Story by Bailey Brammer | Photo by Sarah Barrientos
“He was my person. He was the one person I could be my authentic self to. Just having anxiety or bias or anything like that was out of the question. We just existed.”
Having a sibling you share everything with is not uncommon; Baylor senior Riley Gage and his brother Connor Gage certainly fell into the category of brothers who were also best friends. Their bond included a mutual love for R&B music, running and penguins, among the many other inside jokes only a sibling could understand.
Their time together, however, was cut short much too soon. Over Labor Day weekend in 2012, 15-year-old Connor went to Possum Kingdom Lake with a group of friends and drowned after jumping into the lake. Due to an injury caused by the impact, he did not resurface. Although five years have gone by since Riley lost his brother and best friend, and he said he still deals with grief on a daily basis.
“Grief’s a funny thing –– you have good days, you have bad days, then you have bad days where you feel like crap for having a good day because they’re not here … which you realize at the end of the day in a cold sweat in your bed,” Riley said.
In handling the loss of his brother, Riley said he has often pictured himself as having lost a leg, and that as he moves forward, he sees himself as slowly hobbling through life.
“You have a decision to make when something like this happens to you,” Riley said. “You can either curl up and blame everything that happens to you from there on out on that incident, or you can just accept that you’re broken but that you’re going to limp along.”
When Riley first came to Baylor as a freshman, he was presented with a new group of people to share his story with. Riley said it was easy to talk about what had happened to Connor because everyone in college is looking to make friends and build trust, and what better way to form a friendship than to confide in someone new about something traumatic?
“People are going to be naturally curious when they talk to you,” Riley said. “They’re going to want to know about you, and the family question is an inevitable question. I just spring loaded it to anybody who asked. That was different in high school because everybody knew –– it’s not like it was a revelation if I told anybody that my brother died when I was in high school. Everybody knew. Then you have the flip-flop situation where nobody knew and I told everybody. I started to realize that that was a big mistake –– to let some people in.”
Riley said he began to become more cautious about discussing Connor’s death after a few friends discounted the seriousness of his story and brought it up regularly and without proper context. A quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment,” resonated with Riley after this happened, and he said he has since been learning who to trust with his history.
Despite encountering friends that did not have Riley’s best intentions at heart, he said found a few core individuals that have helped him through his grief, including his friend Russell Adams.
“As a friend, you can be a surrogate for your friend’s deceased loved one,” Adams said. “Give their life enough structure to empower their exploration of the world inside and outside of them. Support them as they find a new identity. Love is abstract and you will have to discover what form your friend needs.”
A major source of healing and relief for Riley has been through his profession –– carpentry. Riley said he has slowly formed his identity as someone who can create “beauty from brokenness.”
“A carpenter’s job is to take something beautiful –– a tree –– and completely destroy it, limb from limb,” Riley said. “But ever so surely, with every little piece that’s cut, every little piece that’s sanded, every little piece that’s polished, what you end up with is a lot more beautiful than what you started with. I’m a broken guy that still has beauty to give.”
Riley’s family, specifically his mother Dana Gage, has since become involved in putting an end to deaths such as Connor’s that could be prevented by wearing a life vest. The Gage’s created a nonprofit called the LV Project that has been involved in all sorts of outreach projects, focusing especially on drowning prevention.
Every year in May, the LV Project hosts the Honor Connor Run in North Richland Hills, which features both 5K and one- mile races. The nonprofit operates on the idea that “all people can live and love buoyantly.”
Both Riley and Dana have recently been lobbying for a bill to pass in the Texas Legislature to require all children born after 2000 to wear life vests while out on the water. While the passage of this bill would be major in preventing deaths such as Connor’s, the Gage’s want to mandate that everyone under the age of 25 wear a life vest because “drowning is never intentional … but usually preventable.”
Along with participating in projects put on by his family’s nonprofit and wearing a wristband at all times with his brother’s initials on it, Riley has also chosen to remember his brother in an extremely permanent way –– with a tattoo of a broken angel’s wing on his right shoulder.
“I dreamed of it a couple of weeks after my brother passed, and it was really just an image that emblazoned into me … the idea of a broken wing that can still fly,” Riley said. “It had to have a lot of meaning too. I got one of my friends to design it, the tattoo artists that I went to was named Connor as well, it was on my brother’s birthday… It had a lot of meaning and I got it for him.”
Above all, Riley said he believes that the best way to recognize Connor’s life, and death, is to simply continue living.
“I think of myself as extremely happy, but it’s a conscious choice to feel that way,” Riley said. “I could easily think the other way, and I do sometimes. Ultimately, I choose to be happy, because it’s the way I feel like I can best honor him … living the life that he should have lived.”