I could sense a presence at the foot of my bed; someone standing there, waiting for me to wake up. Raising my head, my eyes fought their way through the haze caused by the alcohol and turkey I’d consumed the night before. It was my brother-in-law, Seann, dressed in his motorcycle jacket and his backpack hanging over one shoulder. His mouth curled into the cocksure smile that never seemed to leave his face.
The night before, Thanksgiving, he’d joined us for a feast at my brother’s house. We hadn’t seen Seann in a while, and it was a pleasure to catch up. All in attendance came from Karyn’s side of the family yet I always found it beautiful that Seann could effortlessly fit in with them. Just as they had welcomed Julie and me into their lives many years ago, they did the same with Seann. It helped that he was so personable and an interesting individual to be around. If you asked him, he could talk to you about just about anything.
It wasn’t always that way, though. When I first met Seann, he was a cute, ten-year-old boy in love with the Cleveland Indians and the game of baseball. He was also pretty nonverbal. Our conversations generally went something like this:
Me: “What’s up, dude?”
Seann: “Hmm. Not much.”
Me: “Indians look pretty good. I really like the team they've put together, including that Lofton guy! I love him!”
And that was about it. I was content with having this type of relationship with Seann seeing as I’d bonded with Julie’s other brother, Michael, over shared interests in music, movies and comics. Still, I hoped that someday Seann and I might connect, despite the fact that Julie and I lived in California and he resided in Northeast Ohio.
Everything changed the day Seann took up drumming.
Having played drums throughout my entire adolescence and into college, I could finally relate to my young brother-in-law and really get to know him. To my great surprise, Seann didn’t just bang around on the drums, playing to the radio; he excelled at the instrument through discipline, hours of practice and an innate sense of rhythm. He found a way to express himself, and it was awesome. As any drummer can tell you, it’s a joy to listen and watch a natural talent on the kit, and Seann was a true natural. We now spoke the same language. Instead of grunts and mumbles, Seann and I began having conversations about drum kits, tuning, cymbal brands, drumsticks and which drummers he admired the most.
I'll admit that I took secret pleasure in being able to jam every time Julie and I went back to Cleveland, and Seann was always gracious to give up his drum stool whenever I asked. There were occasions when he would hang out just to watch me play. I’ll wager to say, though, that he didn’t receive as much pleasure in watching me as I did when he was behind his kit.
When the time came for Seann to apply to colleges, I was intrigued that he was considering Bowling Green State University, my alma mater. He wanted to major in music and seeing as I’d spent four years roaming the halls of BG’s music school, I felt that I could offer my two cents. We discussed the school’s excellent music program and the great campus atmosphere. I'm not sure if what I had to say had any sway in his decision, but Seann chose BG in the fall of 2000.
At Bowling Green, Sean transformed from a great drummer into well-rounded percussionist and musician. His studies introduced him to a variety of instruments that added richness to his skills. In addition, he became interested in sound engineering and began thinking about a career as a sound designer for films.
It was such a marvel to watch the light of his spirit shine. This was no truer than when he returned from a trip to Ghana, Africa. An openness and a joy for life were bursting from him as he regaled the family with stories of his trip abroad. Africa had fortified his soul and given him a new purpose in life.
In 2005, Seann graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles. In Southern California he really came into his own. For a short time he slept on our couch, made daily treks over the mountain into Hollywood and soon hooked up with some Ohio friends in that area, taking up residence on their couch. Eventually, he found a place in Venice, a city close to the beach and full of culture.
With the two industries in which he wanted to succeed surrounding him, Seann flourished. Moreover, the access to nature – oceans, forests, mountains – kept him in tune with his physical and spiritual sides. We began seeing less of him as his new life took off and he became busier, working as a sound designer and composer for a small production company, even recording and distributing his own music.
Still, Seann was never too busy to visit when we called. All it took was the pleading voice of Sophie on the other end of the phone and he would ride up to our house on his motorcycle for a home-cooked dinner and quality catching up. Each year when it came time for the CF Great Strides walks, he never had to be reminded. In fact, he would ask when the walk was taking place so that he could program it into his calendar. I will never forget his dedication to the children, not just to my kids, who had the good fortune of seeing him regularly, but also to his nieces and nephews who lived on the other side of the country.
Whenever the two of us got together, I was eager to talk about film, music or baseball. I never would have given Avenged Sevenfold a chance if it hadn’t been off of his recommendation, I would not have been able to say that Thirty Seconds to Mars is not my thing, and I never would have discovered Porcupine Tree, the British prog metal band with a cult following in America.
During the Christmas of 2010, as I scrolled through his iTunes, their album, In Absentia, popped up on the screen.
“Those guys are great,” he told me, “you really should listen to them.”
Intrigued, I copied the album to my iPod. Months later, while commuting to work, I fell in love with the record. The multiple time changes, the lush harmonies, the slick production – everything reminded me of my favorite Yes album from 1983, 90125. In particular, the second track, “Trains,” stuck its hooks into me and had me singing it for days. Because he was the only person I knew who’d ever heard of this band, I always associated the album with Seann.
It should come as no surprise that when Seann was killed in a traffic accident last December, I sought comfort in the music that made me feel closest to him. To numb the hours, days and weeks following his tragic death, to block out the screaming in my head and the hot tears of sorrow, I listened to “Trains” over and over again – on the train, in my office and before I went to bed, forcing myself to sleep. Sometimes it was a great help, and at others it was just the noise I needed to help me get through the grieving.
I’m so fortunate to have known this man. As I said, he was a good uncle, a good friend and a brother to me. Was Seann perfect? No. But who in their 20’s is? He was still learning, growing, trying to figure out this world and how to make it better, trying to find his place in it. I'm so glad that he decided to spend Thanksgiving with us last year, to have him join us in the good food and company that the holiday symbolizes. The next morning, while Jacob slept and Julie was out shopping with Sophie, Seann entered my bedroom to say goodbye before leaving.
It was the last time I ever saw him.
He stood at the end of my bed, dressed in his motorcycle jacket, his backpack hanging over one shoulder. His mouth curled into the cocksure smile that never seemed to leave his face. I craned my neck to look at him.
“S’up?” I asked.
“I’m taking off,” he replied.
“Tell Julie I said goodbye.”
“Hmm. Yeah. Sure.”
I fell back on to my pillow while Seann left the house.
He walked across the driveway and started up his motorcycle, parked right outside the bedroom window.
As I drifted back to sleep, I could hear the sound of his motorcycle drive down our street and fade off into the distance.