Same night, after the call.
Alex’s accident was in Savannah, Georgia. When the call came
my wife Jeanne was still asleep in Jacksonville, Florida, where
she was visiting her father. Laura, 15, was asleep in San Francisco,
California, where she was visiting a friend. Nate, 19, was
asleep at a friend’s house here in St. Louis.
Stream of consciousness took over.
I can’t tell Jeanne by phone. I’ll fly there now and tell her
when she wakes up. But I can’t leave Nate here. I have to tell
him, and can’t do that and then leave him. I’ll tell him, and
send him to San Francisco to tell Laura when she wakes up
so she isn’t alone when she hears. No, I can’t do that to Nate.
He’ll need me. I won’t worry about Laura right now, she is
three hours behind Jeanne. I need to tell Nate, pick him up, and
get on a flight to Jacksonville, and we’ll tell her in person.
I threw an extra shirt in a bag and sped to Walgreens to get
the prescription I’d called in for Jeanne. While waiting, it hit
me. When I tell Nate, his friend will know, and his father will
know, and word will travel like wildfire, and Jeanne will find
out from somebody else. I have to tell her by phone.
No, wait. My parents are in Jacksonville. I’ll call them and tell
them to go be with Jeanne for when I call. I won’t be there, but
my parents will be, so she has more support than her father
alone. I called my mom and woke her up while getting the pills
from the pharmacist. “Mom, Alex died in an accident tonight. I
need to tell Jeanne. Can you go there so I can call her?”
Wait. I just told Alex’s grandmother that her grandson died as if I was telling
her he got a C in English. My God, tell me what to do. I’m messing this up.
In minutes I was off the phone and speeding to get Nate, having left my
parents to wonder if what they heard was really what they heard. We didn’t
resolve anything on that call.
I called Nate’s cell next, and blurted the same thing out. His
was the first horrible (because it was completely coherent)
nightmarish reaction I was to hear. For his sake, I’m so glad he
was able to express his anguish naturally, authentically, honestly.
I told him we’re getting on a plane in an hour. I’m coming
by to get you. I hung up saying to his cries “I swear I’m coming
as fast as I can. I swear. I love you very much. I’m coming, I’m
The father of Nate’s friend drove us to the airport. On the way,
I mentioned to Nate I’m still trying to figure out the best way
to tell his Mom. He was shocked and angry that she didn’t
know yet. “MOM DOESN’T KNOW?!” He screamed. “YOU CAN’T NOT
TELL HER! CALL HER! NOW!” I wasn’t trying to refrain from telling
her. I just hadn’t had a second to think past that moment. Nate
was right. I called her right then.
For the third time, I blurted it out to cut through the sleepiness
and grogginess of the night. I couldn’t risk her wondering
what I was saying, fearing that I was saying he died, hoping
I didn’t, and asking me again, thereby lengthening the process.
“Alex was killed in an auto accident last night.” She screamed
her tears, her voice, and eyes, both flooded into the phone, on
a dime. As with Nate, there was no pause to let it sink in. It didn’t
need to for some reason. I went on. “I’m coming, right now. I
love you, I love you, very much. Nate and I will be in Jacksonville
in no time. We’re almost there. Love you very much.”
Nate and I arrived in Jacksonville a couple of hours later,
and were met by my father, a pillar of strength, who always
knows how to be a Dad, even when his kids are 50 years old.
In the meantime, I had called the family who Laura was visiting
in San Francisco. Her friend’s mother agreed to fly to Jacksonville with
Laura. There had been no discussion around who would tell her:
Her friend’s mom, or Jeanne by phone, or Jeanne in person after Laura landed.