tree has an equally tragic result, but the sad fact is that kids die from falls and misadventures like that every year - accidents in backyards, playgrounds, swimming pools and lakes. Does the fact that Brandon died from a traditional "accident" make the outcome any less traumatic to his family, friends, and community? Or course not. And there are unanswered questions at this point - when did he fall, how long did he live after the fall.

The answers to those questions, if any are forthcoming, may make the story once again more difficult on everybody who is or has become emotionally invested in Brandon's life, but the questions are worth asking, and the answers, if available, are worth knowing.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

In Memory of Brandon Crisp...

Brandon Crisp was a 15-year old youth who had an argument with his parents, left his house, and died a tragic death in October 2008.

A quick google search for 'Brandon Crisp' will reveal hundreds of news articles chronicling the sad story of the search for Brandon as a missing person, culminating in the discovery of his body by hunters just over three weeks after his disappearance.

I've started this blog to share some thoughts about why this story has had such a dramatic effect on so many people that had never known Brandon - people such as myself. It's not meant to share any earth-shattering information, but more to share a few observances and to remember a life that was taken away all too soon.

Brandon left home at 3pm on (Canadian) Thanksgiving day, October 13th, 2008. He had an argument with his parents, who had taken away his xbox video game system after he became infatuated with the game "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare", and spent significant amounts of time playing the game, also affecting his school work. He claimed he would leave home over the argument, his parents calling his bluff - ie "don't forget your coat, it could get cold".

I first heard about the story later that week, as the police posted Brandon as a missing person, and searches were begun. My attention was likely first caught by the "video game addiction" angle that the parents and media had stressed, since I myself am in the video game development business. But for some reason this story drew me in, emotionally, much more than any previous story of this type.

Lets face it, children go missing all the time, sometimes in very tragic circumstances. Some cases even get extensive media coverage. But for me this was different. Was it because Brandon reminded me of myself at his age, or of other children that I knew more closely? Maybe that had something to do with it. Certainly the pictures of Brandon help cement the emotional bond ... is a picture worth a thousand words? Looking at Brandon, we can see a young teen who is short for his age, slight build, maybe the word "vulnerable" might fit... It's sad to say that first impressions can have an effect, but if this case was a gruff looking heavy-built teen, it would have been different. Yet Brandon's story immediately generated a feeling that this was a youth that needed our help, and needed to be found and reunited with a family that obviously cared very much for him.

I joined the Facebook group "Where is Brandon Crisp" - a group that grew to be over 22,000 strong before his body was found - and I started learning a lot more about him. He had a twin sister, and an older sister. Seemed relatively active - snowboarding, playing hockey, spending time on the water of nearby Lake Simcoe, and so. A Facebook member with 259 friends. And he had a lot of people that cared about him. Some of the early comments in the Facebook group were from schoolmates and family, all imploring him to come him, telling him how much he was missed.

As late October turned into early November, it became increasingly difficult to keep up hope. The Facebook group was full of posters with consipracy theories and occasional crude comments, police and volunteer search teams had turned up no trace, examination of the xbox and Brandon's online account had revealed no clues, and the fact that Brandon had not show any sign of activity - no online logins, no contact with friends, and so on - had the possibilities looking increasingly bleak. I was unable to get to barrier for the volunteer searches organized in October, but I wracked my thoughts with ways that I might be able to help. Where did Brandon go? What could have happened that would result in no sign from him? Was he too scared or embarressed to come home, knowing what a huge effort had been put in to his case? Was he unable to come home, abducted or held against his will? Did everyone get it wrong and misjudge that Brandon would truly 'run away' over a seemingly minor argument?

On November 5th, the unthinkable became fact when hunters found his body in a wooded area, just beyond the ground search areas.

It was a thread in the Facebook group that alerted me to the news, first carried by the CP24 news service, that a body likely to be Brandon's was found. By that time I had been following both the story and Brandon's life for more than two weeks, and even with the sense of impending tragedy, the news was a huge blow.

So why would I get so emotionally attached to a boy and his family that I had never met and lived almost 100 miles away? Or is this just a case of "internet rubbernecking", an infatuation with a story that I really had no business in getting involved with?

Well, the story of Brandon Crisp has touched me, in a way that I will never forget. From now for the rest of my life it's become a part of my emotional makeup, a story that I will remember, grieve, and contemplate - a story of an unfair end to a bright and promising life. I'm sure that many of the 22,000 members of the Facebook group will soon move on - by this time next year, they'll remember the story as "oh, that boy that left home over the video game argument and was found dead in the woods". But some, like myself, will not forget the name Brandon Crisp, or the grief of the Crisp family, or the face of the young man that showed so much promise.

Brandon may have passed away alone in the woods in a physical sense, but he was certainly not alone in a spiritual one - thousands upon thousands were hoping and praying for his safe return. Maybe one of the greatest tragedies in a story filled with them is the fact that Brandon died without ever knowing that an overwhelming number of people - family, friends, even strangers like me - cared so much about him.