Scattering CJ: Changing lives around the world

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Frattini, a former U.S. Marine, New York building contractor and TV personality, immediately texted his teenage son at school to say, “I love you.” They’d had their own terrible argument that morning — among the worst Frattini could remember — and he vowed never again to let anger come between him and his child.

Months later, he would place some of C.J.’s ashes to rest in the exterior column of a New York City high-rise he was building.

Conner Adams, a 25-year-old from North Carolina, was battling a severe heroin addiction and had just entered drug rehab when she read about Twomey. She was no stranger to grief, depression and hopelessness; she’d considered suicide herself at one point.

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C.J.’s story — his mother’s story — touched her.

Adams scattered some of C.J.’s ashes at a North Carolina waterfall and on Grandfather Mountain there. As she pushed her way through rehab, she felt a responsibility to C.J. and Twomey to live the best life she could.

A year later, she’s still clean.

Lisa Strout of Lewiston found Twomey’s Facebook page through her son, who had been one of C.J.’s friends. As someone who had long battled bipolar disorder and had barely survived a suicide attempt seven years ago, she was disturbed by C.J.’s suicide. As a mother, she was horrified by Twomey’s situation.

“I would lose my mind if I lost my son,” Strout said.

All summer, she carried a photo of C.J. — grinning in his Red Sox T-shirt — on her cell phone as she and her family went to the beach, visited the Yarmouth Clam Festival, traveled the state.

She’s placed a copy of C.J.’s photo in her living room and thinks of him every morning as she takes her medication, acknowledging that even during her very worst days, suicide is not the answer.

“Having C.J. here in the house just reminds me, ‘You’re not going to do that again. I’m not going to let you,'” Strout said. 

This weekend, she will scatter his ashes on a hiking trail in central Maine.

When Twomey posted her short plea on Facebook in November 2013, she’d hoped a couple of hundred people might agree to help scatter C.J.’s ashes. She asked that they say two things as they let him go.

His mom will always love him. And that she’s sorry.

“YOU MUST AGREE TO SAY THAT,” Twomey wrote on her Facebook page. “Because I am, and I need him to hear it as the last thing he hears before he takes off.”

About 700 people have repeated those words, scattering C.J.’s ashes from the ocean floor to the Swiss Alps, from Colby College in Maine to Disneyland in Paris. 

Another 8,000 have offered.

“Scattering CJ” has crossed states, countries and, soon, the boundary of space. It’s been highlighted on CNN and by international press. The Facebook page has more than 17,000 fans.

Twomey started Scattering CJ to give her spirited son one last journey and to try to deal with the horror of his death. But she never expected such an outpouring.

“I don’t feel any less heartbroken,” Twomey said. “I feel supported in a way I never thought I could. I don’t feel so alone, maybe.”

She also never expected that her story, her son’s story, would change lives.

And save some along the way.

C.J.’s story

C.J. was the kind of kid who liked to dance and sing around the house, wrap his mother in crushing hugs and whisk off his younger brother, Connor, for a drive. His friends considered him the comedian of the group, the life of the party.

C.J. joined the U.S. Air Force soon after graduating from Auburn’s Edward Little High School in 2007. It was the perfect career for the active, outgoing young man who craved adventure. He once called home after training to jump out of a plane into the water; his mother had never heard him happier. 

But when C.J. didn’t make the cut for an elite special forces unit, he made the tough choice to be honorably discharged.

C.J. seemed to recover from the blow. He returned home, began working for a security company in Massachusetts and divided his time between his childhood home in Auburn and his grandfather’s house in Massachusetts. He had a girlfriend and talked about marriage.

Then came April 14, 2010.

Twomey and C.J. had an argument in the living room. It was a big fight — although C.J. had a lot of ideas for his future, he wasn’t moving forward with any plan, and his parents were worried. But the argument shouldn’t have been catastrophic.

“You think I’m a failure, don’t you?” C.J. yelled at his mother.

Twomey rolled her eyes and made a dismissive noise. She had never thought he was a failure.

“Failure? I’ll show you failure,” he said.

He jumped into his car and drove to the top of the hill on their dead-end street. 

A minute or two later, C.J. drove back down, parked in front of his parents and his childhood home, and shot himself in the head.

“I remember hearing screaming,” Twomey said last year. “I remember being tackled to the ground (by a neighbor) and hearing somebody screaming. They tell me that was me.”

There were signs that C.J. had been thinking of killing himself, though no one realized it at the time. A couple of days before the argument, he’d spent $700, likely his life savings, on his girlfriend. He told opposing lies to her and his parents about returning his handgun to the military.   

Doctors said C.J. knew what he was doing when he shot himself. He’d been serious about dying.

On April 15, 2010, C.J. was declared brain dead.

The Twomeys, whose family had been affected by organ donation, agreed to donate C.J.’s organs. It gave them some small amount of comfort to know his heart, kidneys, liver and lungs would give several people a second chance at life and his corneas would help someone see.

But in the years that followed, Twomey’s grief and guilt consumed her. She blamed herself for her son’s death.

If only she had told C.J. she loved him, she thought. If only she had given him a hug.

She believed she let C.J. down. As she considered her son’s ashes confined to an urn in the family living room, she was desperate not to let him down again.

She posted her plea on Facebook.

“John and I want our beloved Shmoops to see the world, to BECOME part of a world he didn’t get to see,” she wrote. “Would love to have people, through the power of social media, spread this post to see if anyone out there would be willing to take some of our son’s ashes and show him the world.”

Friends responded. Friends of friends. Perfect strangers.

Within a few weeks, nearly 250 people had volunteered to take C.J. to Dubai, Hawaii, New York and the top of Mount Everest, among other places.

Then Twomey’s story was featured in the Sun Journal.

Soon after that, The Associated Press, CNN and the United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror ran stories. Viralnova.com, a site dedicated to trending stories on the Web, promoted Scattering CJ.

Offers poured in.

“I can’t keep up with it, and that’s not a complaint,” Twomey said. “It’s just the most overwhelming, amazing thing.”

Their stories

Offers arrive every day on Facebook, by email, in texts. Twomey can tell when C.J.’s story pops up somewhere because proposals suddenly spike.

“Last week, I had about 117, 118 emails, all from Ireland,” she said. “All of them were offers of, ‘If he hasn’t been to Ireland yet … ‘” 

Between 300 and 400 people plan to scatter C.J. by the end of the year. With a dwindling amount of her son’s ashes, Twomey has found herself having to do something she never expected: Say no.

“It’s getting harder now because there are so many, such kind people that are offering,” she said. “I just have to sort of pick and choose, and it was never, for me, about that. I didn’t foresee that problem.” 

Twomey tends to look for places C.J. hasn’t been yet, but often it’s the people — their stories, a spark of connection — who lead her to say, “yes, take care of my son.” 

“They don’t have to be like the Taj Mahal,” Twomey said. “We’ve sent (his ashes) to someone’s backyard (in Illinois). She wrote me she has four children and every day they play in that backyard. So every day, C.J. will be with somebody.”

Something else happened that Twomey never expected: Her story helped people. Particularly around the issue of suicide.

“This one woman, her son’s name is C.J. and he was having some suicidal issues,” Twomey said. “She just said, ‘I really would like and hope that if I can get your C.J. and have my C.J. help with this process, maybe he’ll see that we could be you.’ He’s doing fine so far. They did scatter (C.J.’s) ashes and they talk about him all the time.”

In Ohio, April Davis connected with C.J.’s story. Suffering from depression, she tried to kill herself about four years ago.

Davis never told her son, Xander, now 12, about her attempted suicide. With C.J.’s help, she thought she finally could. 

“That gave me the courage, I guess you could say, to sit down with him and talk to him about it, explain to him the things that I was going through and why I felt at that time that was my only way out and how I recovered from that,” she said. “It brought us a lot closer.”

On Easter Sunday, she and Xander stood at the edge of the Cuyahoga River to scatter C.J.’s ashes.

“Your mom misses you,” Xander said as he held C.J’.s ashes in his palm. Crying, he bent down and placed them in the water along the rocky shoreline.

Afterward, Davis asked him about his tears.

“He said, ‘All I could think about was that these could have been your ashes that I was scattering,'” Davis said. “It touched us both a lot.”

Others have emailed Twomey to tell her they’d been considering suicide. Some had gone so far as to write suicide notes — before they stumbled on Scattering CJ.

They decided not to go through with it. 

In Florida, one young woman didn’t change her mind. She sent Twomey a graphic email telling her she wanted to kill herself, and she had a plan. Twomey contacted police there and begged them to find her.

“I said, ‘I’m not nuts. Let me just tell you quickly who I am and why I’m calling,'” she said. “I said, ‘This doesn’t seem like a joke to me, and I’m in Maine and I can’t do anything.'”

Police listened and tracked down the woman. A few days later, Twomey got another email, this one from the woman’s mother.

“She said, ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ They actually admitted her, hospitalized her,” Twomey said. “Her mother would have been me.”

The final frontier

On Scattering CJ’s Facebook page, a community has formed.

People post long after they’ve scattered C.J.’s ashes — sharing stories of loss, supporting each other, supporting Twomey.

“I was coming from a place in my life where I was just so cynical about the world, and then seeing all of these people want to help a stranger and want to be a part of something. And (Twomey) opening herself up to that, I mean, that’s scary,” said Adams, the former heroin addict. “It’s just been incredible.”

Many members of the Facebook community have vowed to keep C.J.’s memory alive.

In Maryland, Stacy Hindt’s family carries C.J.’s ashes with them in a locket. C.J. has ridden with Hindt’s husband in a race car. He was with her teenage daughter when she won her first junior horse race. Hindt plans to carry him with her when she goes skydiving in the spring.

“He’s just like one of the family,” Hindt said.

In Portugal, Peter Oliver, a surf shop owner, had an honorary board made for C.J. The white surf board bears C.J.’s name and military rank in Red Sox colors, and Oliver carries C.J.’s ashes in a sealed divot in the board. Surfers can use the board in return for a donation to charity.

“This young man deserves more than just the ‘usual goodbye,'” Oliver said in an email.

In New York City, Frattini recently filmed an appearance on Discovery Channel’s docudrama series, “Naked and Afraid.” He has a plan for the bit of fame that might come of it.

“I have things that I brought back from the jungle with me that I’m going to auction off, and I’m going to auction them off to fans,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s $20, but whatever money I get, 100 percent of it is going to go to (Twomey’s) foundation (supporting the New England Organ Bank). I wanted to help her any way I can — and I’m going to.”

Frattini credits C.J.’s story with changing his life.

“I don’t know why I saw that article that day,” he said. “I never look at Facebook at work, but I happened to. It just touched me. It changed me. I end any conversation with, ‘I love you.’ Most especially, I end any disagreement, any kind of an argument, with an ‘I love you’ and, ‘We’re OK, buddy; don’t worry about it.'”

Twomey sees positive outcomes as C.J.’s legacy. 

“C.J. has made a change for some people,” she said. “I don’t think I have, but he has touched some people.”

It’s helped ease her worst fear — that C.J. would be forgotten.

“I only had 20 years with him and it scares me to think that in 40 years, somebody might not even know who he was. I think I’ll always be afraid of that,” she said. “But I’m pretty confident that there’s at least a handful of people … they have his framed photo places where you’d put your family photos.”

Four and a half years after C.J. died and nearly a year after Twomey started Scattering CJ, it’s still difficult for her to say goodbye to her son’s ashes. She sends out 25 to 50 packages a week with his photo and half a teaspoon of ashes. She kisses each packet before slipping it into an envelope.

Sometimes, when grief and guilt overwhelm her, Twomey’s husband’s takes over.

“I’m still sad most of the time, but this continues to give me a focus,” she said.

Twomey estimates she has enough ashes to last until about the end of the year. After that, she plans to compile the Scattering CJ stories and photos in a book to help raise money for the New England Organ Bank. 

In the meantime, C.J.’s adventures continue. On Oct. 20, his ashes will be sent to space.

“It seemed like such a compelling story, particularly the notice of trying to scatter his ashes everywhere,” said Charles Chafer, CEO of Celestis, a Texas-based company that provides memorial spaceflights. “I thought, ‘Well, OK, we’re the only ones who go to space. We ought to offer his mom a flight.'”

C.J.’s ashes will join 30 others in a rocket that will lift off one early morning in the New Mexico desert. The rocket will reach the edge of outer space, where the ashes in their capsules will be weightless. A few minutes later, the rocket will re-enter the atmosphere, and the ashes will be retrieved for their families. 

These ashes will go to C.J.’s brother, Connor, who just turned 21 — a year older than C.J. when he died.

Celestis gives away one seat every flight. This one went to C.J. — the adrenaline junkie Air Force member who never sounded happier than when he trained to jump out of a plane.

“We just wanted to join the effort,” Chafer said.

At the end of October, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston — where C.J. died — will unveil a memorial sculpture in his honor. Paid for by the New England Organ Bank to honor Twomey’s fundraising efforts, the colorful tree sculpture will be affixed to a large hallway wall inside the hospital entryway.

To the left of it, in giant letters, will be the inscription: “It’s through giving that life lives on. Dedicated to all organ, eye and tissue donors.” A small dedication plaque will bear C.J.’s name.

Twomey sees it not as a memorial to C.J. but as a promotion for organ donation — something that has affected her family as both recipient and giver.  

“I’m honored that they wanted something to say (C.J.’s name), but I want people to see it and to be reading those big letters and to know what it means,” she said. “Even if they don’t stop, even if they’re running down the hallway to visit someone, for one second, two seconds, they’ll think about organ donation. That’s how it starts.”   

For now, Twomey continues Scattering CJ — answering every query that comes in, posting photos, videos and stories of her son’s travels every few days, talking up organ donation when she can. She marvels at how far her little plea has gone.

How far her son has gone.

“C.J. was so larger than life, his personality. Now he really is,” she said. “I can’t think of one person that I have ever been touched by who would be more perfectly suited to be everywhere at once. So that makes me happy.” 

ltice@sunjournal.com

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