On Sunday, Dec. 4, a legendary Camp Akita alumni, mission trip compadre, Ohio University grad and dear friend Haden DeRoberts passed away. Haden was a camper, a philosopher, a music junkie and an inspiration to so, so many. His story is one that simultaneously grounded me as well as assured me that despite all the brokenness that exists in this world, that there is a force of good in the universe whose existence I cannot deny.
Many know the series of events that led to Haden being visited and subsequently reunited with the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It could certainly be shrugged off as coincidence, but I believe the universe colluded to support Haden. Contemplate this: facing a crushing prognosis, Haden listened to ESMZ to help him manage his many invasive, uncomfortable treatments. On a single day, when things look scary and bleak, Haden was visited in his hospital room by ESMZ and received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from a random donor. It was a very good day, and a remarkable sequence of events.
Months later, while attending Bonnaroo 2013, a mostly-healthy Haden was randomly pulled out of a crowd of thousands only to be reunited with the band and share his story with the sea of concertgoers, eventually with thousands upon thousands on YouTube. His message was one of hope, as well as challenging others to “get swabbed” so that that same conspicuous magic of the universe may help others.
Flash forward again to the winter of 2015. Haden was a senior at OU, and was wistfully soaking up his last months of college and visioning his coming journey into adulthood, when again his health takes a turn. Haden was in Athens when he began to show symptoms of respiratory distress, tending toward arrest by the time he and a friend arrive at the ER in Columbus. It was around that time when I got word that Haden wasn’t doing well, but had been discharged from the hospital. That day, once again, the universe conspired to help Haden. It just so happened that ESMZ was in town for a gig on that day, and not just in town, but playing a benefit for Flying Horse Farms – the camp I have directed for the past 6 years. The day Haden was discharged was the one day in my life when I was going to have access to this group of people who had been so instrumental in Haden’s journey. At some point, the number of compounding coincidences required for all these events to occur goes beyond something I can accept as coincidental. At the end of the benefit, I snuck backstage, prepped to beg and plead them to Skype with Haden. Instead, at the mere mention of his name, the band not only jumps on a call to Haden, but changes its plans to play an impromptu show at his home the next morning.
That morning, one year ago today, I arrived a few minutes early at Haden’s home so we could catch up. I found my friend hooked up to oxygen and learning to eat and speak again thanks to his tracheotomy. Through shallow breaths and gasps Haden educated me on the challenges of receiving a bone marrow transplant. “You know how when someone gets an organ transplant and the immune system looks at the organ to see if it is a threat? Well getting a BMT is essentially having someone else’s immune system transplanted into your body … it actually changes your DNA and your new immune system looks at all of your existing organs to see if they are a threat. That is what is happening with me”. We sat for a while longer, and I caught Haden up on my life as a new dad as well as the road forward for Haden. His outlook was relaxed and upbeat – almost impossibly so given his last few days. He insisted that he was “good” and “just focusing on health, on getting better”. He wasn’t down. He wasn’t mad. He seemed practically care-free. That is the part that will stick with me. In the midst of some of the heaviest shit life can throw at a person, Haden was resolute, calm and dare I say happy. That is a special person. It rounds some hard corners in life to witness strength through adversity in a way that is simply incommensurable to any of the struggles in my day-to-day.
Finally, ESMZ ambled through the door – 8 of them with guitars, brass and accordion – in-toe and sat down with the family to catch-up and love on their friend Haden. It was clear that they thought of Haden just the way we all do – an exceedingly kind and wise soul who navigated the world with grace and strength. The group waxed philosophical and laughed in between rounds of Perfect Time and a Cajun version of Up From Below. Janet (Haden’s Mom) couldn’t contain herself shouting “That made my heart really big!” after the final chord of “Man on Fire.” The moment was as surreal as it was beautiful, but I was also overcome with a strange feeling of obtrusion – like I was encroaching on something deeply sacred and important, which I was not entitled to participate. This moment was raw and real and such a humbling experience to be part of. Haden beamed and bobbed along as Alex Ebert prophetically belts out “Yay, yay. Come dance with me, Over heartache and rage, Come set us free, Over panic and strange”. Yep that sounds right-on-point. The group broke company with hugs and plans to reconnect on the next tour, and almost in passing tossed Haden a copy of its new album, noting “actually, that is the very first copy that exists” on their way out the door – likely having no sense of what that would mean to Haden.
Haden has taught me so much, and I am grateful that the universe conspired to bring him into my life, and to have shared in so many transformative experiences alongside him. Most of all, his story reminds me that in the midst of heartache exists evidence that there is something sacred, powerful and good at work in this world. Thank you Haden and much love.
Editor’s Note: Members of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros offered their condolences to the DeRoberts family. Below are some of their comments:
Alex Ebert: “Haden lives on as an infinitely indomitable spirit in our lives. Our miraculous encounter with him at Bonnaroo stands as the most magnificent moment I have ever experienced during any show. We send love to his amazing friends and family and most of all, to Haden, somewhere out there, shining on.”
Christian Letts: “Haden Richard DeRoberts, you will be missed by so many. Thank you for being a beacon of light in this world and forever impacting my life in such a beautiful and inspiring way. My heart goes out to his friends and family.”
Stewart Cole: “Heavy hearts in learning that our friend Haden has passed to the other side. Such a bright light and an inspiration to us all. We’ll see you next time, dear brother.”
Mark Noseworthy: “Haden, I love you and I will miss you. You were an inspiration to everyone you met.”