“The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all.”  ~Leo Rosten

The Axeman pageant was sold out last night; I think for the first time ever.  It was the pageant that many people thought couldn’t possibly go on after the loss of two of its star players who were washed into the sea. This is the tragedy that united our community, weeks before the meaning of tragedy was amplified as thousands of lives were washed into the sea together. Some of the kids were commenting on how personal loss feels when it has a name, but when it is 10,000 people, lives are reduced to numbers.  It is hard to imagine how you can experience the pain of so many.

So we celebrated the lives of these two boys who were called the winners the day that they lost their chance to play ever again. The remaining Axemen and the girls who were helping them became dedicated to making a show for the two who were gone. This elevated the historic Axeman competition to a show of community support and teamwork. Instead of the humorous and random short videos and talents that usually fill the pageant, every act and film was a well-rehearsed and thought-out tribute to their collective spirit and remarkable talents.

They had the courage to speak directly to the 2000 member audience about their pain in a poem that described the end of childhood,  the last line “Now I bleed…”  Even the comical interpretation of a horror film dedicated to Jack’s love of the genre seemed part of something much bigger. This is what tragedy made personal can evoke from a community of teens. It can give them a sense of belonging to something much bigger than themselves.  So large in fact that the entire community stands witness to the gifts that we might so easily have missed a few months before.

Everyone knows now that tomorrow is not a guarantee.  Life can and does end in an instant and all that we really have is the present. It is a rare and extraordinary present when the whole audience recognizes the preciousness of that moment together. As the early footage of the boys’ dance practice routines rolled, and the deceased were among the living again, we all felt it- the gift of having this moment.

Choosing the winner of the pageant is usually a tense moment with the competition on the stage spilling into the supporting groups in the audience. Last night when the older brothers of the boys who died accepted the Mr Axeman crowns and joined the boys for their last dance number-  everyone in the place was celebrating with them.

If ever there could have been a perfect conclusion to a tragedy beyond words, the South class of 2011 made it real.  They stood together as no Mr. Axeman group before, transformed by their experience of loss,  but made whole and strong because they had learned how to hold onto each other. They taught us all what it means to make a family.

I imagine that even twenty years from now,  all those in attendance will remember how Mr. Axeman became a real community event.  Everyone will always say that it took losing some amazing kids to teach us how to be together in the only time we really have- right now. I  am so grateful to have had the privilege to bear witness.