If a life can be measured by the love it creates, Aaron Brown lived his short 18 years to the fullest, leaving behind a legacy of melodies, laughter and friendship.
Family, friends and people who barely knew the Springfield teenager filled the Demaine Funeral Home on Backlick Road Saturday afternoon, spilling out into the street, winding down the sidewalk and waiting in the brilliant sunshine to say farewell to Aaron, killed one week before in an incident clouded with uncertainty and confusion.
“You are what keeps us strong, keeps us alive,” said Chelsea Walker, who referred to Aaron as her brother. “Your presence alone made every moment bliss. You are our everything.”
Her voice broke and quickened as she read a poem she had written in his memory.
“We remember you as you were, a peaceful soul, a beautiful person, always and forever our best friend,” she read. “Aaron … we will always love you.”
In a two-hour ceremony that wove the music that filled his life with stories from those who knew him best, Aaron was remembered as a person who befriended everyone he met. Between tributes and songs, sniffs and sobs were inescapable, but so were the laughs.
“We had this thing going, where he’d come home and I’d say, ‘Hey there kiddo,’ and Aaron would say, ‘Hey there mom-o,” Cheri Brown said.
As an only child, Aaron would be tucked in by Cheri Brown and her husband, Jeff, before bed every night and given a kiss. “When he started staying up later than us, he’d give us a kiss and tuck us in every night,” she said.
“The real reason we’re here today is to celebrate Aaron’s life,” said Jeff Brown, his long, dark hair hinting at what Aaron would have looked like as an adult. “He had a terrific life, he touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. He loved children, he could relate to them without being condescending. If you spoke to him for five minutes, you were a friend,” he said.
AARON COLLECTED friends in the way other people collect stray pets, his father said, and a friend of Aaron’s was like a family member to his parents.
“We want everyone to know that this is not a funeral, this is a party,” Jeff Brown said before changing into his party clothes: a tie-dyed t-shirt his son had made for him years ago.
“Try and relax, go next door and share stories about Aaron,” he said. “The more music and laughter we share, the more we draw his spirit in to this party.”
In Cheri Brown’s office, she kept a poem Aaron had written in second grade, said her co-worker Beth Price. The poem was a fill-in-the-blank piece about what a house meant, what a house holds.
“A person is a house for … blood, a brain is a house for juicy, flowing ideas,” Price read. “A car is a house for sleepy passengers, a tree is a house for leaves … my mouth is a house for tasty taco pizza, a face is a house for glasses … a person is a house for a spirit, and a house is a house for me.”
Perhaps the most powerful portions of the ceremony came in the music that filled the crowded funeral home, from the Annandale Guitar Ensemble playing “Shenandoah,” a song Aaron played in high school, to four of Aaron’s friends singing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” accompanied by acoustic guitars.
Classmate Kevin Walker had written a song, “We’ll Meet Again (My Brother),” which he sang during the ceremony. “Now that it’s over, it’s too hard to say goodbye,” he sang. “Some day, some way, I’ll see you again, my best friend …. You taught me a thing or two about how to live a life that’s true, I won’t forget you, my brother.”
AS THE PASTOR at the Hope Lutheran Church when Aaron was a child, the Rev. Lowell Knauff recounted a series of milestones in the lives of Aaron and his parents, from their wedding ceremony on Feb. 14, 1986, to Aaron’s baptism two years later, to his time in Montessori school where Aaron befriended Knauff’s grandson, Ryan.
“I don’t remember the other children in their class, but I remember what Aaron looked like,” Knauff said.
As he grew up, his musical tastes grew to encompass music from AC/DC and Bach to Van Halen and Lamb of God, which, Knauff joked, has “nothing to do with religion.”
He spoke to the other teenagers who were in the car with Aaron that night, saying they knew things “could have been different. The pain and the angst, no more the happy sounds. I am really, really sorry that your friend was taken from you … This is not what God intended.”
Knauff then turned to the dozens of others who had gathered, holding each other up, arms wrapped in hugs of support. He talked of a song by the Byrds based on passages in the Bible, reminding them of seasons of life.
“What will you do in light of his death,” he asked them. “Will you choose curses or blessings? Death or life? I encourage you to choose the blessings, choose the life to honor this friend of yours who no longer has the choice,” Knauff said.
FOR THE LAST EIGHT YEARS, Aaron was a member of Boy Scout Troop 990, earning his Eagle Scout ranking last year, but was not able to attend his Eagle Court of Honor, said Skip Chapels, his Scout master.
“Only four out of every 100 young men accomplish this ranking,” Chapels said, before presenting Cheri and Jeff Brown with an American flag folded by younger scouts and enclosed in a case made to honor Aaron. Because he did not have a chance to attend the ceremony marking his accomplishment, Chapels administered the Eagle Charge to his friends and family, an oath promising to uphold the values of loyalty, courage, vision, service to others and living a life of honor.
Chapels said that he was working to create a Springfield chapter of Guitars Not Guns, a San Jose, Calif.-based charity that gives music lessons to at-risk children.
Talking about their son, Jeff and Cheri Brown wanted to keep things positive, thanking their friends and family, as well as Aaron’s friends, who have filled their home in the past week, helping with phone calls, cleaning and “buying toilet paper,” as Cheri Brown noted. Only once did their frustration with their son’s death and their questions about what happened that night come out.
“The whole situation seems so out of character,” said Jeff Brown about the possibility that Aaron and his friends did not pay their bill at the International House of Pancakes on Duke Street in Alexandria that night. “We’re not sure if the truth will set us free, but we have to know.”
He vowed to get answers about the actions of Carl Stowe, the 13-year veteran police officer who fired six shots into the Jeep Cherokee driven by Stephen Smith, 19, that night. “We will make it our mission” to change any policy that would have allowed an armed security guard to shoot at a moving vehicle or any training that may have led to his son’s death, Jeff Brown said.
FOLLOWING THE SERVICES, Aaron’s friends and family gathered on the grass outside a church where they had watched the service on a closed-circuit network. Teenagers carrying guitars, wearing band t-shirts and hugging each other populated the sidewalk and lawn, telling stories, laughing, playing music and comforting themselves any way they could.
“He was always smiling and everyone,” said Anna Sciullo, a high school friend of Aaron’s. “He would play a song for anyone. He was just an all-around great guy.”
Heather Willy said Aaron was “a beautiful person. He was a great guitarist, he was really just amazing.”
A fellow graduate from Annandale High School last June, Victor Grobener said “it was a gift to be his friend. All these people are out here to celebrate his life, which just shows how great of a guy Aaron was.”
Inside a reception at the church, a group of Aaron’s friends set up their instruments, playing pieces of songs, sending their friend off with the music he loved.