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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 car accident. As Katrina was about to hit, my family and I struggled with fear and disbelief at what was happening around us. We came close to fighting the biggest storm yet.
I’ve heard people talk about ‘phones that changed their lives’. Returning from my trip one year ago, on a beautiful LA summer morning, I understood the meaning of these words. This morning, one year later, I remembered my phone ringing and I heard my Mom saying “Where are you right now?” He continued, “your brother wants me to call and let you know that the boys (Thomas and John) have had an accident on their way to school. They are being flown to Children’s Medical in Dallas.” I got back on the road and nothing has been the same. Presto change the phone.
Family Geography 101: Living in a southern suburb during Katrina’s evacuation brought fears close to home. Texas is home to my family now. I started the practice when I moved 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 path to Texas with his wife Candice, Thomas and newborn John. My parents followed me a few months later. I have now lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years with my husband. They lived in Texas.
After a life-changing phone call with my mother, I waited and prayed for three hours. My brother himself invited me. She asked me if my husband was with me and told me to hold his hand. Then he said the words, “John is fine, but Thomas is not.” After that I didn’t hear anything he said. I might as well have been in the water. I handed the phone to my husband, and went into the bathroom and screamed. Then I cried like I had never cried before.
I’ve always thought that if something bad happened to my family, I wouldn’t be in the glamorous environment shown on the weekly live show. But then I was hitting the ground, crying, wishing I could turn back time. How could our precious, talented, good-hearted, dreamer Thomas be gone, like that?
Rushing the next day on a flight from LAX to DFW and a cab to Children’s Medical Center. In my bag, I still have the white fatigue 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 several hours. I didn’t want to leave him because I didn’t want time to move forward. I wanted time to go back, or to stand still. Then I see my Mum, Dad & brother, and finally poor little John, bruised and sore, his jaws swollen, his face full of glass.
Then the detail comes. The boys were going to school early in the morning so that they would be there early in the morning. They were crossing one of the busy, treacherous country roads when an eighteen-wheeler hit them on the driver’s side. Part of Thomas. Their car had chemicals under the car, shaving the top of the car. Then the car caught fire. At first the driver saved their lives by extinguishing the fire. Each boy’s Care Flight took them to Children’s Hospital. But Thomas had so many problems that he could not save him. It is a miracle that John survived. Don’t leave without broken bones. Just to reset his jaws.
While the residents of New Orleans were moving, my brother and my wife were making plans for their son’s funeral. He decided to burn him, because that was what he wanted. Choosing who to call, Choosing, choosing.
When the time came to bring John to the hospital, they wanted to do it themselves. The three entered their house. John without his older brother, Matthew & Candice without their son.
I returned with my parents to their home, me without my nephew, my parents without their grandson.
Sociological details began to be revealed as we looked at the Katrina news in the three days leading up to the Thomas Memorial: The ‘at-the-meeting’ story that led the community to believe that both boys were dead; A newspaper article, with a photo of an unrecognizable wreck like a car where you can’t tell which end was the front and rear of the car; and the police tracked down one of my cousins who was heard from as far away as Kansas City.
Community support was overwhelming. An endless line of caring neighbors carrying food and hugs. In darkness comes light. The light for me and my family was not only the rain taking care of the community, but the people we didn’t expect to be there, and those who were ahead. One of the regulars at my brother’s favorite bar actually walked into the hospital wearing a badge and badge, carrying gum, ink pens and a legal pad. Appearing to my brother as an angel at night, an angel called Comet wisely told him, “these are the things you always need in the hospital”. And then as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared. There are many stories like that. Next to the guests in the elevator with the right words at the right time, old childhood friends walk the receiving line at a memorial service.
There were over 600 people at the Memorial Service. A busload of kids from Thomas’ high school stood on the seats. Family, friends, caring neighbors. Then I was disappointed for some reason. Why do we only see so many people we love at weddings and funerals? Life keeps us busy I guess. I have only been able to see my family on three separate trips this year.
My favorite part of the service was when John Lennon wrote his song “Instant Karma”. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.
When the cards stop coming, and we go back to prepare our food, we are left with an empty space where Thomas was. We talk about him often. Among us are our healers.
Thomas had many interests, music being just one. He was a sixteen-year-old freedom fighter who never denied his ideas or questions about the true meaning of life. When the hurricane passed through the middle of America, I could feel all the feelings they would have had about this disaster, how the government had failed. How they keep failing.
His mother told me the other day that she still receives letters from people who have asked her for various reasons.
John turned thirteen seven days after his brother’s death. He has recovered from his injuries and is starting to play guitar and trombone. When I saw John in June we were studying Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It turned out that when Thomas died he had ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package arrived from Amazon.com he was unable to open it until now.
When the cards stop coming, and we go back to preparing our food, we are left with an empty space where Thomas was. We talk about him often, between us and our therapists.
Each of us has our own grief. Talking on the phone is difficult. Sometimes just calling to say I love you is enough. We all need comfort in our daily activities and in the churches. My brother spent many days changing clothes for the victims of Katrina.
When a young person is taken before they are alive it is just wrong. It goes against the cycle of nature. We are waiting for our grandparents and parents to pass before us. But the little boy is becoming a man, full of questions and possibilities – he must go to college, he must be eighteen, he must have a girlfriend, he must watch South Park, he must play the saxophone, he must be. after he wins another debate competition, he should be doing another drama, 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 has forgiven the driver. So I don’t want to bother him any more by forcing him to find out how the stone trucks are paid for the goods and how fast the driver was. The driver saved John’s life. And while the pain they feel at the death of Thomas is different from ours, it is also painful.
Yesterday, “Instant Karma” came on the radio. This was the first time I allowed myself to listen from the ministry. Then I remembered, “Instant Karma takes you away, knocks you off your feet, recognizing your brothers, everyone you meet… and we all shine, like the moon and the stars and the sun.
We all shine.
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