City Lights: Praise for a too-short life

Wednesday afternoon, I attended a fundraiser for the family of Austin Brashears, the Marina High School graduate who died the weekend before in a New Zealand road accident.

It was held at the Hot Off the Grill restaurant in northwest Huntington Beach, and I had a hard time getting in — the crowd at the register spilled out so far that anyone entering through the front door had to inch in slowly.

The area outside the restaurant, which Brashears frequented before heading to Boston University, had turned into a makeshift memorial for a life cut short. A series of long tables displayed cupcakes, soap baskets, bracelets and T-shirts, some donated by local businesses and all meant to raise funds to fly Brashears' body back to the United States.

I am studying my own words in that last paragraph. Is "cut short" even necessary?

All of our lives are cut short at some point. Regardless of how many regrets we have at the end, we all leave unfinished business, dreams that never became reality, places we didn't go and chances we didn't take.

"Birthing is hard/and dying is mean," the poet Langston Hughes once wrote. The fortunate among us live long enough between those points to leave a positive mark on the world. The inspired are those who don't squander the opportunity. Watching the crowd outside Hot Off the Grill gave a clear impression that Brashears hadn't taken his time for granted.

I never met Brashears, so I can't speak from experience. I know from having outlived many friends, coworkers and relatives that death often creates a selective memory — that colleagues, at the service for a former boss, are more likely to describe his nurturing side than his flashes of temper. At times, our feelings about people are so mixed that it can be hard to reconcile them with our inevitable sorrow at their passing.

Judging from the comments about Brashears, though, it doesn't appear he had much of a dark side at all. Sage Russo, the high school friend who helped oversee the Hot Off the Grill event, told me that Brashears was "never downcast" and "always smiling." Marina Principal Paul Morrow recalled that he "never heard a negative word" from his former student about anyone.

I asked each of them about the last time they saw or spoke to Brashears. For Russo, it was shortly before his death, when they discussed flying to Oregon over the summer to attend a friend's wedding. Debbie Kagawa, his mother's boss and one of the leaders of the Bring Austin Home campaign, remembered giving him a backpack for his travels and hearing his excitement about the coming trip.

In every case, from what I could tell, the impression Brashears left was one of generosity, optimism and zeal. That's the impression most of us would like to leave if today were our last day. Realizing that possibility makes the way we treat others, and the lessons we sometimes learn the hard way, even more vital.

As I stood outside Hot Off the Grill, with the memorial photos taped to the wall and friends exchanging hugs and stories, I realized that I was watching an achievement. We all start life wild and unlearned. The experiences we have and the decisions we make shape our personalities. If we strive enough for excellence, we may reach a point where no one can remember us saying an unkind word or approaching a day without gusto.

At that point, we can be said not to have simply lived life, but mastered it. And the void we leave behind us, the number of people who rally to preserve our memory, may be the last poignant proof of that.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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