At first, they both dreamed the same thing every night: that Jacob was alive. They’d open their eyes in the morning and listen for familiar sounds to float out of their son’s room at the end of the second-floor hallway.
As they came fully awake, reality hit hard. Another sympathetic telephone call would come in. More flowers and cards would arrive at their Beaverton home. Jacob’s cremains, far heavier than they expected when they picked them up at the funeral home, still sat on his desk, packed in a compact black box.
He was dead.
More than 200 days have now passed since Jacob Stokes died. Spring turned to summer, which gave way to fall. Yet the door to his room remains open. To close that door, to hear that click, would carry with it a finality they cannot face.
His parents are drawn to this room.
Sometimes during the day.
Sometimes at night.
The room reveals the arc of a life cut short. Childish birthday cards, once taped to the wall, lie in a drawer. A book on caterpillars that hasn’t been opened in years. Jeans tossed aside.
In this room, Matt Stokes is full of tears and anger.
“It feels like half my body’s been severed,” Jacob’s father said. “I had no idea how much he was a part of me. I can’t believe my son’s remains are packed in a goddamn cardboard box.”
Standing in this room, Tanya Stokes chooses each word with precision.
“He was … inquisitive … a gentle soul. I’ll never be able to see … what he would have become.”
In this room, his parents hear their son’s voice echo in their heads. They fear that one day they won’t be able to hear it anymore. And so, through the summer of 2023, they listened intently, desperate to hang on to him.
His mother wore her son’s sweatshirts.
His father dabbed on his son’s cologne.
They looked forward to their dreams each night.
They kept his bedroom door open.
On Friday, May 12, Jacob Stokes and three friends drove from Beaverton to Cannon Beach for what Mountainside High School seniors call “ditch day.” With parental approval, seniors take the day off for a rite of passage.
Jacob and his buddies had checked the weather forecast – a blistering 90 in the Portland area and 20 degrees cooler at the coast – and set off on U.S. 26. It was going to be a quick day trip. They expected to hit Cannon Beach mid-morning, wander the town, get something to eat, traipse around the beach and then, in the afternoon, head back to Beaverton.
All those in the car agreed it was a perfect way to spend the day.
That morning, nearly 80 miles away from Beaverton, members of the Cannon Beach Fire Department knew the sun and clear skies would bring crowds to the coastal town closest to the Portland metro area.
They monitored weather reports and the surf forecasts and checked in with Jason Smith, the deputy chief. In addition to firefighting duties, Smith also coordinates the Cannon Beach lifeguard program, one of the most extensive such programs in Oregon.
The greatest danger at Cannon Beach, Smith said, is from what the department calls rip currents, a more precise description than what are commonly known as riptides. They are created at random when powerful waves pound against the shore and then retreat, forming trenches in the sand.
Cannon Beach, he said, has more rip currents than other Oregon beaches because of rock features and topography. Some rip currents are narrow, just a few feet, while others may be 50 yards wide. Some are short, ending just beyond the breaking waves. Others keep moving hundreds of yards out to sea.
And they come and go, making being in the ocean like walking across a minefield. A rip current doesn’t pull a person under the water. It pulls the person away from the shore, at a rate of about 8 feet a second.
“If you’re in the ocean, break contact with the sand and get in a rip current, basically a river of energy, you’re at the mercy of the ocean,” Smith said. “An Olympic swimmer can’t swim faster than the current.”
During the summer, Smith has lifeguards out on the beach 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with one stationed in a tower. That guard in the tower uses binoculars to scan a four-mile stretch of the beach every two minutes, looking for rip currents, which essentially hide in calm water.
If the tower guard spots a rip current and sees people near it, the guard uses a two-way radio to notify other lifeguards driving back and forth along the beach.
A lifeguard drives to the location to watch those in the ocean. If the situation doesn’t look safe, the lifeguard hits an air horn and uses a loudspeaker to tell people to get out of the water.
Most people don’t know anything about rip currents, and they mistakenly feel safe in calm water. So the guard explains the currents to the beachgoers coming out of the water, what to look for, and encourages them to move to another section of the beach.
In the off-season, the Cannon Beach Fire Department tries to always have at least one firefighter on duty who’s capable of a water rescue. But they are juggling other duties, so they don’t patrol the beach; they respond to 9-1-1 calls for help.
The beefed-up version of the lifeguard program runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend – what’s officially known as Lifeguard Season. This is a 17-member team of firefighters, volunteer firefighters and others who’ve passed rigorous tests to be ocean-rescue-certified.
May 12 was two weeks before Lifeguard Season began.
Smith, aware of the weather and surf forecasts, called his chief, who agreed to have two firefighters also do beach patrol in addition to their other work, starting at about lunch hour, when they expected tourists and day-trippers to hit the beach in sizable numbers.
The team completed morning and early-afternoon patrols before they returned to the fire station at about 3:30 p.m. for a short break to get something to eat and rest up.
At about that time, Jacob Stokes and his friends were walking to the beach.
They hadn’t planned on getting in the water – no one brought swim trunks – but the weather was so nice, with so many people and dogs frolicking along the beach, they decided on the spur of the moment to wade in, just up to their knees.
They walked into the minefield.
They were standing in the ocean, only a few yards from dry land, when a series of waves knocked all of them off their feet. Two found their footing on the sand and swam to shore.
“The other two were in a trench,” said Smith. “The current had them. Within minutes hypothermia kicked in. Diminished muscle movement. Throw in adrenaline, waves crashing over their heads, and it starts a downhill spiral.”
An employee at Mo’s Restaurant, which is on the beachfront, happened to be looking out a window and called 9-1-1.
Police were first on the scene. Lifeguards arrived seven minutes after the 9-1-1 call, considered a quick response because the team needed to get wetsuits, jet skis and long surfboards from the station – nearly two miles from the site – and then rush to the beach.
A lifeguard on a long surfboard paddled into the ocean, spotted a boy, maybe 100 yards from shore, pulled him onto his board and got him back to the beach. Crowds watched the boy, exhausted and cramping, fall to the sand, unable to stand. While crews loaded him into an ambulance, the lifeguard jumped back on his board and paddled back out to sea to look for Jacob Stokes.
“The surf was significant,” said Smith. “In addition to the guard on the board, we had four lifeguards on jet skis, a Coast Guard helicopter and a Coast Guard boat all looking for him.”
Rescuers searched for an hour.
Police found Jacob Stokes’ backpack where he left it on the beach. Inside they found his wallet, cellphone and driver’s license; this information was relayed to the office, where someone researched and found a home number.
At about 5 p.m., a telephone rang in Beaverton.
Matt Stokes answered it in the kitchen.
A woman on the line said she was with the Cannon Beach Police Department. He remembers her as being matter of fact. She asked if Matt knew any boys who had gone to the beach. When he told her his son and some of his school friends were there, she asked if Jacob was his son.
Jacob had drowned, the voice said. His body was missing. The woman asked the parents to come to Cannon Beach.
“All I could say,” Matt said, “was, ‘No, no, no.’”
Stokes’ wife, hearing only those three words, so full of anguish, waited for her husband to tell her what was going on.
He hung up, turned to her and gave her the news.
The shock overwhelmed the couple.
Matt called their daughter at Oregon State, where Jacob was planning to attend in the fall, and asked if she was with someone.
He broke the news.
Through her tears she asked her father questions, but he didn’t have any answers.
After hanging up, the parents stood in the heavy silence of the kitchen, both crying. Then they hustled upstairs to get things for an overnight trip to Cannon Beach.
Matt had been going to the beach town since he was younger than his son. He knew how to find the police station. When he pulled into the parking lot, he and his wife saw people – police officers and lifeguards – who clearly were waiting for them.
The officials filled in details the best they could. A chaplain asked if there was anything she could do. The parents thanked her, said there was nothing, and they returned to the car, setting off to the hotel room they’d reserved by phone on the way down U.S. 26.
The next day, Saturday, Matt and Tanya Stokes went to the beach, to the spot where Jacob last had been seen. They took it all in – the waves, the sun, people on the beach.
“My son and I did a lot of surf-fishing,” Matt said. “I had him in the water all the time. I always talked about riptides and being careful.”
That Saturday, Matt studied long and hard the spot where Jacob vanished.
“My God, what was he thinking?” he recalled thinking. “Why did he go in there and get in trouble?”
In the days that followed, he said, “I’d get mad at him, scream his name out loud and ask why he did what he did. And then I’d feel guilty, as a father, that I’d not told him when he left home that morning to think about riptides.”
For nine days, Matt and Tanya walked through their lives in a fog. Then their phone rang again.
A man walking on the beach during a low tide found a body in a depression. The medical examiner called Matt, told him he’d made a positive identification and said Matt did not have to return to the beach to view the body. He would have his son’s remains sent to a Forest Grove funeral home.
Matt and Tanya Stokes attended their son’s high-school graduation, staring at an empty chair on the stage, their son’s cap and gown draped over it.
One of Jacob’s friends accepted the diploma. He handed it to Matt and Tanya. Jacob’s parents stood alone and watched all the other parents in the room hug and kiss their children.
The days kept going by.
The couple owns Cedar Landscape Maintenance, a company serving commercial clients throughout the metro area, and had to focus on customers, employees and payroll. Bills to pay, shopping for groceries, doing the laundry and so many other things that demanded their attention.
On Father’s Day Matt received a card from one of Jacob’s friends with a handwritten inscription: I know this must be so hard on you.
His parents planted a memorial garden in their backyard, and set a small, engraved stone about the size of a compact disc – In loving memory. Jacob Stokes 2005-2023 – in the middle of the foliage. They look at it every day. The family is not religious, but they found a measure of comfort in nature.
“A plant lives and then it dies,” said Tanya. “Some of the plants have seeds that will bloom again in the spring, and the cycle will start all over.”
They felt a stab in the gut whenever they heard about other seniors in Jacob’s class getting ready to go to college.
The plan had been to take Jacob to OSU in September. A dorm room had been assigned, fees had been paid and classes selected.
They made the trip.
They wanted to spend time with their daughter, who lived in a house in Corvallis. She and her brother had been close, and she was struggling with her grief. Her parents wanted to be there for her, to talk about life and loss.
They stayed away from campus on move-in day. They didn’t want to see kids and parents hauling boxes from cars and vans, going into the dorm where their boy should be living.
When they returned home, Matt faced the reality of the future.
“He was going to have an amazing life,” he said. “Now there will be no college friends, no girlfriends, no daughter-in-law, no grandkids.”
They joined an online grief group for parents who have lost a child. They haven’t talked in the group; they haven’t even allowed their faces to appear on screen.
But they’ve listened to others and found that what they feel – the anger, the loss and unfairness of it all – is common and they take comfort in that.
“You have to heal yourself,” said Tanya. “I can’t heal Matt. We are each on our own journeys, and his road looks different than mine.”
Her husband said he spent much of the summer lost in pain.
“Life was like a glass of water,” he said. “No color, no texture, no taste.”
He decided to see a doctor, talk about his emotional state, ask for an anti-depressant prescription.
“It was hard to go ask for help,” he said. “It made me feel weak, and I didn’t expect much from it.”
He now considers it a miracle.
“I’m proud of myself,” he said. “I can be there for my wife and daughter. I see why couples break up.”
The parents took different routes on their journey, but they arrived together.
“Matt and I are closer than ever,” said Tanya. “Part of my heart is gone. I’ve never experienced this kind of loss, but I’ve come to accept Jacob isn’t coming back.”
For weeks, being around Jacob’s friends was too painful. They resented seeing young life blooming. In time, they realized they were locking themselves in a prison of their own making.
In mid-October, Matt and Tanya Stokes found the emotional courage to call three of Jacob’s oldest friends. They invited them to their home for a spaghetti dinner.
The boys, who five months earlier had planned to spend the night of May 12 at the Stokes house after Jacob returned from the beach with his other friends, accepted.
They reminisced about Jacob – even laughed. They looked at photographs. They told stories about the boy who was no longer there.
He was the kind of kid who vacuumed the carpet with dedicated precision. A kid who loved video games and competing with his friends. A kid who was a saver, who planned to study computer science in college.
Jacob’s friends then talked about what they wanted to do with their young lives, their dreams for the years ahead. Matt and Tanya asked these questions. They wanted to know.
No one can prove such things, of course, but Matt and Tanya felt Jacob’s presence in their family room that night.
They look now to the future.
In living, they will honor their boy.
At the end of each day, Matt and Tanya lock the doors of their home, turn off the lights downstairs and walk up the steps that lead to the second-floor hallway.
Jacob is there.
His junior year high-school photograph is in a frame on the wall. A thick mass of hair, eyes that seem to see your soul, the face of a boy on the cusp of being a man.
Right there next to the door that remains open.
“Every night I kiss my finger and I touch his face,” the father said.
The mother added:
“Every night I pause outside his door, and I quietly tell my son I love him.”