When Someone Dies Too Young

Ion with his daughters, Jenny and Cori

An Unexpected Call

I was working in my outdoor office last Thursday in the 90-degree heat when my cell phone rang.

I didn’t recognize the phone number, but I wanted to escape my writing duties for the moment and answered. 

A young woman’s voice asked if I were Shannon Colleary. 

I answered “yes,” thinking this was some kind of solicitor call, when she said she was Ion Hartunian’s daughter. 

My first thought was that I hadn’t seen Ion’s daughters in twenty-some odd years when they were about eight and ten.

I thought how lovely and grown-up she sounded. I greeted her warmly and asked how she was doing — thinking she probably had no idea we’d met before. 

“Not so good,” she said, “This is a bad day.”

Now I knew. Something was wrong with Ion. Maybe he’d broken a bone, or had a bad flu or maybe a car accident. 

“We found him this morning,” she said, “Ion died.”

Died? No. I talked to him three days ago. He was only 53. He’d been a lifeguard for twenty some odd years. He’d practiced martial arts in recent years. Athletic, indestructibly alive 53-year old men don’t die in the blink of an eye. 

But in fact he did. From an apparent heart attack.  

I’ve been traveling backward in my mind, back before the shock of that call when I could carelessly let days, months, years go by without thinking of or speaking to my friend.

I met Ion in 1988 in Jeff Corey’s acting class in Point Dume, Malibu.

I was 23 and he was 29. He was ridiculously handsome.

Ion with his daughter Cori, early 80s

Initially, I wasn’t attracted to him. He was simply too pretty. Well, and also because he never wore shoes to class.

Life guarding was his “day” job, but he preferred the clothing requirements of surf and sand wherever he went. And his feet – well, they were not handsome. He would laugh if he read that sentence.

Ion, those feet were black on the bottom. I mean filthy!

I couldn’t focus on any of the scene work on stage, because I couldn’t stop staring at Ion’s feet. I have an anal retentive, recessive German gene and I wanted to wash those feet. And not because I was trying to be like Jesus.

Then I became Ion’s scene partner.

I forget which scene it was, but it was extremely energetic with lots of jumping around and shouting and a little bit of wrassling, which is when I realized Ion didn’t wear deodorant. 

I never had the heart to tell him that he was a bit … ripe. 

Ion, I love you, you should have worn deodorant. I regret never telling you. Or gifting you with some Mennen speed stick.

But you also smelled like the salted sea. Your bare feet yearned for the feel of the earth and although you weren’t short, you always seemed somehow to want to be close to the ground, close to nature.

Ion in his element, most likely shoeless.

One day, as I was pulling out from the shoulder of the road to drive home after acting class Ion’s Jeep stopped right in front of me.

What’s he doing? I thought, Is there something wrong with his car? Is he out of gas? Oh, for crying out loud, I want to get out of here, couldn’t he have pulled to the shoulder of the road??

Finally, Ion stepped out of his Jeep. Then he paced there for a moment. 

What’s he doing? Doesn’t he see that he’s blocking my way? 

Then he seemed to come to some sort of decision and marched over to my car. He looked at me through the driver’s side window and indicated I should roll it down. Now what? 

I rolled down the window an inch and he shouted, “Will you go out for coffee with me sometime?”

I wasn’t expecting that. I hadn’t even considered it. The few times we’d interacted outside of class we had a sarcastic, locker room ribbing kind of relationship.

Also he was quite simply too good-looking. Ion, how was I supposed to take you seriously with that chiseled jaw of yours? You were supposed to be dating Stephanie Seymour!

I looked into his blue eyes and he actually seemed annoyed with me. Annoyed that I had made him want to take me out for coffee.  

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll go for coffee.”  

He heaved a huge sigh of relief. “I’ll call you,” he said gruffly and before I could say anything else he marched back to his Jeep, got in it and put the pedal to the metal. 

Spumes of dirt kicked up from his tires all over my windshield. Now I was annoyed. I didn’t want to be responsible for this man’s heart, because under his funny, sarcastic exterior, he was an absolute mush. He was a love bug. Sorry Ion, you were.

Ion was a young father. 

I don’t know how young, but at a time when most of us — well okay, me — weren’t responsible enough to look after a fichus bush, he was a dedicated dad.  

I remember a story he told me about his girls. When they were very little, and he and their mother were already divorced, he had the opportunity to model in Europe for a few months. 

To me that seemed so cool, exactly what I wished for myself. To be beautiful enough to grace magazines and the runway.

Ion told me that when he returned from his glamorous European adventure, his two little girls were waiting at the airport for him with their mom. 

They threw their arms around his neck and told him never to leave again.

And he decided right then and there he never would. If he lost work because of it, so be it. Those girls were his world. When he began to segue into photography they became his muses. Above all, they were his life.

Our romance was brief. But our friendship endured.  

Ion was hopeless at being the aloof macho guy. He’d try to turn his back on me and get on with his life, but I cracked him up too much.

He loved to laugh. And Ion, you laughed like a girl. You couldn’t really call it a laugh, let’s be frank here, it was a giggle. You were a giggler, which is one of my favorite things about you.

Sometime during those “acting” years, I managed to get Ion cast in a horrible play I was stage managing at some 99-seat theater in Eagle Rock.  

It was set in the late ’60s so the characters were all hippies on hallucinogenics.

I had to stand-in for an actress who couldn’t appear one night, and I remember lying on my back onstage with Ion, I believe my character Sparrow was topless — and Ion was wearing an out-of-central-casting tie dye t-shirt and we lay there with our heads together pretending to be high on hallucinogenics while we just giggled and giggled like fools, until it felt like we actually were tripping.

Ion, we were pretty terrible actors. There were moments of greatness, but mostly … ack.

Eventually, we both left Jeff’s acting class in Malibu, and not too long after that we both left acting in its entirety. We wished each other well and let each other go for many, many years.

Then I ran into him one day at John O’ Groats, a diner right across the street from my house. I’ve lived in Los Angeles 30 years now and it’s funny how suddenly a slice of your previous life will present itself before you.  

We both said we looked exactly the same — only twenty pounds heavier, slipping easily back into our sarcastic humor.  

Over coffee, we unravelled the last twenty some odd years of our respective lives. The various highs and lows and everything in between.

I told him I finally understood how much he loved his girls and was willing to sacrifice for them because I had two daughters of my own now.  

I said we should have breakfast again sometime to which he replied, “Sure, but you should bring your husband, because if you were my wife, I wouldn’t be happy about you having breakfast with an old boyfriend.”  

That, in a nutshell, is the measure of a good man.

Ion would’ve met Henry and my daughters through his camera lens yesterday. He was going to come and photograph my family. But he is gone. Death is unforgiving. Cruelly permanent. 

I miss my friend, and I grieve for his daughters and the grandchildren who won’t have the time they should have had to make more memories.

How I wish I had one last chance to say, “I love you. You knew me in a time and space that no one else did. That part of me, that only you have, is now beyond the veil. I hope to see you on the other side.”

Me and Ion in the early 90s

Some of Ion’s work: (If you’d like to see more of his archive you can go HERE)


35 thoughts on “When Someone Dies Too Young”

  1. I am so sorry for your loss. His family will be in my prayers. Thank you for sharing this post. His photos are amazing.

  2. Tears stream down my face as I read your post. What a touching tribute to him. I’m so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful man.

  3. I am so sorry for your loss. It just hurts so much to lose a friend like that so suddenly. You are, as always, in my prayers.

  4. What a heartbreaking, yet beautiful story. I am so happy you two were reunited. Oddly, the whole thing makes me think of the song ‘Taxi’ by Harry Chapin.

  5. I am sorry for your loss. He was too damned pretty, wasn’t he? The feet thing would have done it for me. I can’t stand dirty feet. But he was pretty enough that I could have overlooked it for awhile.

    I am so sorry for his daughters. To lose a father at such a young age is truly a tragedy. I’m glad you wrote about him.

    1. I see moments in my mind’s eye like they were yesterday. Especially his mischievous smile and I can’t believe that face no longer exists and that smile will never be again. It brings up all those large questions we have as children … what is this place … what happens after … why are we here? As an adult when something like this happens I realize I don’t have the answers and – for me – I won’t while I am in this incarnation.

  6. Shannon
    I was friends with Ion and you remember him well .Ion and I did scene study and he was very concerned about where is acting was going at the time .

    I saw that play in Eagle Rock ,I believe his character’s name was Rabbit.

    Within a week he told me had left the play after an argument with the lady director.
    Later in the 80’s to 90’s while he was working on his photography ,I realized he had found a craft that he loved .
    There is much more .Ion was very interested in moving towards an artistic life .
    He and I traded many notes on being men at 50 years old and forging new trades .
    i survived a major heart attack and he and I never spoke of this .You can contact me again if you wish to converse about Ion .He was a one of a kind .
    Bruce R Morgan

    1. I can’t believe you saw that play in Eagle Rock AND that your remember Ion’s character’s name was Rabbit. That is hilarious. It was a bit of a wild production I must say. The leading lady was a lunatic who was always running about a half hour late and had to apply full body make-up for the role. Inexplicably. Then there was one actor who had to choke someone onstage and actually sort of did. Of those halcyon Equity waiver days.

  7. I just looked at his photography and wow. Amazing artistry. I am sorry for your loss of such a good man. Sometimes the good do die young as my husband was only 51 when he passed away last summer. And what lovely tribute. I am sure he laughed. =)

  8. What a beautiful friendship you had. I’m sorry for your loss and his daughters loss the picture of them is beautiful. It’s very unexplainable we never know how much time we have with people better make the memories good ones.

  9. I can’t remember feeling so much regret on not spending more time with a human being before they were gone. I would have liked to have known Ion better than I did. He shot the most beautiful photos of my family and I, several times — as he did for so many other people. He was a joy to be around and I felt better for have known him at all. My prayers to his family. God has called him home to with Him. Ion was made for better places then this world and he’s there now, taking shots of heaven and beyond. One day we’ll all see him again.

  10. I loved how you loved him, remembered him, respected and called him out. That is true friendship and love…he knew how you felt.

    I feel for his family and friends that lost him, I feel for those of us who didn’t know him but got to see him through your lens. Gone too soon.

    Rest dear Ion, rest.

    love you Shannon. xo

  11. Shannon, thank you so much for sharing your great memories of Ion. I knew him in the late 70’s, swimming together at Santa Monica College, and lifeguarding together in Venice. You really captured his spirit – playful, mischievous and charming. Though I haven’t seen him in years, I am deeply saddened by his passing. Thanks again for sharing, and I am sorry for his loss to all of his family and friends.

  12. REPLY TO YOUR REMARK an’t believe you saw that play in Eagle Rock AND that your remember Ion’s character’s name was Rabbit. That is hilarious. It was a bit of a wild production I must say. The leading lady was a lunatic who was always running about a half hour late and had to apply full body make-up for the role. Inexplicably. Then there was one actor who had to choke someone onstage and actually sort of did. Of those halcyon Equity waiver days.
    I recall everything that is just my memory .
    But more than all I recall Ion’s enormous seriousness towards acting
    and how circumstances that play seemed to make a decision for him
    to turn to photography -something Ion could control.

    He and I had many brief but deep conversations about acting life marriage and of course the lifeguarding issues

    .Ion got me to go with him to an acting coach D Bennett – just before his Jeff Corey period of training .I meet Corey in 1976 and knew a bit about him . Ion had great admiration for his teachers .

    Like I said you can message me anytime on Facebook if you wish to have some memory lane moments about Ion
    But I must say knowing him well,

  13. Wow. Um. This is beautiful. It’s been ages since you posted this but I just stumbled onto this today. I can feel a part of the beauty in this relationship. A friend once, a friend forever. Your writing is amazing.

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