Thursday evening, 530pm. I was standing in my bedroom at my dresser, ready to walk out the door for work. My phone rang and I checked to see who was calling. It was my mom, which didn’t strike me as odd. She sometimes calls (and vice versa) when she knows I’m on my way to work. I answered. Her first words were quiet, but I immediately heard it – that quiver in her voice that sent a thread of fear through my body, “something bad happened,” she haltingly told me. My heart stopped. My dad? One of my grandparents or brothers?
“Dara was in a car accident.”
“Is he ok?” I immediately asked.
“He’s dead,” she whisper sobbed. My heart stopped.
My uncle Dara…dead?
“WHAT?!” I half-yelled into the phone.
“He was killed in a car accident,” she managed to choke out the words again.
As she was talking, I was stumbling towards the spare bedroom, where Jim was working. “He’s dead? What?!?” I kept asking. When I slammed through the door and into Jim’s office, crying, he pushed his chair back from his desk and leapt to his feet.
I can’t remember what he said. I vaguely remembering brandishing the screen of my phone at him, as if he could somehow glean some information from its face.
“Dara is dead,” I hysterically sobbed. The confusion on his face mirrored my own.
I’m not sure what happened then. I remember walking to the kitchen, holding the phone, listening to my mother cry. I bent over at the waist, tears pouring down my face, trying to breathe. Then she told me that my grandparents didn’t know. They were napping at the time that my aunt was told of her brother’s death and were still sleeping. My grandparents didn’t know.
I almost had a panic attack thinking of what it would be like when they woke, pleasantly rested from a nap, to spend time with their 2 daughters (my mom and her sister, visiting from Tennessee), only to be told that their beloved first child, my Uncle Dara, 63 years old, was dead.
My mind shut down then. I remember little about the next few hours. It is too much to process for one person. My son has been in the ground less than 3 months. Doesn’t the universe grant you a “get out of death free” card for at least 6 months or a year? How can this be happening? How can my uncle be dead? I remember that Jim and I sat on our front stoop while the girls watched TV. I remember that we babbled whatever it is that you babble about when you’re in total and utter shellshock.
it has been just over 48 hours since I found out that my uncle died, and I am still unable to fully process this.
Let me tell you a little bit about him. He was a beanpole – over 6 feet tall and slim. He had a bushy grey mustache and beard. He perpetually wore a ball cap, sneakers, and jeans. He built his own house on a piece of family property, piece by piece, slowly. He liked to help out family members. He had an ever rotating assortment of cheap cars around. My twin brothers, especially my brother James, are younger versions of him.
Growing up with him as an uncle, I got used to being teased and embarrassed. One very clear memory I have from around the age of 10 was him following my acutely embarrassed person around a store, drooling and staring vacantly. He was a big part of my life for those first 20 years. When we were younger, my mother and her siblings (3 brothers, 1 sister) spent every single holiday together, and we traveled to Florida frequently. Those are some of the best memories of my life.
As happens, all my aunts and uncles started having children, their children grew up, and had children, and we grew up and had families as well. Family holidays started centering around grandkids and new families that were springing up. Still, my aunts and uncles were a big presence in my life, even if I didn’t see them as frequently.
July 2, 1999 – my wedding day. Dara and my mother, Robin (above) and his oldest child, Antoinette (below)
Dara really loved time with his family. Family was always a priority for him. Every year growing up, we went on a family summer beach trip – and he was always there – teasing us, dunking us in the pool, being an uncle.
When I was young, he had a trampoline in front of his house. It was a death trap, as all trampolines are. It didn’t have a safety net around it, as trampolines do these days. It is a wonder that we never broke anything. At over 6 feet tall, he would jump on the trampoline with us, and we would ricochet 8-10 feet into the air. I still distinctly remember those days and the exhilaration of flying so high up into the sky while my uncle laughed (maybe a bit maniacally).
He taught mathematics at Middleburg High School. His favorite joke that I heard a million times growing up was that he had 2 rules in his class. First rule – don’t touch the teacher. Second rule – see the first rule.
I cannot believe he is gone. If death only came for the wicked, the unkind, the hateful, the cruel, the selfish, the cheaters and liars, then Dara would still be here with us. But death comes for us all – sweet babies, good men – alike.
In 48 hours, I have already learned a lesson in humility. His death taught me something that I thought I already knew, but really, I just learned. Remember how I said don’t be afraid to talk to people that are grieving? Don’t be afraid to sit with others in their grief – no matter how painful? Remember how I said it like it should be an easy enough thing to do?
Well, I was terrified to call my grandparents. I didn’t know what to say. What could I possibly say to my beloved grandparents to relieve one ounce of this suffering?
Me. The person who buried her beloved son less than 90 days ago, who has written about him nearly every day since, I was at a loss for words. The irony does not escape me. I can’t even say what I was scared of – that I would break down, be unable to speak? That I would make my grandparents cry? What are we so freaking afraid of when it comes to talking about death?
Then I realized why I couldn’t do it. My grandparents were always a soothing presence for me as a child. They were always “the adults.” They were always “in charge.” Nothing would faze or ruffle them. They were grandparents. They’d seen it all.
Dara’s death has reduced them to what they really are – people. Just humans, like the rest of us. And now, the walking wounded, just like me. I see them for the parents they are, no longer just my grandparents, but a mother and a father and devastated.
So I called my nanny. She asked, in her typical fashion, how I was doing. I replied, as is my wont to do these days, “terrible.” And then we talked. We talked about James dying. We talked about the girls. We talked about Jim and how his work has been going. I told her how sorry I was. We talked about grief a little. My grandmother is easy to talk to in general. She’s kind, she has a nice laugh, and she doesn’t take life too seriously. I talked to her first because I knew that I had to talk to my Papa, and I knew it was going to be hard.
You see, my Papa talked to Dara every single day. They lived about 3.5 hours apart, so they talked on the phone multiple times a day, and generally many weekends of the month, my Papa would go up to their house near Gainesville and fish with my uncle. They had a very strong bond that was clear for anyone to see. I knew my Papa would be reeling, devastated, possibly broken, by this massive grief.
He’s had a tough life, my grandfather. His father was killed when my Papa was 15. He was shot in the line of duty in St Petersburg, Florida. It was Christmas Eve (or Christmas, I can never quite remember). His name was James Julian Goodson – the name borne by our sweet son.
In 2005, my grandfather lost his beloved grandson in a tragic drowning accident. Crosby grew up not 2 miles from my Papa’s house, and he saw that little boy every single day. To see them together was to see a miraculous and wonderful bond of love between a baby and his Papa. When Crosby died, the light in my grandfather’s face was extinguished. I’m not sure he ever fully recovered.
He’s since lost 2 great-grandchildren – our sweet James and my cousin’s baby girl, Erin.
I knew that when we spoke, it would be hard. I knew that he might not directly talk about Dara. I knew that I might have to say some things that were on my heart but that he might not be ready to talk about yet.
When he came to the phone, he first asked how I was doing. And I responded in my usual fashion these days. We talked for a moment, and then he confided to me how much time he spent with Dara, how he talked to him on the phone multiple times a day, how Dara was keeping my grandparent’s house in Brooker taken care of when they weren’t there. His voice cracked a little when he told me this. He said something along the lines of “you must know how this feels.”
And I said that I didn’t. Because I don’t. I know that losing a child is like losing a limb – that I surely know. But when James died, I lost his future. I lost all of the things to come, the things he might’ve done, the person he would’ve been. I lost a sweet baby who had yet to grow into a toddler or preschooler. I lost the future – James’s future.
My grandfather lost a son but also a friend, a companion, a confidante. My Papa lost a man that he watched grow from an infant into an adult – a father, a grandfather. Dara was my grandparents’ first child, born when my Nanny was just 19 years old. Papa told me in this conversation that he “kinda grew up with my Uncle Dara,” and said that he “wasn’t very mature when Dara was born.”
You love all of your children differently – equally – but differently. The love for a firstborn is unlike the love of the siblings that follow. That firstborn baby makes you a parent, teaches you about yourself, bares before you the selfishness of your heart, shows you just how much it is possible to love another human. That firstborn introduces you to the idea that now your heart walks around outside of your body. I too grew up when I met my first child, and so I understood when he said that.
And so, while I can empathize at the tragedy of losing your child, I cannot imagine losing someone that has been a companion for 63 years of my life.
The last time I spoke with my Uncle Dara was November 22, 2016. It may seem strange that I know that exactly, but it was because he texted me. His family was driving through Asheville on the way to Tennessee for Thanksgiving. His family wanted to stop and meet James. It didn’t work out, and the last thing that he said to me was …”I wish we could come to see him. Maybe next time we come we’ll be able to see him.”
I hope so desperately that they have met now – that James is with his great Uncle Dara, and James is telling him stories about his big sisters, and his mommy and daddy. And in return, Dara is regaling him with tales of the death trampoline, about the river behind his house where we’d swim in the water that was browned by tannins, terrified of alligators, about trips to the beach and ice cream at the Pier, about dunking us as kids, telling all of his small, funny jokes about teaching. I hope James, Crosby, and Dara are somewhere bright and happy and safe.
Rest in peace, Uncle Dara. You will be dreadfully missed.