I stand as witness

by Toni McGee Causey

Sometimes, there are moments that redefine a life.

And sometimes those moments are when someone else is the star of the show, when you’re in the audience, third row, fourth seat from the left.

I stand as witness.

I stand as witness for a sixteen-year-old boy I never met. He changed our lives.

I understand he had an easy smile, dark mop of hair, about-to-grow-into his looks. That gangly stage of boyhood, steaming, bubbling, nearly ready to change the world.

I never saw it.

He was inclusive. Whether by nature or taught at home, it’s unclear, but he was the rare kind of kid who would look at someone new at school, and say, "Come on, join us."  He was, from what I heard, warm and friendly. Flawed, sure. Normal. He liked sports and computers and had a new girlfriend.

I never knew him.

There were rounds of meetings in L.A., producers who’d read my latest script. I was on top of the world, in one sense, this was my "show" and yet, I was wondering how to make this work, how to pull up my family and move them a couple of thousand miles away from their home. I remember the evening as clearly as yesterday: I was in a friend’s home–he’d had a party so I could see everyone at one time. He’d cooked three kinds of soup and I was astounded at how very good they all were, that he really ought to be a chef somewhere.

His bungalow was not far from Paramount’s entrance, and I saw the Hollywood sign on my way there and the night felt light and innocent and full of hope. Laughter erupted every few seconds at the gathering, people mingled, and I had just heard the voices of long-known friends come through the front door when my cell phone rang.

It was my son.

"Mom. Ryan was killed tonight."

I stand as witness.

In the previous months, my son had gone from alone-at-a-new-school to having a circle of friends, and Ryan had been the ringleader. Our lives went from being unsure and wary and tense to being happy because of the actions of this kid. He changed everything.

I never heard him laugh. I had been traveling and had deadlines and teenage boys are not exactly wont to hang out with mom.

I’d heard about him, though. Nearly every day. He brought a light into our home with my son’s tales of their latest antics.

I stood in the line to greet his parents at the funeral. They managed to have a grace I could not have mustered, had a drunk driver killed my son.

All of the kids in his class would go on to graduate and some have families. My son now has a daughter. His life changed twice–once when he met Ryan, and again when he lost him.

Because of Ryan, he had made friends, some who will last a lifetime.

I realized that night I did not want to be 2000 miles away if there were ever another call. I did not want to uproot our lives, because there are some things that matter so much more than the latest round of meetings. There are some things we have to do, and some things we choose to do, and for me, while writing was the dream, I realized I already held the other: my family.

My life changed. I decided to pursue fiction and wrote something funny, because I needed something in the face of tragedy, and it’s comedy I turned to. I realized that if my life were cut short the next day, I’d have at least been working on something I loved, something I wanted to do, to please my own instincts instead of doing whatever misguided thing I thought I was "supposed" to do as a writer.

At sixteen, Ryan may not have had a chance to change the world, but he changed my part of it.

He was here. He mattered. He affected so many.

The power of one word, one welcoming gesture, can ripple out, affecting those around them for the rest of their lives. In fiction, the power of one act of cruelty or bravery can drive a story. Zoë’s post Thursday reminded me of this. I try to remember that the minor characters are witness to the events around them. Writing isn’t just about the protagonist and hero–we’re all protagonists and heroes in our own stories. Writing is capturing the ripple, from the point of impact.

At Ryan’s funeral, six years ago, I was sitting third row, fourth seat from the left.

But I stand as witness.


How about you? What do you stand as witness?

31 thoughts on “I stand as witness

  1. Patricia

    A lesson in life and a lesson for writers. A beautiful and powerful combination.

    My 17 year old son also lost a friend a few months ago. I struggled to write about it and could not.

    Thank you for pointing the way!

  2. cj lyons

    Gee, Toni, it used to be Ken’s posts that always made me cry, now I have to stock up on the Kleenex before reading yours as well!

    A lot of folks have heard the story of why I began writing crime fiction. During the most difficult year of any doctor’s life, our internship year, we lost one of our own. He was murdered in a horrific, senseless crime that still haunts me.

    So, I write to bear witness to Jeff as well as all the victims I’ve treated over the years.

    It’s my own pathetic attempt to make sense of the world and to hopefully change it for the better, one story at a time….

  3. Lori G. Armstrong

    This powerful post absolutely took my breath away, my friend.

    I don’t stand for anything so noble, but in my work I strive to offer a peek into the lives of people who live in this part of the country that are largely forgotten.

  4. Kathy Sweeney

    Amen. This is a beautiful post, Toni.

    I have to say thank you to Ryan as well – without him, there would be no Bobbie Faye!

    Never underestimate the blessing of making people laugh – with so much tragedy in the world, your writing gives us all a great gift.

  5. Lisa Hendrix

    An amazing, touching, painful post. I hope you let Ryan’s parents know it’s here, so they can know that their boy’s impact on the world didn’t stop with his death and that even now, his life is touching people he never met.

  6. Louise Ure

    You’ve captured that ripple and sent it on its way, Toni.

    Thank you for this today.

    I think I’ve spent too much time remembering the villains in my life. It’s time to remember those silent heroes, too.

  7. Margie Lawson

    Toni –

    Your heart and talent honor Ryan and his parents. I’m sure they would love to read your tribute and be reminded that their son made a difference in your lives.

    As a psychologist, I witness excruciating life experiences and work to help people continue breathing, learn to cope, and eventually become stronger and live their lives with compassion and intent.

    I’m privileged to witness their inner pain and struggle and growth. Each time, I give. Each time, I recieve. Each time, I’m strengthened.

    Toni — Thank you. You’re a gem.

  8. Tom Barclay

    I stand for the Beautiful Losers – the creators of beauties no one ever notices. They go back to the forge and the page and the stage and the canvas again and again, because they must.

    LU, that is a huge realization. I hope you work with it, and I want to see the results. Have you heard of Scottish Alzheimer’s? The main symptom is you forget everything but your grudges.

    Toni, I hope I’d have had enough love of my children to choose as you did, to choose the thing truly graceful – but I doubt it. I suspect you’re a better mensch than most of us, Gungha Din.

    Bobbie Faye made Mary Lynn (my own titanium magnolia) laugh last night, as I thought she would. That’s one hell of a grace all by itself.

  9. Allison Brennan

    Toni, you always make me think and reflect. I remember listening to a woman testify in front of the public safety committee about her son. Six years old. Raped and beaten on his way to school by a juvenile sex offender. She came to testify to change the laws of the state of California because had juvenile sex offenders been handled the same way as adult sex offenders, a six year old’s life would not have been destroyed. And the committee killed the bill. I felt enraged and deeply sad. This mom had poured her heart and fears out to strangers and the little compassion they showed was lip-service. All, frankly, for money–the money that juvenile sex offender group homes brought in to powerful constituencies. That was I think the turning point in my legislative career. From hopeful idealist to cynical realist. So now I write about justice not only for the victims, but for their families.

  10. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Gorgeous and heartfelt post, Toni,

    Thank you.

    Last night, I watched the first Saturday Night Live show with George Carlin as host — back in 1975 or whatever it was. I was shocked at how many of those original folks had died. Fame often brings no more than renown — certainly not happiness or intrinsic worth.

    Then I think of Helen Renwick who died years ago from ALS. She taught me about grace in the face of tragedy, humor in the midst of overwhelming obstacles. She was the first truly selfless person I’d ever met and throug her I realized that these people actually do exist though they’re rarely celebrated — or even recognized.

    In her powerful and much too short life, she spent her hours working in nonprofits to help NM’s children, displaced homemakers, the people under the radar, the ones we so easily forget.

    She worked with frenetic urgency, perhaps knowing that her own fire would soon cease, but its warmth would last decades.

  11. Jake Nantz

    Wow. I have nothing even remotely important to add in the face of such a resoundingly powerful post. Just wow. Thank you, Ms. Causey.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Patricia, thank you. And my heartfelt condolences. I don’t think I could have written about it so soon, either. It was difficult, even today, to express.

    CJ, thank you — I think the shock of what you all went through with Jeff would have blunted my ability to write for a long, long time. I am impressed with the depth with which you evoke your characters, and give them that life, and justice, that Jeff lost. You’ve done him proud, I believe.

    Lori, speaking for the part of the country that tends to be forgotten is a critically important witness. We need to remember our roots, our heritage, how vast this country is, and remember that it is made up of strong, amazing individuals who may not be like us, who may not be lockstep, but who feel every bit as much as we do. You have done that–brought that world into beautiful, sharp clarity, and we’re luckier for it.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    Kathy, thank you. 😉 You always make me feel wonderful.

    billie, you, too. And thank you.

    Lisa–I may do that. I hadn’t wanted to intrude on their own memories of him, as if mine are somehow more important. But you and Margie have a great point, so I may do so.

    Louise, what a kind thing to say. I’m not sure if you realize what a hero you are to us here… you always inspire. Always. I hope you find those heroes.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Margie, I think it takes a certain fortitude and heart and love for someone to take on the role of counselor, in any form, because you bear the weight of so many sorrows, so much of others’ stress and tragedy. But thank God for people like you, because the world needs you. I know you’ve been the source of a tremendous amount of healing, and will forever be remembered as a light in the darkness.

    Tom, thank you. I’m not sure it was graceful at the time. I struggled. We all struggle.

    I love that you stand for the Beautiful Losers. You are a hero. 😉 (And I am thrilled Mary Lynn laughed! yay)

  15. toni mcgee causey

    Allison, that experience would have devastated me, too, and turned me cynical as well. From those ashes, though, you have written stunning, compelling stories which shine the light on that corner of the world, and you’ve spoken for victims in a way that has reached so very very man. You’ve given them a voice, and the hope that there can, sometimes, be justice in this world.

    Pari, thank you. Helen sounds like a truly amazing woman who made the most of her time. It stuns me, sometimes, how very selfless some people are. I think our world would have long ago degenerated down into total anarchy and pain if it weren’t for people like Helen holding it together. Thank you for letting me know about her.

    Jake and Dusty–both of you, thank you.

  16. JT Ellison

    Toni, this is stunning. I love to hear about writer’s turning points — I think some are so unconscious that we don’t even realize them until later. I know mine was that way. A girl from my college went missing after graduation, has never been found. There’s something about Dail Dinwiddie that still haunts me, and I think somewhere, somehow, I’m finding a little bit of justice for her.

  17. double T

    WOW, Toni what a beautiful piece. It is hard to imagine sometimes how just the little things in life can change someone elses. Just a kind word or a simple smile and hello can affect someone so deeply and you don’t even realize it. I hope that my sons send ripples out to make this world a little better. And in a small way I hope I do too…

  18. patry francis

    This post made me realize something. Though I love your novels for their humor, it’s the huge heart at the center of them that is the true Bobbie Faye magic. Thanks for sharing Ryan’s light.

  19. R.J. Mangahas

    Toni — this is a very thought provoking and emotional post. I’ve mentioned her before, but my fiancee Anne who passed away a few years ago was truly a light in a lot of people’s lives. This was so evident the day of her memorial service. So many people came from a long distance, some just for the service. It was a beautiful thing. What was even more amazing was that the weekend of her service, the weather was particularly gloomy. But on the day of her service, the sun came out and it was a warm day. The next day, the cloudy weather resumed.

    I stand as a witness to the way she lived her life and try to use the love and generosity she had for others as a guideline to try and live my own in the same way.

  20. Michele Bardsley

    As I stumble around fixing toast for my son and whining about lack of coffee (perking now) and thinking about how many pages I have left to write (ack!) … I blearily clicked through to the link you sent.

    And my perspective has completely changed. What a wonderful, beautiful day this is just because I have it to enjoy.


  21. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, JT. I think you are also ratcheting up awareness, and there are women who will read your books for the love of reading great thrillers, who’ll come away from it with more awareness, and maybe, just maybe, will pay closer attention to what happens around them.

    Double T, both your sons are lights–they are going to grow up to be very fine men. And you, ‘dear, are a light yourself: much kindness and enthusiasm and friendship.

    Aw, Dakota, hon, you, too. And that was clear from the first moment I met you, when people were HOVERING near the table just to get to talk to you and you sold out in what? three nanoseconds? (I am just really envious that your super bright light *also* has that sexy Demi Moore voice. Talk about stacking the deck.) 😉

    Patry… that’s just.. wow. Thank you. And from a woman whose prose is richness and beauty and heart, I am humbled.

    RJ, you stand as such a great witness for Anne, I wish I had known her. You’ve shown her spirit and smile and warmth to us–I feel like she’s a friend, sitting around the table with us, laughing and telling us her story. She is counted here among friends.

    Michele, thank you. I don’t have many days where I’ve got much perspective–I am generally running around, doing the same thing (nearly) (especially the “ack!” pages! part)… you made me laugh. It has been a great day.

  22. R.J. Mangahas

    Toni — thanks for that. Anne really does have an great story. Maybe one day I’ll be able to capture it in words that will do her justice.

    I remember when she was in the hospital, her brother was coming into town and I told her that he would probably stay at our apartment. He first concern was that we had a cat and her brother was allergic to them. Even while in the hospital, her first concern was for someone else.

    It’s funny. I’ve ended up with another wonderful woman and I can’t but help that Anne kind of nudged me in that general direction. It’s just the kind of person she is. (Even if she’s not here physically)

  23. Sharon

    Toni, as you know, I literally witnessed my sister’s death from leukemia when she was 27. It was an excuriating and gory event that haunts me still. More specifically, she drowned in her own blood as she was hemorraging from every oriface by that stage of her chemo. All these years later, I can still see the details of that horrific scene in her hospital room — complete with sounds, smells and the clock frozen at 7:37 a.m. Chemo is brutal and inhumane – or at least it was all those years ago.

    Within a few years of that experience, I miscarried twins and lost 2 of the dearest friends the I could have ever imagined — one from complicatations related to treatment for Hepatis C that he contracted in a blood splash in the OR (he was an orthopedic surgeon) and the other from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She was 32 with 4 beatiful children — the oldest was 6 when her mom died and the youngest was 4 months old. Sadly, they don’t remember their mother’s contagious laughter, her love of flowers, her obsession with shopping, nor even how deeply she loved and adored them.

    From those senseless deaths and from watching my mom deal with breast cancer with tremendous grace, dignity, and courage, I’ve witnessed just how little control we have over our own circumstances. I’ve also learned how strong we are sometimes forced to be despite the fact that it would be easier if we just gave in and let ourselves “fall apart.” (Man, sometimes it would be so much easier to let ourselves fall apart and allow someone else pick up the pieces!)

    I’ve learned that there is nothing more important than family (especially my wonderful husband and beautiful daughter), and cherishing strong and loving relationships with our friends, Most importantly, I have learned that my life is not and has never been about me — it’s about what I can do for others. Before my feet even hit the floor each morning, I ask God to show me how I can help someone else — either in an some insignificant or better still, in some a monumental way. I’ve learned that the 3 guiding principles or my own personal philosopy that I established many years ago, matter even more now. Other than the Big 10, I try to follow these 3 simple rules: 1) Give more than you get. 2) Look for the gift. 3) When it all gets to be too much, you have 2 choices – put on your party shoes and dsnce or go to the beach. We dance a lot in our household and go to the beach at least once every few months. Having recently been diagnosed with lymphoma myself, my desire to help others is even greater and I am even more appreciative of the many gifts that surround me each and every day. I’ve also learned that my first rule — giving more than you get — is somewhat self-serving. The most selfish thing that I do every day is giving to others. The joy that it brings is tremoundously greater than any “gift” that I could bestow on another.

  24. Jim Skrintney

    Toni, thank you for sharing that event in your life. I am greatful that there are the angels on this earth that take personal tragedy and turn it into inspiration and strenth for others. As you know, I am not the most outgoing person in the world myself and as such we have not come to know each other very well. However, I can say that I do know enough about you to be honored that our paths have crossed. Keep up the great work and please keep sending the posts. I really do enjoy them. It is refreshing to realize that there are real people in this world with hearts like yours.

  25. Debby


    Thank you for the reminder that we all can stand witness.

    For me, I stand witness for my brother David, who died waiting for an lung transplant in 1993. And will actually be in Pittsburgh next week to cheer on the athletes at the Transplant Games, who have received this gift.

    Thank you for standing witness.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Toni – a stunning post, as yours so often are.

    It’s only afterwards that we remember was the things we did before that phone call, that knock on the door.

    Before we knew.

    The inconsequential everyday mundanities; superficial, pointless little sub-routines that take up our waking hours when we don’t appreciate that life is precious, and special, and short.

  27. Kelli Stanley

    Toni, thank you for that reminder of priorities. And the ineffable, daily actions, the small kindnesses and patient waiting, that make up a noble life.

    Witnesses remember. And record. And you’ve passed Ryan’s legacy on to so many people … through the smile and laughter of Bobbie Faye, and through this post.

    The word “angel” comes from the Greek term for messenger … a word that aptly describes you. Thanks, Toni.

  28. max

    That is a wonderful remembrance for Ryan. I am angry over the people I lost who were young, whose quick smiles will not be seen in sunlight any more, who do not wake up and grow up beside me. I have trouble reconciling that some days when I remember someone sharply and he or she is gone — gone for a long time now, not here to see this day. I like the way you think of it better, that each person missing is still here in a way, in the changes they have made in the world and the lives of us.


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