NORMAN — Van Harrington stood in a small bedroom at the back of his home as he recalled the worst day of his life.
Little remains in the room to indicate that a budding artist, writer and musician once lived there.
It is here that Van Harrington saw the unthinkable, for any parent, a little more than a year ago.
“I found him in the closet. ... He had shot himself,” he said, motioning to the corner of the room.
“Some things you can never un-see.”
The son he lost is enshrined there in the room where he took his own life on Oct. 5, 2010. A simple display of remembrance — one that 19-year-old Zack Harrington would've appreciated — greets you as you enter the room.
“He was humble,” Van Harrington said Tuesday evening. “He didn't like flashy. ... That was definitely not his thing.”
Most of his personal effects have been removed for cathartic reasons, his mother, Nancy Harrington, said.
“It got a little hard seeing his things every day,” she said. “I'm trying to make it into kind of my quiet room now.”
Zack's brother, Austin Harrington, is roughly two years younger than his older sibling. He said he and Zack were close growing up in Norman.
“Christmas was hard,” he said. “Me and Zack used to wake up before everyone else — or at least we thought we were up first — and put everyone's presents in a pile.”
For the Harringtons, Zack's suicide thrust them into the spotlight.
Following his death, it was reported by local media that Zack was present at a Norman City Council meeting when a parade of the city's residents expressed what the Harringtons term “hateful, ignorant” sentiments about members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
The meeting was held on Sept. 28, 2010, exactly a week before Zack shot himself. He had struggled with his own sexual identity growing up in Norman before acknowledging that he was gay.
At the time, the family believed the comments at the meeting could have been a factor in Zack's death, pushing an emotionally fragile young man over the edge. A number of other gay young people in other states, including two 13-year-old teenage boys, had killed themselves in the weeks before his death, so interest in Zack's story was widespread.
Today, they're not sure whether he actually was at the meeting.
“We don't know if he was there,” Nancy Harrington said. “We've heard it both ways — that he was at the meeting in person and that he wasn't there at all.”
Either way, Van Harrington said the comments made by some residents weren't appropriate.
“It's hard to believe some of the stuff you heard at that meeting,” he said. “And even if Zack wasn't physically at the meeting, there was other ways he could've seen it.”
The meeting was available the very next day on the city of Norman's website and it was repeatedly rerun, like all other meetings are, on the local government channel.
Deepening the mystery is that Zack left four suicide notes, but none of them included a specific reason as to why he'd decided to end his life.
Nancy Harrington prefers to keep it that way, at least for now.
“I'm really surprised at how few answers I want,” she said.
“If I knew why, it would drive me crazy. I would go back, over and over, and think about what I could have done to stop it.”
Zack's father, who said he's never read the notes, feels the same as his wife.
“I don't know that I really want an answer,” Van Harrington said. “Some questions are unanswerable ... and this is one of those. There's just so many what-ifs.”
Van Harrington said his son's suicide has made the family closer and more involved in the community.
“We are Zack's voice. He can't speak for himself anymore, so I'll speak for him,” he said.
“People from all walks of life have contacted us, which really feels good, to be able to relate to someone ... to have someone share things with you and feel like you're helping them through something.”
Zack Harrington's suicide last year at his parents' Norman home was one of many reported in the media in 2010 involving young gay men or, in some cases, teens.
Harrington's parents admit they aren't sure why exactly Zack took his life but note that it happened exactly a week after scores of Norman residents attended a public meeting and expressed concerns about proclaiming October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender awareness month in the city.
Many residents, Harrington's parents said, stepped over the line and made comments that went too far.
Death toll in 2010
Young gay men and teenagers among those who ended their lives because of bullying and intolerant behavior, their families say, include:
• Asher Brown, 13, was found dead in his stepfather's closet from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the Houston area. Brown's parents told local media the smallish teen ended his own life after two years of constant bullying. Brown died Sept. 23, 2010.
• Seth Walsh, 13, died of injuries he suffered when he failed to hang himself from a tree in his backyard. Walsh was from Tehachapi, Calif., a rural town about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. Walsh died Sept. 27, 2010, nine days after he attempted to hang himself.
• Justin Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his room in Andover, Minn., a small suburb north of Minneapolis. Aaberg, a cellist, died July 9, 2010.
• Tyler Clementi, 18, reportedly jumped to his death from a bridge near New York City after he found out that his roommate had secretly taped him with another male student at Rutgers University. The roommate had streamed the video on the Internet and Clementi, a violinist, committed suicide the next day, Sept. 22, 2010.