During casual conversation with new neighbors about family members and school attendance and upcoming birthdays, the soon to be sixteen year old was telling me all about her excitement to be a new driver. I casually asked “when’s your birthday?” She answered September, the upcoming month, and I said, casually, “oh, so soon! What day?”
Not sure if she could tell through my face what my heart was doing.
Nothing casual about that date for me.
September 24th, 2006.
The day my entire life changed forever.
Sitting in my freshmen college dorm, atop my raised platform bed with the teal blue comforter. Mini fridge filled with basics, roommate sitting six feet away on top of her raised bed. I open ny flip phone to my brother’s call.
“Have you heard from Jacob?”
“He and Matt were in an accident. Mom and dad didn’t want to tell you yet since they don’t know anything and didn’t want you to worry but I knew you’d want to know.”
“YES! Thanks bud, let me call Taylor (Matt’s roommate)”.
Ring ring ring.
“Taylor, where’s Matt?”
“I don’t know, he’s on his way back from home today.”
“He was in an accident with Jacob and we don’t know anything, yet.”
….some stuff I don’t remember.
I turn to face roommate with a deadpan stare.
“God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,” she said.
After a few more calls and finding out Matt was airlifted to a bigger hospital, Jacob was still at the small local one, but we hadn’t heard anything else, I decided to go to sleep.
Insert me and roomie falling asleep with the tv on — this is when that thirteen year habit was formed!!
“He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone, Virginia Lee, he’s gone.”
My eyes open to a streak of light from the hallway, breaking through the pitch black darkness of the dorm room.
Meme, my grandmother, who lived two hours away was standing by my bedside, her small five foot tall frame barely seeing over the edge of my bed.
I sat straight up as she continued to repeat “he’s gone, Virginia Lee, he’s gone.”
It was 2ish am. Once my parents learned Jacob’s entrance back to heaven was on that cool, wet road in the middle of Georgia, my mom made sure Meme and Pops were called so I could be told in person.
Jacob wasn’t on this side of heaven anymore. His body was gone. There would be no more hugs or laughter or inside jokes shared on late night porches of family vacations. There wouldn’t be any interior design/building investment partnership or game watching of our rival college schools.
But in these wee hours of Monday, September 25th, none of that was on my mind. All that was on my mind was packing a suitcase.
“I’m so sorry Virginia Lee, I’m so sorry. We’re going to take you to our house” Meme said when I noticed Pops standing behind her, the RA hovering at the door taking the scene in.
A college freshman only five weeks into her first “away from home” experience, being called back to that home because of a tragedy. A tragedy of such magnitude a pair of seventy year old love birds had pounded on locked doors in the middle of the night to gain entry to the dorm, to be by the side of their first born granddaughter, as she heard the devastating news.
Suitcase open, I began throwing things in.
“Meme, how long will I be gone, what do I need?”
“We don’t know yet, sweetie, we can come back and get whatever you don’t pack. Let’s just get you home.”
The rest of the sequential details are burry and jumbled, with moments of crystal clear memories interwoven through the following week.
Sitting in the backseat of my grandparents car, head on the window, looking at the stars — “life will never be the same”
(I returned to Auburn the next day as my parents figured out a way to get me home without me driving myself).
Screaming through the phone with a friend as I sat on my dorm floor — “this isn’t fair”
Witnessing college students all around me joking about the weekend shenanigans — “how dare they laugh”
(In that class, my teacher asked me to stay back before leaving. She shared her own experience with grief and saw it in my eyes. I wasn’t okay, and I needed to go home. That was the only class I attended that week. I was supposed to stay at school until Thursday when there was a scheduled private flight for me to get on, but I told Mom I needed to leave… now. Within 18 hours she’d scheduled an alternative mode of transportation to get her baby home and I was flying in the passenger side of a tiny airplane flown by a man I’d known all my life who loved our families a whole lot).
Watching people come and go, acquaintances, who didn’t know the family well, crying, offering condolences — “they didn’t even know him”
Rewriting my memorial service words in the final hour — “I shouldn’t even have to do this.”
Getting tipsy with all of our high school friends after the service, dancing our asses off so we could experience a few minutes without pain — “how are we going to survive this pain?”
Eventually, I’d climb back on to another private plane, this one larger, with friends who attended both Alabama and Auburn. We’d stop in Tuscaloosa to refuel the plane and our bodies with lunch. I’d get dropped off at the Auburn airport and drive back to my dorm.
For the next three years I’d wrestle with one question “why Jacob and not me?”
At age 18, Jacob had already done amazing things on the planet. He’d invested money for years and already had a substantial nest egg. He had dreams to radically change Africa with his wealth that would continue growing with his genius mind. He never had a curfew when we were in high school because he was the one who’d drive the drunk kids home safe. He hung out right alongside everyone and stayed kind and compassionate, meeting people’s needs right where they were. Sounds a little like Jesus, yeah?
Me? I was the party girl. I was mean to lots of people. I didn’t have many dreams or goals and certainly didn’t have any plans of impacting people’s lives in a positive way. This is NOT the whole story of my childhood, absolutely not, but it’s how I saw myself at the time and it’s taken many years and a lot of therapy to unlearn those messages. It’s something I’m going to write about one day, for now, let’s just sit with this “as is” because whether it was true or not, it’s how I viewed myself and I compared that to how I viewed Jacob. And my big question remained –
Why did he die and why was I still here?
“Here” — where Jacob’s spirit had been last, in his earthly body driving his silver S2000 — where his best friend, Matt sat next to him.
The two boys were in the accident together. Matt survived to live more days on this side of heaven but not without consequence. His family has experienced loss, as well. A story that’s theirs, alone, one I know very few details about.
What I do know is the tragedy on that wet road between St. Simons Island and Athens, September 24th, 2006, impacted two families immediately and an entire community who mourned with them. We mourned two amazing men who’s lives were blown off course, lives full of promise and hope and a future that would never be what it was “supposed to be”.
Sixteen years later, I still meditate on what was “supposed to be”, especially this time of year. I don’t cry anymore. It’s been a long time since tears have come when my heart remembers his laugh. What stands in the place of the raw grief is all that I haven’t gotten to experience with him. Dancing at his sister’s wedding, watching his kids play with my kids, introducing him to my hubby and meeting his wife, all the many family vacations that were “supposed to be”. When I spend time with my neighbor’s daughter, knowing she went from heaven to earth on the same day, the exact same day, Jacob went from earth to heaven, I am reminded how much life she’s lived and how much we haven’t gotten to live with him.
My deep engrained Christian upbringing urges me to add all the optimistic/positive stuff like “at least he got to meet my kids before I did” or “maybe I wouldn’t have what I have today without his impact on my life” or “he’s still very much with us” but I’m going to fight against that, and just sit in the sadness. The ache that is still there, sixteen years later, with the crystal clear memories of that nightmare of a day, September 24th, and all the days to come.