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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 son in a terrible car accident. Against the backdrop of Katrina’s imminent carnage, my family and I struggled to deal with the shock and disbelief of what was happening around us. We pulled in close and prepared for life’s biggest storm 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 came to understand the meaning of the phrase. This morning, a year later, I put back my cell phone ringing and heard my mother say “Where are you now?” she continued, “Your brother wanted me to call you and tell you 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 back into the driveway and nothing was ever the same. Presto changeo phone call.
Family Geography 101: Being in one of the southern states during the Katrina evacuation brought the shock much closer to home. Texas is now my family’s home. I started the transition by moving from my birthplace in Oklahoma to Texas after college, to pursue my career in music and acting. A few years later, my brother, Matthew, followed the Texas path 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 for 3 agonizing hours. My brother called me. He asked if my husband was with me and told me to hold his hand. Then he said the words, “John is going to be all right, but Thomas didn’t”. After that I didn’t hear anything he said. I might as well have been underwater. I hung up the phone on my husband, and went into the bathroom and screamed. Then I cried like I had never cried before.
I always thought that if something terrible happened to my family, I would never be in a physical situation so stereotypically portrayed in the Lifetime movie of the week. But there I was hitting the floor, crying, wishing I could turn back time. How could our precious, talented, good-hearted dreamer Thomas be gone, just like that?
Fast forward to the next day on a flight from LAX to DFW and a cab to Children’s Medical Center. In my purse, I still have the tired white index card on which I wrote my brother John’s room number: Unit A-2, Room 297. The first person I accepted was my sister-in-law Candice, Thomas’s mother. We held tight for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want to let him go because I didn’t want time to move on. I wanted to turn back time, or at least stand still. The next thing I see is my mother, my father and my brother, and finally poor little John, all bruised and sore, his jaw wide open, his face full of glass.
Then comes the details. The boys were heading to school early so they could get to band practice early in the morning. They were crossing one of those busy, dangerous country roads and an eighteen-bed gravel truck hit them on the driver’s side. side of Thomas. Their car was a drug under the truck, clipping off 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 problems that they could not save him. It is a miracle that John survived. Allow yourself no broken bones. Just a recovery for his jaw.
While the residents of New Orleans were evacuating, my brother and my wife were making funeral plans for their son. Deciding that he would be shot, because that is what he would have wanted. Deciding who to call, Deciding, deciding.
When it was time to bring John home from the hospital, they wanted to do it alone. The three walked into 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 emerge as we watched the Katrina news in the three days leading up to the Thomas Memorial service: The ‘on the scene’ newscast that led the community to mistakenly believe that the two boys had died ; The newspaper article, with a picture of the whole wreck so unrecognizable as a car that you couldn’t work out which end was in front and which was behind the car; and the police scan one of my cousins who can be heard as far away as Kansas City.
The community support was overwhelming. An endless line of caring neighbors with food and hugs. In the darkness comes the light. The light for me and my family was not only the outpouring of care from the community, but the people we expected to be there, the ones who were ahead. One of the regulars at my brother’s favorite bar entered the hospital dressed in scrubs 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 named 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 such stories. Close strangers in an elevator with just the right words at the right time, old childhood friends walking through the receiving line at the memorial service.
There were over six hundred people at the Memorial Service. There were many busloads of children from Thomas High School lining their seats. Relatives, relatives, caring neighbors. Later I was sad for another reason. Why do we only see many of the people we love at weddings and funerals? Life keeps us busy I guess. I have not been able to see my family on three separate occasions this year.
The emotional high point for me at the service was when John Lennon played a recording of his song “Instant Karma”. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.
As the carts stop coming, and we go back to preparing our own food, we have an empty place where Thomas used to be. We talk about it often. Between us and our therapists.
Thomas had many passions, music was just one. He was a sixteen-year-old activist who did not hold back his opinions or questions about the true meaning of life. After the hurricane passed through the heart of America, I could hear all the questioning thoughts he would have about the disaster, the failure of the government. The way they still fail.
His mother told me the other day that they are still receiving letters from the people of the conference that he had sought 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 the guitar and trombone. When I saw John in June we were learning “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It turns out that shortly before Thomas died he had ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package arrived from Amazon.com they couldn’t bring themselves to open it until now.
As the carts stop coming, and we go back to preparing our own food, we have an empty place where Thomas used to be. We talk about it often, between ourselves and our therapists.
Each of us has our private grief. It’s hard to talk about it on the phone. 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 parents to pass before us. But a young boy becoming 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 ‘ watch South Park, he should be playing the saxophone, he should be winning another debate competition, he should be in another play, he should be a law and lives in California with his wife and children! This was an accident, not an act of God. It was an accident.
My brother has forgiven the truck driver. So I’m not going to make him suffer anymore by making him study how gravel trucks get paid by the load and how fast the driver was going. The driver saved John’s life. And although the pain he feels from Thomas’ death is unlike ours, it is not as painful.
Yesterday, “Instant Karma” came on the radio. This was the first time I allowed myself to listen to him from the service. And then I remembered, “Karma immediately takes you, is going to knock you off your feet, recognize your brothers better, everyone you meet…
We all shine on.
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