As of late yesterday afternoon, I am on holiday with the people I love most in the whole world, and we are all together – minus one – in my favorite, most special place on the planet – the coast of low country South Carolina.
This is my first vacation of any kind in more than two years. I missed our annual family beach trip last summer because at the time we had planned to be in South Carolina, where I am writing this tonight, I was instead back in Knoxville, spending every possible moment that I could with my dying son, who was in his final days.
Our summer family beach trips have been a tradition for more than a decade now. Every year, my younger brother, sister and I and our spouses rent a big house on the beach together. It’s a chaotic but fantastic 7 days of aunts and uncles and cousins all basking in uninterrupted family time. Our photo albums are full of year after year of our children growing up together on this beach, and along with Christmas, I think my children would tell you that this is the time of year they most look forward to.
And now here I am again in this beloved, familiar place, only this time, our family has been radically, forever altered, and I am feeling the loss even more acutely than I thought I would.
Henry is gone.
Today, as my four (there should be five) children and their seven first cousins popped in and out of the water and ran across the sand, I kept finding myself scanning the waves looking for the one who was missing. Over and over today I caught myself looking for Henry in the crowd of kids bobbing around in the ocean, maybe grabbing one of his younger cousins to throw him in the air or floating out a little farther, lying side by side next to his Aunt Betsy on a raft, the two of them deep in conversation, as they often were.
He wasn’t there. He isn’t here. He will never be here again.
But you know what? He also was nowhere to be found in the newspaper story published back in Knoxville today. The hopeless and thoroughly unsympathetic character in that story was not the actual Henry Granju, not the teenager whom those of us here at the beach tonight raised and loved from the day he arrived in the world until the day he left it.
Some of the facts in the newspaper story were accurate, while others were not. But leaving the facts of what addiction did to Henry – and led him to do – in the final months of his very brief life, the overall depiction of Henry in that story today was a sensationalized, cardboard caricature of the real human being who should be here with us at the beach.
The real teenage Henry Granju was brilliant, complicated, gentle, frustrating, hilariously funny, musically gifted, thoughtful, kind, shy, bookish, silly, anxious, and very, very, very much loved by everyone who knew him.
The hopelessly doomed junkie-slash-petty-criminal that newspaper readers met today makes for an easy-to-describe character in a narrative designed to sell copies and drive pageviews, but that’s simply not the whole story, or even a small part of the story. But introducing readers to the actual Henry Granju – perhaps through people who had known him longer than a few weeks or months – would have required going beyond the information contained in the case file recently released by the same local authorities whose agenda has been to depict my son as someone so unlikeable and disposable that no one in our community would notice or even care that those authorities have failed in their duties.
Our family has been as open as we possibly can be from the very beginning about the fact that at the time of his death, Henry was very, very sick with his addiction to drugs. In hopes that by sharing our own experience, other families struggling with addiction might be helped, we have never denied or minimized this specific aspect of Henry’s life.
But in that story today, and in the things that Knox County law enforcement and prosecutors have said and written about my boy since his death, others have denied and minimized everything else about him except his addiction. And in doing that, they’ve attempted to erase the real Henry from their consciences, and from our community’s expectations for justice and compassion.
And maybe it’s worked; if you read the hundreds of anonymous online comments accompanying that newspaper story, the real Henry has indeed disappeared, replaced by a sinister, worthless character who sounds like we’d all be better off without him around.
But whomever that person is – the one those anonymous newspaper commenters are condemning, maligning and ripping to shreds – he isn’t the one we were missing at our family dinner table tonight. That teenage boy, the real Henry Louis Granju, did not deserve what predatory, much older, and very dangerous adults did to him, and he still deserves the justice he’s yet to receive.