December, 2008 was a low point for me. My daughters were 2,400 miles away which was so hard. I was in a distant, winding-down marriage. Earlier that month, I had told my oldest sister and best friend, that I was getting a divorce.
A week before Christmas, I was on my way to a listing appointment when I got a call from Terri – that oldest sister. That was nothing unusual, we talked several times each day. I pulled over into a driveway and answered the phone. Terri told me that her son, my nephew, Tommy, was in a coma in a hospital in California. He had been found unconscious and the EMT’s hadn’t been able to revive him.
Tommy was my nephew, but he was less than two years younger than me, and we had been raised like brothers. We spent every Easter, summer, and Christmas vacation together all our lives. We were both bookworms, so each time we were going to see each other, we brought all the books we had picked up in the interim, so we could swap.
Tommy had been in a downward spiral for a number of years. He had been a functioning alcoholic for as long as I could remember. No surprise, it runs in my family, which is why I have never had a drink. For the previous few months, Tommy had been in California, couch-surfing and getting by on his sweet personality, which remained, even through the alcohol. In talking with the people he had been staying with, I found that he had been surviving almost entirely on calories consumed through alcohol and Doritos. Not a good long-term health plan.
Within 24 hours of that first phone call from Terri, Tommy was gone. He never regained consciousness.
Terri, of course, was devastated. “Mothers shouldn’t outlive their children,” was the first thing she said.
I had been planning a trip from Washington to Arkansas, to see my girls for Christmas. When Tommy died, I told Terri I was going to postpone it for a few days and stay with her. She wouldn’t have it. She said there was nothing to be done for Tommy, and beside that, a huge storm was on its way into Western Washington. If I didn’t leave then, chances were good I wouldn’t be able to leave at all, since I was driving to Arkansas.
With an incredibly heavy heart, I left the next day and began a drive across the US on I-90. The weather forecasters had been right for once, and that storm struck with a vengeance, shutting down airports and mountain passes alike. I stayed half a day ahead of the storm all the way across Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and into South Dakota.
I called Terri three or four times a day on the trip, just checking in with her. I called her one last time from a motel in South Dakota, promising to call her first thing in the morning.
I did call, but she didn’t answer. I knew immediately something was terribly wrong. She was living in a two bedroom apartment and she was snowed in. There was no way she wouldn’t be there to answer her phone.
I immediately called the police and requested a wellness check. They told me that they would go, but with the storm and being stretched thin, it could take all day. It did.
Late that night, the police called me back to say that Terri, too, was dead.
My first, horrible thought was that she might have taken her own life. There was no way for me to find out from the Midwest, so I drove to the nearest airport and got on a plane to home. I met my sister Kristy at the airport and we went straight to Terri’s.
As we nosed around her place, we became certain that Terri had died of natural causes, which was eventually confirmed by the coroner. I was so thankful for that, because I didn’t think I could stand the idea that I had left her when she was so far gone that she would end her own life. In the end, it was a terrible heart attack that took her.
I went numb for quite a while after that. If I had numbered the people I was closest to on earth at that time, Terri and Tommy would have topped the list. Losing them both within three days was more than I could process.
That’s the miracle of grieving, though. When a loss is too much, the part of us that can’t handle it just … doesn’t. Until it can. Grief is eating a never-ending elephant. One bite at a time, even though it will never all be gone.
Six months after Terri died, I started talking to Dawn again. I hated that I couldn’t share that experience with Terri, as she had always been my confidante in all things Dawn. She had put up with me talking about her for decades, so it was frustrating that she missed the best part of the story by only a few months.
That was almost nine years ago now. I am not rendered non-functioning with grief any more, although I think of both Terry and Tommy every day. I still wish I could pick up the phone and talk to her. By the way, if you read my book, The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver, you’ve already met them both, as best I was able to render them. Terri was Anne in that book, and Tommy, of course, was Thomas Weaver.
And now, nearly a decade later, life is good. As I look back over the years of my life, I know that this is as good a time as I’ve ever had. Dawn and I are healthy, our loved ones are healthy, and I get to sit and make up stories all day for a living. Standing on the beginning edge of that grief, I couldn’t even imagine a day like this would come, but it does.
Terri would have celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday this week. I miss her. Here’s a shot of the two of us on a happy day in Maui in the early 90s.