Friday, August 30, 2013

By the Light of the Full Moon

August 5, 2009, dawned like any other lazy summer morning. The sunrise was quiet and serene, and created little rainbow prisms in the morning dew. Even though it was summer, our 15-year-old daughter Aly rarely slept in. Instead, she rose like clockwork at 5 a.m. for early morning swim practice. Wrapping her favorite fuzzy blue blanket around her small 5’2” frame, she grabbed her bulky swim bag and crept downstairs to wait for her daddy.

The drive into town every morning was a treasured father-daughter time. Classic rock from the truck radio played softly in the background while Aly rested her sleepy head on Lammy, her favorite stuffed animal. On this morning, the 17-minute trip to the pool was nothing out of ordinary. 

“Bye-bye, Daddy. Love you,” Aly murmured softly as she and her bulky swim bag slid out the truck door, leaving Lammy and the fuzzy blue blanket behind. 

"Bye-bye, Lovey. Love you. Have a good day,” my husband tenderly replied. He watched fondly as his youngest daughter made her way through the aquatic center's door. 

My husband, Jamie, usually enjoyed their morning drive to the pool, but as he drove away on this particular morning, a bad feeling swept over him. He couldn't put his finger on it, so he said nothing.

Excitement was in the air. After morning practice, Aly and a handful of senior swimmers planned to carpool to Seattle to watch the U.S. Open, a championship long course meet. Home of the 1990 Goodwill Games, Aly had competed in this pool many times herself. But today, she and her teammates would be spectators watching the nation’s top swimmers compete for a spot in the Olympics, one of Aly’s own goals.

Following practice, the small group stopped for breakfast and then divided into two cars driven by parents before continuing on. It was an exciting day for the kids and I heard from Aly several times, her voice always full of giddy teenage excitement. Although glad the kids enjoyed the field trip, by day's end I was anxious for their return.

As day gave way to evening, and evening to dusk, a brilliant full moon eased its way over the horizon. It hung high and bright in the dark summer sky. Our other kids were out that evening, offering my husband and I rare quiet time. 

With her beloved cousin Jasmine
At 10:20 p.m., Aly called home one final time saying they had just dropped off two swimmers. Aly and two boys, Donovan and Patrick, would continue the final leg home on their own with 18-year-old Donovan at the wheel.

Aly had deep respect for Donovan, a quiet yet popular swimmer with a strong work ethic. Like Aly, he was greatly admired as a powerful athlete. Just weeks away from starting his senior year in high school, he was a solid team leader and respected by all.

Patrick was just a hair younger than Aly, and one of her favorite teammates, both in the pool and out. He and Aly enjoyed a spirited friendship and rather than sitting “shotgun” next to Donovan on that fateful night, Patrick chose to sit next to Aly in the back seat, a move that would save his life. 

In that final phone call, Aly said they were 30 minutes away, and would meet me at the local aquatic center. I told her I loved her and would see her shortly. I hung up the phone, kissed my husband goodbye, and headed out alone into the night. 

Because of the late hour, the drive to the pool was quiet and peaceful. Arriving in the deserted parking lot, I sat in my husband’s truck playing on my cellphone to pass the short time until the swimmers arrived.

As 11 p.m. drew near, the day’s fatigue was setting in and I began to wonder where the kids were. I texted Aly but she didn't reply. I waited a few minutes and then called her phone. She didn’t answer. I waited a few more minutes and then tried again, twice, three times. Still no answer. Assuming her cell battery had died from overuse during the long day, I had no choice but to sit and wait.

Suddenly my phone rang, startling me in the dark. It was from an unknown number.

"Hello?” I answered, wondering who would be calling at that hour. 

“Lynda, this is Sean….Donovan’s dad. There’s been an accident. We are on our way now, 911 is guiding us.” 

I was positive it was nothing more than a minor fender-bender. I didn’t panic as I told Donovan’s dad that I too would make my way to the kids. I drove out of the parking lot and was soon heading south on the freeway towards Burlington, a 30-minute drive away. 

I called my husband, “Honey, the kids have been in an accident. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’m heading that way now.” Panicked, my husband pleaded with me to come pick him up, but since that was in the opposite direction, it meant a delay of at least 45 minutes. I told him that would take too long and I wanted to get to Aly as soon as possible, but promised to call him as soon as I was by her side. He pleaded again, but not wanting to waste precious time, I held firm and kept driving south.
Playing in the home pool

I tried to call Donovan’s parents to let them know I wasn’t far behind, hoping they could tell me exactly where the accident was, but this time I received no answer. I tried again, and again no answer. I then remembered they had called 911 for directions. I decided to try the same. 

I dialed the number and calmly explained who I was and why I was calling. The dispatcher was hesitant but agreed to give me directions. I asked if she knew which hospital the kids had been transported to, but she offered no further information. 

I reassured myself that the accident was minor, and hospital transport probably wasn’t warranted. The dispatcher then shared that support staff was on the scene. Support staff? How strange. They were called only for fatalities. Why in the world would they be dispatched to a fender-bender? My brain simply didn’t comprehend the possibility of anything worse. 

Despite the bright full moon, I soon got lost on the dark and unfamiliar roads, and once again called 911 for directions. I finally saw the lights of multiple emergency vehicles off in the distance. But this accident was far more serious and didn’t even remotely fit the scenario I envisioned. I assumed I had come upon the wrong accident. Feeling confused and having nowhere to turn my husband's truck around, I approached the scene. 

As I drove slowly up to the emergency roadblock, law enforcement stepped into the road to greet me. From this moment forward I recall the events as if in a dream, like little snapshots of time floating around in a snow globe. 

I rolled down my window but my voice left me as the officer approached the truck. For an awkward moment we just stared at each other. Finally, I manage to utter two tiny words: “My daughter.” 

The words came out in a flat statement, not a question. 

The officer stared at me, hesitant, as his eyes searched mine. 

He then quietly asked, “15?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. 

“Alyssa Fell?” he continued in our hesitant exchange.  

“Yes,” I mumbled. I stared at him as if pleading to tell me this wasn't really happening.

The officer continued standing outside my window, his eyes piercing mine. He was unsure what to do with me. 

Others approached my window. In that moment—with all those faces gazing at me—I knew. 

My world had suddenly shattered into every parent’s worst nightmare. 

The gathering group grew larger as I quietly mumbled my final query, “She’s here….isn’t she?” 

It was more of a declaration than a question. All those faces continued to stare at me. The night became very quiet, still no one replied. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I softly commanded. 

Not one person moved. They were all frozen in place as they watched my face for signs of hysteria. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I repeated. 

Not waiting for a reply, I opened the truck door, climbed out, and began making my way toward the two crumpled vehicles in the nearby field. I was vaguely aware the group was following me though no one dared stopped me. 

Instinctively, like a wild animal searching for her young, I knew where I would find my youngest daughter.

On the ground next to a rear passenger door, my precious baby girl with the smooth tan skin and long blonde hair, the strong swim shoulders and tiny waist, my stellar student with fierce determination and dedication with eyes on the Olympics, was strapped to a backboard and draped by a stark white sheet.

I knelt beside her as my eyes surveyed the car’s blood-spattered interior. Reaching across her covered body, I searched for her hand under the sheet’s edge. Finding it, I held it as I sat next to my beloved Lovey, too shocked to cry. Her soft skin was still warm and I could feel the random muscle twitches of dying nerve cells. I fought the urge to lift the white sheet from her sweet face for fear of seeing disfigurement I would never forget. 

Behind me stood a growing group of officers and responders, hushed respectfully as they took in the scene. As I held Aly’s small hand in mine, I could feel the powerful and raw compassion from those standing behind me. 

And then, for no particular reason, I looked up into the dark field that stretched before us, and that is when I saw her: my beloved deceased grandmother had an arm around Aly and was gently leading her away. Aly was looking over her shoulder at me as she walked beside the great-grandmother she never knew. Walking away from me, forever.

The intrusion of my cellphone's ring suddenly pierced the stillness. In shock, my body automatically answered. It was Jamie. He was impatient, wondering why in the world I hadn’t yet called him. In a robotic monotone voice I remember telling him Aly hadn’t made it, that I was with her now, in the field next to the crumpled cars. I don’t remember his reply or the rest of the conversation.

That point forward is a blur, and would remain so for many months. From among the many snapshots floating inside the snow globe, I recall only fragments.

Being led to the hospital by support personnel. 

Jamie arriving at the hospital, driven down by our brother-in-law. 

Sitting together in a small private hospital room, discussing Aly’s organ donations with the coroner. 

Kissing Donovan and Patrick on their foreheads as they lay strapped to ER gurneys, crying.

Telling them both that it will be alright, hoping I could convince myself of the same. 

Of walking out the hospital door at 4 a.m. with an ER full of people watching, my legs threatening to give way as we exited into the night. 

Leaving for home. 


Without our precious daughter. 

As the bright full moon gave way to dawn. 

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