Nancy, I never remembered much about her. She was my only sibling. My sister Nancy was a few years younger than I. Our lives as young children did produce a few beautiful images that remain in my memory. I do know that she was a very talented dancer. There is evidence of that in the old photos. She was cute with elegant long legs. Probably the last of those photos were taken when she was fourteen or fifteen years old. There are also a handful of baby pictures of a cute little black haired, button-nosed girl, who was obviously my sister.
Nonetheless, I have few other memories, equivocally good or bad, which I suppose is evidence that God gives us just about what we can handle. Not long ago, I was talking with a friend; a forty-nine-year-old woman, who was deeply grieving the premature loss of her husband, a forty-nine-year-old minister, who was on a mission trip to a mountainous region of Africa and died of altitude sickness before they could get medical help for him.
She was left with two children, adopted teens, who were having difficulty dealing with the loss of their dad. She was in a tough place emotionally. During the course of our conversation, I shared the story of my family losses with her. Her response was that, in a way, I was lucky, getting all of those losses out of the way early in life and not having to deal with them as an adult. She compared me with Benjamin Button, and in many ways, I think she is right. I did have to do a lot of the heavy lifting early in life. And I have felt, for several years, that I was getting younger. But more about that later.
We lived on a wheat farm in eastern Colorado, a few miles outside of the tiny town of Bennett, population 200, plus or minus. We moved there from Austin, Texas, when I was around six years old. My Mom and Dad, my baby sister Nancy and I went to live on the farm with my grandparents, Oscar and Beatrice. I never knew why we moved there. Maybe it was because World War II was going on. I do remember that I enjoyed living there very much. I had my own horse, Trigger, whom I rode everywhere, including to school when the school bus couldn’t get through on the snowy roads.
Our school had four classrooms to divide grades 1-12, with each room serving three grades! We also had a barn and a gym. Basketball was big in our area, because most of the schools, like Strasburg, Agate and Deer Trail, didn’t have enough high school-age boys for other sports, no doubt, this is where my lifelong love for basketball started. Bennett Tigers, black and orange. Orange is still my favorite color. Just ask any of my grandkids!
I learned the essential nature of a strong work ethic on the farm. Farm kids work. They have to. There is lots of work to do. I herded cows on my horse, Trigger. During harvest time, I milked all the cows – I think forty or so. I also drove a pickup around running errands during harvest time. I had my own Holstein calf, Dottie, and my own pig that I caught at the Arapaho County Fair. She was a black and white sow with a big white band around her belly. She was a Poland China sow named Bijou Echo III. I had her bred and donated one of her babies back to the Fair Catch-it contest. That was part of the deal. I guess the rest of the litter became pork chops, ham and bacon.
I have lots of fond memories of farm life. Little snippets here and there. Time is interesting though, and questions arise about which ones were real and which were imagined. The problem is that there is no one around who could confirm or deny most of it. It is the darker memories, though, that led me to the astonishing conclusion to this story. I have told this part many times. I have done a lot of personal and healing “inner work” as a result of this part. I have cried a lot over this part. But I have never written it down.
A Really Bad Month
A lot of it is surreal. I know it happened. I’m never sure I have the details right. All the people who could confirm it are long gone. That is why the last part of the story is so important.
I was, I believe, eight years old. I was out fishing with my grandpa, Oscar Lankford. My memories of him, plus the pictures I have seen, are that he was a tall, quiet man. Kind of a “Gregory Peck” type. This is where it gets fuzzy. He had a heart attack and died. The story is that I dragged his body into the pickup truck and drove to the nearest farm for help.
That’s the good thing about being a farm kid. You learn to drive early. Lots of land and dirt trails and roads with no traffic. Comes in handy during harvest time, or fence building, or when your grandpa dies, and you need to search for help. That’s all I remember. I don’t remember a funeral, or grieving, or anything. Zip. Nada. God gives us just what we can handle. But this was just the start of a really bad month.
It was a couple of weeks later, at nighttime. I was in a truck with my dad. We were following my Uncle Grady, who was driving a flat-bed truck with a tractor chained down on the flatbed. He drove off into a ditch. The tractor broke loose and pinned him in the cab. My Dad left me with Uncle Grady and went for help. All I remember is that there were pools of blood and that Uncle Grady died. I think he was thirty-something. I was eight. That’s all I remember.
The nightmare progressed. A couple of weeks later, my dad died. I was alone with him. We were on a tractor doing some night plowing. I think he had a heart attack. I do remember my mom yelling at him to wake up. He didn’t. I remember an ambulance driving away with his body. That’s it.
A Fresh Start in Aurora, Colorado
Sometime after that, we moved from the farm and into the city, Aurora, a suburb of Denver. My Mom needed to work. She took me along. I grew up there. Me and my mom. Little Nancy, older now, stayed on the farm with my grandma.
My school years, junior high and high school, spent in Aurora were really good years. I always had jobs; I sacked groceries, threw newspapers and so on. I made my own money. That good old farm boy work ethic came in handy. I was also a straight A student and an excellent athlete. Sports were my love, especially basketball. I practically slept with a basketball in my hands.
There was a problem in Aurora though. My Mom started to drink. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the incredible pain she must have felt with the loss of her husband, brother and father. At the time, I was just a kid, striving to be her hero-man child. I did a good job of that, but I couldn’t save her from her alcoholic pain.
Being the teenage caretaker of an alcoholic mother was hard work. I do have some vivid memories of this that I have successfully put out of sight. I did so well in school that I ended up earning a couple of excellent options for college. I got an appointment to the U.S Naval Academy and a full-ride scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. I opted to attend the School of Mines, the top school in the world for Earth Sciences Engineering in the fields of Petroleum Engineering, Mining, Geophysics and Metallurgy.
I was at Mines for two and a half years. My grades were decent, but it became pretty clear to me that engineering wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. The highlights of my time at Mines involved sports. As a freshman, I was undefeated at the varsity level in track in the 880 yard (half-mile) run and won the conference championship. I also made the varsity basketball team as a freshman and sophomore.
A Change of Plans
One event changed my life at Mines. I married my high school sweetheart, Christine Webb. Christine, or Tina, as she was called, was two years behind me in school. She had completed her high school in Kansas City, and upon graduation, she moved back to Denver to live with her sister. She and I had always remained girlfriend-boyfriend. We decided to get married and start a family.
I dropped out of school and got a job at the Colorado Department of Highways, where I had worked during the summers. We became teenaged parents, trying to make our way in life with very little guidance or help. This was a crushing blow to my mom. When I left home for college, Nancy, who had lived on the farm during my high-school years, was now living with mom in Aurora, and was in junior high school.
I can’t remember much about those times, but when I left college and moved back to Aurora, I was more aware than ever of Mom’s drinking problems. I have floods of dark memories of me trying to do what would now be called an “intervention.” This would be a lot to handle at any age. I’ll never forget how helpless I felt.
My leaving college had ruined her dreams for me. I’m sure she blamed Tina, and their relationship was always rocky. And Nancy, I’m sure she endured many of the same struggles that I did. But Nancy found her outlet for achievement in her dancing. She was an incredibly talented dancer, and I do have memories of her many rewards.
Another Dark Day
All of these events conspired to bring me to the next dark day in my life. One morning, I got a call at work from my mom. She told me that she and Nancy had the flu and asked me to “call in sick for them.” I called Mom’s work and Nancy’s school, and then I went to the house, where I checked on them and fixed them a bite to eat. They were sick but seemed okay, so I went back to work.
Later that afternoon, I called the house and got no answer. I just assumed that they were feeling better and had probably gone shopping. I did feel a little sick myself when I returned to work, but recovered quickly, so I guessed the same was true for them. I intended to go back to the house after work to check on them but had promised Tina that I would take her shopping and did that instead.
When we got home, the phone was ringing. I answered it, and a neighbor was on the line urging me to get to the house immediately. I arrived at the house to find a sea of flashing red lights and several emergency vehicles. I walked into the house.
My mother’s body was limp on the floor. A gurney wheeled Nancy out of the house and into an ambulance. It’s all a blur after that.
I know that I was put inside the ambulance with Nancy and that I spent the night alone at the hospital as people worked feverishly to save Nancy’s life. She didn’t make it. She was only fifteen years old.
The house was full of carbon monoxide gas. Apparently, my mother had pulled a panel off the furnace that keeps the gas from recycling into the house. Without this panel in place, the house became a lethal gas chamber. We never knew how or why this happened.
I have a few memories of the funeral. There were lots of people there. Nancy’s school was let out to attend. The procession to the cemetery seemed to stretch for miles. They were both buried close to my dad. Still are. I have only been back there a couple of times. I did go on with life.
Trying to Move on With a Life of Pain
I turned my work ethic and intellect into a good education (though not at the School of Mines). Then, I left Colorado and never looked back. I pretty much slammed the door on my past.
I lived out in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix. I eventually ended up in Houston, where I have lived for over thirty years. Tina and I were married for eleven years. Long enough to have four kids. I wound up leaving the marriage, causing lots of pain for everyone. Yet God is good, and he has provided me with a fantastic wife, Suzi, and her two kids, Lisa and David. We have been together for 35 years, and what a good thirty-five years they have been. We are in a great place today.
A few years ago, a lovely lady named Mary Bell posed to me an interesting question. She asked me, “How did you get this way?”
It was such a blessing of a question! How did I go from a talented young boy who was deeply, profusely wounded by all the deaths of my family members, leaving a massive heap of anguish and rubble behind, and still end up in such a blessed place?
The good news is that I knew the answer, and it came quickly. The sole answer was “God’s Grace.” There can be no other answer that makes any sense at all. I couldn’t begin to claim credit for much of it. God has just brought me along for the ride. But the astonishing tales of His grace never end, and in my case, there is more to this story.
An Incredible Twist of Fate
The location is Galveston, Texas, about 1200 miles from Denver. The time is sometime in 2003 or 2004, over forty years since the deaths of my mom, Ruth, and my sister, Nancy. My wife, Suzi, and I had gone to Galveston with some friends, Gayle and Phil, to enjoy the Art Walk there. They brought along a couple that we didn’t know, Skip and Susan Williams.
On the first night, we were strolling around Galveston and had stopped at a wine bar. We were all enjoying a glass of wine and getting to know each other. At that time, we owned a horse and as we talked about that, Susan said that she had once been involved with horses, but that when she moved to Texas, she gave that up.
I asked where she had moved from. She said “Colorado.” Obviously, this piqued my interest, so I asked where in Colorado. She said “Aurora.” What a coincidence!
“Where did you go to school?” I asked.
“Aurora Central,” she responded. We had gone to the same school!
By now, things were getting a little weird. It turned out that we had only lived a couple of blocks apart, but she was a few years younger, so we never knew each other. I turned away from the conversation, but my wife, Suzi, picked it up, talking in depth with Susan. She told Susan that my mother and sister had been killed in an accident, and that I had moved back into the house after that.
Susan, with a stunned look on her face, grabbed Suzi’s arm and asked, “Was his sister’s name Nancy?”
Suzi, in turn, grabbed my arm and time stood still. It turns out that Susan and Nancy had been good friends in junior high. Susan had clear memories of Nancy, my house, and even one brief memory of my mom. She remembered the accident clearly. She had even been an honorary pallbearer, and with lasting memories of the funeral.
She actually remembered me, although I don’t recall anything that she does. She told me I was wearing a black suit and gave her and the other girls roses.
The rest of that evening in Galveston was a time of altered consciousness. The incredible “coincidence” of it all was shocking, I think for all of us. For me, it reopened an old and very deep wound. The rest of our group was, as I recall, gentle, respectful and more than a little awed. I will never forget that night, although I can’t remember much of what we did during the rest of the evening. I only remember how I felt: deeply touched, sad and blessed.
How Ruth and Nancy’s Deaths Saved a Family
We shared breakfast together the next morning before we returned home to Houston, and I voiced that I believed this was God’s way of giving me a reunion of sorts with my sister Nancy. It did turn out that way. But more about that later.
As usual, when God’s hand is shepherding things, there is always more to the story. Following the Galveston experience, we all went our own way. Susan and Gayle were discussing our meeting when Susan told Gayle the rest of the story. Because of the emotional impact of our time in Galveston, Susan didn’t want to tell me, but did want me to know, so she asked Gayle to unearth the rest of her story.
Susan grew up. Got married. Had a son. Got divorced and remarried. Her son, now fifteen years old, didn’t get along well with her then-husband, a large man. One night, her son came knocking on the parents’ bedroom door, complaining of being ill. The husband sent the son back to his room. But the son persisted, insisting that he was getting worse.
After a while, Susan, who by now was also feeling sick, got up to check on the son. He really was frighteningly sick and very “pasty” looking. At some point, Susan’s mind shifted from “flu” to carbon monoxide gas poisoning. She and her son went outdoors to their deck, and even though it was freezing cold, they felt a little better.
By now, the husband, whose larger body mass was slower to assimilate the gas, started to feel ill. When they called for help, the home was discovered to be filled with gas from a faulty furnace.
In a very real way, the deaths of my mother and fifteen-year-old sister saved the lives of Nancy’s friend Susan, her fifteen-year-old son and her husband.
So, we are left with questions…. What, if anything, is the meaning of these stunning events? Is it all just random coincidence? Or is it more than that?
A young boy experiences dramatic, sudden and multiple tragic losses. He grows into a young man and is met with more devastation. In spite of it all, he makes it down the crooked road through life and ends up in a very “good place.”
Forty plus years and hundreds of miles later, he “randomly” meets a woman who had her own childhood experience of the untimely death of the same girl, her young friend. Did “random circumstances” bring these two people together? Why? Is there even an answer?
The gifts for me have been twofold. The first is the knowledge that, for Susan, the memory of Nancy’s death saved the lives of herself and her family. The other gift has been the process of getting to know Nancy better through the memories of her young friend Susan.
A Reunion of Sorts with my Sister Nancy
After our encounter in Galveston, we did see Susan and Skip socially once in a while. We enjoyed each other’s company, but the subject of Nancy never came up again. It was like a kind of unspoken bond that was fundamental but needed a rest. A few years passed. For me, there was some unfinished business.
I really wanted to write this story down, and I really needed to have that conversation with Susan about her recollections and memories of Nancy. Recently, I reached out to her, and she graciously agreed to meet for lunch and share what she could remember. As we began that luncheon conversation, Susan told me that she didn’t remember a whole lot. She is now sixty-four, and I must say, a vital and enthusiastic 64!
That means that Nancy would also have been 64. I was 71 at that time, so this sets some parameters that I was uncertain of before.
Nancy was seven years younger than me. I graduated from Aurora Central in 1956. Susan was in the Class of 1964. Nancy would have graduated eight years after I did. This was more meaningful information to fill in some blanks. Then, Susan shared some memories of her life as a young teenage girl, growing up with her friend Nancy.
The first thing she informed me of was the “huge” family resemblance between Nancy and myself. I loved that! She remembered Nancy as perpetually smiling, wearing glasses, with jet-black hair and striking lightly colored eyes. Just like me!
According to Susan, Nancy had great, positive energy, and people were naturally attracted to her. They met in junior high, in around 7th or 8th grade. Susan, owning her own teenaged girl insecurities, saw Nancy as a real grown up.
“She wore sophisticated clothes, including lots of black,” Susan recalled, which struck her as far more fashionable than the other girls. Susan saw Nancy as more of a “leader person,” being much more mature and bolder than Susan’s siblings.
Nancy started a “girls club,” which might be called a clique today. The only club membership requirement was that on a certain day of the week, all the “members” would wear tight black skirts and pink sweaters. Susan feared that her dad, a man tight with the dollar, wouldn’t get her the skirt and sweater. But her dad went for it, and she was glad to be a part of Nancy’s club.
The night we met for the first time in Galveston, Susan had mentioned how clearly she remembered the house that Nancy and my Mom lived in- the same house that I grew up in. In particular, she remembered the basement. It was a perfect place for parties. They had lots of “boy-girl” parties. Nothing bad happened there. The main reason that most of the parties were hosted there was that my mom didn’t “interfere” like other parents would.
It was in the area of boys and girls that Susan and Nancy had a falling out. In Susan’s words, “my infantile relationship with Nancy ended because of a lack of trust….as much as I was enamored with her, I think our friendship ended due to what I felt was a break in trust. I think she went after my boyfriend.”
Susan recalled one last story about the darker side of Nancy’s boldness and leadership. Unknown to any of the parents, they would take the bus to downtown Denver, which at that time was a very “gutsy” move for a couple of young teenage girls. On one of the return trips home, Nancy displayed a new bracelet which she had “mysteriously” acquired.
Then, Nancy took Susan back downtown to show her how she had acquired (shoplifted) the bracelet. Nancy then dared Susan to do the same. Susan could never muster up the guts to lift a bracelet but did eventually meet the “challenge” by taking a pair of sunglasses. She could never bring herself to wear it, and eventually gave it away. Hopefully, that was the end of the shoplifting, but we will never know.
The only other memory Susan could think of was of the funeral. She was surprised to be invited to be an honorary pallbearer, since she and Nancy had fallen out. She has a clear memory of me in that black suit handing roses to the girls. She remembers it was a huge funeral for a mother and daughter.
She remembers a gray, gloomy day and describes it as an “out of body” experience. For me, it was an “out of mind” experience. The only image I have is one of the funeral procession that seemed to go on forever.
Strength and a Sense of Empowerment
Well, that is the story. I thought it deserved to be told. It might even be interesting to someone other than me. My sweet wife, Suzi, has assured me that, mostly, I needed to record it for me.
As I have gone through my adult life and observed other people’s stories about their adult parents and siblings, I knew that I would have none of those stories to tell. As a man, I would never know what it might be like to experience a father or a mother or a sister. But God is good, and His Grace has carried me through.
I have experienced great and deep healing over the tragic events of my childhood. My wounds have been transformed to gratitude and peace. My “reunion” with Nancy, thanks to Susan’s generosity and heart, has given me a slightly deeper sense of who my sister was and who she might have become.
At 84 years of age, I feel blessed to “know” her better than ever before. Of course, there is no way to predict the uncertainties of life, but what I believe is that had Nancy and I lived to adulthood together, we would have become great and close friends. I do know, thanks to the memories of young Susan, that we had much in common. And, we would only have had each other!
But it was not God’s will for things to go that way. Instead, He had a different and greater plan for all of us. I am convinced that a part of His kind plan was to bring Susan into my path. And Susan has received her own gifts as well.
After our lunch meeting, she said, “It was really fun for me today to remember that time in my life. It was a big stretch for me to take the bus downtown with Nancy, for example, but it gave me courage to do other things later on in high school. I would never have stopped to put a magnifying glass on this small space in my life. However, because of Nancy, I have. I’m seeing where the interaction with Nancy gave me strength and a sense of empowerment.”
As for me, the journey continues. I have denied, ignored, confronted, raged, grieved and celebrated the remnants of my past. The present for me is blessed. The future looks bright. My faith has never been stronger. The story is still being written.
When it is complete, I pray that those little slivers and big chunks of memory that were created out of my relationships and interactions with my family, friends and anyone else whose path I have crossed will, with God’s Grace, be beautiful to them and pleasing to Him.