I couldn’t reach my son on his cell.
I knew where he was. I thought I knew where he was, with the same group of kids he had known since kindergarten, kids who had grown taller than most of their parents, kids in high school, kids with a license to drive and not all that many places to go.
I thought they were swimming at the Isenhour place and it turned out I was right but he wasn’t answering his phone, a phone for which I was paying $57.42 each month so he could text important messages to those lifelong friends like “Dude, whatever.”/”Dude, Duke sucks.”/“Dude, did you see ESPN Top Ten?”
Michelle Null once made Jeremy tear out of piece of notebook paper and write 25 times in a row, “I will not call Mom “Dude”.
Unable to get Walker to answer his cell phone I posted a warning on Facebook. It said,
“Whomever is with Walker needs to make him call his momma. If he doesn’t call I will start posting embarrassing baby stories about his friends and if you think I don’t know any of YOUR stories please remember how much time we have spent sitting on bleachers watching y’all play sports. Mommas talk. Oh, how they talk. He has fifteen minutes to call me. The clock starts now.”
It took 91 seconds for my phone to ring, Walker’s name on the screen, not so much from peer pressure as widespread panic. Walker said, “MOM, did you really post…”
The other mothers said I was a genius.
Claremont was a network of mothers. If the one who labored didn’t know where her kid was she needed only to call the one who last set an extra place at her table, gave a ride from practice, picked up sweaty t-shirts to throw in her own laundry basket, or yelled “Y’all be careful” at a slamming screen door. Somebody always knew the exact location and loved him almost as much as if he belonged to her because he did. The waiting for a sighting, for reassurance, never lasted long.
Until the night it did.
Our boys had begun their last first semesters of college, most of them more than an hour from the safety bubble that was Claremont, North Carolina. The boys who had taken their place in the pizza parlor, the high school parking lot and the baseball fields were their younger brothers either by birth or by the claim of being from Claremont, a Town of Mommas. Hayden McGraw, a baby when our boys began kindergarten, had survived being unmercifully picked on, held upside down until he screamed loud enough for his daddy to make the older boys let him go, and the truckloads of sugar I had secretly fed him trying to buy his love with candy and cookies, and taken his rightful place as an upperclassman, a Junior at Bunker Hill High School. I had tried to keep Hayden frozen in time, first in my mind and later in a story published about an old dog named Kate, a dog he whispered to when the older boys locked him out of a room and when I think of him now, when he told me his part of this story in what sounded more like his father’s voice, it is the little blond boy, hugging the neck of an aged Labrador I see.
In early October of 2014 Hayden had dropped off his girlfriend and come home. He had gone to bed and was asleep when his mother shook him awake.
The bubble had broken.
Michael Pope and Christy Sigmon were being driven to the hospital where they’d been told Christy’s daughter, Jessica would be brought by ambulance from a wreck she’d been in and they hadn’t been told much more.
They waited on more information. They waited on cops and doctors. They waited on her son, Alec Sigmon to return her calls to see if he knew anything more, why a boy named Jacob had been driving Jessica’s car. They got few answers at the hospital until, finally, a girl was brought in with significant head trauma moaning, yelling “Jessica”. Christy signed papers allowing them to transfer her daughter to a bigger, better-equipped hospital only to look up and see Jessica walking through the doors of the Emergency Room.
It was Jessica’s friend, Chloe Cordell who needed to be transported. Chloe had head trauma. Another mother needed to be called.
Jessica couldn’t think straight, couldn’t remember what happened, who was sitting where. She thought that she had been in the passenger seat. Yes, that seemed right. Jacob had been driving, driving too fast on Riverbend Road. They didn’t make the curve. They hit something. Maybe the car turned over. Maybe it turned over more than once. Chloe was in the back seat. She was in the back seat with Justin Turner and Alec.
That’s why he didn’t answer his phone. Alec was in the car.
Dina Snipes got her call from the father of her son’s girlfriend. “Is Justin with you?” No. He was supposed to be with Alec and Jacob. She and her husband, Bobby went to the hospital.
When they were checking in, among the gathering of high school kids and parents who had taken over the emergency room and hospital parking lot, an EMS first responder heard the name that she gave to the nurse. He said, “Turner? Your kid was one of the lucky ones.”
She could breathe, again.
Taken back to the room where she thought she would find her lucky son she instead saw Jacob, the driver, not Justin on the gurney. Jacob was the one being treated for a compound fracture of his arm. And it hit her. Though they are no relation Jacob’s last name is also Turner.
They waited for four hours.
Michael Pope paced and repeatedly called a paramedic friend who was on the scene but not able to tell Michael very much. His Christy ping ponged between being a grateful mother whose daughter had survived the crash with minor injuries and a panic-stricken mother whose son was as yet unaccounted for. Time wasn’t real. It either rushed by or dragged on. Dina Snipes doesn’t remember who was there. The mothers were there, the mothers of all the players on the baseball team. Robin McGraw was there. Hayden was there.
When Michael could wait no longer he pressed his friend for answers. Where was Alec? Why wasn’t another ambulance coming in with the other two boys? A Highway Patrolman told him.
“There are two males who didn’t make it.”
Michael, sick with grief, sick until nothing was left had to tell Christy that Alec was gone. When her boy was finally brought to the hospital it was his father, Eric Sigmon, who identified the body of his 15-year-old son. A highway patrolman tried to get confirmation from Dina based on Justin’s hair color, eye color. The decision to identify Justin by the clothing he was wearing was a kindness meant to spare a mother but Dina couldn’t remember what she had last seen him in. Hayden said he thought that the clothing they described were Justin’s. The patrolman said, “One of them was wearing Superman socks.”
Dina said, “Justin has Superman socks.”
And when there was no more reason to wait, no more information that would change anything, only the dull ringing of voices trying to be of comfort, exhaustion from sobbing, when the news had come that her two older sons had been robbed of a lifetime with their little brother Dina said to her husband,
“I guess we just go home without him.”
Hayden was one of the pallbearers wearing their baseball jerseys instead of suit coats. His is one of the names signed in Sharpie markers on the closed casket of Justin Turner. Hayden is but one of my connections to these gone boys, boys who’s voices will never change as Hayden’s has, boys who hadn’t hit their growth spurt, who looked younger than their fifteen years.
Maybe I will stop complaining about Hayden growing up so fast. Maybe he had to. When I asked him to tell me something about Justin he said, “He was my friend.”
Alec’s grandfather was one of my Back Table Boys. Jim Sigmon told me many good stories in the Claremont Café, stories that made it into my book. He lived long enough to bury his grandson and not long after. Justin’s oldest brother, Devin, graduated with my Walker, as Student Body President he spoke at their Commencement Ceremony and broke his collar bone playing football in the sand when they all went to Myrtle Beach. Michael Pope is the grandson of Miss Glenna May, one of my favorite people in all the world. Dina is one of Robin McGraw’s best friends. Robin washed my son’s clothes, saved two quilts and my sanity after my fire. That is the way of Claremont. The good times are better and losses are made a little easier because we go through them together.
But it’s not enough.
No one believes that there is any punishment, any retribution that will compensate for the loss of two boys, no ‘time served’ that will lessen their loss. No one is waiting on a day when it doesn’t hurt anymore. The parents of Alec and Justin have been told that the wheels of justice grind slowly as if there will ever be justice, a bell rung, a box checked that makes what happened acceptable. What could possible be acceptable about the loss of these lives?
It’s not about learning to accept it. It’s managing to tolerate the pain.
Theirs is a life sentence of the strikes that will never be thrown, the graduation gowns that will never be ordered, the college dorm rooms that will never serve as host for their child’s all-nighter, determined to make finals. Alec won’t hike the Appalachian Trail, wont camp under the protection of the pines. Justin won’t pitch in the Majors or drive a truck with the baseball painted shift knob his brother Ryan gave to him. They’ll never get their own licenses to drive. There will never be another family picture, no matter how many grandchildren come along to fill the frame that their mothers will see as complete. They will think of the babies they rocked and the ones they never will, the names they will never write in their Bibles and no matter how many days, weeks, months are spent behind bars by the driver of the car that missed that curve, hit that culvert, and killed them there will never be closure.
The day will come when he is free to study, to move his tassel from the right to the left, to make babies to rock. There will be a day when his family pictures are complete.
We are thankful that his life will go on. It should. It should go on to accomplish great things with the gift he has been given, the gift of time. His lack of good judgment should not define him. But neither should he see the freedom currently allowed him by the slow process of an overburdened legal system as a temporary time-out. His is to be a lesson for other teenagers who get behind a wheel and might, for one-quick-second, think they have skills they don’t. Driving too fast can kill your friends. Driving over one hundred miles an hour can kill your friends. Killing your friends will scar the lives of their families. Killing your friends, even if you find a way to live with it, will put your young life on pause and rob you of ball games and late nights and a license to drive.
At least, it should.
There is no one who believes that the day that the sentence is imposed will become the day these mothers heal. No one knows how long it will take before the cereal aisle of the grocery store is just another walk and not a reminder that Cheerios were Alec’s favorite. It’s impossible to measure the time it will take to hear a favorite song, watch a movie, see a baseball glove and not have to catch their breath. How long before the color yellow is just a crayon in a box and not a reminder of Justin’s affinity for it. They will find their way in their own time but the length of time, those steps they need to take should not be delayed by the legal process or concerns for the next election.
They should not be kept waiting.
My son graduated from college last May and holds his five-year-old nephew upside down the same way he used to torture Hayden. Cole McGraw will marry in September, marry a girl who went all through school with our boys and Hayden will be his brother’s Best Man. Hayden will graduate from Bunker Hill High School this spring. He’ll play baseball in college like he’s played baseball in high school, middle school, and all the Little League teams since he was old enough to swing a bat. He told me that he never gets in the car without thinking of the boys, of Justin, of Alec, of their mothers, of how that kind of loss would affect his own. He told me he’s careful.
He told me he tries to be real, real careful.