A fitting memorial

A fitting memorial
Photo by Steve Schnibbe

As a late son of Marine Park rests in Heaven, his family has given Brooklynites a place to rest in their own little slice of paradise on Earth.

Family, friends, elected officials, and community members gathered in the Marine Park Salt Marsh on Oct. 9 to dedicate a bench in honor of Brian Gewirtz, an autistic man who died tragically and under mysterious circumstances earlier this year. The 20-year-old found solace in the secluded, natural wonder of Southern Brooklyn’s wild wetlands, his parents said.

“It was the serenity, the quietness of nature,” said his mother, Kathy Gewirtz. “He loved nature.”

Brian disappeared in late February. His mother and father, Steve Gewirtz led a search that descended from hope into fear, and ultimately, into sorrow over the course of an agonizing 45 days, they said. In April, their son’s lifeless body was discovered in a thatch of trees on the Marine Park Golf Course and not far from the salt marsh where he often sojourned.

It remains unclear exactly what transpired on that cold day in February, but the medical examiner would ultimately conclude that Gewirtz succumbed to hypothermia, according to Brian’s father.

Over the course of his brief existence, Gewirtz struggled with autism, but never let it define him, his parents said.

A lover of nature, Gewirtz rose to the rank of Eagle Scout — the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America — an achievement that earned him commendation letters from President Obama and all living former U.S. presidents, plus Pope Benedict XVI — and of course, then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, according to his parents.

“He really was very proud of himself,” Brian’s father said.

The achievement is tough for any youth, but Gerwitz didn’t let his autism stand in the way, his father said.

“He never liked being defined by his disability. In fact, he worked very hard,” said Steve, himself a scout leader. “I can tell you it’s a lot of work, a lot of dedication, and a lot of commitment. It’s regimented in such a way that it basically molds you into a person of quality.”

In that role, Brian distinguished himself by reaching out to those with struggles of their own and helping them to battle drug addiction.

“Brian was deeply concerned about the community and environment,” his father said. “He was not the type of kid who would drink, smoke, or do drugs. A lot of his work with the scouts centered around other kids who did drugs, and trying to help them to quit.”

At Friday’s dedication, Brian’s family repeated rituals that have come to punctuate their daily lives since their son’s passing, including tying messages to balloons and releasing them into the sky, hoping their words would reach him in the hereafter.

“They’re messages to Brian,” his mother explained. “We send the balloons to Heaven.”

Later, his father wept unabashedly as he read the poem “Death is Nothing at All” by Henry Scott Holland.

The Gerwitzes paid for the memorial, and Councilman Alan Maisel (D–Marine Park) dedicated it at a fork in the road in southern Marine Park’s wetlands — the sole memorial in the bastion of wilderness that gave Brain Gewirtz so much joy and ultimately claimed his life, his father said.

“Brian would like to go there and gain some solace,” Steve said. “He was undecided about his future, and he would always go there to enjoy nature.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.