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Remembering Zachary: How Zach Zent lived a lifetime in 23 years

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Zach Zent, always a proud student, back home in Redondo Beach shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan in 2016. Photos courtesy the Zent family

by David Horacio Rosales Rojas

It’s true our family lost Zachary after his battle with cancer, a battle in which he brought his very own style of boldness. It wasn’t the bravado of those who raise a fist to the sky and invite thunder upon themselves. No. It was more intelligent,  full of realism and humor.

He knew that enduring the constant, sharp pains of his illness wouldn’t necessarily reward him and us with the miracle of his survival. He told his mother he wasn’t going to make it and that the reality of his death needed to be faced. At the same time, on his last Instagram post, he’s there, with a tube attached to his chest, sporting a mustache and soul patch and giving a figurative thumbs up to his followers.

His lungs were flooding with water. Breathing and struggling were becoming synonyms in his life. He was thin and the chestnut hair he once pridefully combed in the mirror had fallen. As a football player at Redondo High and an avid sports fan his entire life, having a muscular frame was important. But there he was, grinning at the camera with an irony that was dark and candid at the same time. He looked like a colorful boxer who had been close to upsetting a formidable champion and in that process had taken a Rocky Balboa-like beating. A beating more legendary than any victory.

Zach’s last Instagram post: more than a defiance of death, a statement of courage, hope and humor in the darkest moments.

That picture is pure Zachary Noel Zent. Yes, it’s true that he has left us. But it’s also true that his life, short as it might seem to all of us, is a treasure chest so full of anecdotes that some of us might never reach its bottom. Personally, I’m still waiting for one of his greetings in Spanglish. I’ve been tempted to say hello on his social network, to be updated in the latest English profanities and college slang, to ask him how the weather is in cities I’ve never visited in the United States and to send him pictures of my one-year-old son wearing the University of Michigan jersey that he sent as a gift last year.

I have to remind myself that he won’t reply anymore. As for now, memories are raining on our heads. We are all going through a hurricane of sorrow, a tornado that has swept away the dreams and desires of happiness and prosperity that could have taken place in the future of our beloved Zach. It was that close to happening. He almost took to the ship to become a young, successful lawyer.

Cancer met him when he was about to embark towards this early triumph. On the night of Friday the 25th of May, that journey and many more that could’ve come ended. There were other countless journeys that had taken place in the past. I’m seeing more often, as the days go by since his passing, that the rain of memories can also be sunny, that every drop is falling from a golden sky.

II

Aunt Luz lived in our house in Colombia until I was seven years old and I’ve always felt that she’s my second mamá. She helped my mother Sol raise me and I’ve looked for her advice and her blessings through my life. Her son Zachary became my third brother when he was born on July 7, 1994.

I remember, particularly, his second trip to Colombia. He was two and half years old. His short chestnut hair, rosy cheeks, tiny teeth and his sweet, jingling voice made the entire family feel as if Aunt Luz and Uncle Steve had brought the living version of those angels seen in baroque or rococo art.

Zach became the best English teacher his Spanish-speaking cousins could have had. We used to point at everything around us and he would tell us the name of any object. We made him repeat his name a thousand times and, instead of getting bored, he’d smile at us when he saw the joy that his bird-like voice gave us.

Zach with parents Luz and Steve Zent.

There was another trip when he was four or five. Aunt Luz brought us a Playstation and Zach wanted to play. We’d hand him, one unplugged controller, while we played. His favorite video game back in those days was Spyro the Dragon. Suddenly, Zach would scream in frustration because Spyro wasn’t moving the way he wanted it to move. My brother Sebastian and I would try to explain to him, in broken English, that the game was just too difficult. He never bought that. He suspected something was going on and would stop playing. Years later we told him the truth and every time he mentioned the words “Spyro the Dragon” he would laugh and gave us credit for our ingenuity: “That was a good one, guys.”

Later on, Zach never let anybody give him an unplugged controller. School was just easy for him. I never heard of him having trouble with any class. On the contrary, he carried good grades as effortlessly as bringing his lunchbox home. The times I vacationed at Redondo and walked him and his brother Zane to Beryl Elementary or Parras Middle School, I never felt that Zach was worried, nor did he ever tell me that he was preoccupied because of homework or exams. I offered to help with anything, but he politely declined every time. The same thing happened when at Redondo Union High School.

“It’s alright, man,” he would tell me whenever I asked him if he needed anything from me.

He had that natural and alert intelligence of those who are born knowing what’s going on around them, a quality most surely inherited from his father, my beloved uncle Steve. He was never a fluent Spanish speaker, but he always knew if somebody was speaking about him and made himself clear with the few words he could remember.

This instinctive smartness was one of Zach’s assets as a football player.

“He was a strong, intelligent football player,” says his younger brother, Zane, who later also become a star player at Redondo Union.  “His junior year he played outside linebacker on the varsity team and began being recruited by some Ivy League schools. He was voted one of the best linebackers in the Bay League.”

Then came the first of the two behemoths that tackled him beyond the football field: he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the digestive or gastrointestinal tract, in November of 2009. Not only his ambition for elite athleticism crashed against the illness, but also his easy enjoyment of life. Nonetheless, he played a formidable match against resignation and self-abandonment.

“Before his senior year football season, his Crohn’s became too much and he finally got the surgery for the disease. He wasn’t able to workout or practice for pretty much the entire offseason and before the start of the season he was about fifty pounds lighter than he was the previous season,” remembers Zane. “However, despite his lack of physical strength, he made up for it with mental strength. He started at outside linebacker again and was voted captain for the season. He didn’t have great numbers, but the toughness to do what he was able to do was ridiculous. Just to be able to play was a miracle, but he worked out, and battled tough.”

After graduating from Redondo Union High School, he was admitted to the University of Michigan.

III

Zachary’s love for baseball and football began early. He was competitive both on the sports fields and in his front yard.

We always said he was like a “young old man.” Another image that keeps visiting me lately is one that I saw back in the summer of 2002 when I was visiting Redondo, right after graduating from high school in Cali, Colombia. One afternoon I went for a bike ride with my cousin Christy, who babysat Zach and Zane for years. Christy and I were staying at the Zents and we told them that we were going to be out for one or two hours, but our stroll took longer and the sun was setting when we arrived.

When we got close to the house, we heard Zach’s voice. “Where were you, guys? I was worried!” he said as if he had been babysitting us for a long time. He was standing at Zane’s bedroom window, pressing the panes with his hands. It appeared to me that he had been waiting to see our shadows in the asphalt for hours, like an anxious father.

In every one of my trips to California as a teenager, Zach would make me join him on the fastest and highest roller coasters. My father, a doctor and the total opposite of a daredevil, has always said those attractions are absurd and unnecessary ways of torturing oneself. In spite of being 10 years younger than me, Zach instinctively found the manner with which to ease my apprehensions about those rides. He never resorted to a coarse challenge. I can’t remember him ever calling me a coward or a chicken. He would just say that roller coasters were very safe in the U.S. and that they were a kind of fun one shouldn’t miss, given the opportunity. He was right. I never regretted going on them and he got the bonus of my Spanish coursing out of me at the top of my lungs, which always cracked him up.

A delighted Zach pays a visit to his maternal grandmother Carmen at Obando, Valle, Colombia, on December 30th, 2014.

The last time he came to Colombia, back in December 2014, I drove him across the State of Valle del Cauca. He wanted to visit our grandmother Carmen before going back to Michigan. He saw that I was driving well below the speed limit posted on the road signs.

“You drive like a pussy,” he told me.

“Well, aunt Luz asked me to take care of her niño,” I answered.

He just laughed. We spent the rest of the trip listening to soul and R&B classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and other rare grooves from that time, and agreeing that it was a kind of music that was undoubtedly better than the current sounds. He had lost weight while partying at college and the wanted to regain some muscle mass.

“It’s an American tradition. You should hit the weights too. You’re too skinny, man,” he told me. I played an Eddie Kendrick’s song called ‘”The Thin Man” and said: “That’s me.”

“You’re right. That’s you. Forget the weights then,” he said, smilingly.

More than 10 years had passed since he had been seen in Obando, our grandmother’s town. When we got there, the family welcomed him with a full party: a singer, a sound system, colorful banners, generations of relatives and neighbors, food and sodas. It was such a warm and loud reception that he couldn’t help but smile, amazed, moved, confused, not knowing who to greet first.

When he had said “Hola!” for the hundredth time, he told to me, with a grin as bright and wide as the banners on the walls: “I feel like the mayor of this town!”

That’s how loved he was, and those moments of joy and humor are the legacy he has left us, an inheritance more valuable than any sporting glory or professional triumph. The clouds will take their time to move away from the sun, but once the light starts shining through, those smiles we shared with Zach, those stories that never failed to amuse him, that helped all of us take ourselves less seriously, will remind everybody how intensely and deeply he lived his life, no matter how short it might seem.

Zach’s funeral service will be held on Saturday, June 16  at St. James Catholic Church in Redondo Beach at 10 a.m. After the service, there will be a reception at the Portofino Hotel ballroom, also in Redondo, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also read: “Redondo Remembers Zach Zent.”

David H. Rosales (the author), who was 13 years old at the time, plays in Hermosa Beach with his late cousin Zach, then 3, in July 1997.

Elegy

                           To Zachary

 

At last you’ve been blessed

with freedom and lightness,

with the painless movement

of things raising invisibly in the wind,

with breathing easier than air in the air.

 

You can ride across the valley

as fast as you want and stop

anywhere in the green vastness,

no longer wondering who owns

those sugar cane fields or that farm.

Come to town anytime and stay

for as long as you want.

We’ll welcome you again

with bands and signs and parties.

We’ll make you feel once more

that we’ve chosen you for mayor.

 

Please send us letters

with pictures of your childhood.

Let us think that you’re back at being

that boy who waited for us at your window

one summer evening

and when you saw us, you said:

“Where were you? I was worried!”,

sounding like a seven-year-old father.

 

Wait for us. We are shadows

under the orange sky

of your never-ending youth,

under the eternal radiance

of those days when we pointed at everything

to learn this language that sounded in your voice

like tiny bells announcing the arrival of an infant god.

 

Wait for us.

We’ll tell you where we have been

and you’ll find out that you’ve been there too

or in better places, anyway.

Wait for us.

We were your past

and now

you are our future.

                        —  David Horacio Rosales Rojas

The beach, sailing, the breeze: Zach, 8 years old in the picture, was always a proud and happy son of the South Bay.

 

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