The church was packed. Half an hour before the service began, every seat was filled. The overflow crowd was directed downstairs, where closed-circuit television showed the funeral.
Friends and family members spoke. They told stories, described small moments, made sly references to youthful indiscretions. They painted a portrait of a great young person, filled with potential and dreaming big dreams. There were smiles, even chuckles, amid the tears.
It was Michael Goodgame's funeral, a little over a week ago, but it was not the only one of a young Westporter. Regularly -- too often -- our town says goodbye to a child, a teenager or a young adult.
Disease, accidents, suicide -- these are the ways our young people are taken from us. It happens all over the world, of course -- death is random, and universal -- but knowing that it is part of the natural, unfortunate way of things never makes it easier any time it happens.
Those of us who have been in Westport a long time -- and those of us who work in schools -- remember the deaths all too well.
We remember the siblings, walking along the side of the road one summer night. They were struck and killed by a speeding driver.
We remember another summer night, a few years later. Two friends -- vivacious cheerleaders -- died at the hands of a drunk driver near the 7-Eleven in Fairfield.
We remember the talented Staples Players' actor, struck down by cancer. The same disease felled a wonderful singer, who willed her way through high school and into college, but could not fight forever. More recently, cancer killed another collegian -- a golfer -- despite his nearly lifelong effort to beat it.
We remember the girl who jumped off an I-95 bridge. The boy who asphyxiated himself in his parents' garage. The teenagers who shot themselves. The boy who was shot playing Russian roulette.
We remember the soccer player with the enormous heart, who -- in a sad, vicious twist -- was betrayed by his own heart, as he trained with his college team. We remember another soccer player who died instantly, the moment his head glanced off a goalpost at precisely the wrong angle.
We remember those who died as drivers and passengers in cars. Some had been drinking; some never touched a drop. They've died in all kinds of weather, at every time of year, and every hour of the day.
We remember them all. And we mourn.
When we hear the news of the death of another young person, our hearts sink. Our stomachs churn. Our eyes fill up.
We think of the parents and siblings. We know their lives will never be the same. We cannot comprehend their grief, their emptiness, their longing. We do what we can -- we bring food, write notes, offer hugs -- but we feel helpless.
We vow to appreciate anew the young people we have in our lives. We hug our children a little tighter, watch them a little more closely, tell them we love them a little more often. We hope that by doing all this we can protect them a little bit better from whatever dangers lurk around the corner. But we know we cannot.
We go to the services. We watch the pews fill. There should never be so many young people at a funeral, but there always are. For some, it is their first experience with death. They have not seen coffins or pallbearers before. They have not watched so many adults -- parents, teachers, coaches -- cry. They have never been in a situation like this before, yet they act with grace and compassion and courage. We ache for them, and for their friends.
Michael Goodgame accomplished much in his 20 years on earth. He was a swimmer, an Ultimate Frisbee player, a writer, a thinker. He was a compassionate friend, a loving brother, a good son who embodied well the strong values of his parents. He was going to accomplish much more in his life, and he could have done so in many ways.
That's been true of so many young people, who left us far too soon. Their potential seemed unlimited. Then, suddenly, it -- and they -- were gone.
Michael Goodgame's service was as uplifting as any funeral could be. We swayed to the music of New Orleans-style jazz. We gained insights into his life and character. We learned that his organs have given new life to several other people.
We left the church with a welter of emotions. We thought of Michael, his family, his teammates and friends. We appreciated his short life, and mourned its devastating end. We hoped we would never have to live through something like this again.
But we know, sadly, we will.