My Close Friend Loses His Son at Family Outing

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Jamil Foster

It's the day before Memorial Day, and my car's making a mockery of the speed limit as it hurtles north from metro Detroit to the small resort town of Oscoda, Mich., as fast as I can push it.

In the passenger seat next to me, a grown man is unleashing the most heart-wrenching wails I've ever heard in my life. 

He's Eric Foster, a noted political consultant in Detroit, president of the firm of Foster, McCollum & White, and one of the young minds that've taken it upon themselves to try to help turn around a dying city. 

More importantly, he's a very close friend, more like extended family actually. (We call him "cousin.")

And he's just learned that his 14-year-old son, Jamil, has drowned.

Father Stayed Behind

His son had traveled north with my wife, kids and a bunch of other relatives for our family's annual holiday stay in Oscoda. I'd stayed behind this year to spend time with my mother. Eric had stayed behind to do what he always seems to do -- work to make a better life for his son. 

And now, he's found out that that life is gone forever. 

As it does each year, our family had gone out onto a stretch the Au Sable River for a canoe trip. On any other day, our excursion is just a warm exhibition in swimming and comically bad boating, with canoes drifting and spinning in circles and running aground so regularly that we almost always put an extra half hour on what should be a two-hour-long ride. 

Normally, it's just a raucous good time.

Took Off Life Preserver

It started the same way this year, too. But not long into the trip, Jamil's canoe, which had raced ahead of my wife's and most of the others, had gotten stuck on a sand bar. Jamil, who'd earlier taken off his life preserver because he thought he wouldn't need it, stood up to climb onto the sand bar so he could push the boat free. 

My 12-year-old son, who was in another canoe only a few feet away, screamed for Jamil to sit back down, to just push off the sand bar with an oar instead of getting out of the boat.

Always cool and confident, Jamil -- who had never made this trip before -- waved him off. "He said, 'Everything will be fine,'" my son would tell me later. 

Instead, Jamil's canoe capsized seconds after he stood up. He and my nephew fell into the water. My nephew, still wearing his life preserver, popped up immediately and eventually made his way back into his boat. 

A good swimmer, Jamil resurfaced, too. But he was struggling badly, his slender body in shock from the cold water and being pulled by a stronger-than-normal current, his brain stalled by sheer panic. 

Threw All Floatation Devices In Water

My son and nephews threw every flotation device they could find onto the water. They reached out to him with oars in order to pull him into their boat. They pleaded for him to swim to the shore. 

But the river was too much. Jamil flailed, shouted and then my son and my nephews watched in absolute horror as their cousin went under one last time and never came back up. Family members and other boaters dove in, searching frantically.

Police divers pulled his body out of the water almost an hour later. Not longer after, Jamil Nadir Foster, 14, a brilliant child with a megawatt smile and robust dreams of going to Stanford to become architect, was pronounced dead at Tawas St. Joseph Hospital on Sunday. (He's survived also by his mother, a stepmother and a stepbrother.)

It's never supposed to end like this for any child, of course. Still, not every child can lay claim to a single father who has devoted his entire life to protecting them.

Eric Foster the Family Man

Eric Foster is one of those black fathers who, if you listen to the wrong people, you'll think don't really exist. He's the family man in ill-fitting dad jeans you see rooting loudly at the middle-school track meets and clapping proudly at music recitals. He's the suit-and-tie brother bolting early from a meeting at CAY to pick up his son from school, only to return to the meeting with his young scholar in tow.

He's the dad lugging home chicken soup when his son is sick, the one holding down the parent-teacher conference, the man who takes the time to talk about girls and sports and grades and life not only with his kid but with any other young man who may be in his orbit.

Eric and I disagree on plenty politically. But that's minuscule compared to the love and respect I harbor for him as a man and as a father.

More importantly, his life's work was paying off wonderfully. A solid student at Troy Baker Middle School, Jamil was outgoing, kind, funny, smart and passionate. He was more socially conscious than a 14-year-old had any business being. He was as comfortable talking with adults as he was his peers (a fact I know well because the boy would chat me up for hours some days).

As the Facebook page his friends established over the weekend to honor him attests, he was widely beloved and respected. 

And if his daddy had anything to say about it, Jamil Foster was going to be somebody. . . .

. . . It's Memorial Day now. My car is making its way back to Detroit from Oscoda. 

In the passenger seat, a 12-year-old boy sits mute and stares blankly out of the car window.

He's my son, Khalil. The evening before, he had collapsed in my arms as soon as Eric and I had pulled up at the Oscoda cabins where my family was staying. "I tried to save him, Daddy! I tried!" he'd screamed. 

All I could do was shudder and hold him tighter.

Impact on My Son

A bright kid in his own right, my son knew about a lot before last weekend. He knew about football and math. He knew about his dreams of computer engineering. He knew about video games and snapback baseball caps.

He wasn't supposed to know death, though. Not now. Not this way.

But he does, as do my young daughter, my nieces and my nephews. The tragedy that stole one child's life also has scarred many others.

Even before we left Oscoda, even before he buried his own son, Eric assured us that he would do whatever he could to help the surviving kids overcome the inevitable pain and fear that's to follow. 

Because, even amid the worst pain imaginable, he remains an incredible father. 

Visitation for Jamil Foster will be from 4 to 8 p.m. on Friday at Haley Funeral Directors, 24525 Northwestern Highway, in Southfield. Funeral services will be held at noon on Saturday at St. Paul AME Church, 2260 Hunt, in Detroit. Donations can be made to the Jamil Foster Memorial Foundation at any Chase Bank.  

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