Chris Moore wrote the poem, but couldn’t finish it.
“You left us without warning. Gone so fast, now all we have is memories of my past,” he began, and already the best basketball player to come through West Memphis in more than a decade was sniffling between words.
“You are loved, you might have known,” he continued. “Been in our hearts is where you have grown. The memories I have throughout the years will last forever with laughter and tears. I will miss you oh so much. So will all the lives that you have touched.”
And at this point, the 6-foot-5 Division I recruit had to stop. He stepped back from the microphone. Standing on the steps of West Junior High in West Memphis in front of hundreds of grieving community members, he began to cry.
Then he bowed his head and started sobbing. He didn’t speak again for 20 seconds.
“I can’t say goodbye,” he said and the tears overtook him again.
“I can say in your death, you will live in my heart forever even after what happened.”
That was all Moore could get out.
He retreated a few steps back into a hallway bent over with his hands on his knees, weeping uncontrollably.
‘I don’t know what to tell my team’
Taylon Vail, 16, was supposed to be the next Chris Moore.
“He was up next,” West Memphis High School basketball coach Marcus Brown said.
Right up until he was senselessly killed by stray bullets last Friday while sleeping at his grandmother’s house in a drive-by shooting that had devastating unintended consequences.
A candlelight vigil was held in Vail’s honor Tuesday night. The West Junior High principal spoke and asked everybody to come together and be more watchful. A local pastor led everyone in prayer. A beautiful, and haunting, rendition of “Because He Lives” ended with pockets of students consoling one another through more tears.
But the image you couldn’t escape is that of Moore, barely able to stand.
Not because scientists are now calling the firearm death of school-age children an epidemic in the United States. Not because 90 percent of the homicides in Memphis last year involved gunfire. Not because Memphis and West Memphis remain incredibly dangerous compared to the rest of the country. And not because Vail was a promising athlete.
But because the next time Moore is at a candlelight vigil, it won’t be the first time. Same with all the teenagers who showed up Tuesday night to remember Vail. Death this senseless will never feel normal, but it’s also unforgettable.
So while Moore said he will use Vail’s slaying as motivation, that it will stay with him as he continues his basketball journey, his life in West Memphis will never quite be the same.
“It was a wake up for everybody that you’ve got to be more careful,” Moore said.
It begged the question of why we keep doing this to our children.
Why is it that earlier this week three different newspapers won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage of mass shootings, and yet it’s still far fetched to think a meaningful conversation can occur about more effective gun control laws or what the Second Amendment should mean in today’s society?
This is not meant as a plea for change to Democrats or Republicans or any political affiliation for that matter, but merely to point out that another generation of Memphians (and West Memphians) are growing up going to candlelight vigils.
We don’t seem any closer to finding a solution we can all live with, to preventing Taylon Vail’s death, to avoiding scenes like the one West Memphis went through Tuesday night.
“This kid worked out with us in the gym and eight hours later he’s dead,” Brown said as his players cried in front of him. “For our kids to experience death like this and these kinds of tragedy is very, for me, it’s very dangerous. They should be laughing and talking and walking hallways. What kids do. Not worrying about if I go to my grandma’s house, a safe haven, am I going to die?”
“For me, I don’t know what to do,” Brown added. “I don’t know what to tell my team. These are young kids that you try to shelter. You don’t want them to experience this kind of hurt and it just makes the game small.”
What Taylon Vail means to West Memphis
But in West Memphis, Vail wasn’t just another name on the long list of gun violence victims. He was the latest from this tight-knit town across the Mississippi River destined for greatness on the basketball court.
He had just returned to workouts from a torn ACL a week earlier. He was a 5-foot-11 guard who was considered the best athlete in the ninth grade.
But Vail also made everyone smile. He was a strong student. Many spoke Tuesday that his laugh, more than his basketball talents, is what they’ll remember most about him.
“It was like waking up to sunlight,” 11th-grader Aniaya Dean said. “If you were sad, you go around Taylon and you end up happy.”
This, of course, is the best part of these vigils. They are a chance to recall the innocence before death. They are a chance, even for a moment, to step back and understand that the mourning of Vail’s death can lead a community to join together, gain perspective and move forward on a different path.
They are also, however, incredibly sad because it forces young people like Chris Moore to come to grips with a sobering reality.
“I saw so much of me in him,” he said.