The Bags We Carry

Posted on | April 9, 2010 | 39 Comments

I’m not a purse person. There. I said it. I have friends who have virtual crates of Vera Bradley bags stashed under their beds… I’ve never seen the appeal. A bag is just a bag to me. A means to an end. Husband got me a Coach purse when I graduated law school… don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I’d be just as happy with a Target bag. I’m just not a purse person.

I tend to have one purse at a time. I use it until it either falls apart or someone says “Seriously? Still?” and then I get another one. I rarely, if ever, own more than one “working” purse at a time.

So it’s clear then, that I am not a purse person. What I am, however, is a carrier of other purses… other baggage, if you will. We all have things in our lives that affect us. That change how we view the world, how we react to other people, and even how we see ourselves. Sometimes they are small things, sometimes large, and sometimes it’s just a series of very small things that add up to one whopping life change. Regardless of what does it, I think everyone has a moment when they realize that things are not as they used to be… that things have irrevocably changed.

My moment came in a flash of police lights and a knock at the door. It was March of 1997 and I was barely 19 years old.

I had a text book childhood. No lie, I grew up on Pleasant Drive and attended Friendly Avenue Baptist Church. My kindergarten teacher’s name was Ms. Angel. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. I’m the middle child (older sis, younger bro) of parents who are still married and up until 1998, I still had all four grandparents living. In short? Pretty easy going.

I went away to college with a massive chip on my shoulder labeled “Sooo Intelligent I don’t need to study.” It fell off, mind you, but that all comes later. I was privileged. I was loved. I had everything in the world handed to me on a silver platter. Hardship? Um…. my mom made me practice piano? One time I didn’t get to go on a trip I wanted to go on? It wasn’t exactly perfection, but it was as close as middle class suburbia gets.

If I had never experienced March of 1997 and the months that followed, I’d be a different person now, that much I know. And more than that, I’d be a different parent… maybe not a parent at all. But I did experience March of 1997… and as a result, my whole world changed.

The day had started out like any normal day. I was at the beach with two girlfriends. My future roommate, who I’ll call Lou, and my current suitemate, Jennifer. We had gotten a co-worker of mine to buy us alcohol so we made margaritas and laid out on the front porch. The Tar Heels had won the ACC Basketball tournament. All was right with the world. One of my best friends in the world, we’ll call him Andy, had shown up unexpectedly and was staying for dinner. He and I had grown up basically as brother and sister but we didn’t spend a lot of time together after college started so it was so good to see him.

Of the now four of us, me and Lou decided to drink. Fairly heavily. We drank so heavily that when we left the restaurant after dinner we refused to get in the car to ride back to the beach house. Instead, we insisted on walking. If you’re not familiar with Ocean Isle Beach, there is a large, arching bridge that connects the island with the mainland. The restaurant we ate at was on the mainland. The beach house was on the island. Walking on the bridge is, if not forbidden, STRONGLY discouraged. Especially at night.

None the less, Lou and I hauled our “too stupid for our own good” asses over that bridge and back to the beach house. Only about the time we got a few houses from the house, I turn to my friend, and in my drunken stupor tell her that I think it’s downright ridiculous that our two friends haven’t gone looking for us. She agrees and we decide to hide until they “come to their senses” and go to look for us. The beach house has downstairs showers so we ducked inside and tried to keep quiet while we waited.

It wasn’t long before we heard the front door open and they stepped out onto the deck. Jennifer had one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard. It was contagious. Sort of… twinkly and light. Hard to explain, but if you heard Jennifer laugh you couldn’t help but laugh with her. She came out of the house laughing.

Andy was with her and they laughed their way down the steps, mere inches from our hiding place. Once they were out of our range of hearing, we ducked up the stairs and into the house. We locked the door as a joke so they would think they’d locked themselves out when they returned, and in the meantime? We drank more. And laughed a lot. And created a superhero named Beer-Ra.

After about thirty minutes, something happened. While we were busy laughing and joking, something earth-shattering happened. There was a knock at the door, and it wasn’t Jennifer and Andy. It was a police officer. I saw him standing there and once I noticed him, I noticed the flashing lights in the driveway. Lou and I stashed the visible booze and I opened the door. I don’t know what I was expecting to hear from him, but I wasn’t expecting this…

“Future Law Momma? There’s been an accident.”

I wish I could remember that moment because, as it turns out, that’s the moment that everything changed. Up until that exact moment, bad things had always happened to somebody else… never to me. At that moment, I became somebody else.

I don’t remember the specifics. What I do remember is that the officer had to repeat it several times before it sunk in that he was actually trying to tell me something. I’ve never gotten sober so fast in my life. Lou and I piled into the police SUV and he pulled out of the drive.

My heart was pounding. I didn’t know what to expect, only that apparently Andy had told the police officer to come and get me because something had happened to Jennifer. When we pulled out of the driveway, the night was alive with lights. It didn’t seem possible that this, whatever it was, had happened so close to the house. It was a two block car ride to the scene of the accident.

The ambulance was still there when we arrived and I remember begging to ride with Jennifer to the hospital. Andy was there and he kept apologizing to me, as though there were something he could have done… and there, in a dark SUV, was a 17 year old boy who I can only refer to as Kid. Sullen looking. Talking to a police officer. And as we found out later…


And potentially high as well.

It took a while for the pieces to all fall together. It seemed that Jennifer and Andy were on their way back to the beach house. They were holding hands and walking. Kid was driving home from a party. Beer cans were littered throughout his backseat. He had a bag of marijuana in his jacket pocket. He said the street light blinded him. He said he looked up and didn’t see anything but the light until he saw Andy there, walking in the road. He swerved to miss him. He swerved to miss Andy. My friend I grew up with. My friend who would later be a groomsman at my wedding, and I a Bridesmaid at his. He swerved to miss my old friend and slammed the full force of his car into my new friend. My “dance party on the balcony” suitemate. My most-amazing-laugh ever, so funny you’ll bust a gut, platinum blond new friend.

It wasn’t until the next day that we found out the real story. That night was a blur of information. We called parents, we slept in the same bed, we planned the things we’d take to Jennifer in the hospital. The next morning my mother and Andy’s mother showed up at the beach and drove us to Wilmington to see Jennifer. We planned stories to tell her the whole way there.

When we got to the hospital and said why we were there, we were taken to a waiting room. A case manager type person walked into the room and… I kid you not… this is what she said:

“I’m sure you all know by now that Jennifer is brain dead.”

WTF!?! No, you stupid, insensitive piece of shit! No we did not “know by now.” We just drove here from the OIB planning funny things to tell her.

My mom, Lou, Andy and Andy’s mom stayed to listen. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t look at that woman in the face for another second. I just left. I walked outside, sat down in the parking lot, and bawled.

A lot of things happened after that. Funerals, memories, going through all of her personal belongings at school to save her parents any embarrassments. But it is that moment from the hospital, when I realized she was gone, that haunts me now.

I spent a lot of time thinking the whole thing was my fault. If only I hadn’t been drinking. If only we hadn’t walked back from the restaurant. If only I hadn’t decided to hide in the shower. I could have drowned myself in the “if only’s.” With a lot of help from family and friends, I made it through the next year or so of my life but it wasn’t easy. I took Jennifer’s death really hard.

On any given bad day, I still think there were things I could have done to prevent it all. Things I could have changed that would have kept Jennifer around to see her brother and sister grow up. But the biggest bag I carry now, is the knowledge that anything can happen. And that is a bag that weighs me down as a parent.

Jennifer’s parents sent her on Spring Break to a quiet beach with two girl friends. What could be safer than that other than keeping her at home? This is the bag I carry. It is possible. It can happen. You can nurture your child from infancy. You can watch their first steps. You can see her graduate high school and you can send her off to college. And it’s possible that you can still lose her. After every milestone is reached, after 18 birthdays are celebrated, you can still lose your child.

And that bag, that heavy, heavy bag… it terrifies me. It makes me hyper-vigilent. It makes me hear bumps in the night and see bruises that aren’t really there.

As parents, we all come in to the job with bags. Some have bags of former abuse, some have bags of absentee parents or foster care, some have bags of current abuse and for those, my heart breaks. And then there are some with the same bag as me… the bag of loss. The bag that says “Hey, FYI? Parents lose their kids every day.”

Does the memory of Jennifer make me a better parent? Probably not. I will screw up just as many times as anyone else. But I like to think that carrying her memory around with me reminds me to enjoy the days a little more. She reminds me that time is precious and that I can’t take any of this wonder for granted. And for that? I am grateful.

But I miss her laugh.


39 Responses to “The Bags We Carry”

  1. MrsPatterson
    April 9th, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    This was so beautifully written; I had goosebumps the entire time. Thank you for sharing such a private piece of your life. And thanks for helping me remember to appreciate and love my son every second of every day.

  2. Nicci
    April 9th, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    Wow. Thank you so much for sharing that.

  3. ~*Jess*~
    April 9th, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I'm so incredibly sorry. That is such a heavy weight to carry. Her story (one that could happen to anyone at anytime) is what scares the total and complete shit out of me whenever I have Ava in the car. Whenever she's not in the car but with her dad. It just scares me that anything can happen. To any of us.

    This is a good reminder that you have to share with those you love before it's too late. Thanks hon.

  4. Blair@HeirtoBlair
    April 9th, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    It's an incredibly heartbreaking story, but thank you for sharing. Beautifully written, and THIS is what blogging is about -sharing stories, knowledge, life wisdom.

    We are not invincible. & that is something to teach our children – & something that (unfortunately), you'll be able to teach your children all too well.

  5. KLZ
    April 9th, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    A great post – I'm tearing up. Thanks for sharing – your posts always seem so very brave to me. 🙂

  6. Sara
    April 9th, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing this… I know I'll be holding my family a little closer tonight.

  7. Mama Pea
    April 9th, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    What a hard way to learn not to take things for granted. Thank you for sharing your story and what you've learned.

  8. I'm Molly
    April 9th, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    I am so sorry for that life-changing night. I am carrying a new bag as of last Thursday. It is an awful awful bag and I don't want to carry it. But none-the-less, I am. And unfortunately, I've got a story like yours, practical perfection and then Bam … these piece of crap bags were given to me out of nowhere.

    I would gladly give them back but I can't 🙁

  9. Lydia and Kate
    April 9th, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    GOD DAMN IT, Law Momma. I was wearing mascara. Now it's running down my face. I am boo hooing so hard. You are an amazing writer and that was a terrifying, heartbreaking story. I am so, so sorry. Oh Lord. I need to go pull myself together.

  10. Sarcastica
    April 9th, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    This is my first time coming to your blog and I am BAWLING my eyes out. This story is so sad, but SO beautifully written. You have a lot of key points in there.

    Just wonderful. xoxo

  11. Tiffany
    April 9th, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    I'm so sorry dear. I know what you mean about fear…I struggle everyday to keep myself in the present and not let fear and anxiety rule my life. The "what-ifs" take over and you lose yourself in them. Thoughts + prayers. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Jenny
    April 9th, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    You are a good friend for remembering Jennifer and accepting your responsibility in savoring the lives you've been blessed with. Your baggage must be difficult to carry, but it's important baggage to have. Not all of us understand the true value of life. Thank you for such a beatifully written piece.

  13. Christy
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    wow. a very sad story, but well written. I understand your baggage. January 2010 I lost a best friend in a freak hunting accident. The boat sank and he drowned. The worst part is that his dad was sitting in the seat next to him.

    I'm still haunted by worry and nightmares. I have random thoughts about losing my family or children. I am extremelly anxious when my husband is even a minute later than I thought he would be. It's hard, really hard, and my children are small. I can't imagine when I send them on trips or stuff.

    Thank you for sharing. I will give my family an extra kiss tonight and say a prayer for you and yours.

  14. Shannon
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    Such a heart breaking story…I feel for you, I really do. My cousin was coming home from a high school graduation party and used poor judgment climbing into the backseat of a friend's car that had been drinking. The friend hit a tree and my cousin was sent through the windshield. He was in the hospital in a vegetative state for a while before finally passing on. I was only in elementary school when this happened but I've carried the gravity of this event with me all these years and it has effected many decisions I've made. My thoughts are with you, your friend, my cousin, and countless others did not deserve to have something so awful happen to them. Many blessings…

  15. KristiMaristi
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    So sorry to hear about this loss. That was a heavy story.
    Losing my child is my worse fear ever…I for some reason think of things like this sometimes and find myself a sobbing mess. Its the scariest thing a parent faces.

  16. JillyB
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It is so tragic that these bags are even out there, but they are and it scares me to death. Just this morning I had a talk with Big Time about not letting anyone *touch* him inappropriately and if they did what he should do. I felt every cell in my body go on high alert and I wanted to turn around and lock us in the house. But we can't live like that.

    Your story is a reminder that we have to live life to the fullest every single day and that we can't, no matter how hard we try, protect our children from every single bump in the night. Hugs to you Law Momma for sharing your story…

  17. Family Sized Fun
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    oh momma
    i hate that bag
    that bag keeps prozac in business
    because i never realized until i had kids
    how much i had to lose.

    here's to old friends who didn't make it
    and the memories of them we carry.

  18. Eliza
    April 9th, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    This was beautiful ad heart breaking. Thanks for sharing this story. It is a good reminder to chrish every moment.

  19. mandy @ harper's happenings
    April 9th, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    i'm so sorry about your friend, sweetie.

    i know this post was hard for you to write and probably hard to hit publish, but it was so wonderfully written and you hit the nail on the head. cherish every moment.

    thanks for sharing. and hugs.

  20. Katie
    April 9th, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    Heartbreaking story. Thank you for being so open and real. Sorry for your loss.

  21. thenextmartha
    April 9th, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    What a lovely tribute to your friend. I hope you are able to carry the bag as long as you need to and hope little by little it will get lighter. Thank you so much for sharing.

  22. Sara and Ryan
    April 9th, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    What a powerful post. Brought me to tears and definitely made me think. Thanks for sharing your heartache with us.

  23. Denise
    April 9th, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    Can't write much because I can't see because of the tears streaming from my eyes. A brave and beautiful post. Thank you.

  24. kris
    April 9th, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    Somebody can fucking write! What an awesome post, and a reminder again that nobody in this life comes through unscathed. We all carry our baggage, and for most of us, it is a heavy load. It is so hard to turn away from the fear and the pain and march forward with life and love after tragedy strikes.
    No wonder it was hard to hit "Post." Writing with unflinching honesty about real pain is difficult stuff. So honored to have had you share this with me.

  25. Diana
    April 9th, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    Wow, that was a really touching post. I had to pull myself out of your past life when it was over, I was so far into it. You're a great writer, a wonderful friend. Thanks for sharing that story, it happens far to often.

  26. metta1313
    April 9th, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    You are one amazing woman momma! And they way you process these emotions and make sense of them to help us understand…to help yourself understand… is priceless. J is so lucky to have a momma like you! And of course big hugs your way.

  27. Krista @ Not Mommy of the Year
    April 10th, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    Oh my. I am crying for you, for every parent that loses a child and at the fear that we all face as parents knowing that it could, just could, be ripped from us in a moment.
    Thank you for sharing something so private. It was a beautiful tribute to your friend.

  28. Lara
    April 10th, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    Every parents… and friends… worst nightmare. I don't even know you, but from the emotion and heart you put into that story I feel like I do. We all need reminders of how precious and unpredictable life can be. Thank you for that reminder tonight. I am going to go and hold my baby girl for a few extra minutes tonight.

    I am now following your blog.

  29. parentinginprogress
    April 10th, 2010 @ 12:51 am

    A very powerful story lady, thanks for sharing. You wrote it beautifully.

    My Dad and his bandmates were hit by a drunk driver in the 70s, before my parents were married. He was in the hospital for months, he had many surgeries and nearly died. He had a wheelchair/crutches for a year. He still has problems from complications.

    The drunk driver walked away with barely a scratch.

    The rest of my Dad's band died in the crash. It was a miracle he survived.

    Drunk driving is a terrifying thing and if you think it doesn't touch you, it just hasn't happened yet.

  30. Suzanne from pretty*swell
    April 10th, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing your story. I can't imagine how difficult that was. What a small world it is … Ocean Isle Beach is very close to my heart, and I could just picture your story, step by step. I'm so, so sorry for your loss.

  31. Carol
    April 13th, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    *HUG* Ditto to everyone else's comments!

  32. Emmie Bee
    June 16th, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    I missed this post when it was posted and only saw it from your post today. This story is so beautifully written and I can only imagine how hard something like this would be. I am so sorry that you lost your friend.

    And more than that this story makes you realize how easy it is for something to take someone you love. It is unnatural for a parent to outlive their child. I don't think I could handle that kind of grief. I know for a fact I wouldn't make it after something so devastating.

    I am so sorry for your loss and for your friend and for her parents. You all are much stronger than I am. I am seriously contemplating waking up all three of my sleeping babies right now for a snuggle.

  33. erobell
    November 18th, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    wow. very powerful. very well written. wow.

  34. Sarah
    December 5th, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    Wow. Our tragedies are such life defining moments. Thank you for sharing.

  35. Kimber Leszczuk.
    December 5th, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    This was very well written!

  36. The Girl Next Door Grows Up
    December 8th, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    I had a feeling it was going to end badly and I so hoped it wouldn't.

    It is simply tragic.

    Well written, but tragic.

    Thank you for sharing.

  37. Morgan
    October 20th, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    I’ve only just read this story for the first time today. I’m so sorry about Jennifer – this is a beautiful tribute to her memory.

  38. aninchofgray
    March 10th, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

    I had not read this before. Thank you for writing it. I could relate on many levels, but most specifically the “what if’s.” XOXo

  39. Law Momma
    March 11th, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    The “what if’s” can shatter your life, friend. I still think about you daily and send up hugs and love to your family.

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