Grief over Green's slaying turns into action

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

TUCSON, Ariz. – Some day, maybe soon, maybe not for a long while, Christina-Taylor Green’s family will forget the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the strength of her hug. Details fade over time. They want those parts for themselves. The rest, though? The spirit and the ideals and the energy and the innocence? Those are for the world to share.

Christina has been gone for two months. She was born on 9/11 and died after being shot in the chest during the massacre that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom Christina wanted to meet. She was a chatty 9-year-old, a good student, a baseball player, a friend, a little sister, a daughter, nobody’s and everybody’s. Now she’s gone, and they’re all trying to figure out life without her.

“How to handle it, how we handle it as a family, we’re just learning,” John Green said.

John is Christina’s father. He is also a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and if not for his connections with Major League Baseball, the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks might not have played a spring training game here Monday. They came to remember Christina, to raise money on her behalf, and the traffic backed up along East Ajo Way even as the ceremonial first pitches approached at 1 p.m.

In front of the mound for one was Dallas Green. He is Christina’s brother. He threw a strike to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Dallas and Christina’s mom, Roxanne, cheered. So did everyone else at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium. Something about Christina resonated with the city. The photos of her smiling, the stories of her giving, the senselessness of a stolen life.

Turns out it’s not just the Greens who are learning how to handle it.

All of Tucson is.

About a half-mile from Christina’s home in the northwest part of the city sits the Cañada del Oro Riverfront Park, the sort of place where people post signs on a bathroom stall looking for their lost beagle. There is not much else to the park. Not even water.

The sun had turned the riverbed dry, and a walk down the dirt path revealed a trail of garbage – plastic grocery sacks, empty Cheetos bags, a crushed-up plastic water bottle. At 2:45, as the game entered its middle innings, the park was empty.

There is potential here. The Santa Catalina Mountains dominate the skyline. Pima Community College and a YMCA are across the street. Cacti dot the landscape. It could be the perfect park. It needs work.

Underneath the trailhead and down in the riverbed are three long, concrete underpasses that spill out on the other side of Shannon Road. Graffiti litters the outside. Inside the leftmost one, along the wall, are a mess of swastikas and the words: “Hitler lives.” Another drawing says “Hitler is back” next to a machine gun spraying bullets into a head. “Jews,” it says above the head.

The park got a new name last week. A white sign, covering the old green stone one, welcomes all visitors to Cañada del Oro Christina-Taylor Green Memorial River Park.

The first classroom off the parking lot at Mesa Verde Elementary is Room 14. A picture on the door says it’s Mrs. Dee’s third-grade class. Next to the words are two kittens.

Mrs. Dee is Kathie DeKnikker, a pleasant, white-haired woman who stayed late after school Monday. She was Christina's teacher. She’d rather not talk about Christina. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can't.”

Mesa Verde is a well-regarded school, by parents and teachers, with the same problem as so many in Arizona: funding. They’d like to renovate the playground. Much of the paint is chipped off the climbing apparatuses. The tetherballs and swings are old. There’s just one slide. An enormous field gives the school infinite possibilities. The school’s leadership would love to follow the motto spelled out in the middle of the school’s courtyard, on an in-ground mural: “BE YOUR BEST.” It just can’t.

Or couldn’t. Roxanna Green wants to fix Mesa Verde’s playground. The proceeds from Monday's game went to the fund established in Christina’s name, and before she can do so many of the other things Christina would’ve wanted – refurbish other parks for children, start a scholarship fund, help the less fortunate – Roxanna wants to give Christina’s classmates what her daughter never had.

After school kids gathered in the courtyard waiting for their parents. Down the hall is the principal’s office. Bulletin boards surround it. Art projects fill the walls. One board is for announcements. The sheet of paper announcing the Mesa Verde Student Council remains on the board from a few months ago.

The first name on it is the representative from Mrs. DeKnikker's class: Christina Green.

Dallas Green, 11, is named after his grandfather, the longtime baseball man who was general manager of the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies team that won the World Series. Little Dallas wore a blue shirt and checkered pants and tried to hold his head high Monday. His mom and dad were talking about his sister, and he didn’t have much to say until prompted.

“Dallas,” John said. “Every morning before you go to school, what do you do?”

“One of our neighbors brings her dog out with her and says hi to me,” Dallas said.

“Christina and Dallas used to play together before the bus arrived,” John said.

Now, a 72-year-old woman named Susan Leeser, who lives next door to the Greens, brings outside a black rescue dog with white fur under her neck and a sweet disposition. Her name is Katie. She leapt out the door of Leeser's house and ran toward a black privacy gate. “We also call her Nugget,” said a man who answered Leeser’s door. He wouldn’t identify himself. “We don’t do interviews,” he said.

The Greens live near a golf course in a cozy part of northwest Tucson, with big houses, ample yards and mature trees and saguaros. On the front of their house flies an American flag. On the side is another flagpole holder. From it hangs a pink ribbon. The wind blew, and its strands twirled like a gorgeous jellyfish.

Even when the breeze stopped, it kept moving.

John Green returned Sunday night from two weeks scouting in the southeast. On the drive back from the airport, he said, he was excited to see Dallas and Christina.

“And Christina’s not there,” he said.

Scouts spend hundreds of days a year on the road, and John Green’s travels take him from big cities to dusty towns to hamlets that aren’t even on the map. He’ll usually run across a scouting friend or two, and, he said, “that was my biggest concern going into the year – that I was going to have to relive this every day. But I actually have come to terms with that. Because people that care about you need to do that.”

The echo from the shootings remains cacophonous. It defines Tucson much in the way 9/11 defines New York City, an event so horrific that nobody can get past it because it’s too important to forget. And so the city rushes to name a park after Christina before scrubbing anti-Semitic scrawling off its walls and picking up garbage, and the school can’t bring itself to take down her name from the bulletin board, and the neighbor offers a tiny gesture to give a boy a moment of pleasure amid inconceivable pain. While Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting terrified the nation, Christina-Taylor Green’s murder devastated this community, and they’re determined to get their lives back while honoring hers.

So they wore pink pins with her initials and purple wristbands that say “HOPE” and cheered as the White Sox beat the Diamondbacks, 12-1. The Greens watched the game from Suite 305 and did what they never thought they would: put themselves out there, vulnerable though they may be.

“My first instinct after this all happened was to go home and just bury ourselves at home and not see anybody,” John said. “That was the first thing. And Roxanna – I think she was of the same mind for a little while. But thank God our family and friends didn’t listen to us. Everybody started coming over.”

“Mmm, hmmm,” Roxanna intoned.

“We were still in shock,” John said. “For the next two weeks, nobody ever left our side. I’m grateful for that. That was the right thing to do.”

Tragedy solders people together. And, on occasion, it bonds them to a place, too. Nobody would forgive the Greens for having left. The last two months brought enough sorrow for a lifetime. But here they are, their daughter’s memory bigger than them, the embraces sufficient for now.

If the world is going to share in Christina-Taylor Green, Tucson’s a good place to start.

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