Monday, November 13, 1989
Fairview, North Carolina
Forecast: Clear, sunny skies, high 73, low 37.9, 0% chance of precipitation
Sunrise: 7:03 AM
The morning was perfect. An iconic, cloudless Carolina blue sky. Sunshine topped the mountain behind our house. It filtered through the spikey, bare branches of the apple trees, flowed over the trellised grapevines, and flooded the dining room with warm squares of light carved by the sash windows. The movers would arrive by 9:00, and then the haul to our new home would begin.
We had been looking for our dream home for several years when we walked into the ranch house built on the side of a densely forested mountain. The seven sliding glass doors all faced east, toward Little Pisgah Mountain. My husband David and I knew instantly this house was the one. It felt like a treehouse perched in a forest of oaks, poplars, and dogwoods with plenty of room for our kids—thirteen-year-old Zeb and ten-year-old Sara Jane—to spread out and grow up.
David was in Texas that morning, so the move was in my hands. Twelve years of life in our small white clapboard house was encapsulated in a maze of boxes stacked like dominoes in the tiny living room. One miscalculated elbow would send them crashing down. Even though disorder drove me nuts, somehow this chaos was joyous.
At 7:30, Zeb and Sara Jane headed down the gravel driveway to catch their last ride on Miss Nancy’s yellow school bus. They were leaving the only home they had ever known. They would come home from school to a new home. Our new life was about to begin.
I finished the breakfast dishes and stripped the beds as I kept an ear out for the movers. It was hard to believe we had moved into this house with just two pickup truck loads not that many years earlier. Now, we needed a full-sized moving van and lots of strong arms.
By the afternoon, the beds in the new bedrooms had fresh sheets and familiar blankets and our old oak table and matching chairs were in the dining room. Stuffed cardboard boxes lay scattered throughout the house. The rest would arrive the following morning.
Tuesday, November 14, 1989
Forecast: Clear AM with clouds developing in afternoon, high 73, low 37.9, 60% chance of evening precipitation
Sunrise: 7:04 AM
The weather was still beautiful. A few fluffy clouds drifted overhead with just a touch of a breeze. The kids stayed home from school to settle into their rooms. Zeb helped Sara Jane for a while, then she helped him. It warmed my heart to see the big brother in Zeb come out as he advised Sara where she should place her doll house in relation to her bed. He helped her unpack her dolls and set up the diminutive house to her liking. Then back to Zeb’s room, where they taped posters of rock and roll musicians and fast cars to the wall. I couldn’t stop smiling.
The movers worked throughout the morning. At 1:00, Sara expressed concern that the men hadn’t eaten lunch.
“We need to feed them,” she announced.
We didn’t have any food in the refrigerator, but she remembered we had some Sara Lee blueberry muffins in the chest freezer the movers had plugged in in the garage. She had also discovered that our new kitchen came with a microwave, something we never had before. None of us knew how to operate it. One of the men offered to teach Sara. He spent quite a bit of time explaining all the buttons to her. Together they turned out perfect muffins. It was lovely to watch them discussing the delights of juicy berries in warm sweet muffins. By late afternoon, the move was complete. We said goodbye to the men with hugs and words of thanks.
The sky clouded over as day turned to evening. By 6:00, lightning filled the darkness and thunder rattled the glass doors. The sky opened up and the rain poured. The storm seemed to be coming into the house; rain splashed against the glass in loud plops. Zeb, Sara, and I climbed into our car sheltered in the garage.
I drove Zeb to his Boy Scout meeting, then Sara and I returned to the mountain for dinner at the home of new neighbors. At only ten years old, Sara Jane was so confident. She talked to the new adult strangers as if she had always known them. I remember looking across the table, seeing a light glowing around her, and feeling very proud. Her long, blond bangs set off her blue eyes the color of the Caribbean Sea. She charmed everyone.
As we drove to pick up Zeb after dinner, the rain became more intense. The unfamiliar road was obliterated by fog and too remote for streetlights. I slowly inched the car around each curve in the darkness. We cheered when we found our driveway and made it back into the safety of the garage.
Wednesday, November 15, 1989
Forecast: high 58°, Fog, Rain, severe AM thunderstorms expected, watch for possible flooding
Sunrise: 7:05 AM
Wednesday morning was dismal. The storm was at its worst. The sky was black and, though the clock read 7:30 a.m., it looked like the middle of the night. My neighbor Sandy picked Zeb up and took him to the middle school with her boys. After I drove Sara to her elementary school, Sandy and I planned to meet at my house to put the kitchen together. It was one big stack of boxes. I needed something in my life to be as it should be.
Sara Jane was being a little slow, worrying about her hair. She came into the kitchen and asked me how I liked her ponytail slightly to the side instead of straight back. Angrily, I said, “Don’t worry about your hair. You’re going to be late for school. Hurry up.” She got upset, and crying softly, gathered up her school things. With her pink tennis shoes in hand, she climbed into the passenger seat and gently closed the car door.
I woke up in the hospital with the face of David’s best friend Steven leaning over me. He kept saying “Where’s David?” I tried to focus my eyes but couldn’t. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. “Texas” was all I could say.
Later, I was told what happened. On the way to taking Sara Jane to school, our car hydroplaned sideways on a flooded street into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. The truck hit Sara’s side of the car, just behind her seat. The car was dented into a V-shape, its point jutting in right behind her head. The first person on the scene was a nurse. Sara was not breathing, but she managed to start Sara’s breathing again. The nurse stayed with us until the ambulance arrived. It took the paramedics and the firemen with their Jaws of Life over one hour to pry us out of the car. It was raining so hard the Highway Patrol closed the entire road.
Sara Jane was still alive.
The newspaper report I read several weeks later said Sara Jane was unconscious, and I was semi-conscious, when we were removed from the car. It also said I was holding Sara Jane in my arms. Although I have no memory of the accident, that image, those words, will stay with me forever.
Wednesday, November 15, 1989
San Antonio, Texas
Forecast: High: 73; low 48. 0% chance of precipitation; wind: 8 mph
Sunrise: 6:58 AM
Although his body was in the Deep South—San Antonio, Texas, to be exact—David was on top of the world. He was sitting at a large conference table with the rest of the crew. It was the second day of production meetings for the upcoming jazz radio series he had been chosen to host. His luxurious suite at the world-renowned Menger Hotel added to his feeling of radio royalty. Plus, he would be going home to his new dream home that his wife and the kids were moving into while he was gone. Life couldn’t be better.
Part way through the meeting, an assistant came into the room and told David he had a phone call. His wife and daughter had been in a car accident. Both were in critical condition. The room fell silent. Pushing his chair back, he stood and walked on automatic pilot legs into the next room. He slumped to the floor as he was handed the phone. The voice at the other end reiterated the message. He hung up and sat stunned, staring at the gaudy pattern on the carpet. Then his brain snapped to. “I have to get home,” he said out loud to no one in particular, to everyone, to anyone who would listen.
Donna, the producer’s assistant, offered to help. They returned to the hotel, to that fancy room that had made David feel so elevated just a few hours before. It was now just a blur of gaudy ornamentation and meaningless excess. All he wanted was to hug his family in the warmth and safety of his own home. He franticly threw his clothes into his suitcase while Donna made plane reservations for his return to Asheville by way of Atlanta. She drove him to the airport and quietly stayed by his side until he boarded the plane. He was numb, in shock and terrified. Just get me home became his mantra.
Wednesday, November 15, 1989
Destructive tornado outbreak across a wide swath of the southern and eastern United States produced at least 40 tornadoes and caused 30 deaths. The most devastating was the Huntsville, Alabama tornado, an F4.
The two-hour-plus flight from San Antonio to Atlanta crossed just south of Huntsville, Alabama. The plane jerked violently as it flew through black thunderheads. Looking out the window, David watched lightning ignite the clouds with a brilliant glow from the inside. Beauty and terror joining forces, like the love and fear filling every cell of his body.
By the time the plane landed in Atlanta, blinding sheets of rain were blowing across the tarmac. David’s short, forty-minute flight to Asheville was still scheduled to depart on time. With a combination of anxiety and relief, he boarded the plane and repeated his mantra as they taxied to the runway: just get me home.
Then they sat. And sat.
The wind increased and blew so hard it felt like the little prop plane was going to topple over. The pilot announced he was waiting for the storm to pass to take off. After several hours of agony, David heard the engines rev up and his heart raced. Finally.
Expecting to hear the pilot say, “We’re number one for takeoff,” he heard instead, “We’re heading back to the terminal. The storm is too dangerous to fly in. The airport is closing.” He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t get home. How was he going to take care of his family?
All of the larger planes had already unloaded their passengers and the airport was like a ghost town. There was not a rental car to be found, but David knew it would be too dangerous to drive the four hours home, not just because of the storm, but because his brain was in turmoil. He was near hysteria. After endless phone calls, he found a hotel room an hour away from the airport. He flagged the last taxi in sight, and, once in his room, just lay on the bed, fully clothed, and tried to sleep. He knew the next few days would be hell and that he needed sleep. But it was useless. After just a few short dips into oblivion, it was time to get back in a taxi and head to the airport for his rescheduled morning flight. The worst of the rainstorm had passed.
A.C. Reynolds Middle School
100% chance of precipitation
Every head pivoted to the right when Mrs. Oakes, the school guidance counselor, came into the seventh-grade math class.
What the heck? Zeb thought. What have I done now? I wasn’t even at school yesterday. Maybe that was it…truant.
He raised his hand. Mrs. Oakes said, “Zeb, please come with me.”
Without saying another word, the frumpy lady he always tried to avoid led him to her office where his mom’s friend, Mrs. Weber, was waiting. With a little smile, she put her arm across his shoulder and led him to a chair next to hers. What’s going on? Why is Mrs. Weber here and being so nice to me? he thought, looking back and forth between Mrs. Oakes and Mrs. Weber. Both were way too serious.
Mrs. Oakes cleared her throat, looked down at her tightly entwined fingers, then looked Zeb directly in the eye. “Your mother and sister have been in a car accident. They are in the hospital.”
His defiance at being in trouble sank away. His heart jumped. He rubbed his sweating palms together, then wiped them on his jeans. “Are they okay?”
“They are fairly sure your mother will be okay.” She looked at Mrs. Weber and didn’t say anything else.
“What about Sara?”
“She’s still alive,” Mrs. Oakes said.
Zeb’s heart was pounding. Still alive? What did “still alive” mean? Could she die?
Without returning to the classroom, Zeb and Mrs. Weber headed to the parking lot and drove to the hospital. They were shown to a small waiting room, painted that hideous hospital green. It was sparsely decorated with a half dozen orange, molded plastic chairs and a battered, fake-wood table scattered with well-worn magazines about home repairs and fly fishing. It made no difference to Zeb. His mind couldn’t focus. They each settled into a chair to wait.
No one would let Zeb see his mom or sister or even give him an update for what seemed like hours in a slo-mo movie. He felt awkward, stranded alone with Mrs. Weber. He didn’t really know her that well. She was just a soft-spoken person who laughed quietly at whatever you said. He went to her house for piano lessons. She was Carol and Diane’s mother. That was the extent of their connection. Now it was just the two of them. Except for the occasional ding of an elevator bell out in the corridor, the humming of the overhead fluorescent lights filled the silence. Time stood still.
When will Dad get home? When can I see Mom?
Eventually a doctor came in and told them his mom had a punctured lung and a broken collarbone and was in a lot of pain. She was sedated but was going to be okay.
“Sara?” Zeb asked.
He hesitated. “She’s stabilized” is all he would say before he abruptly left.
The two of them sat in silence. The walls of the waiting room kept getting closer, the air stuffier, and the silence thicker. Where’s Dad?
Quietly the door opened. Zeb looked up to see Richard, his Boy Scout master. His big bear hug filled Zeb with comfort. Richard was someone who knew him well. They had been through a lot of tight spots camping and hiking together. No matter what the problem was, Richard always knew what to do. Zeb fought back the sobs that wanted to tear out of him. For the first time since early that morning, he felt safe.
The two of them headed to the cafeteria for a break. The tepid hot chocolate from the push button machine and the soggy, smelly, pre-packaged tuna sandwich were far from comfort food, but Richard’s stories of camping fiascos had Zeb laughing. Just being with Richard lightened his heavy heart.
Once back in the waiting room, the hovering adults decided Zeb would stay with his parents’ best friends until his dad made it home. He reluctantly agreed. What choice did he have? That night, in the little twin bed in the spare attic room with the sloping ceiling, he felt a loneliness he had never known. Even the down comforter couldn’t stop his shaking. All he wanted was to be with his mom, his dad, even his bratty little sister.
Thursday, November 16, 1989
Memorial Mission Hospital
High 55°, low 37°, clear, 0 % precipitation
Sunrise: 7:05 AM
Oh god, oh god, oh god, where do I go first? David’s mind screamed. Or did he actually scream out loud? He didn’t know. He ran through the hospital lobby toward the waiting bank of elevators. Where do I go first, Sara’s room or Ginny’s?
On the way from the airport, Steve told him that Ginny was going to be okay with time, but they weren’t as sure about Sara. She was very critical. David pushed the button for the Pediatric ICU. As soon as the door opened on the ICU floor, the nurses recognized him. Not because they saw him weekly on TV. And he wasn’t wearing his trademark fedora. They recognized the look of fear, of anguish, of shock scrawled on every inch of his face. They recognized the look of a father desperate to rescue his damaged daughter. Without a word, the head nurse led him to Sara’s room.
It was worse than he thought. He had never seen more wires, tubes, monitors, heard more horrible beeps. There was his sweet Sara Jane, the apple of his eye, immobile, eyes closed, a breathing tube in her mouth. In an induced coma. Even with every hair from her head shaved off, she looked more beautiful than ever. He knew they heard his sobs at the nurses’ station, but it didn’t matter. How could this be happening? Pulling up a chair, he leaned in close to Sara’s ear.
“I’m here, Sara, and I love you. Hang in there. You can make it.”
He stroked her bald head. His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking. Tears blurred his eyes. Now, at least, he was with her.
He talked about his favorite memories: how they had made pizzas with leaves, dandelion flowers, and twigs in the backyard; how they made up stories and drew cartoons and danced by the fire in the wood stove. He told her how much fun they were going to have in their new house, gliding on the tire swing he was going to put up for her, walking in the woods looking for bears, making s’mores in the fire pit. It would be wonderful just as soon as she got home.
From the time the kids were very young, David had played a ragtime tune for them on the harmonica, “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown.” He had told them that if anything bad ever happened, he would play this song to make them feel better. He pulled out the ever-present harmonica from his shirt pocket and quietly played that familiar tune for her, tears running down his cheeks.
Ginny improved over the next several days, but Sara remained in critical condition. Doctors and nurses said she could be brain-damaged but that she would make it. She was getting better, everyone said. No problem, David thought. Just give me back my daughter. We can handle anything.
Since Ginny’s sisters, Myra and Dicksey, had flown in from California and were tending to her, David spent all his time with Sara.
November 20, 1989
Memorial Mission Hospital
High 50, low 30 0% of precipitation, wind at 7mph
Sunrise: 7:10 AM
On the fifth day following the accident, the family doctor came into Sara’s room and told David she was going to be fine. He was sure. She was improving every day. With that good news David left the hospital with Zeb and Steve for a break. David felt things were moving forward and soon his family would be together in their new house, together as a family. He smiled for the first time in days. The three of them enjoyed lunch away from the hospital cafeteria. Life was looking good again.
With new confidence and an uplifted heart, David returned to Sara’s room. When he turned in, he stopped stock still. There were no wires, no monitors, no loud, maddening beeps. Only the respirator, rhythmically moving up and down, filling his little girl’s lungs with air and exhaling for her. Sara lay perfectly still, just a slight rise and fall of her chest under the thin sheet.
David spun around and looked at the nurses’ station. All the nurses were staring at him. One came forward and took him by the hand.
“Mr. Holt, Sara had a seizure. Her brain is dead. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“But she was getting better. Everyone told me so. You lied to me. God damn it. God damn it to hell.” David’s tall, lean body caved in half as he fell to the ground.
“No, no, no,” he repeated over and over again between gasping sobs.
My bedside phone rang. It was David.
“We’re losing Sara,” he said.
“We’re losing Sara.”
The dream state of painkillers evaporated immediately. I threw the phone down, got out of bed, and lurched for the door on unsteady legs. I tore the door open, and, walking right passed my two sisters, headed for the elevator.
“I have to get to Sara,” I said. Both sisters were staring at me wide-eyed, with mouths hanging open. Myra hurried into my room, grabbing a robe to cover my bare butt and slippers for my bare feet. I was pushing all the elevator buttons. I had no idea how to find Sara. Myra calmly put the robe around me and helped me with the slippers while Dicksey navigated the elevator.
I vaguely remembered being in Sara’s room a day or two earlier when my sisters had taken me to see her. There were just four rooms in Peds ICU. I had noticed a group of adults in one of the adjoining rooms. I asked the nurse why so many people were in there. She told me they were about to end life support for a little boy. The family was telling him goodbye. I distinctly remembered a shudder running through my entire body and quickly turning away. Too awful to imagine. No way. Thank God Sara was going to be okay.
Now, here I was. Sara had had a seizure. Her brain was dead. There was no more hope. Assisted by my sisters once again, I walked into Sara’s tiny room. David and Zeb were already in there. There was only the lonesome wheeze of the respirator.
David stood next to Sara’s shaved head. Zeb and I were on each side of her. Except for a small scratch by her left eye and her bald head, she looked perfect, just quietly sleeping. She was gently draped with a sheet folded just below her downy shoulders. I kissed her and told her I loved her like I did every night before she went to sleep. One by one we told her how much we loved her and gently stroked her soft, smooth, warm skin. Tears covered all of our faces. There was a tremendous calm in the room. Maybe we didn’t really understand what was happening. Maybe the moment was beyond emotion.
As soon as I left Sara’s room, Myra helped me into a wheelchair. A blue hospital bag filled with my things hung from the handle. Dicksey carried my discharge papers. We waited for the elevator, rode down silently to the lobby and headed for the double exit doors. I looked around. A couple by the receptionist’s desk were having an intense conversation, angry with each other; a balding man in a dark suit was sitting in a comfy-looking chair reading the paper; two young girls were laughing at cards they were reading in the gift store. Life as usual. Didn’t they know we had just said goodbye to our daughter and sister? How could everything look so normal, so unchanged?
Outside, the air was cold, but fresh. The sky was still there, the naked branches of the maple trees were still there. A winter bird was flying high overhead, heading to its home, its warm nest. Lucky bird.
We returned home to our new house, a house the four of us would never live in together. Our dream house was a shell. There had been no Christmas trees glowing at night, no smell of birthday cupcakes baking, no delight in spontaneous dances by the fire to fatten its walls. Some would come in time, but now, the first layer was a thin hint of happiness immediately smothered with unbelievable grief. There would always be a void, a vacuum, one less stocking hung from the mantle in December, one less place setting at the dining room table, one less bed to make every morning, an extra back seat window left unlooked through.
November 24, 1989
High 46, low 33, 0% chance of precipitation, winds calm
Sunrise: 7:28 AM
The day after Sara’s obituary appeared in the newspaper, the doorbell rang. David opened the door and there stood the mover who had taught Sara how to make blueberry muffins in the microwave. He was leaning heavily against a woman I assumed was his wife.
“Is it the same little girl?” he asked.
When I said yes, he crumpled, falling into his companion. We asked him to please come in, but he didn’t say another word. He just stumbled back to his car and they drove away.