Friday, August 30, 2013

By the Light of the Full Moon

August 5, 2009, dawned like any other lazy summer morning, with a quiet and serene sunrise that created little rainbow prisms in the fresh morning dew. Unlike most 15-year-old teenagers, Aly rarely slept in, preferring instead to rise like clockwork at 5 am for early morning swim practice. Wrapping her favorite fuzzy blue blanket around her small 5’2” frame, she grabbed her bulky swim bag and quietly crept downstairs to wait for her daddy to finish making his coffee.
Aly at Lake Chelan, May 2009

The drive into town every morning was a father-daughter time treasured by both. Classic rock from the truck radio often 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 to fill her now-empty seat. “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 usually enjoyed their morning drive to the pool, but as he drove away on this particular morning, an ominous feeling swept over him. And it was there to stay.

The day’s itinerary promised excitement for Aly and a handful of senior swimmers. After morning practice, they 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 of swimmers stopped for breakfast, then divided into two cars driven by parents before continuing on. It was an exciting day, 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 some rare quiet time. 

With her beloved cousin Jasmine
At 10:20 pm, Aly called home one final time. They were dropping off two swimmers, leaving Aly and two boys, Donovan and Patrick, to 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 and, like Aly, greatly admired for a powerful butterfly stroke. Just weeks away from starting his senior year in high school, he was a solid team leader and well respected by all. Closer in age to Aly was Patrick, a favorite teammate both in the pool and out. He and Aly immensely enjoyed their spirited friendship and on that fateful night, rather than sitting “shotgun” next to Donovan, 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 good-bye, and headed out into the night alone. 

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 pm drew near, the day’s fatigue began to set in and I began to wonder where the kids were. I texted Aly, but received no reply. Waiting a few minutes more, I called her phone. She didn’t answer. Waiting a few more minutes, I tried again, then twice, three times. Still no answer. Believing her phone battery had died from overuse during the long day, I had no choice but to sit and wait.

Suddenly, startling me in the dark, my phone rang 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, 9-1-1 is guiding us.” 

Sure 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 called Donovan’s parents back 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 9-1-1 for directions. I decided to try the same. I dialed the number and calmly explained who I was and why I was calling. The emergency dispatcher was hesitant, but agreed to give me directions. I asked if she knew which hospital the kids had been transported to, but she wouldn’t offer me any 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. Why in the world would support staff be dispatched to a fender-bender? My brain just simply didn’t comprehend the possibility of anything more than a minor accident. 

Despite the bright full moon, I soon got lost on the dark and unfamiliar roads, and once again called the 9-1-1 dispatcher for directions. Finally, in the distance, I saw the lights of multiple emergency vehicles. But this accident was far too 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 the truck around, I approached the scene. I slowly drove up to the emergency roadblock and an official step into the road to greet me. 

From this moment forward, I recall the events as if in a dream, like little snapshots blending together as my world shattered with each spoken word. I rolled down my window, but my voice left me as an 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 asked quietly, “15?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. 

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

“Yes,” I mumbled as I stared at him. The officer continued standing outside my window, his eyes piercing mine. He was unsure what to do with me. Others approached my window. At that moment, with all those faces gazing at me, I knew. 

Her favorite AlyBlue gown
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, and 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, all frozen in place, as they watched my face for signs of hysteria. “Take me to my daughter,” I repeated. Not waiting one second further, I opened the truck door, climbed out, and began making my way toward the two crumpled cars in the nearby field. I was vaguely aware that the group was following me. Although this didn’t fit protocol, no one dared stopped me. Instinctively, like a wild animal searching for her young, I knew where I would find my baby girl. 

On the ground next to a rear passenger door, my precious baby girl with the smooth tan skin and long blonde hair, the strong broad swim shoulders and tiny waist, my stellar student with fierce determination and dedication to reach the Olympics, was strapped to a backboard and draped by a stark white sheet. I knelt down 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. My daughter’s soft skin was still warm, and I could feel random muscles twitches of the dying nerve cells. I fought the urge to lift the white sheet from her sweet face for fear of seeing the likely disfigurement I wouldn’t ever forget. 

Behind me stood a large group of emergency responders and law enforcement officers, 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 grandmother who died thirteen years prior 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.

My cellphone’s intruding ring suddenly pierced the stillness. My robotic body automatically answered. It was Jamie. He was impatient, wondering why in the world I hadn’t yet called him. In a monotone, 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.

Alyssa Victoria Yvonne Fell, age 15
That point forward is a blur, and would remain so for many months. Like little snapshots of time, I only remember glimpses from the remainder of that night. Being lead 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 both lay crying. Telling them both that it will be all right, hoping I could convince myself of the same. Of walking out of the hospital door at 4 am with an ER full of people watching, my legs threatening to give way as we exited into the night. Leaving for home. Together. Without our precious daughter. 

As the bright full moon gave way to dawn.