One Year Ago Today: A Personal Story of Loss, Grief, and Shine

“We all shine, like the moon, the stars, and the sun…” John Lennon

One year ago today, I lost my 17 year old nephew in a tragic car accident. Against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina looming, my family and I grapple with the shock and disbelief of what is happening around us. We drew closer and braced for the biggest storm of our lives yet.

I’ve heard people mention “the phone that changed their life.” Exactly a year ago, on a beautiful summer morning in Los Angeles, I backed out of my driveway and began to understand what that phrase meant. This morning, a year later, I relive the phone ringing and hearing my mom say, “Where are you now?” She continued, “Your brother wants me to call you and let you know that the boys (Thomas and John) were involved in a car accident on the way to school. They have been airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Dallas.” I parked the car in In the driveway, everything is different. Suddenly change the phone.

Family Geography 101: Being in one of the Southern states during Katrina evacuations brings the panic closer to home. Texas is now my family’s home. After college, I moved from my native Oklahoma to Texas to pursue my music and acting career. A few years later, my brother Matthew is on the Texas Trail with his wife Candice, toddler Thomas, and newborn John. A few months later, my parents followed. I have now lived in Los Angeles with my husband for thirteen years. They stay in Texas.

Painful 3 hours of waiting and praying after hanging up on a “life changing phone call” with my mother. My brother called me himself. He asked if my husband was with me and asked me to hold his hand. He then said, “John will be fine, but Thomas didn’t survive”. I didn’t hear what he said after that. I might as well have been underwater. I handed the phone to my husband and I went into the bathroom screaming. Then I cried like I’d never cried before.

I always thought that if something this horrible happened to my family, I would never be in the physical condition that was stereotypically portrayed in this week’s Lifetime movie. But there I was, banging the floor and sobbing, wishing I could turn back time. How could our precious, brilliant, kind-hearted dreamer Thomas just disappear?

Fast forward to the next day, a flight from LAX to DFW, then a taxi to Children’s Medical Center. In my purse, I also have a battered white index card with my nephew John’s room number: Unit A-2, room 297. The first person I hugged was my sister-in-law Candace, Thomas’ mom. We clung to it for hours. I don’t want her to go because I don’t want time to move on. I want time to turn back, or at least stand still. The next thing I saw was my mum, dad and brother and finally poor little John, bruised and sore, with a swollen jaw and glass all over his face.

Then came the details. The boys go to school early so they can join the early morning band practice. They were crossing a busy, treacherous country road when an eighteen-wheeled gravel slab hit them from the driver’s side. Thomas’ side. Their car was drugged under the truck and had the roof scraped off. Then the car caught fire. Initially, the truck driver saved their lives by fighting the fire. Each boy’s care flight takes them to a children’s hospital. But Thomas had too many complications and they just couldn’t save him. It is a miracle that John survived. Not to mention no broken bones. Just for his jaw recovery.

My brother and wife were making funeral plans for their son as residents of New Orleans evacuated. Decided to cremate him because that’s what he wanted. Decide who to call, decide, decide.

When it came time to bring John home from the hospital, they wanted to do it themselves. The three walked into their home. John doesn’t have his older brother, and Matthew and Candice don’t have their teenage son.

I went back to their house with my parents, I didn’t take my nephew, my parents didn’t take their grandson.

As we watched Katrina news three days before Thomas’ memorial service, social details began to emerge: “live” newscasts falsely leading the community to believe both boys were dead; newspaper articles featuring a picture of complete wreckage A photo of a car so unrecognizable that you couldn’t tell which end was the front and which was the back; the police searched a cousin of mine in Kansas City.

The community support has been overwhelming. Endless loving neighbors with food and hugs. There is light in darkness. For me and my family, the light comes not only from the care of the community, but the people we least want to be there, are those who are on the front lines. A regular at my brother’s favorite bar actually snuck into the hospital wearing a scrub with the badge on it, a pack of gum, some ink pens, and a pad. An angel nicknamed Comet appeared to my brother like an angel at night and wisely told him, “these are the things you always need in the hospital”. Then as fast as he appeared, he disappeared. There are many such stories. Strangers in elevators with just the right words at just the right time, old childhood friends walking the reception line at a memorial service.

There were more than six hundred people at the memorial service. The benches were lined with children from Thomas High School. Relatives, friends, loving neighbors. Later I was sad for different reasons. Why do we only see so many of our loved ones at weddings and funerals? I guess life keeps us busy. This year I’ve only been able to see my family on three different trips.

For me, the most emotional moment at the funeral was when John Lennon’s recorded song “Instant Karma” played. My brother made sure to play the song because Thomas loved John Lennon.

When the cards stopped coming and we started preparing our own meals again, we were left with just where Thomas used to be. We talk about him a lot. Between us and our therapists.

Thomas has many hobbies, music being just one of them. He’s a 16-year-old activist who never hides his opinions or questions about what life really means. After the hurricane ripped through the heart of America, I could hear all his blunt things to say about the disaster, the way the government failed. The way they still fail.

His mother told me the other day that they still get letters from him asking for MPs for different reasons.

John turned 13 seven days after his brother died. He has recovered from his injury and is devoting himself to playing guitar and trombone. When I met John in June, we were studying “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It turns out that shortly before Thomas died, he ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package arrived from Amazon.com, they couldn’t open it until now.

With the cards stopped sending and we started preparing our own meals again, all we had left was where Thomas had been. Between us and our therapist, we talk about him a lot.

Each of us has our own grief. Talking about it over the phone sucks. Most of the time just calling and saying I love you is enough. We all find comfort in our daily activities and in our church community. My brother spent several days sorting clothes for Katrina victims.

It’s wrong when a young person is taken before their life. It goes against the natural cycle. We want our grandparents and parents to be there before us. But a little boy grows up, full of questions and potential – he should go to college, he should be eighteen, he should have a girlfriend, he should watch South Park, he should play the saxophone, he should win another Debating, he should be acting in another play, he should be a lawyer and live in California with his wife and kids! This was an accident, not a natural disaster. It was an accident.

My brother has forgiven the truck driver. So I’m not going to make him suffer further by forcing an investigation into how gravel trucks charge by load and how fast the driver is going. The driver saved John’s life. While the pain he felt from Thomas’ death was different than ours, it was equally painful.

Yesterday, “Instant Karma” played on the radio. This is the first time I’ve allowed myself to listen to it since the service. And then I remembered, “Instant karma is going to catch you, it’s going to knock you down, better recognize your brother, everyone you meet…we all shine like the moon and the stars and the sun.

We all glow.

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