On this day in 2002, three people I loved died. It wasn't this date, though -- It was January 20. But it was the Sunday of the MLK day weekend.
Teri was one of my best friends. We originally met because she was a teacher at the school where my husband taught. She invited us for dinner with her and her husband, and it took off from there.
Teri had an upbeat, positive outlook on life, but in a practical sort of way, without being sappy or annoying about it. When I was in a good mood, she was fun to share it with. When I was in a bad mood, she knew just how to help. She was not one to say, "There, there, it will all be fine!" without further analysis. Instead, she would listen carefully, understand, and then encourage positive action to make things better.
She would call me often, sometimes to ask for advice or a favor; other times just to talk and "catch up."
Sometimes, she would call me at a "bad" time when I was feeling stressed out and overwhelmed and frazzled and, well, just not in the mood for a telephone call. It was almost as if she knew I needed her. Because I loved her, I would push away my impulse to say, "I can't talk now. I have to go." And we would talk. And I would feel better as we talked. And by the end of the telephone call, I would feel calmer, happier, more ready to face whatever problems the day had thrown my way.
She invited my husband and I to the "Magic Castle" in California -- a members-only club for magicians, to give them a venue to practice their new tricks. Somehow, she had a connection who could get us all in, so we went. It was fantastic and amazing. We went from room to room seeing different acts, from card tricks to pulling doves out of a hat to vanishing objects and floating assistants -- all incredible -- and enjoying delicious food and good wine.
We started a book club, and read a lot of great books and talked about them while enjoying more good wine and great food.
We hosted baby showers for each other, and she asked me to be a part of the baby-naming ceremony at her synagogue after her first child, a girl, was born. The ceremony was fascinating. I'm not Jewish, so it was the first time I'd ever been to synagogue, and the first baby-naming ceremony I'd ever seen. I loved it. She named the baby "Maya."
As our babies grew into toddlers, we would get together and let the kids play - they would paint or color or play with toddler toys. My daughter was about a year and a half older than hers, but they got along reasonably well and seemed to enjoy seeing each other. Maya was a bright baby, with wise and beautiful big brown eyes. She was friendly and outgoing and happy.
Teri's husband, Efrain, was a soft-spoken, somewhat shy person around adults, but he could entertain a child for hours with nothing more than a ball or a stick and his incredible imagination and sense of fun. Perhaps because he grew up without much in the way of material goods in Mexico, he had learned to make the most of what he did have, and to make it fun.
He had such patience with babies and toddlers. When my daughter was learning to walk, he'd walk with her all over the house, stooped over so she could reach his hand, never complaining that his back hurt or that he wanted to sit down. She'd smile and smile at her accomplishment: walking with Efrain, showing him treasures in every room.
We loved this family, almost as if they were a part of our own.
And then it all came to an end. Too suddenly. Too soon.
On Friday, January 18, 2002, I arrived home after pulling an all-nighter at work to complete a project, and I faced a weekend of work, too, to finish the next project. I was tired, and overwhelmed, and stressed out, and resenting the fact that work was going to ruin what should have been a three-day holiday weekend.
Teri called, wanting to get together over the weekend, and I had to say I couldn't. We talked a while, but probably a shorter time that we should have. I felt calmer and happier when we hung up, but not quite ready to face the day. So I skipped our daughters' class that day. We had both signed our kids up for a community "play" class, so we could talk while our kids played. I took a nap instead.
I may never forgive myself for skipping that class, and for rejecting her offer to see each other that weekend, because I never saw my friend again.
I worked all day Saturday, and all day Sunday. I worked all Sunday night, and got home Monday morning.
On Monday, I learned that Teri, her husband Efrain, and their daughter Maya had been killed in a car crash on Sunday evening. I cried a lot and kept repeating "Nooooo, no, no, no, no, no, no, noooo" over and over. I wanted to make it un-happen, but I couldn't.
I wanted to turn back the clock to a time when life was good, and beautiful, and happy... to a time when the only petty thing I had to complain about was work. I wanted to turn back the clock and un-hear the death story (surely this couldn't be reality, could it?), turn back the clock still further, and accept Teri's offer to get together over the weekend, or at least call her on the phone on Sunday to delay her departure from home.... anything so that she would not have been where she was at the death-time, so that death, in the form of a drunk driver, would not have taken her, and her beautiful family, from me.... from all of us.
A drunk driver, Francisco Romero, had been driving his BMW SUV southbound at a speed of more than 100 miles per hour on Pima Road (speed limit 55) near its intersection with the ironically named Happy Valley Road, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He hit a dip in the road at the intersection and his SUV literally sailed through the air and across the yellow middle line, and hit Teri's little Subaru car, which was northbound nearing the same intersection, head on. The SUV bounced off my friends' Subaru, and hit the pickup truck driving behind them.
Teri and her daughter, Maya, were pronounced dead at the scene. Teri's husband, Efrain, died at the hospital a short while later.
The couple in the pickup truck behind Teri's car were also severely injured. A passenger in the drunk's SUV was killed, and another severely injured. The drunk caused a lot of heartache in one blast of stupidity - four dead and three injured, in less than one minute. He was later sentenced to 31 years in prison for those crimes.
Maya would have turned two that week. She was scheduled for a big birthday party with chocolate cake and ice cream. She had not yet tasted chocolate. She never would.
Maya and Teri had visited me at home a week or two before. Maya and my daughter had painted and I had admired their art work. Before leaving, Maya handed me her painting and said firmly, "You keep." I did. I still have it. She'll never paint me another one.
She was such a bright little girl, friendly and enthusiastic and beautiful. Words like "tragic" or "awful" don't even begin to capture it...
The worst thing about losing three dear friends at once was that grieving was ... still is ... so difficult. You start to recover your breath from the shock of losing one friend, and then the memory of the loss of another punches you right in the gut. I couldn't breathe properly for weeks.... and it still takes my breath away today if I'm not careful.
I'd start to dry my tears about Maya and then, Efrain.... sweet, kind, creative, fun-loving Efrain. He was from Mexico, had come to this country on a green card, worked hard, studied hard, earned his citizenship, and then married Teri. His beautiful daughter was the light of his life. When the paramedics arrived at the accident scene, his first thought, despite the pain he must surely have been suffering, was his baby girl in the back seat. "Take care of Maya first," he told them. They didn't have the heart to tell him she was already dead.
I'd start to breathe again and then I'd remember... Teri... she's gone, too... and the wind would be sucked out of me once more. My book club buddy. My confidant. My fun friend. My fellow mom. My massage therapist. A few weeks before Teri died, I had been in a very minor car accident, and had pulled some muscles in my back. She was a certified massage therapist, and she insisted I let her use her healing skills. She was good; the sessions helped a lot.
At the last session, a week before she died, something prompted her to tell me how much she valued our friendship, enjoyed the fact that our families got along so well together, our kids could play together, but that she really loved how we could just talk... Thank God for Teri's openness. I was able to tell her that I loved her, too, was so thankful for her presence in my life... I wouldn't have another chance to do that.
Some memories brought a tiny bit of comfort, a sense that at least my friends had achieved some measure of happiness and contentment before the terrible loss.
His whole life, Efrain had always wanted a yellow VW Bug, like the toy car he had played with as a child. Teri and Efrain had shared one car for as long as I'd known them, but shortly before the accident, she had managed to save enough money, and had bought him his dream car as a birthday gift.
Teri had wanted nothing more than to have a child. She had struggled for years to get pregnant. Maya was her dream child, and I'm so thankful she had the chance to have her baby....
They had recently purchased a home with a pool, and adopted a dog.
And Teri and Efrain were so much in love, with each other and with their baby girl. They were grateful each day for the good life they were able to live.
And as I daydream about the happiness they had found it hits me again, the horrible, awful, unnecessary, and completely unfair loss of such good lives ...
I went to the funeral, in California. The funeral parlor was packed with mourners, each with his or her own special sense of loss, yet I could not imagine a loss more profound than the loss Teri and Efrain's parents faced: not only the loss of their child and daughter- or son-in-law, but also of their dear sweet Maya, their darling and long-awaited grandchild, before she even turned two. Parents should not have to bury their children, much less their granddaughter... How does one even begin to accept that such a travesty is true?
Seeing the coffins was another punch in the gut. Two regular sized plain wooden boxes, and one tiny one for Maya. It was just so wrong. It felt like we were burying them alive; they couldn't really be dead, could they?
I stood in the rain with tears streaming down my face. I was glad for the rain, for the vast gray, gloomy clouds and the cold, damp day. Sunshine and singing birds would have been unbearable.
The cemetery was beautiful. Grassy rolling hills, trees, simple flat grave markers on the ground ... unobtrusive, simple ... one could look around and maybe begin to feel a small bit of peace.
Words were spoken over the coffins. People stood, numb and stone-faced or teary-eyed ... or cried and hugged each other ... or sat in limp helplessness in the mud against a tree .... while others - mothers and aunts and grandmothers - wailed and screamed "NO!" and flung themselves on the coffin. Your choice. So many ways to feel grief....
There was an awful racket as the giant machines were revved up and brought over for the task of lifting each of the coffins and lowering them into the giant hole.
The three coffins were lowered into the gaping pit. Two large ones, and the smaller one between.
The pit was not beautiful. It was breathtakingly awful. Too big. Too deep. Too dark for my friends to endure.
And then, as is apparently the tradition at a Jewish funeral, each of the attendees was handed the shovel in turn to begin the process, which the machines would later finish, of filling the giant grave. I almost couldn't bear it, putting that heavy, rain-soaked earth on top of my dear friends (surely they're not really dead, are they?) but I did and once again the breath was sucked out of me as I realized the finality of it all. They are not coming back.
Someone poured a jar of beach sand in with the mud. Teri had always loved the beach... The thought, unwelcome, "as if it matters now."
No one knew quite what to say or do. Nothing could make any of it any more bearable. So I stood, and cried. Someone came to me for a hug, but I felt no comfort. There is no comfort at such a time for such a loss. Not from humans, nor from God.