If there's one thing that stands out about Clifton's Jason Fadness above all else, it's how much joy he brought to other's lives. Tragically, he died in a car crash last week but, even in death, he's comforting those who loved him.
HE WAS killed in the wee hours of Tuesday, April 4, and the next day, hundreds of people went to his home to be there for his dad and sisters and remember happy times they'd shared with Jason.
"That first day was a devastating scene," said his father, Jeff Fadness. "People were crying; they couldn't find words [to express their sorrow]. And I felt almost like I couldn't breathe. I just wanted to put my face in my hands and cry and stare at the wall."
But as more and more people came to their home, Fadness began hearing happier sounds. "Jason's friends couldn't talk about him without smiling and laughing," he said. "At first, I wondered how they could do that at a time like this. But when I listened, I understood that he brought them so much joy that, when they think of him, they can't help but be happy."
And when it comes right down to it, asked Fadness, "What could be more important than to be loved like that? And for me, it lit a pathway out of the darkness so I could survive this. I know, if it had been me [who'd died], he would have given everyone else the strength to go on, and that's what carries me. It gives me strength, comfort and courage remembering what a happy-go-lucky person he was — and what a blessing."
A 2002 graduate of Robinson Secondary School, Jason would have been 22 this Wednesday, April 12. But his life was cut short in a horrendous accident in Reston, eight days earlier, around 2:15 a.m., while driving his Nissan 300ZX east on Baron Cameron Avenue near the intersection of Hunter Gate Way.
According to Fairfax County police, he lost control of the car, ran off the road and struck a guardrail, causing the vehicle to spin and cross over the median into the westbound lane of Baron Cameron. There, the Nissan was broadsided by a Honda Civic and caught on fire.
"Jason's car burst into flames," said his heartbroken grandfather, Arnold Fadness of Fairfax. "They needed dental records to identify him." The Honda's driver, a 46-year-old Reston man, was in critical condition at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Police say initial investigation indicated Jason was "traveling at a high rate of speed" prior to the crash, and the investigation is ongoing. But Jason's grandfather disputes that. "His friends said Jason does not speed," he said. "They said that, because he'd had some speeding tickets in the past, he wouldn't speed anymore because he didn't want to jeopardize his driving privileges."
Instead, Arnold Fadness believes Jason was "a little sleep-deprived and might have dozed off, hit the accelerator and ran into the guardrail. And that was the beginning of the end." Jason's dad agrees. He said his son was playing racquetball with a friend, the day before, until 3:30 a.m. and arose Tuesday at 9 a.m., after just a few hours sleep.
AN AVID Texas Hold 'Em player, Jason was getting ready to go play in a free poker tournament that night, for practice. So, said his dad, "If he was going somewhere else at 2:15 in the morning, he was probably going to another tournament. He wanted to learn as much as he could."
Earlier Tuesday evening, said Jeff Fadness, as he left home around 6:30-7 p.m., "He hugged and kissed [his sister] Jenny and I and told us he loved us. And that was the last time we saw him."
Jessica Billingsly of Burke, best friends with Jason's other sister, Sarah, 18, said he "cared more about his family and [his girlfriend] Kelly than anyone else in the world." And his grandfather told how Jason would greet him and his grandmother Audrey whenever the two of them went to visit their son and grandchildren in Clifton.
"Jason would always come over to me and say, 'Hey, Papa!' and give me a big hug, a huge smile and a kiss on the cheek. When I left, he'd reverse all that and add 'I love you.' He was a very loving boy."
Jenny, 24, called him a caring person and an "awesome" brother and poker player. She said they enjoyed just hanging out with each other, going to the gym or seeing movies as a family.
Jason previously worked as a bartender and a waiter at Rosemary's Thyme Bistro in the Colonnade Shopping Center. But in recent years, he worked with his dad selling printing machinery. He ran a division within the company, QAM, managing its internet-based marketing.
But Jason's lifelong dream was to become a professional poker player. Last July, he played in the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas. "It's the largest, most prestigious poker tournament in the world," said Jeff Fadness. "And he finished in the top 6 or 7 percent of the group."
Fadness said he, Jenny and Sarah planned to move out West and support Jason as a family in his endeavor, and "he was absolutely, utterly on Cloud 9. He was so excited; it was going to be a new beginning — a fresh start."
They've lived in Clifton since 1991. Jason attended Clifton Elementary and, in fifth or sixth grade, he played SYA baseball and helped pitch his team to a championship. At Robinson, he played lacrosse. He attended GMU for awhile, but especially liked visiting his friends at JMU, including neighbor John Thomas.
JMU is also where Jason met his girlfriend, Kelly Baxter. "He had found the love of his life," said his dad. "She was very special to him." Also crushed by his loss, she's now focusing on the memories they made together that she'll forever treasure.
On spring break 2005, he drove to her home in New Jersey and brought her back to Clifton to spend some time with him and his friends. Along the way, they became incredibly lost, but turned their trip into a joyful time filled with laughter, out-of-tune songs and funny conversations.
"IT MADE me realize it was all the little things Jason did that made me fall in love with him," said Baxter. "Like on Valentines Day, when all the florists were booked with flower deliveries, and he drove all the way to JMU just to give me flowers. He was thoughtful and silly, and I'll miss our goofy conversations, him tickling my feet to see me giggle and squirm, and the happiness I felt whenever he was around."
Also close to Jason was Kevin McNamara, 22. They grew up together, attended the same schools and liked playing poker, going to movies and snowboarding together. "I hung out with Jason every day," said McNamara. "He always had a smile on his face. And he'd set his mind on something and do it." Thinking of his longtime buddy, he said, it's the "small moments" he recalls.
"We were always competitive with each other," said McNamara. "For example, we'd play H-O-R-S-E [the hoop-shooting game] for $100, and it wasn't for the money — just to beat each other."
What's helping him now, he said, is getting together with friends of theirs to "try and rekindle the good times." He said Jason's sudden death "makes you think about your attitudes toward others, putting everything on the table and not keeping it bottled up. It also makes me focus on enjoying life and not just being busy with work."
McNamara went with Jason's family to the World Series of Poker and played in it, too. Other friends also came along. "We had a blast," said Jason's dad. "We were out there five or six days and went to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. The kids just had a ball. It didn't matter where you were or what you were doing, Jason would make it fun. He had a magnetic personality that drew people in. He was dedicated to work and goals, but also enjoyed joking and laughing."
Jason was also close with neighbors Wanda Newcombe and Rick Miller who, said his father, were like parents to him. And he and Newcombe's son, John Thomas, were "soulmates," able to talk together about anything.
The Fadnesses went on skiing vacations in Nevada and Canada. And growing up, Jason loved spending summers at his family's home on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. "We'd go boating, crabbing, tubing and fishing," said Jeff Fadness. The past two years, though, his marriage crumbled, and he and his children supported each other through it.
"Jason was a lot more than just my son," he said. "He was a friend, confidant and leader, and he was there for me, his sisters and his friends. He did his best to look out for us. He was a pillar in our family."
FADNESS SAID he and Jason hugged every day, and each told the other how much he loved him. "To Jason, life was a gift to experience and a joy," said his father. "When I got the news [of his death], it was just such a horrible and powerful thing. After all we'd been through, I thought there was no way I could bear this, no way it could be real."
Now, he said, Jason's friends and family will remember "who and what he was, carry it with them and share it. Memorial services will be held this Saturday, April 15, at 3 p.m. at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where Jason was baptized. It's at 3022 Woodlawn Ave. in Falls Church. In addition, the Clifton Store is accepting donations to plant a tree and erect a plaque in his memory.
"Jason's ashes will be spread to the winds in a lot of places he loved," said his father. "Although it was short, he lived an extremely full life, had achieved some of his dreams and was moving on to more. And he's still with us in our hearts — and always will be."