Nile

When you’re 13 years old, the last thing you ever expected or needed was four days of unending tears. Add an equal amount of anger, and I can’t begin to fathom how far down the anguish must have been. I was never there to help him. And even if I had been, I doubt he could’ve reached my outstretched hand. I was simply too far away. The well of mourning is a dark and tiresome place to be.  It’s simply a matter of time before, eventually, you begin to see some light.

Nile Copeland found himself in that well the moment he returned home from school, and was greeted by three police officers in his living room. The news was not good.

His father, Ken Copeland, would not be coming home that night, or any night thereafter. He had just been killed in the line of duty while serving an arrest warrant for a violent crime.

Nile doesn’t remember what he picked up, but he does recall throwing it with everything he had. Anger and mourning are a fierce combination, and to even think that you can demagnetize them would be a foolish thought. Although destructive, it’s best to give them the right-of-way, and let them run their course

*           *           *

Three weeks ago, I crossed paths with Nile, his three brothers, and his mother.  They were on their way to a benefit concert to raise money for the family.  As his personal trainer, I had been wanting to touch base with Nile, but wasn’t sure when the time was right.   It had only been 18 days since his father’s passing, and they had been subjected to a number of formalities that are followed in observance of a fallen police officer.  The brotherhood among officers is tight.  No two cops ever need to know each other to form a fraternal bond. It exists upon first recognition of their professions.  And when one of their own is murdered, the fraternal bonds only becomes stronger.

The week after I saw them, I trained Nile for the first time since his father’s death. Due to his condition of spina bifida, he is restricted to a wheelchair.  My job is simply to keep him strong. His mother, Sheila, had brought him. From what I could tell, she was holding herself together fairly well, as she told me about the avalanche of donations that had spilled into their home, and mentioned several fundraising benefits that had been organized to raise money and ease the family’s financial burdens. I mentioned I had written a tribute to her husband that had run in the local newspaper. She said she had been so out of the loop regarding articles about Ken, and hadn’t read anything, but asked me to send her my story.

And that’s when I detected a slight pause in her speech—the recollection of her loss.  One of the many that would occur in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.  I shifted the conversation to Nile and his training, and suggested we get started.

As he entered the weight room ahead of me, I looked back at Sheila walking away. What she must have gone through the day she learned the news.  It’s beyond comprehension. We lose something so priceless from our lives, and its vacancy yields a far greater weight than we could have ever imagined possible.

*            *             *

Nile was born with a type of spina bifida called myelomeningocele.  It is when the backbone and spinal cord don’t come together properly during development in the womb. He’s confined to a wheelchair due to the severe weakness in his legs.  Despite that, he possesses a number of qualities that immediately steal your attention away from his physical condition:  his personality, his intelligence, his keen interest in the animal kingdom, his wit, and, never to forget, his smile.

Prior to meeting him, I knew very little about lizards, tarantulas, and snakes.  But if you spend enough time with a kid whose entire family has a strong interest in those animals, you start to appreciate the excitement and intrigue for their pets.  I have always had a big dislike for spiders.  Keep me a few hundred yards from them, and I begin to feel comfortable.  However, Nile has a way of easing my aversion toward arachnids.  He has a tarantula whose body has a hint of blue.  Right there I’m thinking, Okay, I love the color blue, so I’ll give this big spider some credit for being likeable.  And before you know it, Nile is educating me about their behaviors, their feeding habits, and their quickness.  The kid’s in 7th grade, but I swear he should be teaching college biology.  

So, this is how it goes when I strength train Nile:

With free weights and cables, he goes through a series of bicep curls, hammer curls, triceps kickbacks, high-pulls, front presses, lateral raises, pullovers, and close-grip cable pulls. To strengthen his legs, he is able to maneuver his body out of the wheelchair and situate himself onto the leg press and leg extension machines.

Then comes the part that doesn’t excite me, but thrills him to no end—he gets to throw the ten-pound medicine ball at me.  Good lord, the kid can throw.  He propels that ball as if we are the last two competitors left in a merciless game of dodgeball.  Each throw is accented with a cunning smile—one that is intent upon getting the best of me, or making the worst of me.  For all I know, it’s a game called “aNILEation!!”  The purpose of the game:  destroy your opponent.

It’s one of many exercises designed to help strengthen his core.  So, there I sit, shielding my face as he launches the ball from ten feet away.  We can’t help but laugh as he continues the onslaught.  And I can’t help but see how much enjoyment he’s having.  He loves the possibility of me missing the ball and getting blown off the bench that I sit on.  And if there’s one thing that Nile could use in his life right now, it’s exactly that—a hefty dose of fun.

For an hour I get the blood pumping in his arms and legs.  His heart rate climbs as the weight or repetitions increase.  A little bit of heavier breathing is a good thing for him.  I have no intentions of diverting his mind from anything. The loss of his dad is still very close in the past.  But if exercising gives his mind a reprieve, then so be it.

And though we laugh each time he fires the medicine ball at me, I can’t help but have sympathy for what must be running through his mind…

The memories of his dad.  The anger toward the man who took his life.  The understanding that his mom now needs every ounce of love that he could ever give her. And knowing that he must be there for his brothers when times are tough. Nile is in many places at one time.

His father is now gone—and forever untouchable—but Nile’s bond with him will never be broken.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2018

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Goodbye, Ken Copeland

It’s 7:30PM and dark.

You sit in your car in the grocery store parking lot and stare at the side of the building, as the tears well in your eyes.  Cars and shoppers pass by, but nothing steals your attention.

Earlier in the day, you had a friend take a photo of yourself, standing by two large garbage dumpsters at your town’s Activity Center. In your hands were a pair of running shoes—the same running shoes you had written about in your previous story titled, Wonder. This photo was to accompany a follow-up story about finding your shoes—to tell your readers about how they had spent the last two weeks on the feet of a college student in Wharton, Texas.  About how the kid doesn’t even prefer running shoes, but much prefers boots.  After all, he’s going to school to be a certified welder.  You were going to tell the story about how you had left your shoes out by those dumpsters to dry in the sun after your morning run.  About how you had driven off and left them behind, only to be found by a man who would later give them to the kid from Wharton, who, just happened to be visiting the Activity Center that day.

And through a series of odd events and coincidental conversations, someone would recall the details of your description of your lost shoes, and surface with the answer of their whereabouts.

And then, today, your shoes arrived.  And you were all prepared to write the sequel to Wonder.

But, then, the details of that story became completely insignificant, as did the photo.

Because today, a friend of yours was killed in the line of duty.

*                    *                    *

I’ll wonder about Ken Copeland for a long, long time.  I’ll wonder about his wife and kids, but mostly his son, Nile, who I train, and is, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida. I’ll forever think back on Ken’s last words to me: “Ros, Nile loves you.  You’re the best with him”.  And how can I not stop thinking about his son, when you know fully well that “the best with him” will never be there to rub his hair for one last time?  How can I not think about Ken as he would marvel with Nile at his pet tarantula that has turned a slight hint of blue?

Four years ago, I met Ken for the first time when he was working routine security during my daughter’s high school basketball game.  The instant I saw his smile…that instant…I knew this guy had it—the gift.  He could lighten up any room with just his smile.  For ninety minutes, I stood with him at the end of the basketball court, and we talked like buddies who’d been separated for years.  The conversation flowed and never dipped into boredom.  I drilled him with endless questions about his experiences as a police officer, and he answered them as candidly as I never expected.  I just let him run with the stories.  And why not?  I mean, he was the model of sincerity.  Of committed fatherhood.  Of being just a great, great guy.

*                    *                    *

And so I parked my car outside the grocery store tonight and stared at the side of the building.  I needed a place to stop and let my eyes pour.  That’s where I started writing this story.  It’s where emotion was riding heavily on my shoulders at each tap of the keyboard.  It’s where I found myself wondering about the fragility of life and the cruelty that can harbor within it.

So much travels through your mind when you suddenly lose a friend.  So much emotion sweeps through you, that it becomes nearly impossible to handle.  But you aren’t his family, and that thought alone—thinking of them—just levels you.  And you aren’t Nile, and the helplessness just eats away at you because you don’t even know how to begin to offer your sympathy.  The kid’s rock was taken away from him, and all of us—to be forever missed.

Goodbye, Ken Copeland.  I’ll never stop wondering about you.

After all, you are a wonder.

Copyright Ros Hill 2017