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I'll Never Forget A year after his son's death, the author grieves as he plays the Champions tour and hopes that his loss will make him a better father

April 28, 2003
April 28, 2003

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April 28, 2003

Motor Sports

I'll Never Forget A year after his son's death, the author grieves as he plays the Champions tour and hopes that his loss will make him a better father

We pulled up alongside each other by accident one afternoon last
March, while we were driving down Glendale Road in Phoenix. I
can't recall exactly what we said to each other across lanes,
but I do remember the sense of excitement in my son's voice.
Finally, after years of drifting, Kevin had a plan for the
future. He was going to real estate school. He was in love.
What more could a father want? ¶ That was the last time I saw
him. A few days later, on March 23, he was gone, having drowned
in a pool at his friend's apartment complex. Kevin was 25.

This is an article from the April 28, 2003 issue

More than a year has passed, and I think of Kevin many times
every day--on and off the course. Everything has changed.

I've gone through all the standard emotions. Denial was a big
one. For months I would wake up every morning and feel as if
Kevin's death was some horrible dream, and then it would hit me
all over again: He is dead. It was not a dream.

I try not to ponder the unknowable: Had he been out in the sun
too long that day? He and a friend had gone on an hourlong hike
up Squaw Peak in the early afternoon, when the temperature was
close to 100°. Did he drink enough water? After the hike they
went to a bar and had a few beers. Did he have one too many? The
answers won't bring him back. I never went to the pool. What good
would that do? It is better to think about Kevin's life, not his
death.

The two of us weren't always as close as we could've been. His
mother and I divorced when he was a teenager, and for many years
he blamed me. It wasn't until a full decade later, in 1999, when
he caddied for me on the Senior tour, that we spent a lot of
quality time together. Was I trying to make up for lost
opportunities? You bet. Thank God I did. He behaved perfectly on
the course, but the greater rewards came outside the ropes. He
entertained me so much with his stories about his buddies and
their adventures.

One night, after caddying for me in Montreal, Kevin and Michael
Zarley, Kermit's son, borrowed a courtesy car to go out looking
for a good time. The next morning, when he got up to take a
shower, I noticed all these phone numbers on his arm. He told me
they had crashed a bachelorette party, and he produced some
little pieces of paper with even more numbers. It was all a game
to him to see how many fish he could get on the line. He was into
the catch-and-release program. He never called any of the girls.
Every time I see a pretty girl now, I think of Kevin and wonder
if he'd get her number.

After about 15 tournaments, though, I told Kevin that it was time
for him to move on. Being a professional caddie was not going to
be his life. Besides, I didn't want to be a crutch for him. I
could tell he was a little hurt, but he knew I was right.

I think a lot about our days on tour together, which can be a
real problem when I'm paired with another player who has his son
on the bag. Last year, in Winston-Salem, N.C., I played extremely
well in the first round. The next day my threesome included Larry
Nelson, whose son Drew was caddying for him. Kevin and Drew had
gone way back, from the time they hung out together in the
regular Tour's nursery. I hit the ball horribly. My mind went in
so many different directions. I thought playing alongside Drew
might be difficult, but I had no idea how difficult. I didn't
want Larry to feel bad. It wasn't his fault.

I had a lot of rounds like that last year. I simply didn't care.
At the Tradition, the first tournament I entered after Kevin
died, I was put on the clock for slow play. I didn't swear at the
official, but it's safe to say that I wasn't very respectful,
either. My colleagues on the tour were great in the beginning,
saying the right things, asking me to dinner to make sure I
wouldn't be alone. I will always appreciate that. Of course, for
them, the whole thing lasted a few weeks, maybe months. Then it
was over. For me, it will never be over. Now when they ask how
things are going, I know they mean well, but I can tell by their
body language that they don't want a long conversation about it.
I don't blame them. It's not fair for me to place my baggage on
their carts. We're out there competing against one another. We're
not there to console one another.

Sometimes people, even though they have the most well-meaning
intentions, can say things that a grieving parent doesn't want to
hear, such as, "I know how you feel." I want to shout back, "No,
you don't." Another one is, "Be thankful that you have six other
kids." I am, but that doesn't lessen the loss of Kevin. Some tell
me that "he's in a better place." Better place? A better place
would be on this earth with me and his family, to live his life.
And then, finally, there's the one that troubles me the most, "It
was God's will." I'm sorry, but while I suppose it is true that
God takes 25-year-old sons, I'm still having trouble trying to
work through why.

August was a turning point. My wife, Sheree, helped me recognize
that I wasn't grieving for Kevin; I was grieving for myself.
Worse yet, that was taking my attention away from our six other
kids (ages 6 to 22). I know that Kevin wouldn't want that, and
that if he could write me a letter, he would tell me to be sad
that he's gone but not to destroy my life or ignore the people he
loved. I think about that a lot. Losing him, I hope, has made me
a better father. I make sure to go to my kids' soccer games, to
help with their homework, to do all the things I won't have a
chance to do with Kevin.

I didn't lose only Kevin. I also lost Michelle, the wonderful
girl he was planning to marry. (That's what he told his mother
only weeks before he died.) I knew this relationship was
different the day Kevin said he had a girl he wanted me to meet.
He had never done that before. This was one number he didn't
throw away. I've spoken to her on the phone a few times since
Kevin's death, but it's always awkward. What do we say to each
other? Where can we possibly go from here?

I've also lost Kevin's friends. I wonder how they're coping. On
the night of his funeral a bunch of them went to this dive in
Phoenix. The drinks were on Kevin--he'd been working for the
Arizona Department of Transportation, and his last paycheck had
just arrived in the mail. Everyone told Kevin stories, like the
one about how he got kicked out of a bar for fighting with some
guy whose girlfriend he had been flirting with. The tab got to be
about $1,300. It was fun seeing all his friends together again,
though painful to see them cry. Nobody wanted the night to end.
Kevin would've had such a great time. He was always the life of
the party.

I worry most about his sister, Jocelyn. She's 22 and doesn't say
much, so I'm not quite sure how she's doing. Kevin and Jocelyn
were incredibly close. Right now all I can do is wait until she's
ready, but I'll be there for her when she is.

People say losing a child is the worst. I know of nothing more
accurate. It's like joining a club you don't want to belong
to--and you're in it for life. Last year at the Senior Players
Championship a man came up to me after I'd finished my round and
explained how he had lost his daughter. Suddenly, this complete
stranger and I had a bond that is impossible to describe, unless
you belong to the club. We each knew exactly what the other was
feeling.

I try to think of the other parents out there who have gone
through this experience, and I have no magical words. It's
impossible to explain to someone who has never lost a child, sort
of like trying to describe the color blue to a blind person. All
I can tell others is that it's O.K. to remember. In fact, it's
imperative. Yes, I lost Kevin, but I still have the memory.

I've lost my share of loved ones. I had an older brother, an
electrician, who died when he touched the wrong wire and a sister
who was taken by cancer. While I certainly experienced my share
of grieving, there was no way I could truly understand what my
mother must have been going through. I think I do now and, as a
result, have such tremendous respect for how she has coped. At 92
she remains an inspiration to a son who still counts on her
guidance.

Since Kevin died, I have found myself looking at the obits in the
newspaper every day, searching for the names and stories of young
people. Why? I'm not really sure. I suppose because it's a kind
of therapy, a way to connect with Kevin.

I do connect with him in many ways. One is the Sarah Brightman CD
Time to Say Goodbye. I play the title song over and over. He
loved it so much.

Another connection is the Chapstick I keep in my pocket. I got
the idea in August after a conversation with a friend who had
lost her son. She explained the importance of finding a physical
object to represent the lost child. Chapstick was the obvious
choice for me. It was a family joke that Kevin always tried to
carry one and would even use other people's. I know it sounds
hokey, but when I use the Chapstick, it's like I'm giving him a
kiss. When I used up a stick at a tournament in Hawaii last year,
I didn't know what to do with the empty container. I couldn't
simply throw it in the garbage.

I decided to dig a little hole overlooking a beautiful cove and
buried the container in it. I knew Kevin would like it there.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL LOOKING FOR COMFORT Twitty is thankful for the season that Kevin (in a 1990 photo) spent with him on tour in 1999.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL HEALING PROCESS Since his son's death, Twitty finds that obituaries of other young people somehow connect him with Kevin.COLOR PHOTO: CARLOS OSORIO/AP PLAYING IN PAIN Twitty struggles on the course whenever he's paired with a player whose son doubles as his caddie.
People say losing a child is the worst. It's like joining a club
you don't want to belong to--and you're in it for life.