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A Year Ago Today: A Personal Story Of Loss, Grief And Shining On
“We all shine, like the moon, the stars and the sun…” John Lennon
One year ago today, I lost my seventeen-year-old nephew in a tragic car accident. In the face of Katrina’s impending onslaught, my family and I struggled to cope with the shock and disbelief of what was happening around us. Let’s get closer and prepare for life’s biggest storm yet.
I’ve heard people refer to the “phone call that changed their life.” Pulling out of my driveway exactly one year ago on a beautiful LA summer morning, I came to understand the meaning of the phrase. This morning, a year later, I relived my cell phone ringing and hearing my mom say “Where are you right now?” she continued, “your brother wanted me to call you and let you know that the boys (Thomas and John) had an accident on the way to school. They were airlifted to Children’s Medical in Dallas.” I pulled back into the driveway and nothing was the same. I’m about to change my phone call.
Family Geography 101: Being in one of the southern states during the Katrina evacuation period brought the panic much closer to home. Texas is my family’s home now. I started the trend by moving from my birthplace of Oklahoma to Texas after college, to pursue my career in music and acting. A few years later, my brother, Matthew, followed the trail from Texas 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 mom, and waiting and praying for 3 agonizing hours. The brother himself called me. He asked me if my husband was with me and told me to hold his hand. Then he said the words, “John is going to be fine, but Thomas didn’t make it.” I didn’t hear anything he said after that. It might as well be underwater. I passed the phone to my husband and went into the bathroom and screamed. Then I cried like I’ve never cried before.
I always thought that if something so horrible happened to my family, I would never end up in the physical position that is so stereotypically depicted in a Lifetime movie of the week. But there she was, pounding the floor, sobbing, wishing she could go back in time. How could our precious, talented, good-hearted and dreamy Thomas disappear like that?
Fast forward to the next day on a plane from LAX to DFW and a taxi to the Children’s Medical Center. In my purse I still have the worn white card on which I wrote my nephew John’s room number: Unit A-2, Room 297. The first person I hugged was my sister-in-law Candice, Thomas’ mother. We held each other tightly for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want to let her go because I didn’t want time to move on. I wanted time to reverse, or at least stand still. Then I see my mother, my father and my brother, and finally poor John, all hurt and sore, his jaw swollen and his face full of glass.
Then come the details. The boys went to school early so they could get to an early morning band practice. They were crossing one of those busy, treacherous country roads and an eighteen wheeler gravel truck slammed into them on the driver’s side. on Thomas’ side. His car was drugged under the truck, shaving off the top of the car. Then the car caught fire. At first the truck driver saved their lives by extinguishing the fire. A flight of care for each child took us to Children’s Medical. But Thomas had so many complications that they couldn’t save him. It’s a miracle John survived. Let alone without broken bones. Just rehab for his jaw.
While the residents of New Orleans were already evacuating, my brother and my wife were making funeral plans for their son. Deciding to have him cremated, because that is what he had wanted. Decide who to call, Decide, decide.
When it came time to bring John home from the hospital, they wanted to do it alone. The three entered his house. John without his older brother, Matthew and Candice without their teenage son.
I returned with my parents to their house, me without my nephew, my parents without their grandson.
The social details began to unfold as we watched the Katrina news in the three days leading up to Thomas’ memorial service: the “on-the-scene” news report that mistakenly led the community to believe the two boys had died; The newspaper article, with a picture of the total wreck so unrecognizable as a car that you couldn’t tell which was the front and which was the back of the car; and the police scanned one of my cousins as far away as Kansas City.
The community support has been overwhelming. An endless line of caring neighbors carrying food and hugs. In the darkness comes the light. The light for me and my family was not only the outpouring of community solidarity, but the people we least expected to be there were the ones at the forefront. One of the regulars at my brother’s favorite bar, in fact, walked into the hospital dressed in gowns with a badge, carrying a pack of gum, ink pens and a legal pad. Appearing to my brother as an angel at night, an angel nicknamed Comet wisely told him, “these are the things you always need in the hospital.” And then, as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. There are many stories like that. Near strangers in an elevator with the right words at the right time, old childhood friends walking through the reception 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. Family, friends, supportive neighbors. Then I was sad for another reason. Why do we only see many of the people we love at weddings and funerals? I guess life keeps us busy. I only got to see my family on three separate trips this year.
The most emotional moment for me at the service was when he played John Lennon’s recording of his song “Instant Karma”. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.
When the letters 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 it many times. Between us and with our therapists.
Thomas had many passions, music being just one. He was a sixteen-year-old activist who never held back his opinions or questions about the true meaning of life. After the hurricane ripped through the heart of America, I could hear all the frank opinions he would have about the disaster, the way the government had failed. The way they are still failing.
His mother told me the other day that they are still receiving letters from congressmen that he had requested for different causes.
John turned thirteen seven days after his brother’s death. He recovered from his injuries and dedicates himself to playing the guitar and the trombone. When I saw John in June we were learning “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It turns out that shortly before he died Thomas had ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package arrived from Amazon.com they couldn’t open it until now.
When the letters 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 it often, between us and our therapists.
Each of us has our private sadness. 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 man is taken before he lives his life, it is wrong. It goes against the cycle of nature. We expect our grandparents and parents to pass before us. But a boy growing into a man, full of questions and potential: he should be going to college, he should be eighteen, he should have a girlfriend, he should be watching South Park, he should be playing the saxophone, he should be winning another debate contest, he should be acting in another play, he should be a lawyer and living 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 about to make him suffer any more by forcing an investigation into how gravel trucks pay for their load and how fast the driver was going. The driver saved John’s life. And while the pain she feels over Thomas’ death is different from ours, it’s no less painful.
“Instant Karma” hit the radio yesterday. It was the first time I allowed myself to hear it from the service. And then I remembered, “Instant karma will get you, lift you up, recognize your brothers better, everyone you know… and we all shine, like the moon, the stars and the sun.
We all shine.
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