“’Three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again.’ Those words have echoed in my head for over twenty six years now.
Thirty years ago I was a sophomore at the local community college. I kept seeing this cute girl walking to class that had the biggest, most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I was head over heels, but far too shy to approach her on my own. I would see her often talking to a girl named Gina, whom I had known since elementary school. So I cautiously asked Gina about her. She said ‘oh that’s Dana, she is such a sweetheart.’ A few days later she gave me her phone number and said that ‘Dana would love for you to call her.’ I called her that afternoon, we talked for two hours. We went on a date three days later.
Dana (pronounced Dan-na) was different than all the other girls I had known. She was smart, a straight A student. Funny and genuine, hence the biggest, most wholesome smile I had ever seen. She had that classic All-American, girl next door quality to her. I was in awe. We became serious ‘girlfriend-boyfriend’ immediately. I had dated some, but never had a true girlfriend. I was her first boyfriend.
We were both majoring in Business at Bakersfield College. I was a sophomore, Dana a freshman. We learned that we both had our heart set on eventually transferring to the extremely hard to get into Cal Poly San Luis Obispo School of Business, which was about 140 miles from our hometown of Bakersfield.
I was accepted into Cal Poly and went away that next January. Dana joined me there in September. We were inseparable. We had many classes together, studied together and spent any and all of our spare time together. We enjoyed all of the best that the amazing college town of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding central coast of California had to offer.
We were that couple that everyone looked up to. Always together, laughing and having fun. We knew we were blessed to have met each other. So thankful we had each found such a soul mate to spend the rest of our lives with. It truly was a fairytale; a one in a million relationship.
Being a year older than Dana I graduated two quarters prior than when she was set to. Once Dana graduated in December, we would be closer to living happily ever after. I stayed busy diving into my new job. Upon graduation I went to work for my parent’s grocery company. I moved back into my parent’s house while Dana was finishing out her remaining two quarters of school. During that time we decided that I should buy a house. A house I would live in by myself until we got married in a year or so. Then it would become our first home.
Dana drove home to Bakersfield on the afternoon of Thursday, November 8th, 1990. The next day I closed escrow on this house. We were so excited. It was so cute, so perfect for us, and it was only a half a mile from Dana’s house.
That evening we went to the wedding of our good friends Kim and Jamie. On our way from the church to the reception, we brought my parents and several friends by the house to show it off. The remainder of the weekend we did fun things for the house. It was Veterans Day weekend, so Dana did not have to go back to San Luis Obispo until Tuesday morning.
Monday night, after spending time at the house, we stood out in front of Dana’s house to say goodnight. We hugged, kissed and talked for thirty minutes or so. We had so much to talk about. The house, the wedding we went to, what our wedding was going to be like. Life was perfect and we knew it. As I was about to drive off Dana said ‘three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again.’ I smiled, kissed her again and said ‘I love you.’
That’s the last time I saw Dana. The next morning she was just outside of Bakersfield, driving toward San Luis Obispo. The details are so hard to talk about. A car took a left turn too carelessly. It clipped the back of Dana’s car, spinning her out of control. Her tiny car was then swallowed by an 18 wheeler coming from the opposite direction. She died instantly with her car and the truck finally resting in flames on an elementary school playground.
The memory of the phone call from her Dad to tell me that Dana died is etched in my head in slow motion like it was yesterday. The next days, months and years blend together with such a painful fog. News of Dana’s death spread quickly. She was three weeks from college graduation. She had a good job at a local bank waiting for her. The story of the perfect, bubbly, All-American girl dying young had the media all over it. Reporters were calling ruthlessly. The driver that caused the accident did not stay at the scene, so there was a criminal side to the story too. I understood their need to report the story but they seemed so heartless with their approach.
The funeral was a blur; a sad yet beautiful ceremony, a lot of crying and a huge crowd. I could tell right away that people had no idea how to handle me. I was not her husband. We had not even officially announced our wedding plans. I had been looking at rings and plotting in my mind the perfect proposal weekend for January. But nobody knew that or really seemed to care when I tried to explain. She was just my girlfriend to them. I was young, I would ‘get over it.’ We weren’t married. We didn’t have kids. They would say that I would be fine and I had my whole life ahead of me. We weren’t your typical “college sweethearts”. People close to us seemed to realize that when we were together. But ‘get over it’ was now the common mantra. How in the world was I expected to ‘get over’ the sudden loss of the person I was going to spend the next 60+ years with? The small number of people that stood by me were the ones that acknowledged what happened was horrific and that it could not be fixed, or cured. They simply were present and they listened. But the majority of those that I knew expected me to feel a certain way and expected me to ‘deal with it and move on.’ At such a young age I was seeing first-hand how society was so inept at handling how to deal with grieving. I had a lot of friends. But most of them could not relate to me at all. I was the downer they wanted to either cheer up or have no part of. They could not accept that I wasn’t myself anymore. Increasingly my phone stopped ringing.
I never moved into the house, so I was living with Mom and Dad. Working with them and living with them was so difficult at times. Many nights I would sit in the dark for hours in my bedroom listening to the deepest and darkest of alternative music. Usually it was the gothic sounds from my favorite band, The Cure. I could feel Dana speaking to me as I would allow myself to escape into the deep lyrics and the dark melodies.
Other nights I would go alone to the local, iconic bar Amestoy’s. Frank Amestoy was a local legend. He had become a special friend over the years, and he had thought the world of Dana. He would listen to me and give me his unique and relevant wisdom. All the while trying to make sure I did not drink too much. I also often would go see two of Dana’s friends that had recently gotten an apartment together, Shelly and Laura. I had known Laura well since first grade. She was one of Dana’s best friends and I really appreciated that she had no problem listening to me. I had known Shelly since junior high school, but I did not know Shelly nearly as well as I knew Laura. But over time Shelly and I started becoming good friends. I felt so comfortable and appreciative of her unconditional ability to listen and allow me to be myself.
My best friend from elementary school, Mike, was amazing. He was living in Los Angeles and allowed me to come down there at any time. We bonded over beer, alternative music and Dodger baseball. My family had Los Angeles Dodgers season tickets for years. Any chance I got I would pick up our friend Devin and head to meet Mike in LA. Devin had never been a particularly close friend in years past, but we really connected as he seemed to get the depth of my despair. It was so different than the reaction I received from those that were my best friends prior to Dana’s death.
I don’t know if I would have gotten through those first few years without Mike and Devin. They were such a blessing, as they truly let me be me. Although I can’t say I had fun, I was starting to manage to find some peace down in Los Angeles. Peace with baseball, music and true friendship.
Then there was my best friend from Cal Poly, Vik. Both of his parents were killed in a plane crash several months prior to Dana’s death. Vik and I became very close, as we could understand each others intense grief like nobody else could. I would occasionally take the Amtrak up to San Francisco to see him. He also made it down to L.A. to join a few of our Dodger baseball weekends.
I was working hard. We were in the cutthroat, competitive grocery business. It was getting more and more competitive in California. One day my Dad came up with the idea to sell our stores and buy some stores out of state. I remember that was the first excitement and hope of any kind that I had felt since Dana died. The realization that my parents would do something like this to get me out of California was mind blowing. We set the wheels in motion to make this happen. This all took time, lots of time. We looked at stores in Kansas, Missouri and Louisiana. We finally settled on 3 Piggly Wiggly supermarkets in Western Kentucky.
June of 1993 my Mom, Dad, Grandma and I all headed out of Bakersfield. It felt good, but it also felt so final in leaving Dana behind. It had been over two and a half years now and the despair of losing Dana still consumed most of my thoughts.
Everything was new and different in Kentucky. The hard work of remodeling the stores and the culture shock of relocating to the south from California kept parts of my mind occupied. Devin drove out from Bakersfield to help me get acclimated and work in our stores for a few months. I bought a Victorian style home out in the country on a couple of acres.
I still kept in close touch with Laura and Shelly, especially Shelly. We had become the best of friends. She understood what I had lost, and she did not preach to me how I should feel. I could totally be myself around her, with no judgment. Her friendship had really become a blessing. I told her she should come visit over her holiday break. She agreed and was excited at the thought of visiting me and seeing somewhere different and new.
On December 27, 1993 I rushed to the Paducah airport to meet her plane. I was excited to see Shelly, to show her my new world. When she stepped off that plane and I saw her for the first time in over six months, I hugged her, realizing immediately that my feelings for her had changed. This scared me like crazy. This was one of my dearest friends, I needed to squash those thoughts! But as the week progressed it became clear that feelings had changed for both of us. Surprisingly, it seemed very normal to me. I knew Dana would approve. I knew Dana would not want me to be miserable and alone. Dana liked and respected Shelly. Shelly knew my whole story, she really knew it all. I did not have to explain a thing.
Our relationship progressed quickly, as we had such a solid foundation built from our strong friendship. My parents understood. My closest friends understood. But how would Dana’s friends and family react? That was the question.
Within two months Shelly and I began making plans to get married. Everything moved quickly from this point forward. Our relationship changed at the end of December. We were married on May, 14th, 1994. Before we went public with our plans to marry, I knew I had to call and tell Dana’s parents. I dreaded this so much, but I also naively had an open mind that they might understand and accept. The phone call was very painful. They did not understand a bit. This was so heartbreaking for me.
I also told Dana’s very best friend. She reacted as if she understood and was happy for us. She even came to Shelly’s wedding shower and gave Shelly a gift. But a few weeks later came a letter from her. It was such a mean spirited letter. I could not believe the horrible things I was reading. It said we were such a disgrace and disappointment. What really struck me was how it went after Shelly in such a big way. Sure I was expected to fall in love again one day, but with Shelly of all people? I should be ashamed. It detailed how Shelly was not adequate nor up to par to marry me. This was all so crazy and so hurtful to us both. The letter went on to spell out how much we hurt and disappointed Dana’s parents, and that other friends felt the same way.
I knew that I couldn’t have found a more caring, compassionate person than Shelly. I knew that the last thing I was doing was replacing Dana with Shelly. My heart had expanded to allow Shelly in it. Dana would always remain in my heart and my love for her would never diminish. It all seemed so clear to us. But to others, we were tarnishing Dana’s memory. The pain of their judgment and reaction turned me so bitter and angry and it hurt Shelly so much.
I did not talk to Dana’s parents again for over twenty years. I have yet to talk to her best friend again. I was so bitter, so angry that all that I had with Dana had turned to this. Those closest to Dana were nothing but disappointed in me. All I ever wanted was to live happily ever after with her. I brought her such joy in the short period of time that she was here on this earth, and now I was looked upon as some sort of traitor. How did I become a villain in this story? It all made no sense. It really was too much for me to handle.
My love and gratitude towards Shelly is so strong. I was so stricken by how beautiful Shelly was not only on the outside, but on the inside too. I admire her so much for her humility and unconditional quality of giving. I had never seen someone so much more concerned with helping others than with herself. I often wonder how messed up I would be if not for Shelly’s intervention into my life.
We have been blessed with two boys. Dylan in 1995 and Taylor in 2000. They have given me so much joy. But the anger, the rage….it was there for well over twenty years. I took it out on my employees at work. I took it out on people I would come in contact with in public. At times I took it out on my family at home. I cringe when I think of some of the situations that this anger and rage created. I was always a ticking time bomb. It really was a double edged sword. My intensity was fueling my career. But my temper was sabotaging it. I hated the angry, bitter person that I had become. It took another tragedy for that to change.
On January 17th, 2013 I was at work and received a call from Shelly that she had been hurt. It was hard for me to understand at first. There was an explosion in the kitchen, she had been hit in the face. She sent me a picture of her swollen, bloody, black and blue face. I was horrified. I was thirty minutes away, I made some calls to try get her a ride to the doctor. To no avail, I rushed out of work and toward home. I was working in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and had severe winter conditions to battle on my drive up and over the Teton Pass to our home in Victor, Idaho. On the drive home I received a call from a nurse. Shelly had managed to scrape the ice and snow off of the windshield enough to be able to barely see to drive herself to the nearby urgent care. The nurse said she needed to be driven quickly to the hospital in the next town, which was about fifteen minutes further north. They were worried about her eye and nose. The nurse drove her to the hospital and I met Shelly there. I was shocked seeing Shelly so battered and bruised. It turned out that her eye was fine, but her nose was broken. All else was reported as being fine. We felt thankful and drove home.
What had happened was that Shelly made some homemade ginger ale. She put the finished product in empty 2 liter bottles. One bottle ended up at the back of the refrigerator. Shelly discovered it one day and decided to pour it out. She sat it on the kitchen counter, got busy and forgot about it. It sat on the kitchen counter, slowly turning into a bomb. At the exact split second that Shelly passed the kitchen sink, the bottled exploded. The force of the blast knocked Shelly to the ground and unconscious for twenty minutes or so.
All seemed fine as Shelly’s face continued to heal. About two weeks after the accident Shelly called me at work to tell me what to bring home for dinner. She could not get the words out. Again I quickly rushed home. Shelly was suddenly struggling to walk and struggling to talk. We saw a neurologist the next day. In a very non-compassionate manner he told me that Shelly had a traumatic brain injury. She was like a soldier that had been hit by a bomb at war. He also told me her life would most likely never be the same. 90% of those knocked unconscious never regain consciousness. So we were told that we should consider ourselves lucky.
The journey since has been one that has amazed me with Shelly’s grace, strength, courage and positivity. She has had to learn to walk and talk again. Many pieces of both her long-term and short-term memory are gone. She struggles to multi-task. Her brain is in constant panic mode from the severe PTSD she is saddled with. But she never ever feels sorry for herself or asks “why me”. I have become her caregiver, as she cannot do many things on her own.
A transformation of myself began happening in the months after Shelly’s accident. Here she was, in such a seriously injured state, but with such a remarkably positive attitude. With this inspiring survival story happening right next to me, how could I possibly be feeling such anger and self-pity? In the simplest of terms, witnessing Shelly’s strength and grace made me come to the realization that all of my rage and resentment needed to go away.
Gradually, much of the anger that I was carrying for so long subsided and turned to gratitude and perspective. I began to realize that I have a story to tell and a gift that I can begin to use to help others. I must admit that some of that anger has turned back into some sadness. Sadness that Shelly has to struggle in such a manner. Sadness that Dana lost her life so long ago. But I have found that my heart has become filled with much newfound gratitude. Gratitude that Dana shared all of her heart with me in the short time she had here on this earth. Gratitude for Shelly, with whom I share tremendous love and happiness. She gave me such a reason to smile once again. Gratitude for the handful of people that stood by me through those darkest of days. Gratitude for our two sons. As they, along with Shelly, have given me such a true purpose to get through each day with. And immense gratitude that Shelly is still here to continue on this journey with me.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Bob Millsap, a 50-something who has been on a long journey with grief and adversity. He is blessed with an amazing family, wife Shelly, and sons Dylan (24) and Taylor (19). He lives in the far western suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. You can follow his journey on his blog, Ten Thousand Days.
Read Bob’s emotional backstory of loss, and finding love after loss:
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