When Brian Keith discovered that his 4-year-old son Jahari got part of his rock collection stuck in his right ear, he responded with his usual calm.
When his car ran out of gas near the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C. – with no gas station in sight, his cellphone forgotten in his hotel room and his family waiting for him at the National Museum of African American History and Culture – Brian calmly made do until everything worked itself out.
Even when congestive heart failure caused enough concern that a doctor required Brian to wear a vest that could save his life, only those who knew him best could detect anything out of the ordinary.
The tell? He rubbed his head.
Last Christmas, during a big family gathering at his mom's house, Brian rubbed his head more often than usual. Enough to worry his life partner, LaKeisha Barron-Brown. A few days later, though, she was relieved to see him happy and relaxed while watching his niece getting inducted into a local Hall of Fame and reconnecting with friends he hadn't seen since high school.
The morning of New Year's Eve, 42-year-old Brian died in his sleep. His heart gave out.
As Brian's family prepares for their first Christmas without him, followed by the first anniversary of his death, they're expecting a cascade of emotions. Amazingly, they're not all sad – thanks mostly to a now-10-year-old boy who inherited his dad's tendency to rub his head when he's nervous and his knack for looking after others.
Sometimes, calmness was a mask that Brian wore. If he gave off the vibe that everything was OK, others might think so, too. This was one of the ways he looked out for others.
Other times, he was calm because life was good. Such as the days he and Jahari threw around a football or when they watched Brian's favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys. Or when they went fishing at Marmet Locks about 20 minutes from their home in Charleston, West Virginia. Or any day Brian and Jahari drove around in a raggedy blue pickup truck "like they were Sanford & Son," LaKeisha said, laughing.
"They were both each other's right-hand man," she said. "Wherever you saw one, you saw the other."
Last Dec. 31, LaKeisha was running late for her job as a therapist who helps mothers with substance abuse problems. To let Brian know she was leaving, she went into the room where he'd spent the night.
His heart problems often made it tough for him to sleep in their bed. Yet he found that he could doze off while lying on – or, even, kneeling against – a sectional sofa in the basement.
LaKeisha called his name. Twice. When he didn't respond, she moved closer. She noticed him sprawled in a different spot than usual.
"Then I touched him," she said. "He was cold."
She screamed and called 911, but it was too late.
Once she gathered herself, LaKeisha called Brian's mom, Evorn Keith. She, too, screamed, loud enough to startle a guest who'd spent the night.
"I went to her room to give her a hug, went back to my room, heard her still crying and went back again," Jahari said. "That's when she said, 'Your dad has passed.'"
LaKeisha drove an hour to Evorn's home. LaKeisha hugged Jahari and said, "You know your dad had heart disease."
"No, Mommy, I didn't know," he said.
Of course not, she realized right away. Mr. Calm didn't want his little buddy to worry.
Brian was buried on a Sunday. That Thursday, Jahari started grief counseling.
Talking through his emotions helped. He balanced his sadness with the understanding that he had to build a new way of life.
One morning in March, he was getting ready for school when he asked LaKeisha what they would do for Brian's birthday. It was a strange question considering that the occasion wasn't until Sept. 10. He still doesn't know what prompted the thought.
LaKeisha Googled "Heart Awareness, September and Charleston, WV" and discovered that my organization, the American Heart Association, was holding our annual Heart Walk the final Saturday of the month. She immediately registered Team Brian.
Then she and Jahari started brainstorming what more they could do the rest of September.
Things moved quickly. In August, Jahari took part in a business expo for kids, selling silver-and-blue rubber bracelets that read "Team Brian," the color scheme honoring Brian's beloved Dallas Cowboys. With all else they were planning for September, people kept asking LaKeisha if she was going to start a foundation.
The next day, she filled out the paperwork. By week's end, Hearts United Inc. was official.
The name came from Evorn. Upon seeing that the design for their Heart Walk team shirt would read "Faith + Hope + Love = Team Brian," she recommended adding the words "Hearts United."
The organization's first event – held the first weekend in September – was a free Hands-Only CPR training and blood pressure screening in Oak Hill, where Brian was born and raised (and where his mom still lives). About 15 people attended. A second event drew 45 adults and kids from Jahari's after-school program and their community.
The next week, which included both Brian's birthday and – two days later – Jahari's, everyone in the family went without meat for at least a day. This was in honor of Brian being a vegetarian for the last six years. They believe changes in diet and lifestyle extended his life.
The third week featured one of the big fundraisers for Hearts United: a raffle of a basket of Dallas Cowboys goodies. It was crammed with items the family bought or received as donations.
The celebrations culminated with the Heart Walk. By then, Jahari was the event's honorary chairman.
Jahari, LaKeisha and about 50 more joined Team Brian for the event at the state capitol.
"Some people were apprehensive, fearing sad emotions," LaKeisha said. "But everyone was very happy."
Afterward, they went back to her house. She had a surprise for everyone. In the basement.
The family room where Brian spent his final hours was transformed into a Dallas Cowboys showcase. She painted the walls silver and blue, and hung two jerseys on the wall. (Brian was buried wearing a Cowboys jersey. The family wore Cowboys gear to the service.)
Since Brian's death, Evorn had refused to enter that room. Now she was ready to walk down the stairs.
"We gave her a private moment," LaKeisha said. "She never left the rest of the day."
Jahari still wishes he could go fishing with his dad. He played football this season without getting any of his advice.
"We have this picture where he's on his knee telling me what to do on the football field," Jahari said. "We still have it almost everywhere in the house. That's a very special photo for us."
Another special photo was taken last Christmas.
All 19 people at Evorn's house gathered in front of the fireplace. LaKeisha set the remote timer on her camera then slid into the photo.
When seeking photos to use with Brian's obituary, LaKeisha remembered the batch she took on Christmas. She hadn't even looked at them yet. (Brian usually edited them.) Scrolling through them, her daughter saw the group picture and gasped.
Brian happened to be standing in front of a set of angel wings that hang on the stone hearth. He was perfectly situated so that the wings appeared to rise from his back, above his shoulders, framed by his head.
In a few days, Evorn will host her usual big Christmas celebration.
As a trained therapist, LaKeisha feels it's her duty to help everyone cope with Brian's absence. In seeking the right words, she thought back to a conversation she had with Jahari the day Brian died.
"One of the first things he asked me was, 'Are we going to be OK?' My response was, 'If we're trying to hold onto what OK used to feel like and look like, no. But our goal now is to find a new OK,'" LaKeisha said. "That is the message for my family. We have to embrace our new OK even if it feels different."
LaKeisha figured she could get through Christmas. She was more worried about how she'd handle Dec. 31. Then she spoke about grief at a local church. Forced to confront the looming anniversary, she discovered "it wasn't as emotional as I thought it would be."
Why? Because of Hearts United.
"We've found our purpose," she said.
Hearts United worked with a local food bank this holiday season, setting up donation bins at six locations; the first drew 700 non-perishable items. They're also aiming to give out their first $500 college scholarship in the spring.
It will go to a graduate of Brian's alma mater, Oak Hill High, to the son or daughter of someone lost to heart disease or stroke.
"I know that pain and I want to help other kids who know it, too," Jahari said. "Nothing will ever fill the void of losing my dad. But it makes me feel good to help other people."
A version of this story also appeared on Thrive Global.
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