This story is excerpted from “Kadian Journal” by Thomas Harding, forthcoming from Picador.
We are cycling up a narrow country lane to the ridge at the top of the Downs. It is early evening. There is not a cloud in the sky. The air is soft and warm after a day of baking sun.
There are six of us: my 21-year-old nephew Taylor, my sister Amanda, her friend Anne Claire, my 14-year-old son Kadian, his school friend Rory and me.
As Kadian climbs the hill, I call from behind, encouraging him to practice his turning signals. He puts his right arm out and the bike wobbles in the same direction. “You need to lean to the left when you signal right,” I shout. He does, and it is marginally better. When I tell him to do it again, he grunts in disgust and pulls away from me up the hill.
We are staying at my parents’ house in Mildenhall, England. Our plan is to cycle 10 miles west, to my uncle and aunt’s thatched cottage, for a family dinner. We continue our way up the lane and a vista opens. There is a field filled with golden wheat on our left. Another speckled with grazing sheep and Neolithic stones. The ringed mounds of ancient hill forts can be seen in the distance. The sun, sitting low, splashes amber light across the landscape.
“It is so beautiful here,” says Kadian as I pull up to him. “It’s so beautiful,” he repeats with a dreamy smile.
We wait for the others to catch up, then head off the lane onto a stony track that descends gently down to a large stack of hay bales. The trail ends abruptly, which is strange. I pull out my map. Kadian cycles behind the hay and calls out, “It’s over here, the footpath is over here.”
Kadian goes first. The rest of us follow. The path opens into a broader track. It’s a little gravelly, steeper. The gap between myself and Kadian widens.
He’s suddenly way ahead of me. A hundred feet perhaps. He must have gathered speed. And then there’s a flash of a white van, moving fast from left to right, at the bottom of the slope. And it hits Kadian. Driving him away from view, away from me.
Moments later I’m at the road. I drop my bike to the ground. I’m screaming before I see him. He’s lying face down on the side of the road, near the white line. His head is tilted to the left; there is a small pool of blood by his mouth.
He is still. Absolutely still. He doesn’t look like Kadian anymore. He looks vacant. What strikes me the most, more than the blood, or the lack of movement, are his eyes. His pupils are dilated unnaturally wide. I know he’s gone. I know he is dead. I know that I have lost my son. My Kadian.
You could say that Kadian had been born from a bike. Debora and I met when we took part in Bike Aid, a charity ride across America in 1987. Our route would take nine weeks, and snaked over 3,000 miles from Portland, Ore., to Washington.
There were 30 of us, mostly students. We slept in high school gyms and church halls. Along the way we took part in community projects, painting an elderly couple’s home in Dayton, Ohio, and helping disadvantaged kids in Chicago fix their bikes.
Cycling across country was a wonderful way to fall in love. Debora, five years older than I, was a political activist who had spent years working for the senator and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart. She was smart, funny, feisty and extremely beautiful. It was every English schoolboy’s dream: a summer spent with a hot American chick.
After we married and had children, cycling was part of our family life. Deb ran City Bikes, a chain of stores in Washington. Kadian cycled to school each day. His sister Sam’s first big purchase was a bright red Italian racing bike. We went on long family bike rides.
We moved to Shepherdstown, W.Va., so Kadian and Sam could grow up outdoors. I worked in real estate, then bought the local monthly newspaper, the Observer. If we wanted to explore, we had pine woods on our doorstep and the Potomac River a walk away. If we wanted history, we visited Harpers Ferry. If we wanted culture, we drove to Washington.
Deb drew sunsets and dolphins on the children’s bedroom walls. Our life was perfect.
I walk through the door of the morgue and I am suddenly alone with my dead son. My first thought is that this is so strange. That he is not moving. That he is no longer alive.
I step to the left of him, put my hand on his arm, and look at his face.
“Hi, Kads,” I say. “I love you. I love you so much. I can’t believe you’re not here. Where have you gone?”
I lean over and kiss him the way I did each night, when I tucked him in: forehead, chin, left cheek, right cheek, then finally, I wiggle my nose against his. It feels cold. Cold.
I look at him for a few moments longer.
“Bye, Kads,” I say. “I love you. Best son in the world.” I wait for him to give his usual reply, “Best father in the world.” He doesn’t, and I walk out.
Soon after we arrived in Shepherdstown, Deb and I took Kadian and Sam to have lunch in the Old Pharmacy Cafe, a family-friendly diner in town. We ordered burgers, fries and milkshakes.
It was one of those old-fashioned places where they delivered the milkshake in a tall glass and the remaining mixture in a metal mixing cup. Kadian drank the contents of both containers and promptly threw up on the restaurant table.
For most people, this would have been a lesson. Not so to Kadian. More was always better.
At parties, he would eat as many biscuits and sweets as he could, never in a mean, selfish way — there wasn’t a mean bone in his body — but in a let’s-see-what-I-can-get-away-with way. At Halloween, he would collect a pillowcase full of sweets, and eat the contents within 24 hours.
Deb and I shared our concerns about this behavior. Might it be a sign of an addictive personality? Or did he just live for the moment, a lover of the good things in life?
We decided it would probably be the latter. At restaurants, when he was 10, he would ask for the biggest, most expensive steak. When I asked him why — trying to send a parental message about frugality — he would simply answer, “Because it’s delicious.”
The day after Kadian’s death Deb posted a message on Facebook:
“My dearest of friends. It is with the deepest core of my broken heart that I alert you all of Kadian’s death yesterday. He was the happiest child he could have ever been.
“He had his new bicycle and was on a ride with Thomas and four others when a van hit him full on. That beautiful spirit of his was whisked away from us immediately. He had the best week of his life — having just finally built the tree house of his dreams, built a new bike, and obtained a ticket to come in and set up 27 iMacs for the new computer network at City Bikes in Washington DC for a special Mom/Kadian time. The Apple Business Center were so impressed with him that they were going to train him. 14.5 years of a perfect child. What a strange thing to announce the death of our child on Facebook but Kadian would have approved.”
If I was more present perhaps I might have stopped her. If she wasn’t overwhelmed by grief she might not have posted it. But the result is pure magic. We are able to instantly connect with our many family and friends around the world and hear how Kadian’s sudden death has affected their lives.
In Shepherdstown, Kadian’s friends organize a candlelit vigil.
In Washington, staff at Deb’s stores, where Kadian worked summers after he turned 12, arrange a bike ride to the key Kadian locations: the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Apple store.
In Vietnam, a candle is lit and sent on a small boat down a river. Another is lit on a cliff overlooking the sea in Cape Town. Another is lit in Paris, another in Delhi.
Knowing that over a thousand people are with us, are going through this together, gives us extraordinary strength.
Still, I cannot function. I can just about feed myself and sleep, but little more.
We were living in the Old Firehall in Shepherdstown. Kadian was 11. Each day, he and Sam traveled an hour on the yellow school bus to Powhatan, their school in Virginia. It was a long way but worth it; the teachers were inspiring, the facilities expansive, both kids were thriving. Until now.
For a week Kadian had been coming home weary and hollow-eyed. Finally we were able to coax from him what had been going on.
Kadian had heard a boy speak badly of another student, then, in a disparaging way, call him “gay.” Kadian challenged the boy. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” he said. The boy turned to Kadian and cried, “Oh, so you must be gay as well!”
From then on, Kadian was teased for being gay. We offered to intervene, but he said he had it under control. A few days later, some of the boys decided to pick on Kadian in the school changing rooms.
Distraught, Kadian ran out onto the playing field. Fearing reprisals from other students, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. After some thought, he decided he must tell a member of staff. The boys were punished, and the ringleader suspended.
The next few weeks were rough. Many of the students said Kadian had exaggerated events. We offered Kadian the chance to take a few days off, but he said he wanted to stand up to the bullies. More than that, he had done nothing wrong, he said. Why should he be the one to miss classes?
Eventually things settled down. Among some of the students, and many of the teachers, Kadian had won respect for his refusal to be intimidated. At the end of the school year, one of the bullies was told he could not return.
This then is the memory: a boy who took on a bully, who stood up for others, and made things better for everyone around him. It was all so very Kadian.
And it is this lost promise that hurts the most.
At Kadian’s burial service, Deb reads from a journal she has kept since he was an infant:
“I tell you that children need to sleep alone so that they can grow strong and give their brains lots of space. You agree it’s good to grow strong but demonstrate there is plenty of space for your brain in your bed by rolling over to the other side.
“I give you a big cuddle and sprinkle magic pixie fairy dust (you are very concerned about its colour and substance — it’s gold glitter and like water, I tell you).
“I cuddle you close again and tell you that feeling stays with us in our hearts even though we sleep in separate beds. So half an hour later I hear you zipping down your slide. I come in and you have your duvet on the floor. ‘This way I can be closer to your heart,’ you say.”
Kadian was a funny boy. He was funny in the conventional sense, learning jokes from books, then retelling them. He created sentences that punned with double meanings, and arranged elaborate pranks for his sister and friends — these often involved water balloons. But he was also funny in an off-the-wall, unique way. He made up silly songs, one of which, “The Birthday Cake Song,” was so popular he recorded it onto CDs and sold it to his friends at school.
To his English teacher, he gave a metal container filled with her favorite sweets. On the box he had written: “Ashes of Grammatically Incorrect Students.”
He adored Apple products, and became a fan of Apple Inc. itself and founder Steve Jobs . “Did you know that Steve Jobs dropped out of college?” he would tell me when we were talking about possible universities he might be interested in. “Did you know that Steve Jobs built his first computer in his father’s garage?”
For Christmas, Kadian asked his grandparents for a subscription to Macworld. He would study each issue from first page to last, absorbing the latest news of Apple products, upgrades and software, and presenting his own opinions on a blog which he had recently started.
One day, at breakfast, he placed that month’s issue of Macworld on the table and casually mentioned that they had published his letter to the editor, a scathing attack on Microsoft’s tendency to copy Apple innovations. The letter was titled “Not Appy about Apps.”
One of the first casualties of Kadian’s death: We are in the kitchen making breakfast. Sam makes her own — Nutella smeared thick on whatever bread we happen to have in the larder. I have given up trying to limit her Nutella habit. These small fights, I just don’t have the strength for them.
If Sam wants to spend seven hours watching television on her computer, fine. If she wants to sleep until 2 in the afternoon, fine. Frankly, how can such things matter, considering?
And yet, I think to myself, they do.
Which leads to my fear that Sam will become the parent, we the children. She will bury her grief, tend to us, her collapsed parents who spend their days in bed, watching reruns, unable to interact with the world, as she progresses through her schooldays and on, to life, beyond.
In Kadian’s Facebook notes section, he listed “25 random things about me” (there are 26):
1. I am completely addicted to my dog, putting up images and his name willy-nilly.
2. I fantasise about living on the Caribbean island St Lucia.
3. I have an earring in my left ear, I hugged a teddy bear when I got it pierced.
4. I spend a lot of time on my Lionel train layout.
5. My sister and I are Irish twins, I was born in 1998, she was born in 1999.
6. I love to bake, my latest masterpiece was a cake I created for my sister’s tenth birthday.
6. I have an autographed Hillary Clinton sign hanging up in my bedroom, although I was an Obama supporter from the very beginning.
7. When I was born I had a stretched blue cone head and my parents called me Stodge.
8. For the first six years of my life, my parents double-barrelled me and called me Kadian Cackler-Harding.
9. I have been playing piano since I was four and take lessons from the one and only Dr. Scott Beard.
10. There is a sliding brick in our wall by the staircase and me and my sister hide random bits and bobs behind it.
11. My mother is a champion pillow and blanket fort builder while I specialise in stick ones at school.
12. My sister’s future career will be in the House of Sam fashion shop.
13. After my cat’s fat uncle Max passed away, I gave her a cuddle every night.
14. I am a serious runner chasing after my dog while he does the same to a squirrel.
15. My father always tells me to put on more layers than I need.
16. My sister and I have a bathroom of our own, while we choose to use our parents’.
17. I have always wondered why we bathe instead of vacuum ourselves off.
18. I aggressively attack sugar while my dog aggressively attacks his stuffed ducks.
19. I had braces for four years and I now sleep with a retainer every night.
20. I studied Rome for a year and when I went to the place itself, I almost fainted.
21. I moved from a house in Oxford, to a cottage in the middle of nowhere, to an RV for six weeks, to an Old Firehall.
22. I home-schooled for three years and then went to a tiny school with only twenty-five people.
23. I did a Monty Python sketch for my school talent show.
24. Some of the things I miss most about England are chocolate, pork pies and sausages.
25. My first word was Mumma.
The last few seconds of Kadian’s life keep flashing through my head, like film frames on a continual loop. I see it again and again and again.
Is this post-traumatic stress disorder? Am I having flashbacks? Deb tells me I need help.
A week later I am sitting in front of a therapist. I tell her that I don’t know why I should continue living, that I have no urge to move forward, that my life has ended.
How can grief be something I want to recover from? The concept feels disloyal to Kadian. For if I no longer grieve his loss doesn’t that mean that I don’t value him, that I don’t miss him?
I have become an aficionado of grief expressions. The most common are stock phrases which actually pop up when you search the Internet for “things you should say to people who are grieving.” These include: “I am so sorry for your loss,” “my condolences,” and “if there is anything we can do. …”
But the one that is most often repeated, the one which I hate the most, is “There are no words. …” There are so many words. Like “How is it possible to keep living?” or “Kadian was the most beautiful boy” or “Why the f--- is this happening to us?”
I change therapists. I ask the new one to explain what is happening inside my brain.
He says the sudden death of a loved one can trigger a specific chemical reaction. First, the hypothalamus emits corticotropin-releasing hormone, which causes the pituitary gland to emit adrenocorticotropin hormone, which causes the adrenal gland to emit cortisol. It is this cortisol, he says, that has been flooding my body, making me feel hyper-vigilant.
I ask him if cortisol can damage the brain. He says that, yes, it can. Some people do not have the capacity for resilience, while others face such extreme trauma that resilience is difficult if not impossible. In so¢me cases the cortisol flood turns into a tsunami, which can destroy cells in the hippocampus and amygdala, regions involved with memory and emotion.
My cognitive functions have diminished since Kadian’s death. My reflexes are slower now, my brain power weaker. I find reading difficult. And my memory is failing.
It helps to talk to my shrink. It makes me feel a little less mad.
Kadian wrote his last Facebook post on July 20, 2012, five days before he was killed. It was after the Aurora cinema rampage. “My heart goes out to those affected by the shootings in Colorado,” he wrote.
It has been a year. The sun slices through my office window, illuminating a thousand shimmering dust particles in the air. My eyes track one particular strand of fluff as it falls slowly to the floor. Then I lose focus, my mind suddenly captured by sorrow.
A new thought pops into my mind. The dust is always there, floating. But it is only when the sun shines at a particular angle, when there are no clouds to block its path, when I am sitting in a certain position, that I can see them. Is this how it will be with Kadian, with my memories?
This story is excerpted from “Kadian Journal” by Thomas Harding, published in the U.K. by Penguin Random House and to be published in the U.S. by Picador. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Harding. All rights reserved. Harding also wrote the 2013 book “Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz”; his last story for the Magazine was “Hiding in N. Virginia, a Daughter of Auschwitz.” To comment, e-mail email@example.com.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine. Follow the Magazine on Twitter. Like us on Facebook.