8 years ago today…

I was living in Phoenix and had flown to California to visit my brother, Walter, and his family for Labor Day Weekend.  On Labor Day, my sister-in-law, Janet, and I went shopping to buy scrap-booking stuff to make an album for their recent Hawaiian trip.  We were checking out when I received a call on my cell from my nephew, Keith.

He was so upset that I had difficulty understanding him.  A car accident…really really bad…Mom very very bad…others hurt…pray and let everyone know.

Janet and I hurried home, and told my brother Walter, and I started making calls to my family members, even though I didn’t have much information.  It was Labor Day, so I could not reach several people.  One of my brothers was playing golf all day so didn’t find out until that evening.

I then somewhat went into a state of shock, as did Walter and Janet.  Some memories of that day are as clear as a bell and others are foggy.  I remember, sitting in a recliner chair, in front of the TV, (but not watching or hearing the TV), and chilling so badly that 4 blankets couldn’t warm me up.  It was not cold in their house.

I had called my niece, Glenda, and told her that I didn’t have many details, but that she needed to go to the hospital and call to let me know what was happening.  I didn’t even know which hospital, so she began to call hospitals to find out where she needed to go.

Here’s what I learned, secondhand and third-hand about what had happened in Kansas City;  (I cannot attest to the complete accuracy of this narrative since I wasn’t there):

That morning in Kansas City had started out great.  My Chicago niece, Ellen and her husband, Jeff were visting my brother Kevin and his wife, Renee for the weekend.   Kevin’s entire family went out to breakfast before taking Ellen and Jeff to the airport.   Renee had decided to walk back to their home with her grandson, Matthew (3 1/2 yrs. old).  They had a wonderful time, skipping together, picking flowers, and talking about fun things.  Matthew, super bright, was very communicative.  He and Renee had a uniquely special relationship.

Matthew wanted to ride to the airport with them, but his parents had made plans for the rest of the day.

Renee was driving because Kevin was legally blind.  About halfway to the airport, one of those huge semi trucks changed lanes, clipping their rear fender, and forcing them to cross all lanes of Interstate 435.  They landed safely on the right shoulder and everyone in the car breathed a sigh of relief that they were all safe.  The trucker had pulled over onto the shoulder also, to make sure they were all good.

Someone called the police.  Kevin called his son Keith to ask him to come and take Ellen and Jeff to the airport, since he didn’t want them to miss their flight.

Jeff thought he saw some smoke coming out of the back end of the car, so they quickly got out and walked away, to avoid an explosion.   All was still going well.

When Keith got there to pick up Ellen and Jeff, he saw several ambulances and police cars with traffic being diverted to one left lane.   Immediately thereafter, the entire freeway was shut down.  At first it appeared that everyone, including the policeman taking the report was critically hurt.  Except for Kevin and the truck-driver, who were still standing.  Keith also saw a black SUV, sideways on the side of the road, with a young man leaning into the driver’s window, talking to the driver.  The two of them were unhurt.

3 ambulances had been called because they originally thought there 3 serious trauma cases.  Each ambulance headed to a different hospital.  One with Renee.  One with Ellen, accompanied by Jeff (who wasn’t complaining of any injuries) and one with the policeman.

Kevin jumped into Keith’s car and they followed Renee’s ambulance.  That’s when I received the call from Keith; he was obviously distraught and scared.

Everything had happened so quickly.  I did not learn more details until days later.

Glenda and her husband,  Ken, had found the hospital where Renee was taken.  She had the worst injuries.   Ken was assigned the task of calling me each hour, to give Walter, Janet and me an update.  He diligently performed this task, but honestly didn’t have much to say except that “she’s still unconscious and we don’t know anything new.”

He told me that there were about 50 people in the waiting room.  Kevin and Renee had lived in this area all of their lives, and most of our family lives here.

Occasionally, I would receive calls from other family members.  I don’t know if I was only hearing what I wanted to hear, but I never lost hope.  I was praying for Renee harder than I had ever prayed in my life.  Glenda called me and said that she couldn’t understand why anyone was hopeful, because Renee had never regained consciousness and the doctors had not given out any good news.  However, one of my other nieces had called me and said that she had seen Renee respond to touch.  My mind chose to believe her instead of Glenda.

Ellen had broken her heel and was pretty cut up from shattered glass, but she would be okay.  Jeff was brutally bruised, but he would also be okay.

I flew back to Phoenix that evening, and when I went to bed, I still had hope.  I have no explanation as to why I woke up at 3 a.m. with a searing pain in my chest, but I began to cry and could not go back to sleep.  (Kevin later told me that was almost the exact time the doctor had told him that she was unresponsive and there was no reason to believe she would recover.)  Around 7 the next morning, I called the phone number in the waiting room.  A friend answered and put Kevin on the phone.  He sounded very calm, so I was encouraged until he said, “We are just waiting for the doctor to tell us whether she has any brain activity.  I think she’s gone.”

I asked to speak to my sister, Arlene and asked her when I should fly to Kansas City.  All she could manage to say, through her tears, was “Now.”

I had not unpacked from the weekend, so called Southwest Airlines and explained my situation.  I told them that I had earned a frequent flyer ticket, but hadn’t received it yet.  They said, “No problem.  Can you make it to the airport by 9:10?”  I then called my boss, told him what had happened, and he hurried to pick me up and drop me off at the airport.

I felt like a robot, and I felt so “out of it.”  Surely this wasn’t happening!  My boss checked in my baggage and asked for someone to take me in a wheel chair to the gate, since I seemed to be in a stupor.

My niece Glenda picked me up at the airport.  She was visibly grief-stricken also.  However, the two of us are the practical ones that everyone turns to in a crisis.  We needed to buck up and develop an action plan for what we needed to do.  Glenda loaned me her second car, and handed me cash for whatever needs came up.

I first went to the hospital to pick up my brother, Kevin, who wanted to go and visit his daughter, Ellen, at her hospital.   Everyone seemed to be holding up well.   Kevin desperately wanted to take a shower, so I took him home.  He also asked me to call a beauty salon and make an appointment for Ellen, that evening, because her hair was filled with glass shards.

I also began to help make the funeral arrangements.  I pretended to have everything under control.  If I kept busy, maybe I would wake up from this nightmare.

Keith and his wife Claire’s house became the central gathering place.  We all marveled at the amount of food that kept arriving without any requests.  It reminded me of the Bible story about the “loaves and the fishes.”   My family, from all over the United States, started flying in.  Somehow they all had places to say and plenty to eat for several days.

Kevin, Keith, Jeff and I went to the funeral home to schedule the visitation and funeral, pick out the casket and get the printing done.  I remember Kevin saying that he was so thankful that Matthew had not ridden with them to the airport.   He said he couldn’t possibly have handled picking out a casket for a child.

Renee had always loved autumn.  Ellen ordered the most beautiful fall flowers I have ever seen to honor Renee’s favorite season.  Keith and Claire planned the music and the service.  A united team effort…

We were all extremely concerned about Kevin and Renee’s youngest daughter, Liz, because she had been so close to her Mom.  I could tell that she was having a difficult time, but she was doing a good job of keeping it together.

The funeral was held that year on Saturday morning, September 11.  600 people signed the guest book.  Thousands of dollars were donated to Renee’s church, in her name.   Renee had worked at an elementary school.  About 100 children from the school gave crayon-colored, handmade cards to Kevin.   Those were very special cards; some even gave us a chuckle as I read each one to him.

I stayed for 2 weeks, decided to sell my home in Phoenix and move back to Kansas City, so that Kevin would not have to move in with any of his children.

Postscript:

I will never know exactly what happened, because no one likes to talk about it, to this day.  What I can tell you, is that the policeman was filling out his report with Renee, backed up and leaning on the trunk of his car.  Renee was facing him.  Ellen, Jeff and Kevin were standing nearby.

The black SUV had spun out of control – hitting Renee with full force – then the policeman, who sustained permanent damage to his chest and legs.

Jeff was facing the road, so grabbed Ellen’s hand and they started running.  They were also hit and knocked face down into the ground.  Kevin, not being able to see, but hearing everything, had taken one step back.  He escaped without a scratch.

Ellen and Jeff  suffered some injuries that are still affecting them, but they now have 4 children and still live in Chicago.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the trucking company, because the driver had initiated the chain of events that resulted in Renee’s death.  The case was finally settled out of court.  The SUV driver’s insurance company paid the full amount without question.  My brother did not file charges against the young female driver; he knew that it was an accident and held no grudge against her.

Matthew’s reaction was heart-wrenching.  He did not know where his beloved grandmother had gone.  He kept asking, “Where is she?  And why didn’t she say good-bye?”  The answer was always the same, “She’s in heaven and God wanted her to be with Him so fast that she couldn’t say good-bye.”  Matthew, “Can I go to heaven and see her?”  “No, not until God wants you to be with Him.”   Whenever someone gave him a balloon, he let it fly up into the sky, sending it to Renee.

Matthew would not let his mother out of his sight; it was obvious that he was terrified of losing her also.  His entire personality changed.  This happy, sociable child stopped talking.   It’s only in the last year or two that he has appeared to come out of the shock.  We just never know how something like this affects a child – even one so young.

This tragedy taught all of us a lot – especially not to stand by the side of the road or face away from the road, if ever in a car accident.

 

 

 

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