A year ago today, at about 7:45 in the evening, our lives changed forever.
I find it hard to articulate the ways in which I have changed since that night. I have been trying in earnest to write this post for about ten days; I have been planning it in my head for about ten months.
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be in the thick of things. If something happened, something went wrong, I wanted to know everything, and I wanted to help, and I wanted some responsibility. I think it’s the oldest child in me. When we got the call last year that Ginny had been in an accident, my parents rushed out the door, and I stayed home to get my other sisters ready, and to man the phone. For the first time in my life, I had what I had always wanted – a serious responsibility in crisis – and as my parents began calling in with updates, I began to wish with all my heart that I could be a child again, too young to be told what I was hearing.
They told me that teenagers had been killed – likely classmates or friends of Sammi and Jamie – and then, when they knew, they told me that one of those teenagers was Janae Mills, someone we’d known forever, someone that my sisters had grown up with. They knew from hearing my end of the conversation that something was up, and they pointedly asked me if someone they knew had been involved. My parents had asked me not to tell them yet, and I had to lie. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And in fulfilling that simple request, I really hit adulthood hard. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to know what I knew. I didn’t want to keep that sudden crushing grief to myself; I wanted to tell others, to ease my own pain by sharing it. But at that time, and for a long time afterward, my feelings were the last thing I could worry about.
I am grateful for so much we received during that time – the meals from our friends and my coworkers, the visits from friends we hadn’t seen in years, the thirty-some messages on our answering machine. I will tell you this for sure – if you ever find that someone you know has been involved in a tragedy, and you’re wondering if you should call, DO IT. We would come home at night and listen to the messages on our machine and feel just a little better about things. I am thankful for and bewildered by the love from the other families, who in their grief and pain and shock took time to call or stop by and see how WE were doing. I am thankful for the family of the woman who’d had a stroke, who camped out in the waiting room with us and talked and joked with us and shared their doughnuts with me very early in the morning when I took the overnight shift. I am thankful for most of the hospital staff, who let us totally ignore their rules and sleep in a chair in Ginny’s ICU chamber when she needed us.
There was exactly one time when I broke down in the ICU waiting room, and it was of course the one time I was in there by myself. I am thankful for the woman in the red pantsuit, whose name I don’t know, who left her family and came over to me and wrapped me in a hug when I was crying, and told me some things about Jesus that are too personal to share. I am most definitely not a religious woman, even now, but she comforted me greatly when I really needed it, and I will never forget her kindness.
By some appearances, it might not seem like we’ve changed at all. We still all live at home. We still have the same jobs. We still goof around with each other like we always have; we argue as much as we ever have. But my family is most certainly closer now. We have been through something that most people could never imagine.
There are two ways you can go to get to town when you leave our house. If you turn left out of the neighborhood, you’ll pass the scene of the accident, where the families of the victims have maintained a little memorial garden since that night. Going that route, we always slow down and remember. Ginny doesn’t usually come home from work that way anymore.
I turn right most days, because that’s how I have to go to get to my office. But I think about the accident every day, usually in the car.
We are so fortunate that Ginny survived. It’s something else we think about every day. She’s come a long way in one year, as we all have. She is walking now, and working, and driving again, and in the fall she will be returning to college to pursue her goal of becoming an elementary school teacher. She’s going to be really good at that.
In the essay she wrote for her application for readmission to JMU, she said that she felt a responsibility to go back, get her degree, and follow this dream, and that it was something she was doing not only for herself, but for Janae, Michael, and Ginni, who will not have that opportunity.
Tonight, we will be going out to dinner together to celebrate Ginny’s life, and I know the other families will be in our thoughts today more than ever.
Last year, during the week when Ginny was in intensive care, I mentioned to my family that I had written about the accident, and I told them about the outpouring of love and support we were receiving not just through my site, but from websites and people around the world. They were astonished, as I was, and eventually got around to checking it out for themselves. Your thoughts, prayers, and words meant so much to us during that horrible time, and we are so thankful, even now, for your kindness.