How my life changed 9 years ago today

I talk a lot about death and dying and how I was inspired to create Heart2Soul after my friend’s daughter died, but the very beginning of my journey started with a car accident that happened 9 years ago today.

I remember exactly where I was when the phone call came. I can see the trees moving with the wind, the blue sky and bright sun peaking out from behind a soft white cloud. The traffic light was red and I just stared at it as I listened to the news. I can’t recall what happened between answering my cell phone and arriving home. Did I sit and hold up traffic? Did the other cars honk? I don’t remember driving. I only remember hearing the news of the accident.

My parents were moving to North Carolina and just broke ground on their new home. My sister Jo lived 4 hours away but was in the area so she stopped by to see the site and visit with my parents. Jo’s long-time friends Carolyn and Lloyd were in possession of her two youngest children—they looked forward to watching the turtles hatch at the beach every year and she just dropped them off for a week-long adventure. Her husband, Joel was driving her two older children—Casey and CJ—to South Carolina where they would spend the week at The Wilds—a camp they attend every summer with their church.

I think it was my mother who called me. I can’t remember the voice, just the news—Joel, CJ and Casey were in a car accident. Jo was on the phone in the back seat of their car trying to figure out what was going on. They were 4 hours from the hospital and my dad was driving them there.

The call

When Jo’s phone rang a nurse identified herself on the other end—she was with Casey who had a serious head injury. Jo asked about her husband and son but the the nurse didn’t know anything about other passengers in the car. What did that mean? I couldn’t help wonder if they were dead but unwilling to tell her on the phone? She spent the next four hours draining the batteries of all the phones in the car trying to figure out what was going on.

Thankfully, Joel and CJ were alive but seriously injured. Joel’s neck was broken and it appeared (at the time) that CJ’s injuries were cosmetic – his arm was broken and his beautiful, round face was badly bruised and stitched up. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Our lives changed forever that day.

My husband was leaving for a business trip and there was a town car waiting for him at the house as I pulled into the driveway. My parents and sister told me to stay home, but all I wanted to do was get on the first plane headed South. My son overheard us talking and said “you need to be like a Jedi and follow your heart” as he swung his light saber at the fictitious Lord Vader in front of him. He was right.

My time there was a blur. My parents and I each positioned ourselves in a different hospital room as my sister went to whoever needed her the most. As bad as each injury was, they were just short of being the worst case scenario. An inch lower and Casey would have lost her eye. Joel broke his neck but he not only walked out of the hospital, eventually he would be able to hit a golf ball or two. CJ (the guy we thought only suffered cosmetic injuries) turned out to be the most concerning. When it was time for me to leave, CJ was the only one left in the hospital—they couldn’t figure out why he was vomiting. I didn’t want to leave, but my flight was booked and as I drove to the airport I kept thinking about their long road to recovery.

An hour later I dropped my car at the airport, checked in and boarded my plane. Just as the plane doors shut, my phone rang—it was Jo. CJ had internal injuries and was having surgery the next morning. There was nothing I could do. My plane was leaving. I just cried.

God was with us every minute of the way. I see that clearly now.

My sister was with my parents when she received the call. Two of her children were with a friend who would keep them safe while she watched over the other half of her family. The car that was supposed to take my husband on his business trip was in position and ready to take me to the airport. As young as my son was he gave me the most perfect advice while he played in the backyard.

And the plane, it pulled away from the gate…but then returned and they asked us to get off  the plane. I don’t remember why—and really, when does that ever happen? But it did that day and I remember calling my sister to tell her I was coming back. The people in the seats around me must’ve overheard the conversations and one woman said “God Bless” as I packed up my belongings. Of all the nights I needed to be there, that was the one. There is a small part of me that wonders if someone overheard my call and convinced the flight crew to turn back.

I can’t believe that was 9 years ago

So much has happened over the last nine years. CJ was hospitalized a few times and during one visit he met Nate, a boy who was diagnosed with Leukemia while visiting NC. Nate and his family moved from the West coast to continue his treatment in NC and they became part of my sisters family.

A year later Amanda (the daughter of my friend, Steve) died in a car accident. Just a few months later Nate asked his family to rent a house at Lake Norman where hospice cared for him and he died peacefully. And while Joel, Casey and CJ are alive today, their accident was the beginning of my own journey to explore how to help people going through a difficult time.

The paths of these events could not be any different—two children in a tragic accident but fully recovering, one child dying suddenly in a car accident without warning and another knowing it was coming and making plans for it. On this day nine years ago I began a journey I couldn’t have imagined I would be taking and these children led me down the path.

Casey, CJ, Amanda and Nate have left an imprint on my heart. They are the lives that inspired Heart2Soul.

Casey and CJ today

Casey just finished her second year of college and is a joyful, beautiful and giving young lady. She is working as a counselor at The Wilds this summer with her best friend, Abbie (and my self-proclaimed adopted niece)—the same place she was driving to nine years ago when she was in the accident. She aspires to be a teacher and missionary but is also a talented actor, singer and dancer (I think we can add choreographer to that list now, too). I’m so proud of all she’s accomplished and look forward to seeing what life has in store for her.

CJ came to NJ the summer I launched Heart2Soul. I had to remind him of how his accident and experience with Nate was part of it’s history. He graduated from high school a few weeks ago and I tried to listen to his Valedictorian speech over the telephone. He talked about being of service to others and dreams for the future. Not once did he talk about the challenges he faced or how brave he was through it all. He’s incredibly handsome, humble and smart is an understatement to describe his intelligence. CJ will study biochemistry and physics at UVA next year and wants to follow in his grandfathers footsteps and become a doctor.

I feel emotional thinking of how far they’ve come and how fortunate we are to watch them grow up. At the same time, my heart breaks for all the moments that were stolen from Nate and Amanda’s parents.