A beautiful boy: Love after death
by Mark McDermott
Jonathan Bisignano was two years old and ready to see the world.
His family was living in South Redondo at the time, and Jonathan was playing by himself in the backyard. Then he wasn’t. His mother Angela Bisignano looked outside and her son was nowhere to be found. Panic set in. He’d found a way to climb the backyard fence.
“He decided he was going to go someplace, exploring,” Angela recalled. “I could not find that boy.”
He figured out how to climb through a neighbor’s gate, as well. Nearly an hour later, his mother found Jonathan calmly playing on a backyard swingset a half block away.
In coming years, Gerard and Angela Bisignano would come to admire, occasionally fear, and generally expect the unending surprises that came with their first child’s blithely bold disposition.
“My wife was concerned he had a bone problem because he kept breaking bones,” Gerard said. “It was skateboarding, soccer, snowboarding…jumping off a slide when he was three. When he was four he broke a collarbone.”
“By the time he was 16, he’d broken seven or eight bones. Because he was charging.”
Even as a fourth grade Boy Scout, or Webelo, he managed to push to the very edge.
“We were in the Santa Monica Mountains, and there was this one huge mountain,” Angela said. “He ran to the top of it, and there was a 500-foot drop. He runs to it; he’s the first one up there. I’m shaking down below. ‘What are you doing? Stop!’ That is what he would do.”
Jonathan charged through his childhood, an electric presence wherever he went. Hunter Riley, who would become one of his closest friends, remembers when Jonathan arrived at Palos Verdes Intermediate School. They were both in eighth grade. The Bisignanos had just moved from Redondo to Palos Verdes and nobody at school knew the new kid. But few failed to notice him. He was almost impossible to miss, with his long black skater boy hair, wolf-like, piercing blue eyes and buoyant, mischievous presence.
“The first thing me and my buddies, we didn’t like this good looking guy getting all the attention from the girls,” Riley said, laughing. “Our first reaction was to punk him a little bit. We tried to hate him, but we couldn’t. He became a part of our friends circle.”
Another member of that circle, Arian Savar, recalled how the girls were curious about Jonathan while the guys kept a cool distance.
“I’ve always been a direct, straightforward person, so I just walked right over to him and introduced myself,” Savar said. “I wanted to know, ‘Is he one of us?’ To be honest, it turned out he was something quite more. He looked me in the eye and shook my hand.”
Thus began a friendship that would have all the usual “shenanigans,” as Savar said, that teenage boys get up to together — the sports, misadventures, girl chasing, and epic hangouts of the bumpy, exuberant years of high school.
But comraderie with Jonathan had another level. He was somebody who found deeper ways to connect, both with friends and family and the world at large.
“We would talk about God, family, our community, our country, what it all means, and what our place is in it,” Savar said.
“We’d have conversations about metaphysics and the newest information on consciousness research all the way, basically, to what happens after you die,” Riley said. “That was something he researched, especially after high school. He was always exploring.”
He played some football early in high school, but then grabbed hold of the idea that the school needed a rugby team. So he put one together with his friends.
“He didn’t just play football, he had to play rugby, with no pads,” his mother, Angela, said. “He couldn’t just run and do hurdles, no, he had to be the pole vaulter — like he would always be going for the thing that would make me be on my knees praying, ‘Oh Lord what is he doing now?’”
Jonathan also had an ability to learn on the fly, and to do so with an almost maddening ease.
“He picked up rugby really quickly,” Riley said. “He was a smaller guy, but he was tough. He really got into rugby. He was 5’7’’, a buck thirty, maybe forty. But he was an animal.”
“He was very hands on,” Riley said. “Back when we met, it was skateboarding, then he got into the surfing thing, playing piano, playing guitar. He didn’t even let a lot of people know he played piano, I think he was a little embarrassed…And he was weirdly good at everything he tried.”
Jonathan was an exceptional student. He dreamt of going to USC, and lived that dream. In college, he met the girl of his dreams, a beautiful doe-eyed journalism student named Casey Tamkin, with whom he began to plan a life beyond college. Last spring, he was preparing to graduate with a degree in international relations and economics and pursue a career in investment banking. With typical, methodical avidness, he’d applied with 100 firms, and was advancing in the multilevel hiring process that the highest level financial firms require. Instead of doing the usual fraternity brother spring break to Cabo, he flew with a friend to Japan simply to better know how that corner of the world worked.
His parents noticed that after his return he was experiencing unusual weariness, beyond normal jet lag. But he kept charging: a weekend in Vegas with his fraternity brothers, then a weekend in the desert with his girlfriend at the Coachella music festival. The couple drove back together Monday morning, April 18, and made plans to meet for dinner that night.
He then went to his apartment and took a nap from which he never woke up.
At the time of his passing, at the age of 22, the circumstances — a college kid who’d been at a music festival — led to a widespread assumption he’d experienced an overdose. The USC Daily Trojan reported “accidental overdose” as the likely cause of death. Initially, due to the news report, his father accepted the assumption, despite the fact it seemed entirely out of character for Jonathan and no drugs were found near his son.
“He went to Coachella, it ended on Sunday and he partied all night long like kids do, into the next days, probably took something somewhere along the way he shouldn’t have, he wasn’t sure how powerful it was, whatever, and then finally made it home after maybe 48 hours up and just faded,” Gerard said. “That was the assumption.”
But the truth was he’d done nothing of the kind. He and Casey left the festival’s final show and grabbed some food. Far from partying, he’d dutifully waited an hour-and-a-half in line with her just so she could have the noodles she wanted. Afterwards, they went back to their condo rental for a good night’s sleep.
The next night, his heart simply gave out.
“There is just a moment,” his father said later, “where the number of beats that God has allowed to you comes to an end.”
His family had a history of congenital heart failure. Angela’s father experienced four heart attacks and died of the final one, at the age of 54. But those who knew Jonathan best saw something beyond a genetic condition. They saw a young man who lived as if each day could be his last, a friend, son, and brother gone far too soon, but one who left behind lessons in love and living for those left in the wake of the startlingly beautiful and bold swath he cut on his way through this life.
“Jon, you were taken from us far too soon,” his girlfriend, Casey, said at his memorial, standing near his casket. “But you taught me that life isn’t measured by the the breaths we take. It is measured by what we do with the moments we are given. In just 22 years, you lived a fuller life than someone who could have lived to be 100.”
Jonathan Chase Bisignano was born May 24, 1993.
“Twenty-five hours of labor,” Angela said. “Jonathan took his sweet time coming out the birth canal. In hindsight, it was probably a prelude for coming attractions. Jonathan was determined to do things his way.”
“The first time I saw him I fell in love, deep, deep love,” she said. “He became in that moment my beautiful boy. Honestly, the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. It wasn’t for another four years that I would know my second beautiful boy.”
Angela, a clinical psychologist, put her career on hold to give as much attention as possible to her two boys. This was indicative of the approach the Bisignanos took with their family. They lived deliberately. Gerard, a successful real estate agent, was elected to the Redondo Beach City Council when Jonathan was four.
“I thought, ‘I want to show my family that being involved, getting out there, is an important part of life,” he said. “If we didn’t have children at the time, I never would have run.”
Pastor Dan Bradford of King’s Harbor Church, who baptized Jonathan at Seaside Lagoon and officiated at his funeral at Green Hills Memorial Park, said he admired the intentionality with which the Bisignanos conducted their lives.
“I can tell you, both are movers and shakers, but not for sake of being movers and shakers,” Bradford said. “They are genuinely invested in everything they put their hands and hearts to.”
The fact the boys were given Old Testament names, the youngest as the man who would be king and the oldest as his deepest friend and protector, was likewise a considered decision.
“Jonathan’s name means gift from God,” Angela said. “When we were trying to figure out a second name for our youngest, there is a story in the Bible that talks about how the souls of Jonathan and David were knit together. We loved the idea that the souls of our boys would be knit together. And they were so close. It was precious.”
As the family looked through photographs after Jonathan’s passing, they noticed something striking about the photos that contained both brothers.
“There are literally no photos of my brother where he doesn’t have his arm around me,” said David. “I look at those photos and I realize how much he loved me. So that’s pretty cool.”
“I don’t recall Jonathan ever saying anything mean spirited about his brother, he loved him so much,” Angela said. “I was really proud that I raised a son who cared so much about his brother; that really warmed my heart.”
Growing up, David said, his brother was larger than life. Everyone seemed to know him.
“It was strange for me,” David said. “I don’t know why, but it’s like my brother was famous. I felt like I was the brother of a celebrity. He just had a huge impact.”
“I was always the kid who had the coolest big bro,” he said. “Everything my brother did was the coolest, that’s just how it was, and every story I told was about my brother. ‘Well, my brother…’ Now it’s awkward. I can’t use those stories.”
Early on, their age difference meant that Jonathan rarely hung out with David. But David, who is now 18, remembers the exact moment that changed. He was 11 or 12. He and his brother were supposed to be going to church. Jonathan drove.
“You know what? Let’s go do something fun,” he told his little brother.
They went and got burritos at Phanny’s in Redondo Beach.
“In my mind, I’m 11, doing something against the rules — it’s not really what I did yet,” David recalled. “That was kind of the breaking of the barrier.”
After Jonathan went away to college, he didn’t come home often. But once, when he was in high school, David got a call from Jonathan. He was coming to pick him up from school.
“Man,” David said. “It’s 10:30.”
“He said, ‘I’m coming to pick you up.’ I just left class, and that was it.”
Jonathan had a gift for brotherhood beyond his family. Throughout his life, other boys congregated around him.
“He was a gatherer,” Gerard said. “We would wake up on Saturday mornings and there would be five or six kids here sleeping on the floor.”
Savar was one of those kids. He recalled “a rough patch” when he stayed for a while at the Bisignano house.
“Jon provided a safe haven in so many ways, not just words, wisdom, comraderie, and hugs, but he sheltered me at times when I needed it,” he said. “The family was amazing. They’d see me on the couch, ‘Okay, good morning.’ Three days go by, the weekend passes, I wake up on the couch and they never gave me a hard time. They just made sure my head was in the right place, that I knew hard times come and go.”
Once when he was staying with the Bisignanos, the family had plans to go to Palm Springs to celebrate Jonathan’s and his grandfather Flavio’s birthdays. Jonathan asked Savar to come along; Savar declined, telling his friend he didn’t want his heavy mood to dampen the occasion.
“No,” Jonathan said. “You are going with me.”
The Bisignanos, realizing their son needed a vehicle large enough to haul his constant crew, had purchased a GMC Denali. It would become an iconic car among his high school friends. Jonathan and Savar drove through the desert in the Denali.
“Jon was one of those people you could be in a car with for hours and you are constantly entertained, never a moment of boredom,” Savar said. “If there is a quiet point, it’s because you are contemplating something you just talked about. Car rides always went fast.”
Savar didn’t want to talk about what was bothering him.
“After we get back, dude,” he said. “Not now.”
“We are not going anywhere with something weighing on your mind,” Jonathan replied. “Dude, you know me. You better tell me.”
And so they talked. And laughed. And sat and thought, staring out at the stark landscape, Savar’s troubles dissipating with each passing mile.
“We pull into Palm Springs, get out of the car smiling and laughing,” Savar said. “All worries were completely wiped out, gone — not dormant, but resolved.”
They arrived to Flavio Bisignano holding court over drinks at the pool patio, regaling the boys with tales from his 90 years of living. Hours later, as they made their way to their hotel room, Savar paused and nearly broke down.
“There’s so much suffering and conflict in my life,” he told Jonathan. “I just can’t see going on 90 years, another 70 years of life. It’s just too much.”
Jonathan looked his friend in the eye. “You have to, man,” he said. “If we are old men, telling stories to our kids and grandkids, we are going to look back and be grateful we got to live this long life. You aren’t going anywhere without me.”
Riley said there was a dark time during his high school years that he’s not sure he would have made it through had it not been for Jonathan’s relentlessly caring presence. Unlike most of his other friends, Riley wasn’t a partier. Jonathan, with his ebullient conviviality, was extremely social. Yet he would make sure he and Riley also had quiet time together.
“He was the only person I could talk to about some things,” Riley said. “At that age, most people, even friends, are very surface level. We’d have these strong, deep, meaningful conversations….No matter what his situation was, he was always able to be positive, always able to give you his full attention.”
As Jonathan once told Riley, if one of his buddies was going through a hard time, then he was, too. He also had an extremely unusual characteristic for a teenager: he didn’t particularly care what anyone thought of him.
“It’s hard to explain, but there was no problem with him,” Savar said. “He never let anything stick to him, or define him, or ruin his day. That was something that left a mark on me, in so many ways. He was like a pillar. If somebody was angry, he’d be like, ‘Screw it. Let that guy be angry. You can be better than that. Let’s skate, go bomb the hill, go get a milkshake.’ Always that positive influence.”
“He was just such a good guy, no bullshit, so straightforward. If you didn’t like Jon, there was probably something wrong with you.”
He had a perpetual smile on his face, a distinctive high-pitched laugh that his friends loved to mimic, and an inclination to never take himself too seriously.
“That was one of the things I took away from Jon the most: his ability to not care about other people’s judgement,” Riley said. “That was the biggest thing. He was goofy, such a dork, he could be so embarrassing, but he just wouldn’t care.”
His penchant for helping those around him rings a bell for friends of Angela.
“She’s always lived with purpose and intention, and she’s a great help to other women, helping them discover their gifts and live life to the fullest,” said friend Carol Anderson Junara. “She’s a great communicator of love.”
On Mother’s Day this year, three weeks after Jonathan’s passing, another of his friends left a note for Angela. Handwritten, on pink stationery, the writer shared with Angela that his relationship with his own mother had gotten better “just by hearing Jon talk about your relationship with him.”
“It’s so rare for a mother to be so close to their children, and the example Jon’s shown has made me strive to be a better son,” he wrote. “You’ve raised him to be someone I’ve trusted more than anyone else in my life….Although you are not my own mother, I appreciate you as if you were because of the impact you’ve had on my life through Jon.”
It was Tuesday night, March 12, 2014, in the dormitories at USC. Freshman Casey Tamkin was bored. She called her friend at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity to see if there was anything going on. They were playing beer pong, he said. Come on over.
She and another girl walked to the fraternity. When she arrived and found her friend, she saw a blue-eyed boy sitting watchfully on the steps of the house’s atrium.
“Eyes so blue they just stop you,” Tamkin later recalled. “They are the first thing you see when you walk into a room.”
She asked her friend who the boy was, and he told her Jonathan was his big brother at the fraternity. “You didn’t tell me you had a really cute big brother,” she told him. “Thanks.”
She and Jonathan ended up talking, and then taking a walk together to a campus bar to have a drink. He told her she had the most beautiful eyes. Though flattered, she scoffed at him.
“Are you okay? My eyes are brown,” she said.
He gave her his phone number but she later realized it was missing a digit. She assumed it was on purpose and she’d never talk to him again. But weeks later, in Cabo for spring break, she ran into him on the beach. They ended up hanging out for the next four days. When she got back to USC, she thought, “You know what, I’m just going to text him.” He came over that night to do homework with her, and they worked and talked, the beginning of a conversation that would be ongoing until the day he died a little more than two years later. They fell seamlessly and deeply into love.
Her first impression had been that Jonathan, with his good looks and cool swagger, puffed out chest and perfect posture, was “such a frat boy.” But he turned out to be anything but. He was broadly curious, unconventional in how he thought and the intensity with which he lived. He was absolutely full of love, both for the world and for the people he shared his life with, and completely unafraid to show it.
“Being in college, the guys are all, ‘Yeah, hook up with a hot girl,’” Tamkin said. “Jon was so different, so kind, so unlike anyone I ever met. He just wanted to hang out and talk and get to know you. We just hit it off the moment we met.”
“What was so special is he really lived every day like it was his last,” she said. “That is something I take away as a lesson from him. He was so full of life. The last weekend we spent together, he was dancing in the desert, having the time of his life, nonstop, go, go, go.”
Next month: love, loss, lessons, and the embrace of community.