The Legend of Big La

The Legend of Big La

Shawn caught me at a bad moment one day. When he called, I was living on the Lower East Side in New York, in a noisy pre-war building surrounded by Chinese delivery services, cleaners, and undercover cops. I was stressing over life, love, and money, and the usual mix of family drama and work politics. Giulia had just gotten out of the hospital, and was recovering at my place. I was recovering from visiting her in the hospital for the last 2 weeks.

While catching up with my mom, I could hear the fatigue in her voice. She has had 30+ years of non-stop drama, with the always-on, everybody’s mom, all-business attitude that she’s been known for throughout. Even the toughest shields get heavy when they’re full of arrows. She sounded heavy. Elton and Luke were a couple of years out of prison and still getting on their feet, and there were a constant string of stresses with ministry, family, and money.

Shawn had called my mom here and there. Always weaving a mixture of jokes, scripture, and asking for money in a way that only he could. Mom loves Shawn. This time, she painfully told me about having to tell him not to ask for money anymore. That they just had too many other things demanding their money and time at the moment.
She was hurt by being in the position in which she was presently found — out of slack. Stretched to the breaking point. She really wanted to hear from Shawn. She just didn’t want to have to tell him no every time they spoke. She was asking him to balance the give / take scales a little. She needed him to call just to tell jokes.

Instead, he didn’t call for a while. Then one day, in the middle of a hailstorm of personal and professional turmoil, stretched to my own limits, and feeling especially protective of my family, I got a call from Big La.

———

Shawn was like a brother; and in my world, brother is a loaded word.

I have 2 biological brothers, 2 adopted brothers, and over 20 years worth of come-and-go siblings for periods of my life. My childhood memory hangs on the hooks of who was living with us, and where we were living. Who my brothers were at the time, and what they were getting into. Over the course of around 500 teenagers who came through our home, there were only a handful who broke our hearts when they left.

At 13, Shawn was an overweight, always sweaty, fast-talking, and hilarious kid who also happened to be shockingly athletic. Shawn Connors had many nicknames over the years he was in our lives.

Connors
Big Shawn
Big La
Schla
La
and many more…

I was 11 when La arrived at Camp Liberty, and I thought we were best friends within an hour. Turned out, Shawn was great at making you feel that way about him. There was never a joke not worth the effort, and never a moment when he couldn’t laugh at himself. He genuinely wanted everyone around him to be happy. Why was he at the camp?

I found out eventually. Even at a young age, I knew better than to ask too early why some kid had been sent to live with us. In the end, it didn’t matter. Shawn, it turned out, had been destined to live with us.

The final straw in the long string of circumstances leading to his arrival at Camp Liberty was a raffle scam. At 13, he convinced a bunch of adults to buy tickets for a raffle full of prizes that didn’t exist. The money was spent long before anyone caught on. When they finally did, they sent him away.

At about 5’7”, La weighed in at about 250 in his lighter days. He crossed the 300 mark for a solid portion of his life though. Shawn hit hard, had a smooth 3 point shot, and took joy in sizing up and out-smarting anyone he came across.

Separating him further from the crowds of other guys who came through our home, La knew what it meant to be a brother. Shawn had a younger brother who I didn’t meet for years. By then, he had adopted the 3 of us as much as we did him. Shawn was loyal to us. He treated us like family, and was always careful to express gratitude.

There were multiple occasions that I can remember trying to get into a fight with someone, only to have Big La run in from out of nowhere, and wreak havoc before I could be touched. Shawn never turned. No matter what, he never turned on the 3 of us.

Years after he left the camp, Shawn spent some time in and out of jail. After a botched bank robbery that ended in a high-speed chase down the interstate in which a woman and her child were involved in a subsequent collision, Shawn (like only Shawn could) spent a total of about 3 years in prison. When he was inside, he reclaimed his spiritual pursuit, and became a Chaplain’s assistant of sorts in the prison prayer meetings. He eventually worked his way through a halfway house until he was finally a free man again.

Once free, Shawn reconnected occasionally with various members of the family. He had been in touch with Elton and Luke when he was inside, ‘cause they were too. I heard about him talking to mom or dad here and there. Friends from the camp occasionally spoke of hearing from him.

It’s hard to keep up with the story of Shawn’s life. His dad and step-mother ran a bar at some point. I think there was a section in the back where you could get tattoos. I never saw the place. Don’t even know where it was. Shawn’s dad was an old dead head stoner with a big ZZ Top beard. I didn’t really know him. I only remember seeing him once. I don’t remember his step mom. His little brother was not little. I remember that. But it was Shawn himself who was hard to forget.

I hadn’t seen him in years. I spoke with him once on the phone when he was still at the halfway house. He got into a deeply religious conversation about a passage of scripture he had been recently studying, and wanted me to send him some good worship music.

It was good to hear his voice. It must have been 10 years since I’d seen him at that point. Probably another 3 more when he called me at my apartment in New York.

————-

He wanted me to know he was out. He had spoken to my parents, and caught up with my brothers. He wanted me to know he was doing better. He had been reading the Bible and that the Lord was giving him some direction for rebuilding his life.

After talking for a little while, Shawn referenced an email he had sent me a week or so before, asking for some money. The reason he gave in the email was so obviously bullshit that it didn’t stick in my memory at all. I told him on the phone that I didn’t have any money to give him. Then I took it a step further.

I told him that he had to stop calling out of the blue and asking for money. That doing so to multiple people in my family sounded a hell of a lot like a scam, and like he was up to something. I told him that he was hurting my parents more than helping if he was only going to call when he was in trouble. I told him I couldn’t afford the drama in my life either. I told him to get his shit together, and join the rest of us trying to make a life for ourselves.

I didn’t say that. Not all of that. Something close to it though. I tried to get across to him that he had to consider the possibility that if his calls were poorly timed, he would only cause more destruction. I felt worst the moment he responded.

He didn’t get mad. He didn’t argue with me like I hoped he would. I hoped he would have a terrible attitude and justify my annoyance.

‘Okay buddy.’ He chuckled instead. ‘Good talking to you’, and he hung up.
It felt terrible to be mad at Big La. Even worse to tell him so. Shawn was a brother. He took up for me on many occasions and made it clear where his loyalties lie. Shawn was not turning to our family to use us. He was just asking for help we didn’t have at the time. What he couldn’t pick up on, was that we all needed him instead.

That was over 5 years ago.

Shawn died this morning.

——-

When I woke up, I had a text message from a friend in Baton Rouge. I didn’t look at it. I took a shower, got dressed, and went to the coffee shop downstairs. Then I got a call from Elton.

“Did you hear about Shawn?”

I hadn’t.

“They found him this morning. He passed away last night. Looks like he died in his sleep. 36 years old, man. Ain’t that somethin? He was like a brother, man…”

It could have been the weight. His heart. The drugs. Stress. Who knows?

I called my mom.

“I just heard. How are you doing?”

“I’m okay. We’re just waiting to hear details. I didn’t know if you were up on the west coast yet. We heard early this morning.”

From the sound of it, he died in his sleep, staying somewhere in Arkansas with his brother.

“Well you remember how his parents died, right?”

I didn’t.

“They were both shot in their bedroom in their sleep. I think it was his brother who did it. I don’t know if it’s the same one. Happened a few years ago.”

That did sound familiar.

“Daniel?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember if he had a step brother. Anyway, I think I heard it was his brother who they think shot his parents.”

Turns out, Shawn’s uncle — his dad’s brother — shot Shawn’s dad and step-mom in a still-mysterious encounter at their home in the middle of the night. As for Shawn, he apparently went much more quietly.

From what we’ve pieced together, Shawn had just come out of a relationship with a girl, and had just lost somewhere around 150 pounds. He had complained of back problems and frequent acid reflux. He had apparently made plans to see a doctor, and took some heartburn medication before lying down to take a nap. The young man with whom he was living found him at around 5am the next morning, still dressed, lying on his face on the bed.

———

After speaking for a while, mom and I had connected Shawn with 1 degree of separation to nearly every far-flung group of people we know. He weaved through our family and friends so seamlessly for so long that it was harder to think of people who didn’t know Shawn than the other way around. Everyone knew him. He was hard not to know. Even harder not to love.

There is no good ending for an essay about a friend who died too young. The interruption is unsettling. Emotions take a while to bubble up to the surface. What do you say about a stranger who became the brother who died too soon?

There are no more chances for advice. No more jokes that wouldn’t be funny from anyone else. No more of the huge, driving presence of laughter and chaos that followed La everywhere he went. There is no excuse for hoping Shawn will grow old.

He won’t be a dad. A grandpa. He won’t have that period of life after rebuilding — where he can give back, and restore the balance. There will be no more good days he can catch me on.

Everyone who met him saw a star in Shawn. Comets can burn just as bright, and burn out quicker.

Big La, I’ll miss you man. Knock ‘em dead on the other side.