Comic character lets young accident victim finish his life
By Krista Allen
Special to the Times
DOOK’O’OOSŁÍÍD and KINŁÁNÍ, Ariz.
Rachel Tso Cox knew she wanted to honor her husband Francis’s Diné heritage by giving her youngest child a Diné name with a powerful meaning.
But that was an extremely frustrating task because her labor and delivery nurse at Tuba City Regional Health Care on Nov. 11, 2011, wanted a name to put on the newborn’s birth certificate before Cox was discharged from the hospital.
“Coming up with a Diné first name took a long time––a lot of ideas and you’re looking into family names,” Cox said. “And one of them was ‘Bizaadii’ because Francis has an uncle (named) Bizaadi. I didn’t like the ‘Bi’ because it sounded like ‘bizarre.’ I said, ‘No, he’s going to be made fun of. He’s going to be called ‘Bizarrey.’”
Bi Łı̨́ı̨́’ Łigai’ was considered, but Cox didn’t want her child, who was Tooh Dine’é and Tó’aheedlíinii, named “White Horse.” Tó Zhóón was also considered. Cox said that name sounded, at the time, like “Toe Jam.”
When her personal name committee, which comprised hers and her ex-husband Francis’s families, put Zaadii and Tó Zhóón together, it sounded perfect, said Cox, 49. “Zaadiitózhóón sounded perfect! Just perfect.”
Cox said instead of calling him by his full first name, which has a long pedigree, she and her family started calling him Zaadii.
Zaadii was born at 11:22 a.m. to Francis Tso, 52, and Rachel Tso Cox.
“The doctor, she was like, ‘He’s going to come out at 11:11 on 11-11-11!’ She was so excited running around. But he came out 11 minutes late for that,” Cox said.
Cox’s best friend who is Zaadii’s godmother and second mother, Jeneda Benally, said if one really thinks about it, 11:22 is actually 11 plus 11, which equals 22; or 22 divided by two is 11.
“He was all about the 11s,” Benally, who is Russian-Polish Jew Dine’é and born for Tódích’íi’nii, said about the once-in-a-century occurrence.
Cox said the uniquely symmetrical date is why she and her family called Zaadii, “Mr. Eleventy” in addition to being a big fan of hobbits in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.
“I thought he would grow up to be a lawyer, kind of with that name, Zaadiitózhóón Tso – a powerful, strong name,” Cox said. “And he got to be a lawyer in the comic book.”
Zaadii died on Feb. 23, 2015 at Flagstaff Medical Center. He was only 3 years old. Zaadii would have been 8 years old and turning 9 on Nov. 11, 2020.
Feb. 22, 2015
It was a Sunday morning at home. Cox looked up at the sky and decided to make a time-lapse film as a storm that day moved over Dook’o’oosłííd. She needed the footage to use as an opening scene for a Diné food sovereignty film project she was working on.
When she saw the storm moving over Dook’o’oosłííd, she told her family that she was going to Best Buy for a new wide-angle lens because she didn’t want to drive to the STAR School, where she was a media teacher, to get her own wide-angle lens.
“So, I was in a big hurry,” she said. “When you’re racing the storm, you can’t tell it to wait. As I was leaving, I asked (her 8-year-old daughter) Bahozhoni to come with me because … she was really getting into cameras. I told her, ‘You should come with me so you can check out the lenses.’
“She and I were headed out the door and (Zaadii), in his full Batman suit, was playing with his cousin on the floor with their cars. He wanted to go, and I said, ‘No.’ He was upset that Bahozhoni was going and I guess he felt it was kind of unfair, but he was crying about it.”
Cox said she capitulated to his crying and told him if he got his shoes on quick, he could go along with them to Best Buy under the regulations that he must hold his sister’s hand at all times, that he could not run around the store, and that he could not ask for things and complain.
Zaadii agreed, put his shoes on the wrong feet with no socks and hopped into the car. Cox said Zaadii had fantastic behavior the entire time and abided by her rules.
“I was so proud of him,” Cox said. “So, I bribed them. … I said, ‘If you’re really, really good, and if we do this quickly, I will walk you down to World Market and you can pick out a candy.”
The trio left Best Buy and walked down to World Market where the children picked out some candy, chocolate, and soda pop, which is something that Zaadii never had in his life. Cox, Bahozhoni, and Zaadii then walked back down to Best Buy, making a point of using the crosswalk instead of cutting across the roadway to the parking lot.
“And that’s something I think about all the time, because I could have cut through the parking lot and it would have been faster and easier and this would have never happened,” Cox said. “But I was so into teaching them the rules.”
Cox and her children, all of whom were clasping hands, were almost at the other end of the crosswalk – in the left lane – when a vehicle struck Bahozhoni and then both Cox and Zaadii.
“(Bahozhoni) started screaming. She got hit first. We were looking straight ahead. Cars came on the right side of the road, so we’re looking (to the right for oncoming traffic) and straight ahead all the way across.”
Cox said the motorist who hit them had swerved into the wrong lane and drove straight through the crosswalk, hitting them. Cox and Bahozhoni, both still hand in hand, landed on the hood of the car while Zaadii’s hand slipped from hers.
“I felt his hand come out from right here and he went under the car when we went over the car,” Cox said as she sobbed in an emotional interview with the Navajo Times at her home. “Bahozhoni was screaming and I was banging on the hood. I still had a hold of her, but she was kind of rocking around behind me. Her hips and her pelvis were broken from the impact of the car.
“I was banging on (the motorist’s) hood and I’m right up on her windshield. And (the motorist, she’s) looking (in another direction) and she had a phone in her hand. But we’re on her hood and she’s still not looking. And then she finally turned and saw us. I think she panicked and hit the gas instead of the brakes. She ran up and hit a small tree.”
When the vehicle stopped, Bahozhoni fell off the vehicle backwards and Cox fell off toward another direction. Cox said if that tree wasn’t there, she could have lost Bahozhoni as well.
Cox immediately stood up – not noticing her leg was broken and her knees were a mess – and ran over to Zaadii, whom she pulled out from behind a tire.
“And it was really awful because his head had been run over,” Cox said as she cried. “And I started screaming for somebody to call 911. Amazingly, one of our good friends, one of Bahozhoni’s former teachers, had pulled up. She’s the person who dialed 911. The person who killed Zaadii was saying, ‘I can’t! I can’t!’ And I was so mad! I said, ‘You can’t tap your phone three times?!’ She was so freaked out.”
Cox went with Zaadii in the first ambulance while Bahozhoni and her former teacher stayed behind for the second ambulance. It was when Cox was stepping into the ambulance that she realized her leg was broken and something was wrong with her knees.
“Up until then, I was running and walking,” Cox said. “I think––just the adrenaline. I didn’t feel it.”
Inside the ambulance, the emergency medicine technicians immediately cut off Zaadii’s Batman suit and cape. Cox thought, “He’s going to be really mad.” She didn’t think Zaadii was going to die.
“He died 13 hours later at the hospital,” she said. “He died in the intensive care unit. That gave everybody – (her and Francis’s family from Dziłyíjiin and Tónaneesdizí) – time to get come.”
Benally wasn’t in town, however. She and her band were playing at a music festival in Miami, Florida. Benally got the news of the incident right before she walked onto the stage to perform. Straight away, she asked the audience to imitate a heartbeat rhythm to synchronize with Zaadii’s heartbeat in the hospital.
“It was incredible,” Benally said. “Thousands of people at the festival … gave Zaadii’s heartbeat. And then all of the other performers at the festival asked their audiences to (emulate a heartbeat) so that Zaadii’s heart will be strong. When you think––through the tragedy and through the trauma … that took Zaadii, we’re reminded by the beauty of humanity and love and that gives us strength.”
At the hospital
Zaadii’s entire family, along with his friends and relatives by clan, waited in the waiting rooms, in the hallways, and outside Flagstaff Medical Center. The entire hospital was filled with people praying for Zaadii.
“And in the room, his whole family was praying––what Jeneda was sending us (via video message), we were playing that,” Cox said as she held Bahozhoni’s hand and cried. “Some of his other relatives were in the room. (One of his aunts) was in there. And right when his heartbeat was starting to slow, (she) started singing and we all sang. It was a traveling song. It was actually really beautiful. It was the most beautiful way somebody could go.
“The entire hospital joined in and sang this traditional Diné traveling song. It was like out of a movie to the very last note, to his very last heartbeat. And he was gone!”
Cox doesn’t remember exactly when Zaadii died, but it was around 1 a.m. the next day, Feb. 23, 2015. “He died surrounded by people who love him.”
Benally said Zaadii was the youngest in the community of friends and relatives who helped raise him.
“I felt like it put us into such––into this darkness,” Benally explained, “this grief, this haze for so long. Still! It’s still hard! That journey of grief.”
Cox agrees. She said the grief doesn’t go away, but it has made her and her family stronger. And they’ve learned to carry it with them.
“We redefine what ‘strong’ is,” Benally added. “I don’t remember the plane ride home, I don’t remember getting home, and I don’t remember anything except getting a phone call from Francis. But I know it felt like an eternity. That day––it felt like the longest day I’ve ever had in my life.”
And it was, said Cox.
Francis Tso, who is Tó’aheedlíinii and born for Bįįh Bitoodnii and Chíshí, said one never wants that kind of call as a parent. But on that day, Francis got that call and he got off work and left for the hospital where he learned it had been a major accident.
“But you can’t just lie down and die, you have to keep going,” said Francis, who’s originally from Dził Nitsaa – the Ts’í’iitó, Tóhaach’į’, Hasbídító, and Tséyaató areas.
An unfinished life
“He did talk a lot,” Cox said. “He was a very precocious child.”
He added Zaadii was always imitating his two older sisters as well as Benally’s daughters and niece.
“(All of his sisters) were around all the time,” Cox said. “(Zaadii) just wanted to catch up to them so he started crawling, running, and talking early. I really think it’s because of (his sisters), he just wanted to participate and be part of their world. They had a band too.”
Zaadii was fearless and courageous, Cox’s father, Robert Cox, wrote in the eulogy of his tsóí. “He was Batman. And we all loved him with all of our hearts. He never took that costume off – except under great pressure – from the day it arrived the week before Halloween.”
Zaadii was truly raised by a village, said Cox, who took Zaadii to work at the STAR School, where Zaadii practically grew up and watched and listened to his mother teach to a room full of students every day. The STAR School was where Zaadii learned to walk and to crawl; and where he often played in the garden and at the playground.
“Everybody took care of him,” Cox said. “And he got away with anything too. STAR has a no-sugar policy. He was spoiled and I’m glad he was spoiled. I’m glad he was the kid who got lollipops. He was a character. He was fiercely loving. He made a lot of sound effects too. I still make sound effects because of him. He brought that into my life.”
The Thursday before he died, Cox said, is her favorite story of Zaadii, who she left at the STAR School that morning with his STAR family because she had to run an errand. There was an assembly that day in the gymnasium where a visiting musician talked about his music and performed for the school. When the musician began playing his drums, Zaadii jumped off the bleachers and ran up next to the performer and began dancing. When two women tried to lead him back to the bleachers, the performer wanted him to stay and to dance, which precipitated the students and the staff to get up and dance too.
“He was so full of life,” Francis said. “He loved being here and being with us.”
The Legend of Z-Hawk
To honor Zaadii and to imagine the would-be story of him, Hartford, Connecticut-based Travelers Insurance turned Zaadii into a superhero in “ZAADII: The Legend of Z-Hawk,” a Diné superhero story created by DC Comics writer Gail Simone and acclaimed comic illustrator Jim Calafiore.
The New York Comic Con revealed The Legend of Z-Hawk during a virtual event earlier this month.
The comic is the latest in Travelers’ “Unfinished Stories” series, which aims to honor lives cut short because of distracted driving. Travelers’ ongoing campaign is meant to encourage people to stay focused while driving.
“If this particular boy who loves superheroes just about more than anything had become one, what would he have wanted to be like as a superhero?” asked Simone, in Travelers’ The Making of The Legend of Z-Hawk video.
“Doing a comic book based on Zaadii is just really the best way to honor him because he loved comics,” Calafiore said. “I was trying to find a way to include any kind of Navajo symbols into the costume. We wanted to honor the heritage as much as we could.”
Simone said she, Calafiore, and the Z-Hawk team wanted to make sure Zaadii became a protector in the comic, protecting both the environment and people.
“Zaadii could end up saving someone’s life and there’s nothing more superhero-like than that,” said Simone, a New York Times bestselling author.
Zaadii’s superhero character in the comic book, which Benally had a big hand in creating, features the perfect combination of Rachel’s and Francis’s families.
“(Rachel’s father) is an attorney and Francis’s family as well––resisting relocation and Francis born into activism,” explained Benally, who consulted with the DC Comic team for months to make sure the Diné culture and traditions and Zaadii’s story were told accurately.
Francis said he likes the Zaadii comic book and he believes Zaadii would like it too because Zaadii’s character soars through the air, he is an environmental protector and he becomes a lawyer.
“In our culture, Tó’aheedlíinii, is the only clan that did come from water,” Francis explained. “Tó is a very sacred element––probably one of the most powerful elements in this world. It sustains life and it keeps this world alive too. And he had that energy.”
Cox said Zaadii spoke three languages: Diné Bizaad, English, and Japanese.
“I really thought he was going to be the kid to figure out how to make this world live sustainably and peacefully,” Cox said.
Jeneda added, “I always look at it as, we lost a leaf off our family tree, but our branches and our roots grew stronger. I feel like through the comic book he lived on. He’s able to live the life that we all kind of imagined he would be living––at least not physically being an actual superhero in some way but being in his imagination.”
To read the Zaadii comic book and to get a copy of the Z-Hawk, visit findthemetaverse.com/exhibitors/travelers