MASON GRAVES ZISETTE
April 21, 1998 to July 12, 2014
By Katharine Blossom Lowrie
Gone too soon
No more moving account of a young man’s life and character than that given by Gary Walsh, the grandfather of Mason Graves Zisette, who died on Thursday, July 12, 2014, two days after a freak bus accident on the San Diego Freeway in Hawthorne. (Details of the accident at end of the story.)
Mason was just 16, a fair-haired athlete and varsity tennis player on the verge of becoming a junior at Mira Costa High School and so much more.
There were plenty of tears at the jam-packed funeral mass at American Martyrs Church in Mason’s hometown of Manhattan Beach on Saturday, July 26: Mason’s parents, Matthew and Amy Zisette, his sisters, Caroline and Katherine and brother Johnny; friends and what looked to be the entire student body of Mira Costa High School.
Many of the mothers of Mason’s pals looked young enough to be just out of college themselves, women in smart suits and dresses, closely shepherding their children; fathers, a good many in suits and ties, eyeing their precious sons.
But it took Mason’s grandfather, a vigorous-looking golfer (athletics run in the Zisette family, after all) with a mustache and handsome demeanor, to bring the congregation (including all the non-Catholics) to moments of pure joy and laughter.
“A bit of a conman”
Walsh began by reminiscing about everything from trying to catch Mason, who at the age of eight months outraced him to a pond in his backyard; to his grandson’s ability to drive a golf ball 280 yards at the age of 14; to Mason’s whiplash tennis (taking after his dad, Matthew, a former tennis pro), to Walsh’s unsuccessful attempts to pry a GPA out of his grandson as recently as last April.
“Mason was a bit of a conman,” he said wryly.
Then, taking what most assumed was a serious turn, Walsh spoke of something that had occurred in the midst of the turmoil of the ICU, when everyone was beyond grief-stricken and questioning why? Why Mason?
“I have great strong faith,” Walsh told the jam-packed church. “But I’m not one of these guys that sees the face of Jesus in Jell-O.”
Even the priests burst into laughter at this.
Then Walsh, who admitted it may have been “the stupidest thing I’ve ever said,” had offered the following to the grieving in the ICU: “Maybe God needed a great tennis player.”
Piped up one distraught family member, “Why didn’t He take (Rafael) Nadal?”
It provided heavenly relief, a flood of laughter in the church, a poignant answer to the unanswerable mystery.
Walsh had other high moments, as when he apologized for being not only Mason’s greatest admirer but “his greatest critic.”
“Mason was not perfect,” said Walsh, who considered the idea of perfect grandchildren “boring.” Although Mason may have been a bit of a conman (the dog, no doubt, “ate his report card,” Wash said), he did it in such a way that “it kinda made us feel OK.”
A 16-year-old alpha male
But Mason was “also selfish, a little self-centered … a little vain,” he said. “All of those things are the necessary DNA of a 16-year-old alpha male.” One who constantly upped his bench-press goals and bulked up his biceps as if he were aiming for an offensive lineman spot on the Mustangs.
Walsh told of watching a 17-year-old student being interviewed on TV right after the accident. When asked if she knew Mason, she said, “You know I wasn’t one of the in-crowd, but every time Mason saw me, he came over and said hello and talked to me.”
The most remarkable, single thing about Mason, Wash said, is “he always, always got to the right place. He always eventually said the right thing. He always, always eventually did the right thing. I never knew anyone like him. Certainly not someone 16. He made all of us, parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, buddies, cousins, he made us all proud to be who we were to him.”
They stood in line, some in suits and ties, nine young men. The tenth was missing, but not in spirit. Sam Sturges spoke for the group, Mason’s buddies and classmates at Mira Costa. They included Adam Kaseff, Adam Zaun, Brett Davis, Chase Greenberg, Kevin Fraher, Michael Katerndahl, Tyler Maruyama and Tyler Riley.
“Mason was a brother to us all,” Sturges said, adding that his words were the “voice of all of us,” the nine boys standing together, “The Bros”, as they call themselves.
“We are truly honored to have this chance to talk about a young man who touched our lives in many different and wonderful ways,” he said.
Mason had many role models, not the least of whom was his father, Matthew. Matthew Zisette wasn’t just a father, Sturges said, he was “a mentor, a guide and a hero.” Sturges described Mason’s mom, Amy, as “one of the sweetest, most compassionate, beautiful and amazing women,” and the family as whole as “the most loving second family that any of us have ever known.”
Mason “went all out, and hard, all the time,” he said. “For those of you who never saw him in the gym, you really missed something. His faces, the noise, sweat dripping down … If someone beat him at something, he would say, ‘Good job. Let’s do this again.’ And he would meet them repeatedly until he won.”
Sturges allowed a dramatic pause, then said, “Mason … loved girls.” The audience laughed. “They loved him back.
It was a fiesta
“The only thing Mason loved more than girls,” Sturges said, “was weekends. Even the weekend he passed away, he was laughing and celebrating.” Mason was being Mason, endearing and intense, he said. He “celebrated life every day of his life. But on weekends it was a fiesta. Life was a constant reason for a celebration.
“That’s why we promise him here and now that life will be appreciated by all of us. His brothers, from this day on.”
Mason was not reserved about sharing his world and his life, Sturges said. “He inspired us to be real and never false. Kind and never judgmental.” And he inspired their dreams, he added. With Mason’s passing, they “made a solemn promise” to keep those dreams, “not just for ourselves, but for him.
“We can’t comprehend how much you love him,” Sturges said, addressing the family, “how much you care for him, how much you miss him. We wanted each to know, Caroline, Johnny, Katherine, Matthew and Amy, that each of you are precious and important to us all. We love you. We will miss Mason every day of our lives for the rest of our lives.”
Bowen Boullianne, one of Mason’s best friends, was on the verge of tears when he spoke. “He was like the brother I would like to have,” Boullianne said, talking about how Mason would be “busy giving me grief” in the gym, saying that Boullianne should be “lifting what he called the big boy weights.”
Boullianne also spoke of the special relationship Mason shared with his father, and how “I loved being a part of it.”
Mason got his “love and his light from his family,” he said. “I’d like to say thank you so much.”
Boullianne, who was on the bus when Mason suffered his fatal injury, still hears Mason’s voice in the gym, “pressing me to go harder, go stronger. He’s still looking down,” he said.
In the days following the accident, according to Twitter feeds and various media accounts, other memories of Mason emerged. Mira Costa sophomore Jeremy Chung, Zisette’s doubles partner, said the two had played club tennis together in Manhattan Beach since they were nine.
“Like a big Labrador retriever”
“He was just a funny, humble, outgoing guy,” Chung said. “Whenever we’d win he’d always have a big smile on his face and whenever we’d lose he’d humbly say he’s sorry for making us lose. He kept his positivity no matter what and I cherished him so much.”
Mira Costa tennis coach Joe Ciasulli remembers him as a fun-loving kid who often provided comic relief for the team. He was the “type of kid who could tease and be teased,” he said.
“He was like a big Labrador retriever, but when he got on the tennis court he was all business,” Ciasulli said. “When he’s goofing around you’d wanna yell at him but you can’t because he’s so lovable.”
When the boy’s tennis season starts next January, the team will be sporting a patch on their uniforms bearing Zisette’s name. The season will be played in Mason’s name, Ciasulli said. “He’s going to be missed.”
At the end of the mass, officiated by Father Tom Kelly, Mason’s family came to the podium, Caroline and Katherine, speaking lovingly of their older brother. Mason “was the best big brother anyone could have,” Caroline said; and the youngest, Katherine said her brother was the “biggest and strongest and always looking out for all of us.”
On the memorial card, the family wrote: “It is true, we have all gained an Angel in heaven. It was our greatest joy to share [Mason’s] life on this earth and we know we will be together again.”
It was in all the papers, all over TV, how Mason was laid flat when he struck the Arbor Vitae Street overpass on the San Diego Freeway while standing on the top section of a double-decker Starline Tour bus on Thursday, July 10th.
He was celebrating a classmate’s birthday with a large group of kids on a sightseeing trip around L.A. when the bizarre accident occurred at about 7:45 p.m. He was taken to a nearby hospital but never regained consciousness.
Mason’s parents allowed a line of more than 100 kids to say goodbye to Mason before they took him off life support on Saturday, July 12th.