Riding a bicycle. It is among the simplest and most joyous of life’s pastimes.
For boys and girls, and many adults, riding a bike represents freedom, the thrill of going fast, the pure, innocent joy of being young and alive.
But on a dark day in March 2016, this community and others around the Bay Area recoiled in shock and sadness at the accidental death of Nathan Smith, a Benicia High fifteen-year-old, who smashed into a galvanized metal speed limit pole across from Matthew Turner elementary while riding his bike. Flying down Rose Drive and making the left hand turn onto Dempsey Drive, Nathan was on his way to the skateboard park. A passerby saw the crash, Benicia Fire came running, and an ambulance sped him to the hospital. But his injuries were too grave, and he could not be revived.
We all make mistakes. Accidents happen.
A fifteen-year-old kid, sparked by the simple, innocent adrenaline rush of pure joy, crashes his bicycle and he pays for it with his life. Hardly seems fair, somehow.
That is the sad part of this story, the sadness that for his family and friends will never entirely go away. A light has gone out, not to be relit in this life. But there is more to tell about Nathan’s story, and it sheds a light not only on how much people still care about him but on the heart of this small town in which his short, happy life took place.
At Dempsey and Rose, at the base of the very pole that took Nathan’s life, there is a memorial for him. Out-of-towners visiting Benicia to shop on First and see the sights will never come by there. Many downtown residents as well as those in the Southampton hills may not even be aware it exists. But it is there, and it sprung up, like a flower blooming in early spring, as soon as news spread about how he died and where.
Kids and schoolmates who knew him, heartbroken family members, sympathetic members of the community placed flowers, messages and tokens of sorrow on the pole itself and the ground around it. The memorial today is nothing if not ecumenical. There are two crosses, one bedecked with flowers, and a plump Buddha statue. The flowers laid there were originally fresh, now they are plastic and brightly colored: purple, blue, yellow, orange. Stones painted by small children sit next to an angel figurine. On a polished stone is written this message: “Thank you everyone for your love. Miss you Nate. [Signed] Grammie.”
There are two bicycle handles, one attached to the pole; these may have even belonged to Nate.
A wristband on a handle delivers the message, “Ride On.” There is an informal, spontaneous quality to this collection of memory material, and what makes it doubly poignant is its location: within earshot of children playing on the grounds of Matthew Turner and on the drive into Community Park with its ballfields and soccer fields and skatepark similarly alive with the excited, happy sounds of young people at play.
It is easy to imagine a car passing by the memorial for the first time and a child inside staring out the window at it, asking, “Mommy, what’s that?” What it is is a continuing cry of the heart for a boy taken too soon. It is also an expression of caring from the community in which Nathan rode through the streets, carefree, and skated till the sun came down. In five years it has not been touched except to add to it or perhaps tidy it when needed. It remains in the spot where anguished tears brought it to life.
Sometimes the generosity and grace of a people is shown by what they do—by reaching out, getting involved, taking action. But sometimes grace makes itself known in a different way: by standing by, in silent support, and letting the silence serve as an act of shared remembrance and respect.