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A Year Ago Today: A Personal Story Of Loss, Grief And Shining On
“We all shine, like the moon and the stars and the sun…” John Lennon
One year ago today, I lost my seventeen-year-old nephew in a tragic car accident. Against the backdrop of Katrina’s impending onslaught, my family and I struggled to deal with the shock and disbelief of what was happening around us. We got closer and prepared for the biggest storm of life yet.
I have heard people refer to “the phone call that changed their life”. Backing out of my driveway exactly one year ago, on a beautiful LA summer morning, I began to understand the meaning of the phrase. This morning, one year later, I woke up to my cell phone ringing and hearing my Mother say “Where are you now?” she continued, “your brother wanted me to call you and let you know that the boys (Thomas and John) were in an accident on the way to school. They were airlifted to Children’s Medical in Dallas.” I pulled into the driveway and nothing was ever the same. Haste to change a phone call.
Family Geography 101: Being in one of the southern states during the Katrina evacuation period brought the panic that much closer to home. Texas is my family’s home now. I started the trend by moving from my hometown of Oklahoma to Texas after college to pursue my career in music and acting. A few years later, my brother, Matthew, followed the Texas road with his wife Candice, toddler Thomas and newborn John. My parents followed months later. I have now lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years with my husband. They stayed in Texas.
After hanging up on the ‘life changing phone call’ with my Mother, and waiting and praying an agonizing 3 hours. My brother called me himself. He asked if my husband was with me and told me to hold his hand. Then he said the words, “John will be fine, but Thomas didn’t make it”. After that I didn’t hear anything he said. I might as well be underwater. I passed the phone to my husband, and I went into the bathroom and screamed. Then I cried like I had never cried before.
I always thought that if something this horrible ever happened to my family, I would never end up in the physical position so stereotypically portrayed in Lifetime’s movie of the week. But there I hit the floor, sobbing, wishing I could turn back time. How could our precious, talented, kind, dreamer Thomas be gone, just like that?
Fast forward to the next day on a plane from LAX to DFW and a taxi to Children’s Medical Center. In my wallet, I still have the worn white index card on which I wrote my nephew John’s room number: A-2 Unit, Room 297. The first person I hugged was my sister-in-law Candice, Thomas’ Mom. We held tight for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want to let her go because I didn’t want time to move forward. I wanted time to be reversed, or at least stand still. Then I see my Mother, Father and brother, and finally poor little John, all bruised and sore, with his jaw swollen shut, his face full of glass.
Then come the details. The boys went to school early so they could make it to early morning music practice. They were crossing one of those busy, treacherous country highways and an eighteen wheel flatbed gravel truck hit them on the driver’s side. Thomas’s side. Their car was drug under the truck, shaving the top of the car. Then the car caught fire. At first the truck driver saved their lives by putting out the fire. A Care Flight for each boy took them to Children’s Medical. But Thomas had so many complications that they just couldn’t save him. It is a miracle that John survived. Leave alone no broken bones. Only rehabilitation for his jaw.
While the residents of New Orleans were already evacuating, my brother and wife made funeral plans for their son. Deciding to cremate him, because that’s what he would have wanted. Deciding who to call, Deciding, decided.
When it came time to bring John home from the hospital, they wanted to do it alone. The three of them entered their home. John without his big brother, Matthew & Candice without their teenage son.
I returned with my parents to their house, me without my nephew, my parents without their grandson.
Social details began to be revealed as we watched the Katrina news in the three days before Thomas’ Memorial Service: The “on the scene” newscast that mistakenly led the community to believe that both boys had died; The newspaper article, with a picture of the total wreck as unrecognizable as a car, which one could not imagine which end was the front and which was the rear of the car; and the police scan one of my cousins heard as far away as Kansas City.
The community support has been overwhelming. An endless line of caring neighbors bringing food and hugs. In darkness comes light. The light for me and my family was not only the caring outpouring of the community, but the people we least expected to be there were the ones at the forefront. One of the regular patrons at my brother’s favorite bar actually snuck into the hospital dressed in scrubs with a badge, carrying a pack of gum, some fountain pens and a legal pad. Appearing to my brother as an angel in the night, an angel nicknamed Comet wisely told him, “these are the things you always need in the hospital”. And then just as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared. There are many stories like that. Next to strangers in an elevator with just the right words at the right time, old childhood friends walk through the receiving line at the memorial service.
There were over six hundred people at the Memorial Service. Busloads of kids from Thomas’ high school lined the benches. Relatives, friends, caring neighbors. Later I was sad for another reason. Why do we only see a lot of people we love at weddings and funerals? Life gets us busy I guess. I only got to see my family on three separate trips this year.
The emotional high point for me at the service was when John Lennon’s recording of his song “Instant Karma” was played. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.
As the cards stop coming, and it’s back to preparing our own meals, we’re left with an empty space where Thomas used to be. We talk about him often. Between us and to our therapists.
Thomas had many passions, music was only one. He was a sixteen-year-old activist who never shied away from his opinions or questions about the true meaning of life. After the hurricane passed through the heart of America, I could hear all the honest opinions he would have about the disaster, how the government had failed. The way they still fail.
His mother told me the other day that they are still receiving letters from members of Congress that he requested for various reasons.
John turned thirteen years old seven days after his brother’s death. He has recovered from his injuries and is pouring himself into playing guitar and trombone. When I saw John in June, we learned “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It turns out shortly before Thomas died he ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package arrived from Amazon.com they couldn’t open it until now.
As the cards stop coming, and we go back to preparing our own meals, we are left with an empty space where Thomas used to be. We talk about him often, between us and our therapists.
Each of us has our private sorrow. Talking about it on the phone sucks. Most of the time, just calling to say I love you is enough. We all seek comfort in our daily activities and church communities. My brother spent days sorting clothes for Katrina victims.
When a young person is taken before they have lived their life, it is just wrong. It goes against the cycle of nature. We expect our grandparents and parent to pass before us. But a young boy becoming a man, full of questions and potential – he should start college, he should be eighteen, he should have a girlfriend, he should watch South Park, he should play the saxophone, he should be. winning another debate contest, he should act in another play, he should be a lawyer and live in California with his wife and kids! This was an accident, not an act of God. It was an accident.
My brother forgave the truck driver. So I’m not going to make him suffer anymore by forcing an investigation into how gravel trucks are paid by the load and how fast the driver was going. The driver saved John’s life. And while the pain he feels over Thomas’ death is unlike ours, it is no less painful.
“Instant Karma” appeared on the radio yesterday. It was the first time I had allowed myself to listen to it since the service. And then I remembered, “Instant Karma will pick you up, put you down, better recognize your brothers, everyone you meet… and we will all shine, like the moon and stars and the sun.”
We all shine.
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