As I prepared to turn the corner onto Zerby Avenue in Kingston, I braced for a number of scenarios, all of them unsettling. As we grow older, we begin to attend more funerals than weddings. We spend more time comforting the old than taking care of the young.
We have a hard time facing sudden death, but the notion of a teenager's passing is particularly hard to accept. The prospect of seeing those young faces standing in line to see one of their friends for the last time is just so wrong.
It’s extremely hard to accept for their peers, friends and classmates. As I turned the corner last Thursday for the viewing of 15-year old Kayla McGrady, it was harsher than a bitter January day.
The sobbing was unsettling. Kids in dark clothes clung to each other, crying out loud and without shame. You could feel the sense of loss for one of their own who wouldn’t get a permit, go to the prom or cross the stage at graduation. With the advent of technology, young people are closer than ever, available at all times of the day or night at the touch of a keypad or the other end of the phone. The intimacy of their world means everybody can be together 24/7. Their loss seems so extreme when one of their own is violently taken away in a way that's so unexpected and shocking. The loss will linger forever.
The bikes were there, too. Placed in a heap near the sidewalk, the bikes were a reminder of the innocence of those who came to say goodbye to Kayla. Her obit in the local newspaper referenced her love of BMX riding and softball. For people like me who never met her, the soft smile of her newspaper photo expressed a certain shyness and the promise of a coming of age that will never occur.
Weaving through the brokenhearted and into the funeral home, I braced again. Thankfully, a short line gave me the opportunity to compose myself and prepare to see Kayla’s family. The last time I had seen them, there was great rejoicing. Kayla’s mom, Tammy, married my husband’s cousin Ronnie a few years ago. It was at their wedding that we discovered Tammy was the daughter of Peggy, a woman we had known from a restaurant in Plymouth where we spent every Sunday night when our kids were small. At Tammy and Ronnie’s wedding, Peggy and I agreed we were happy to be related, even if only by marriage.
Peggy, who also worked in the Luzerne County Courthouse, was one of the kindest women I have ever met. When our first son was born, she was at the door with a gift. Now, her “baby” granddaughter was gone.
Signs more typical of a pep rally featured messages of sympathy. Friends wrote they would miss Kayla, a sophomore at Wyoming Valley West. Pictures from her childhood were displayed, noting birthdays and holidays.
I grabbed Ronnie by the shoulders and we both wept. Although he was not her biological dad, Ronnie visibly wore the heavy sorrow of losing his beloved Kayla and comforting her distraught mom. Ronnie’s always been the tough guy of the family, rough around the edges with the heart of a softie. He had to be strong for his wife, but was clearly stunned.
We spoke briefly about the accident that killed Kayla. Still under investigation by police, the violent crash on desolate Suscon Road in Pittston Township last Monday night was just one of those things that shouldn’t have happened. Kayla needed a ride home and her friend arranged it. Unfortunately, no one went straight home.
Emotions welled up in me on the dark ride home from the West Side. The young lady with the knit hat looked like she could have opened her eyes and walked home. Although the accident closed the road for four hours in an effort to reconstruct the scene, Kayla only had a few external scratches. Massive internal injuries ended her life, hopefully with little awareness of its circumstances.
The image of my own young daughter, petite with straight hair, played over and over in my mind until I opened the door of our house. She stood in the living room and I embraced her, sobbing. I explained where I had been and she said she shared a mutual friend with Kayla. I sent her friend a text and she said Kayla was a "little Rebecca,"
I probably told my daughter I loved her more in the past few days than in the last month. Teenagers, you know. Some times, it seems they don't want to hear anything.
So, I asked my audience on Friday to tell their children the story of the bikes in front of the funeral home, the sad sound of kids sobbing, the fragility of our lives and the dangers of fast driving. Maybe you can throw in an “I love you.” They might cringe, but they need to know.
And, say a prayer for Tammy, Peggy and Ronnie and their family.