When I was 10, my 13-year-old brother almost died. He had been at a party in the woods and, having drank too much, fell ten feet from a boulder. As he lay vomiting from alcohol poisoning and unconscious because of the fall, most of his friends ran — fearing the consequences of a call to 911. If 12-year-old Tilly hadn’t called the fire department, and stayed with him until they arrived, I might have grown up without an older brother.
I remember coming downstairs the morning after to find my parents physically and emotionally exhausted. They told me that something had happened to my brother, and that he was in the hospital. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that I found out the only reason he was alive was because of the bravery and caring of his friend.
As a child who had spent his life reading mythologies and fantasy novels about heroes and honorable deeds, it would be an understatement to say that I was impressed. This boy, who was only a couple of years older than myself, had placed himself among the characters in my books.
This past Memorial Day, I came back into reception after two nights of camping to find my phone was filled with messages. Messages that said things like, “Call me” and “Have you heard?” As my friends and I desperately tried to get in contact with someone who might know what was going on, it was clear that something terrible had happened.
I was standing on the side of Highway 138 in the Umpqua National forest when I heard that my friend Tilly had been murdered. The same Tilly that had saved my brother’s life twelve years before. The same Tilly whom I had admired throughout my adolescence.
Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was 23 when he and two other strangers stood up to Jeremy Jones Christian, who was hurling Islamophobic epithets at two underage girls on a Portland MAX train. Christian attacked the three men with a knife, fatally wounding both Namkai-Meche and Rick Best, 53, an army veteran. The third victim, Micah Fletcher, 21, survived the attack by millimeters.
The bravery that Tilly exhibited on the train that fated day wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t a man trying to earn glory or to make a point. It was the natural reaction of an incredible human being. These tragic murders, at the hands of a Nazi sympathizer, should not be taken as an excuse to point fingers, or to politicize the victims’ sacrifice. It is an opportunity for us as a community, as a state and as a country to reflect on how we might have acted if we had been the ones on that train.
I think many of us would like to believe that we would have stood up for those two girls, putting our lives on the line. Personally, I can’t say with certainty that is what I would have done. It is a truly extraordinary thing to risk one’s life for a principal, and one that seems to contradict every biological impulse that we have as living, breathing things.
The sacrifice that these men made has given the rest of us an opportunity. It has given us the chance to fully consider what we are willing to do to stand behind our beliefs in the face of hatred and violence, what we are willing to give to protect those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
I can now say with confidence that if confronted with hate speech, towards myself or anyone, I will not look the other way. With that said, I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking out the skills that can potentially save lives in situations that have the potential to get violent.
So I leave you with a plea: take a CPR class, take a crisis intervention class, take a class about world religions — learn all that you possibly can so that you will be in a position to advocate for those more vulnerable than yourself. Before you make them into martyrs, don’t forget that these men were humans, and that they leave behind families and friends and whole communities. Tell the people close to you, and the people that you wish were closer how much they mean to you every day.
And to Taliesin,
I wish I had the opportunity to express to you how much I admired you and your bravery, on the train and, also, all those years ago. You were a friend, a son, a brother and a role-model to so many.
You will be dearly missed.