A Year Later: A personal story of loss, grief and shining on
by Andrea DeLesDernier
“We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun…” John Lennon
A year ago today, I lost my seventeen year old nephew in a tragic car accident. Against the back drop of the imminent onslaught of Katrina, my family and I struggled to deal with the shock and disbelief of what was happening around us. We pulled close and braced for the biggest life storm yet.
I have heard people refer to the ‘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, one year later, I relived my cell phone ringing and hearing my Mother say “Where are you right now?” she continued, “your brother wanted me to call you and let you know the boys (Thomas and John) have been in an accident on the way to school. They have been air lifted to Children’s Medical in Dallas.” I pulled back in the driveway and nothing has ever been the same. Presto changeo phone call.
Family Geography 101: Being in one of the southern states during the evacuation period for Katrina brought the panic that much closer to home. Texas is my family’s home now. I started the trend by relocating 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 Texas trail with his wife Candice, toddler Thomas and newborn John. My parents followed months later. I now have lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years with my husband. They stayed in Texas.
After hanging up from the ‘life changing phone call’ with my Mother, and waiting and praying an agonizing 3 hours. My brother himself called me. He ask if my husband was with me and told me to hold his hand. Then he said the words, “John is going to be ok, but Thomas didn’t make it”. After that I didn’t hear anything he said. I might as well have been underwater. I passed the phone to my husband, and I went into the bathroom and screamed. Then I cried like I have never cried before.
I always thought that if something this horrible ever happened to my family, I would never end up being in the physical position so stereotypically portrayed in a Lifetime movie of the week. But there I was beating the floor, sobbing, 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 plane from LAX to DFW and a cab to Children’s Medical Center. In my purse, I still have the worn out, white index card on which I wrote my nephew John’s room number: A-2 Unit, Room 297. The first person I embraced was my sister-in-law Candice, Thomas’s Mom. We held on tight for what seemed like hours. I didn’t want to let her go because I didn’t want time to move forward. I wanted time to be reversed, or at least stand still. Next I see my Mother, Dad & brother, and finally poor little John, all bruised and sore, his jaw swollen shut, his face full of glass.
Then the details come. The boys were heading to school early so they could get to an early morning band practice. They were crossing one of those busy, treacherous country highways and an eighteen wheel flatbed gravel truck struck them on the driver’s side. Thomas’s side. Their car was drug under the truck, shaving off the top of the car. Then the car caught fire. Initially the truck driver saved their lives by extinguishing the fire. A Care Flight for each boy carried them to Children’s Medical. But Thomas had so many complications they just couldn’t save him. It is a miracle that John survived. Let alone with no broken bones. Just rehabilitation for his jaw.
While the residents of New Orleans and were evacuating, my brother and wife were making funeral plans for their son. Deciding to have him cremated, because that’s 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 of them 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 be revealed as we watched the Katrina news in the three days before Thomas’s Memorial service: The ‘on-the-scene’ newscast that had mistakenly led the community to believe that both boys had died; The newspaper article, with a picture of the totaled wreck so unrecognizable as an automobile you couldn’t figure 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 caring neighbors bearing food and hugs. In darkness comes light. The light for me and my family was not only the caring outpour from the community, but the people whom we least expected to be there, were the ones at the forefront. One of the regular patrons at my brother’s favorite bar actually snuck into the hospital dressed in scrubs with a badge, bearing a package of gum, some ink pens and legal pad. 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 one. Near strangers in an elevator with just the right words at just 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. Bus loads of kids from Thomas’s high school lined the pews. Relatives, friends, caring neighbors. Later I 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” played. My brother made sure the song was played because Thomas loved John Lennon.
Thomas had many passions, music was only one. He was a sixteen year old activist who never withheld his opinions or questions about life’s true meaning. After the hurricane ripped through the heart of America, I could hear all of the outspoken views he would have had about the disaster, the way the government failed. The way they are still failing.
His mother told me the other day they are still receiving letters from congress people he had solicited for different causes.
John turned thirteen years old seven days after his brother’s death. He has recovered from his injuries and is pouring himself into playing guitar and trombone. When I saw John in June we were learning Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. It turns out 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 cards stop coming, and we are back to preparing 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. Each of us has our private sorrow. Talking about it over the phone sucks. Most of the time just phoning 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’s just wrong. It goes against the cycle of nature. We expect our grandparents and parent to pass before us. But a young boy becoming a man, full of questions and potential - he should be heading off 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 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 of the truck. So I am not about to make him suffer further by forcing an investigation into how gravel trucks get paid by the load and how fast the driver was going. The driver saved John’s life. And while the pain he feels from Thomas’s death is unlike ours, it is no less painful.
Yesterday, “Instant Karma” came on the radio. It was the first time I allowed myself to listen to it since the service. And then I remembered, “Instant Karma gonna’s get you, gonna knock you off your feet, better recognize your brothers, everyone you meet… and we all shine on, like the moon and stars and the sun.
We all shine on.
About the Author
Andrea DeLesDernier is a singer and humorist based in Hollywood, CA. As part of the musical comedy duo "The AnAesthetics" she writes songs and essays about the things in life we all share, the things we love and the things that drive us crazy. Her most recent CD of songs and scenes entitled "Cornography" is available on CD Baby.com www.cdbaby.com/anaesthetics2.
Her website is www.punkrockcomedy.com.
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