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Guest commentary: What remains after violence: 15 years of grief and love

Jenny Taylor (then Jenny Grosso) and Emery Kauanui are seen in an undated photo.
Jenny Taylor (then Jenny Grosso) and Emery Kauanui are seen in an undated photo.
(Courtesy of Jenny Taylor)

On May 24, 2007, pro surfer Emery Kauanui was beaten outside his La Jolla home during a fight following a drink-spilling incident at a local restaurant. He fell backward after being punched and hit his head. He died at a hospital four days later. Five men in their early 20s were sentenced to time behind bars in the case. His girlfriend, Jenny Taylor (who was then named Jenny Grosso), reflects on the impact that continues 15 years later.

Fifteen years ago this week, 24-year-old Emery Kauanui Jr. left his mother’s arms one last time as his ashes slipped back into the sea.

His violent death wiped the makeup off this beautiful “Jewel by the Sea” to reveal a deeper truth about how young people project and process their hidden pain.

I spent this past Memorial Day doing what I always do: reading through the box of letters Emery wrote me and watching the footage we filmed on Hi8 and MiniDV tapes.

One letter signs off with “Your brother in Christ, companion in flesh and friend in spirit — Emery.”

It all reminds me of how much time has passed. But the space he occupies in my heart remains the same.

It’s hard to find language large enough to make grief visible. The word “longing” comes close.

“Missing,” if always spoken in continuous forms.

“Homesick.”

The greatest fallacy is that it goes away.

On the surface, we mourn fast in our culture. Which means so many people are suffering in silence.

We need to start telling the truth about what it’s like to be alive.

You might remember the news of Emery’s death, the paddle-out, the flowers lining the corner of Genter Street and Draper Avenue.

Then there are the moments that remain long after his death.

Emery and I found each other as adolescents and it was an immediate exhale — a home. We understood each other’s childhood pain. And we believed in each other incessantly, even when we fell short from the version of ourselves we desired to be. We were family.

Meeting felt like, as poet David Whyte says, “a surface that before seemed hardly able to bear our weight now a foundation.”

If every day together was a page, our story would have 2,000 more to tell you about.

This is never the ending we would have written.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in a room at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla with my first love, my clothes and hands still stained with his blood.

We had just arrived by ambulance from a very traumatic scene.

“We have plans,” I thought to myself. “Everything will be fine because we have plans.”

That weekend we had plans to spread flowers at Torrey Pines State Beach in memory of my brother who died on Memorial Day three years earlier.

Then for my birthday a week later, Emery was finally going to join me for a Bikram yoga class.

By morning he was moved to the ICU. He was sleepy and a little scared. I sang Bob Marley to him and helped brush his teeth. We prayed and I cuddled up next to him on the bed built for one.

After it was clear they were going to do surgery on his skull, I was gripping at anything I could.

I told him that when he got better maybe we could join his best friend, Justin, on his surf trip to Brazil. My mom would bring our dog, Kalico, back from Oregon. We would visit his dad in Kauai. He could rehab his shoulder injury to get in peak shape for surfing. He could finally stop drinking, open a juice shop with his mom, start a surfing retreat center — all the pursuits a person with a beating heart spends a lifetime dreaming and doing.

It was time to prep him for surgery. Before I left, he looked at me with watery eyes he could barely keep open and said: “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me. I love you.”

I kissed him and said “I love you” again. Then, as if walking against a current, I left the room.

Instead of spending that Memorial Day with Emery as planned, I would be running down the paved trail to Black’s Beach — the skin burning on the bottom of my feet — and jumping into the ocean in my clothes to tell Justin, who was surfing to calm his nerves, that Emery was gone.

The first six months after Emery died were spent wringing out wet towels and screaming until it turned to sobbing. The only way I could breathe was by smoking a cigarette or swimming in the ocean.

Emery hated cigarettes. I thought they were equally unbecoming. But I couldn’t breathe. To stay present in my body and get through basic tasks, I would narrate what I saw in front of me. “I’m opening the handle of my car door. I’m turning the keys.”

For years I experienced what author Joan Didion graciously called “magical thinking.” Which means some part of you believes that the knock on the door or the anonymous phone call might be your dead loved one here to tell you this has all been a mistake.

For the next decade, hearing loud male voices, whether it be cheering or an argument, would make my body sweat and shake.

I’ve anticipatorily grieved everyone I love.

And for 15 years, Emery has lived in my dreams. Hundreds of times I’ve found him and lost him again between sleeping and waking.

The other side of grief is that I don’t walk by a rose without smelling it.

Beyond the pain of loss was the refusal that my life would become worse because he was in it. Instead, I live in celebration that we were ever alive together in the first place.

I stay close to the depths of life, heart wide open, surrounded by true friendships and brave experiences. I’m married and a mother to a precious child I can’t fathom life without.

Life is beautiful and it’s painful. I don’t think there is one person who escapes feeling this.

I also know that sadness turns to anger when not expressed. Our young people are still hurting. They are still fighting. Still killing. We are still not getting something right.

Change starts with a mirror.

My invitation is to walk more vulnerably and truthfully through our lives.

Let us reflect today on something that needs to be seen or said.

Let’s model for our youth healthy ways to express pain so it can move through and out of the body.

At the end of the day or our life, we are all seeking a compassionate witness.

Happy heavenly birthday, Emery.

P.S. from Jenny Taylor: Were you one of the nurses caring for Emery, the ambulance driver or one of our compassionate witnesses during those painful nights 15 years ago? Please email me at jennytaylorcreative@gmail.com. I would love to interview you for a creative project.