One Year Ago Today: A Personal Story of Loss, Pain, and Brilliance

“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 the impending onslaught of Katrina, my family and I struggled to deal with the shock and disbelief of what was happening around us. We approach and prepare for the biggest storm of life so far.

I have heard people refer to ‘the phone call that changed their life’. Pulling out of my driveway exactly one year ago on a beautiful Los Angeles summer morning, I came to understand the meaning of the phrase. This morning, a year later, I revived my cell phone ringing and hearing my Mother say “Where are you now?” she continued, “your brother wanted me to call you and tell you that the children (Thomas and John) have been in an accident on the way to school. They have been airlifted to Children’s Medical in Dallas.” I pulled into the driveway and nothing has ever been the same. Presto change 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, made his way to Texas with his wife Candice, little Thomas, and newborn John. My parents followed me months later. I have now lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years with my husband. They stayed in Texas.

After hanging up the ‘life changing phone call’ with my mom, and waiting and praying 3 agonizing hours. My brother himself called me. He asked me if my husband was with me and he told me to take his hand. Then he said the words, “John’s going to be okay, but Thomas didn’t make it.” After that I didn’t hear anything he said. He might as well have been underwater. I handed the phone to my husband, went into the bathroom and yelled. Then I cried like I had never cried before.

I always thought that if something this horrible happened to my family, I would never end up in the physical position so stereotypically portrayed in a Lifetime movie of the week. But there I was, hitting the ground, sobbing, wishing I could turn back time. How is it possible that our precious, talented, kind-hearted, dreamy Thomas is gone, just like that?

Fast forward to the next day on a plane from LAX to DFW and a cab to Children’s Medical Center. In my bag, I still have the faded 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’s mom. We held on tight for what seemed like hours. He didn’t want to let her go because he didn’t want time to move on. I wanted time to reverse, or at least stop. Next I see my mother, father and brother, and finally poor little John, all bruised and sore, his jaw swollen shut and his face covered in glass.

Then come the details. The boys would head to school early so they could get to an early morning band practice. They were crossing one of those treacherous busy country roads and an eighteen wheeler flatbed gravel truck hit them on the driver’s side. Thomas’ side. His car was drugged under the truck, scraping the top of the car. Then the car caught fire. Initially, the truck driver saved their lives by extinguishing the fire. One Care Flight for each child took them to Children’s Medical. But Thomas had so many complications that they just couldn’t save him. It’s a miracle John survived. Let alone no broken bones. Just rehab for his jaw.

As New Orleans residents evacuated, my brother and wife were making funeral plans for their son. Decide to have him cremated, because that’s what he would have wanted. Deciding who to call, Deciding, deciding.

When it came time to take John home from the hospital, they wanted to do it on their own. 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-site’ newscast that had led the community to mistakenly believe both children had died; The newspaper article, with a picture of the total wreck so unrecognizable as a car that you couldn’t tell 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 was overwhelming. An endless line of doting neighbors carrying food and hugs. In the darkness comes the light. The light for me and my family was not just the outpouring of caring from the community, but the people we least expected to be there were the ones out front. One of the regulars at my brother’s favorite bar snuck into the hospital dressed in a gown and badge, with a pack of gum, some ink pens, and a notepad. Appearing to my brother like 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. About strangers in an elevator with the right words at the right time, old childhood friends walking in the receiving line at the funeral.

There were over six hundred people at the Memorial Service. Busloads of children from Thomas High School lined the benches. Relatives, friends, caring neighbors. He later he was sad for a different reason. Why do we only see many of the 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.

The emotional high point for me at the service was when John Lennon’s recording of his song “Instant Karma” came on. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.

As the cards stop coming and we go back to making 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.

Thomas had many passions, music was only one. He was a sixteen year old activist who never held his views or questions about the true meaning of life. After the hurricane hit the heart of America, I was able to hear all the outspoken views he would have had about the disaster, the way the government failed. The way they keep failing.

His mother told me the other day that they are still receiving letters from congressmen that he had solicited for different causes.

Juan turned thirteen seven days after his brother’s death. He has recovered from his injuries and is now playing the guitar and trombone. When I saw John in June we were learning Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” It turns out that shortly before Thomas died, he had ordered several Pink Floyd CDs. When the package from arrived, they didn’t dare to open it until now.

As the cards stop coming and we go back to making our own meals, we are left with an empty space where Thomas used to be. We talk about it often, among ourselves and our therapists.

Each of us has his private pain. Talking about it on the phone sucks. Most of the time it is enough to call to say I love you. We all seek solace in our daily activities and in church communities. My brother spent days sorting clothes for Katrina victims.

When a young person is taken away before they have lived their life, it is just wrong. It goes against the cycle of nature. We hope that our grandparents and parents will pass before us. But a boy who grows into a man, full of questions and potential: he should go 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 pageant. debate, he should be acting in another play, he should be a lawyer and live 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 you suffer any further by forcing an investigation into how gravel trucks are paid for the load and how fast the driver was going. The driver saved John’s life. And while the pain he feels over Thomas’s death is different from ours, it’s no less painful.

Yesterday, “Instant Karma” was on the radio. It was the first time he allowed me to listen to him from the service. And then I remembered: “Instant karma will catch you, it will knock you down, you will better recognize your brothers, everyone you meet… and we will all shine, like the moon, the stars and the sun.”

We all stand out.

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