By Jamie Dillon
It occurs to me that while this coming weekend signifies 21 years in one way for me, there are many of you I've never even met who are gearing up for it in another way that’s much sexier and far more fun. This is for you – for the birthday girl and boys who become women and men and turn legal drinking age this weekend. (And a little bit for me, too, I guess).
Let me start by saying this: I’m not trying to kill your can’t-wait-to-get-carded anticipation here. On the contrary, if you hang tight, you’ll see I’m trying to keep it going.
It was 21 years ago this year when my mom left for work and never came home. She planned on it – on coming home. She looked forward to the big weekend ahead. She had a car full of goodies for her grandson, a bouquet of daisies (her favorite), and the family dinner grocery list in her sweet, loopy, hard-right leaning cursive to prove it.
In bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, another driver heading toward her somehow managed to swerve into the opposite lane and hit my mom head on.
I say somehow like it’s a mystery, but it's not.
My mom always left a little extra space between her white Subaru and the car in front of her to keep her safe. My mom died three days later. She was 54.
She was the light of my life, and I’m not at all alone when I say that.
What happened after this 36-year-old stranger spent her afternoon in a bar and drove just a few miles toward home with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit? It was, well, a mess of ardent doctors and nurses and bad news, of judges and journalists, of crying in public and under the covers, and doing things we didn’t know how to do like pick out a top that looked light and seasonal enough for sunny springtime but could still cover the impact wounds around my mother’s neck.
The funeral coordinator said it would help keep people from being any more uncomfortable when they said their goodbyes.
When the young girl at the department store was putting the high-necked peach blouse in the bag, she asked my sister, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” My sister said, “Can you bring my mom back? That’s what I really need you to do for me.”
We cringe and laugh a little bit about that now, but I’ve never heard a more desperate, earnest answer to an innocent question in all my life.
Our family still looks and feels different than it should. Sure, we’re a little bit stronger in some places. But when you find those bits of us, don’t forget the broken pieces right next to them. They’re there and every bit a part of us.
We learned things we never planned on learning like what a brain with no activity looks like on an MRI scan and that someone with five prior DUIs can kill a person on her next one and still only get a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
We learned that choosing a bench as a headstone is a horrible idea if the ground isn’t perfectly flat. It will always look tippy because one leg has to be longer than the other to make the top even.
But then we learned we don’t like to go up there much, anyway.
We learned my mom’s last words to the EMT who helped extricate her were, “I’m so scared.”
That was 21 years ago.
While every little essence of my mom that still remains in my heart and head flooded through me like it does every morning, I was drawn to think of someone else in my very first thoughts.
You. The one with the big birthday this weekend.
Just a smidge over two decades ago, families were starting while mine stopped. There was joy.
When my dad was holding the hand of his wife, there were people holding the hands of their loves in that same hospital. Instead of saying goodbye, they were saying hello to a new son or daughter. For the first time, they were looking at the light of their life.
They were looking at you.
I’m obviously not trying to hide where I’m going with this. Those who know me know subtlety is no more a virtue of mine than patience.
Put your ID to use to get you into the bar you always wanted to visit. Make your first liquor store purchase or add a six pack of beer to your grocery cart. Do it, if that’s what pleases you. It's literally your right.
But then do something else.
Use Uber or Lyft or a cab or a designated driver if you’re out. Stay home if you’re home. If you can plan the first part of your night, I pinky promise you will have the wherewithal to plan the last part of it. Just plan it now.
I woke up thinking of you this morning, and something tells me so many others did the same. Remember, you are the light of someone’s life, and those you spend time with are the lights in someone else’s life.
Be safe. Be silly. Be 21.
And then be 22 (I’ll be thinking of you then, too).
"We will never forget what a special angel we had in Kellie. Time does not heal and broken hearts are difficult to mend.”
These are the words spoken by George and Marilyn Murphy, the parents of Kellie Murphy Wheatley.
Kellie was a person who always went above and beyond for others, and she could always brighten anyone's day. When asked how Kellie is remembered, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy replied, “Kellie's two sons, her niece, and our two great granddaughters all have so many of Kellie's mannerisms. We are blessed to see Kellie in other members of our family and that will keep Kellie's life alive in our family.”
On July 4, 1984, Kellie, 24, was hit by a drunk driver while riding bikes with her husband Orville and their 14 month-old son Christopher, who was in a carrier on the back of Orville's bike.
The family spent the day enjoying one another's company at a local park in Jacksonville, Illinois. They stopped their bikes alongside a secondary street in South Jacksonville to tuck a blanket Christopher was carrying onto his seat belt. Kellie was concerned it might get caught in the spokes of the bike. As they stood alongside of the city street, they were unaware that an intoxicated driver abruptly turned the corner. The driver hit Kellie and continued to drive down the road, not realizing he struck Kellie with his vehicle.
Kellie died instantly. Orville and Christopher were not injured, and the drunk driver spent seven months in prison for reckless homicide.
Although it has been 32 years since the crash, the Murphy family will always associate July 4th with the day Kellie lost her life because someone chose to drink and drive.