Life Stories

The Story I Never Wanted To Write

There are some things in life that always make you smile.  Sometimes it is an entirely happy thought, free of any sadness.  At other times, it is a mix of the two.  It may be a summer day, reminiscent of a time long ago, maybe its seeing an old 77 chevy (now a collector) pass you by, or possibly its a song by Tommy Tutone (86753o9).  For me, every one of those things remind me in some way of some of the best memories of my life.  I recently bought a Kiss T-shirt for two reasons.  One, I think that I look badass in this shirt (really, I probably just look like I am having a midlife crisis) and two, and the biggest reason, is that it brings me back to the 70’s.

It brings me back to bell bottom plaid pants, and big hair.  It brings me back to the Bay City Rollers, and bright orange walls with wild wallpaper print.  To the days of TV shows like the 6 Million Dollar Man and Happy Days.  It brings me back to wild print silk shirts.  It brings me back to days when life seemed a simpler time, and an easier time.  It brings me back to a time when life was still somewhat innocent for me, and I had yet to learn one of life’s hardest lessons.

Like many things in life, we stumble upon these hard lessons by chance, or fate.  Most often, we are unprepared and we flounder under the pressures of a tragedy unforeseen.  Always, we learn something about ourselves, and about those we love in these situations with surprising accuracy.  Our situation was no different.  The lesson we learned so many years was a cruel lesson, and one that for many years I would question again and again, “why God?”.

33 years ago today dawned a beautiful summer day, full of hope and life.  This day would end much differently, such that our lives would change in a forever kind of way.  It is the kind of change that rocked our reality and left a permanent scar that is something akin to a dark cloud of grief that forever haunts our memories and constricts our hearts.  It is the kind of grief that shakes belief modems and family systems to the core.

On this day, July 19th, we felt what it was like to experience a sudden loss that would one minute be a wave of catastrophic emotion, only to be followed by caverns of emptiness too hollow to describe.

It was 1985, and I had just turned 15.  Like most any 15 year old, my soul agenda on this Friday was hopefully getting to hang out with some friends that evening.  My mom was at work (a rare thing) but my dad was home this day (an even rarer thing) and so I had asked dad if he could watch the kids so I could do some things that evening.  That was the plan, and I was so excited!  The sun was out and it was set to be a memorable summer day!  I remember blasting Duran Duran (A View To A Kill) on my boombox over and over.

I have wished so often that I could somehow teleport back in time and halt this day right here.  To stop time and to have the minimal cares of a 15 year old on a bright summer day, whose only concern was hanging out with friends.

When I narrate this story, it is the same every time.  My heart starts to constrict and I feel almost a sense of panic.  I am both angered and devastated when I allow these memories in.

I wish I could say that I remember every minute of this day but I do not.  It’s like parts of it will never leave me and others are somehow pushed out.  I remember enough though.  I remember my sister Roxy answering the phone (I always hated answering the phone and I would let it ring until it stopped).  She was just 11 at the time.  I happened to be walking by the phone and she had an odd look on her face.  She handed me the phone and said that our brother Daren had been in an accident, as she went running for dad.  I will never forget the trepidation as I inquired who was on the phone.  It was a farm neighbor, Agnes.  She told me much the same; Daren had been in an accident and he was hurt badly.  The next thing I remember is handing dad the phone.

He sat and listened quietly.  There was some quiet conversation and then he hung up.  He sat unseeing for some time.  I finally spoke to him, breaking him from his trance.  Again I asked him what was happening.  He simply repeated what Agnes had already told me.  I assured him that this was Daren, I reminded dad that Daren had been in several accidents and he had always been fine before….but dad just sat there and continued to stare at me.  It’s a funny thing how as parents our “gut” just knows when something is horribly “off”.  I know that dad felt this that day.  Looking back, I know that he already felt the impending doom.

My panic only set in after that.  I had never seen my dad out of sorts like this.  I continually had to shake him from his thoughts with questions.  Finally, he told me to call mom at work, that he was going to get her.

Later, mom told me that she had never seen dad like that before.  He was almost inconsolable in the car when he had gotten to her.  She later said that she had to encourage him to find his strength, that Daren would need that more than ever.  My dad rarely talked about this day, but I remember once we had this discussion, and he said that mom kept him focused that day.  For all the times that I have found fault with my mom, this is one time that I was thankful for her own kind of strength.

Dad left mom at the house and he went to the hospital with my brother Lonny (who was just 13) in tow.  Mom was worried that I was too upset to care for my youngest brother Chad, who was just a baby then.  I assured her I was okay.  She asked if she should go to the hospital and I said, YES, GO!  She hesitated.  Looking back I realize that as much as she knew she should be there, she also wanted to hide from it.  She was willing her strength as she stood staring at me from the opposite side of the kitchen island.  She left and quickly walked the few steps to the hospital.

We lived right behind the hospital.  If you looked out our front window, the hospital was the only thing you saw.  I remember staring out our window, at the hospital, looming larger than life, and willing every ounce of my strength to Daren.  Please God, let him be okay.  In some ways, I wasn’t worried.  I mean this was my hero brother.  This was my Iron Man.  Daren was always okay, bigger than life to me and definitely far too strong to ever die.  He would be okay.  And yet, dad was so shaken….and that thought haunted me more than any other.

As I looked out the window, I saw the brown Oldsmobile (dad’s car) turn the corner and pull up out front.  It was my brother, Randy.  I went racing outside, I found him with the trunk open, leaning on the car…..just staring into the trunk.

Me: What are you doing? (Shaking him from his own tortured thoughts.)

Randy: I have to change, I have his blood all over me. (He was rummaging through some clothes that dad had in the trunk).

Yes, as I look at Randy, I see that now.  I stare at the blood on his clothes and now, my heart lurches.  Daren’s bleeding?!  (Randy had been with Daren in the ambulance)

Me:  Is it bad Randy?

Randy:  It’s very bad.  I don’t know if he will make it.  They are trying to get him to Sioux Falls.

Me:  (Sioux Falls….it must be very bad) He’s Daren, he will be fine (but I say it slowly, unsure of myself now).

Randy:  I’m not sure about this time.  (I alluded to this earlier but Daren was a wild-child of sorts, who had been in several car accidents previously.  He always walked away unscathed.  It is in part what made him larger than life to me.)

Me:  Is he scared? (that thought killed me then; still today, the thought of him being scared haunts me more than any other)

Randy:  <sigh>  <quiet>  I think so.  I think he thinks he’s not going to make it.  He told me to take care of Connie and the baby…..

Right then, with that statement, is when everything became overwhelming for me.  My mind became a blur and my chest became tight.  I honestly don’t even remember if Randy changed his clothes.  I just knew he got called back to the hospital, urgently.  I went back into the house.  Roxy was asking questions, but I had no answers.  Dawn who was just 7 at the time was trying to understand what the drama meant.  Chad was thankfully sleeping and Ally, who was just 4, was playing.  And I was crumbling.  Also somewhere in this day I called Pam, our cousin (who writes this blog with us) and I remember her being there also, but the specifics are a blur for me.

I willed myself to be strong.  I had to no matter the results…..I told myself this again and again.  Be strong.

I will never forget standing at those damn windows, watching the hospital so intently.  I wanted to be there so badly.  I wanted to be able to tell Daren that I knew he would be okay!  To tell him to fight like hell, and to be strong!  To be my Iron Man!

It seemed forever that I sat staring out those windows, at the hospital.  As I stood there holding Chad, the brown Oldsmobile turned the corner, slower this time.  It crept up the street and pulled to a stop outside our house.  In the car were my dad, my mom and Lonny.  They just sat there.  My mom looked over and saw me watching, and said something to dad.  Looking back, I am sure she was willing him strength.

Lonny was the first one out of the car.  He was crying and screaming.

And I knew in that moment that Daren was gone.

I laid Chad down, unsure of my own strength, and I stared back out the window.

Lonny was angry and bawling.  My mom and dad slowly moving from the car.  My mom trying to get Lonny in the house.

God, I knew he was gone and yet I still had this stupid, hallow hope that somehow it couldn’t be true.  I flew around the corner into the entryway.  Lonny stalked past me mad, howling and angry, screaming that he was gone.  Mom was behind him.

Me: Mom, it’s not true is it?

Mom:  Yes honey, it’s true, he’s gone.

I look past her to dad slowly walking to the house.  She’s already anticipated what I am going to do….she encourages me to be strong for dad, but I fall completely apart and throw myself at dad the second he walks through the door.  He hugs me briefly, but almost walks past me.

Looking back I realize, he just needed to sit.  His own legs were going to deceive him.

The next few hours are a blur, every part of it surreal.  I remember going to Shopko with my dad just a couple hours after Daren died to get a new phone cord for our phone (back when we had only land lines).  I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe we had to go to the store for this damn phone cord.  We had to call people though to tell them (aunts, uncles, etc).  I ran into some friends who saw me there and they asked if I was going to meet them that evening.

Me:  No, my brother just died.

Them:  <stunned silence>

Me:  <thinking that this isn’t happening>

Those next hours and days passed in a trance like state.  I remember some of it but not all of it.  I think this is a defense mechanism of sorts.

I remember this though.  Late the same night that my brother died, I remember my dad looking the worst I had ever seen him.  The look of torture on his face is etched into my memory for all time.  I also remember hearing about people that died from broken hearts.  At the age of 15, I thought this possible.  We just lost Daren and I couldn’t imagine losing dad, and I feared that could happen as I knew his heart was beyond broken, it was crushed.  When it came time to try to sleep, dad started to saunter towards his room.  I asked if I could lay by him.  He said he was okay and that I didn’t have to.  I insisted.  Looking back, I know that he wanted to be alone, to be able to cry and to hurt in peace.   I was intent on being there though, to be sure that my own dad made it through that night.

As I laid on the floor by his bed on a bed of blankets, I would hear dad softly crying.  I had never, ever seen my dad cry before.  He was the strongest man I knew.  I heard him and I worried deeper.

Me:  Daddy, are you okay? (I hadn’t called him daddy in years, he was dad normally but right then, my innermost child was calling out, beckoning to him to be okay.)

Dad:  I’m okay, Charli (his nickname for me).

And that was how our night went.  Me listening to him softly cry and repeatedly asking him if he was okay.  He reassuring me.

There was one question I asked him that night, I have forever regretted, both because it caused him such pain and also because it gave me a picture in my mind’s eye that I will never forget.

Me:  Dad, are you sure Daren was really gone?  I mean maybe he’s still alive.  (Dumbest question and thought ever)

Dad:  (loooong pause and finally) No. Carla, he’s really gone.

Me: How do you know though?  (I just wanted so badly that this had to be some horrible mistake…..)

Dad:  <sigh>  <pause>  (and finally as though he was working it through in his own mind)  It was his feet.  I watched him through the window of the door, and I could tell by his feet that he was fighting hard for so long, but then suddenly I could see his feet starting to relax….and then, they just fell silent.  I knew he was gone then.  He is gone Carla. (with that last statement my dad’s breath caught, and I knew he choked back a sob.  I fell silent and just listened to him softly cry.)

Daren has been gone for 33 years today.  That is Chad’s entire life.  It is also longer than his own daughter’s life.  Amanda was born just a couple of month’s after we lost Daren.  She has lived her entire life never even meeting her dad or having her own memories to cherish.  Instead, she “knows” him only through us, through our memories.

Grief brings everything to a halt.  The things that were considered important at one point (meeting friends on a summer day), were now meaningless in comparison.  That day our schedules suddenly cleared, and the unimportant and mundane were ignored.

I would like to say that we somehow climbed above this traumatic event as a family, but truly we never did.

Dad, although he went about living, was truly forever detached after that.  I can’t imagine his grief.  As a parent you want to protect your children, and to have them ripped from you tragically has to be the most devastating event ever.  Part of my dad never recovered from this.

The night Daren died, I also checked on my mom.  I found her at the dining room table, with her cigarette and Ole Milwaukee, crying.

Me:  Are you okay?

Mom:  I never told him I was sorry.

I knew what she meant.  Daren was her stepson and I though I idolized and loved him immensely, I knew he had never been easy for her.  I also know that as much as she probably tried in her own way, she failed both Daren and Randy miserably.

Me:  I am sure he knows that mom.  (what else do you say?)  If you read my Superheroes post, I have always been thankful that mom and Daren’s last interaction was an easy, happy one.

After this though, mom drank worse than ever for a time.  Eventually she would quit, but this day sent everyone down a rabbit hole of little return.

Also heavy on my mind was Randy.  Daren and Randy were just 20 months apart.  They were very close.  I didn’t even get to see Randy for a couple of days after the accident, although I would ask dad repeatedly if I could see him.  Dad said Randy needed time to grieve.  I just wanted to help him as much as I could.  When I finally saw him, I remember hugging him tightly, willing my strength to him.  But he was already strong.  He was always even keeled and calm.  He, of course, is my Captain America and to think of him weakened in any form, doesn’t seem a reality.  He honored his brother with his immense strength in the days right after and the years to follow.

Lonny continued to be angry and he was so deeply hurt that his biggest, baddest brother was gone.  Roxy at the tender age of 11, had nightmares for years.  Always the same one….Daren handing her a rose and asking her to come with him because he didn’t want to be alone.  Dawn not understanding any of it, but only knowing that somehow Daren was never coming home again.  Ally and Chad, they in some ways were cheated the most.  They will never have a memory of Daren that was truly their own memory, much like Amanda, who is forever the person that was most impacted by losing Daren that day.

The “what ifs” of this day haunted many of us immediately, and for years, and still to this day.

Dad:  If I had been at the farm, instead of home, maybe I would’ve delayed Daren in some way…..

Randy:  I was going to have Daren change his shoes, and wear a pair of mine, the ones he had on were so beat up….

Me:  Maybe if I hadn’t asked dad to stay this day, he would’ve been at the farm and in some way changed the course of events…..

Mom: If I hadn’t made your dad stay in town that morning, maybe things would’ve been different…..

That is how Daren left us.

Somewhat broken, questioning fate and forever changed.

Our family was far too fragile a system to truly deal with the trauma of this day, and it’s lasting effects.  In truth, even the strongest of family units struggle with this type of grief.

Somehow though, we managed to move forward, with the scar of this day forever visible.

People will ask how many siblings I have.  I always say there were 9 of us.  Douglas, the oldest of dad’s children and my brother albeit briefly, died as an infant.  But still I count him.  And Daren, my biggest brother, he is here with us.  We all carry him in a very different way.  Some of us talk about him, where other’s of us just remember him in our own way.

Looking back, I realize that his death caused us to stop living for awhile, when instead, it should of been a request for us to live and love deeper.  Death often calls us out, to see what is fully in front of us and to help us see what needs healing.  We ignored that so many years ago.

I think that if there is anything I have learned from Daren’s death it is this:  That I have stumbled and continue to stumble in my own life.  I have realized that we are never perfect, and we need to accept these imperfections, especially as a family.  I consider this when thinking of mom and Daren.  As humans we make mistakes and we often take each other, and life in general, for granted.  We always assume there is a tomorrow, and thankfully so, as that is living with full intention.  However, it is times like these, (death) that remind us how important it is to speak what is in our hearts, and not leave words unspoken.  Death asks us to tend to one another in it’s own rude way, and it encourages us to enjoy the present and value one another, and each day we are given.  It begs us to face our own ephemerality.

Although Daren left us in shambles for a time, we persevered.  We became stronger as a result.  As a family, we loved each other harder.  As siblings, we hold to one another more desperately, realizing that death is a harsh reality.

In my mind and in my heart, Daren will always be my first hero, along with Randy.  He will always be the coolest, baddest biggest brother and the very best of him make up my memories.  When I hear Tommy Tutone, I always think of Daren.  I NEVER hear Bay City Rollers songs but it’s crazy that I still think of that band so often because Randy and Daren listened to them.  I would sneak in their room and listen to the records whenever they weren’t there. It is some of my best memories.  When I hear the song Beth by Kiss I think of Daren each time.  When I see people with skater hair, I think of Daren, he rocked that look long before it was cool.  When I see an 80’s disco shirt, I think of Daren’s graduation picture.  Whenever I see the movie Mad Max, I think of Daren simply because of the revved up muscle car that Mel Gibson drove in it (Daren always drove the coolest cars).  It is amazing the small things that make me think of him.  The other day, I was driving by a field of tall grass, mixed with a variety of wildflowers in bloom, and I remembered being a little girl and riding on the tractor with him, as we drove out into the pasture.

Whenever I see Dukes of Hazzard reruns, I think of Daren and Randy (Daren being Luke and Randy, Bo if you went by appearance), that is how much I idolized them.  But in real life Luke would’ve been more like Randy, and Daren more like Bo….with Randy (Luke) always trying to wrangle in Daren (Bo).  Clear as mud?  You get the idea.  I always half expected to see them slide across their hoods, jump in through the windows of their cars, lay on the horn, and speed away!

When I look at my nephew Eli, I see Daren.  It is crazy the resemblance, and how alike they are in temperament.  We always say that Ally’s kids are mom and Daren reincarnated.  Bella is so much like mom, all the good things.  And Eli, he is Daren, just 30 some years later.

When I think of Daren, I think of the big brother who sat with us and helped us put together toys at Christmas time.  I also think of the brother that took his (younger) brother and cousins (who were down visiting for a holiday) out and got them drunk.  I will never forget when they got home.  Daren left Randy off with our cousins and he left for the farm, poor Randy was in so much trouble.  That was Daren, ever the mix of loving brother, and mischievous daredevil.  It is what made him who he was.

It has been more than 3 decades since we lost Daren.  It is still the most tragic event that has happened in my life.  Most definitely losing my parents was hard but Daren was so young, and his death so instantaneous.  In truth, we were ill prepared for this day.  Of course, no one is ever ready for events such as this, but our family lacked the fortitude to withstand this day.  For so long we walked around angry and numb.  And for too long we neglected talking about him, it was almost like taboo.  I believe that it just simply caused too much pain.  The hardest goodbyes are the ones that are never said, and never explained.  In essence, his death haunted us, each in our own way.

Dad and mom are both gone now too.  I am not exactly sure what I believe as far as where our souls go when we leave this world.  I guess, I had always envisioned that Daren was in another place, separate from us but still with us.  I believe that he is there now with his mom, our dad and that he and my mom (also in part his mom, even with her imperfections) have made a peace.  That they now somehow understand one another.  I am hopeful for that.

For 33 years this day, July 19th has always given me pause.  As with Daren, I always remember the day my parents died, but those dates are not as seared into my memory as this day is.  I am sure in part it is because Daren’s death falls just a few short days after my birthday.  For so long now, my birthday’s have been bittersweet.

As a little girl, I idolized him.  His (young) death only solidified his hero persona for me all the more.  Although we grew up together, there was so much I never understood about him.  He was all at once fragile and vulnerable, and yet robust and confident.  What I do know, and what I remember most was that he could walk into a room and ‘light it up’.  His energy was tangible, and palpable.  I hardly remember a time where he could just sit, he was always moving with a nervous energy.  I remember this most the last time I saw him.  I will always remember him sitting in the dining room with his arm slung over the back of the chair, shaking his leg as if he had a million other places to be and yet, here he was with us.  I remember him peeking at Chad (just a baby wrapped in his blanket) what seemed an endless amount of times.  I remember him shoving a spoonful of food in his mouth over mom’s shoulder as she was cooking, and them laughing about something.  I was almost 15 this day, and yet there I sat, mesmerized by my awesome big brother (and his friend).  There was no place else I would’ve rather been.  He was far from perfect, but to me he was the most perfectly, imperfect brother.  I will never forget as he left that day, him tousling my hair and saying, “see you soon”, for the very last time.  

I think for me, I have spent the better part of my life simply wondering:  What would our family have been like IF we hadn’t lost Daren?  Would he have somehow been the glue to hold it all together?  What would he look like today?  How many kids would he have had?  What would he have become?  Would he be sitting here with me now, on my back deck, laughing at some idiot thing we did as kids?  Would he be helping my brother Randy restore the farm that we grew up on, and loved as children?  None of those questions will ever be answered.  Instead, he hangs on my wall, frozen in time, forever in my heart. 

Both of my boys are named after him.  My brother’s name is Daren Ray.  My oldest son is Darek Ray.  My youngest son is Darien Chad (the middle name is after my other brothers, Lonny Chad and of course, Chad Darryl).  I have asked my boys repeatedly if they like their names and they always say “yes”.  I love their names, it goes without saying that I think of Daren when saying my boys names, or writing their names. They both know that their names are a tribute to an uncle whom they never had the chance to meet, but who meant enough to me, that I would name both my children after him. 

Today and every day Daren, aka, Iron Man, a wonderful, conflicted mix of confidence and vulnerability, bad-boy and hero, at the cool age of 22, lives forever in our minds and hearts.


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