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A Seminal Tragedy

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Despite the severity of my wreck, Amy’s death remains the seminal event in my life. Until my younger sister Amy fell ill in 1994, we lived an American idyll. My two sisters and I played with puppies and ponies, raised fresh vegetables and fresh eggs; swam in a pond every summer and skated there every winter. We participated in school and church events, drove to town for movies, shopped at the newest concept in retail shopping--a mall, and saw occasional, traveling theatre productions. Our neighbors remarked that we kept the road to Owensboro hot. When a blizzard closed school for six weeks in the late 1970’s, we sledded down hills and skated on ponds and split wood for fires and imagined we were like the Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie ( a popular television series based on the children book series Little House in the Big Woods).

There was a large age gap between Sharon, the first-born, and me, the middle child, and Amy, the baby. Sharon was 11 and I was 8 when Amy was born. Once Mom and Dad brought Amy home, Sharon and I doted on her, deliberately waking Amy so that we could play with her. When she could walk, Sharon and I took Amy with us wherever we went: mall, movies, ballgames, plays. Of course, older and wiser, we bossed Amy all the time,

“Wear this. Sit here. Go this way.” Our pediatrician once commented to Mom that Amy had three Mothers to mind. After Sharon married and I left for college, Mom, Dad and Amy moved to the deep south. Mine and Sharon's misdirected efforts to conquer the distance determined by our birth ages with Amy were tempered by the geographical distance. Amy was able to grow up into an individual with her own talents and interests. Soon enough the distance between the three of us would be insurmountable.

Aged 24, a talented artist, Amy succumbed to leukemia in spring 1995. How do good families deal with calamity? Must I accept Amy's death as Gods will? Must I justify her illness as a price to be paid? Must I forgive God for this cruelty? Simplistic answers from clergy never diminished my grief or my anger. I never believed God caused Amy's leukemia but worse, I believed God cared not at all for Amy or for us, but remained impersonal and indifferent. If religion taught me to give God all the credit for good, shouldn't religion hold God responsible for the bad? That was only fair. When I lifted my broken heart to God and asked for Amy's healing, why did God ignore my pleas? Maybe there was no God.

After Amy died and my fury abated, I quit praying for years: I had been told there was a very specific way to pray. I believed that if I had prayed correctly, God would have spared Amy. After all of my years in church, all of my Sunday school lessons, how had I failed to learn the secret prayer code that would guarantee God would grant my desperate pleas for Amy?

One year after Amy's funeral I attended another-- for my unborn, second child who strangled in the umbilical cord. The night before my routine checkup, I remember thinking how still the baby was, imagining him asleep. The next day, my doctor could find no heartbeat. Twenty-four hours after that, labor was induced. I gave birth to a perfect little boy no longer alive. Forty-eight hours after the initial discovery, we buried our baby. Although my husband never wanted to name a child for himself, he gave this child his name, Donald Ray Dortch, Jr. Donnie gave him his name because he said it would be the only thing he would ever be able to give him.

Five years after Donald Ray Jr.'s funeral, my dad, Thomas Alva Deaton, died on August

1, 2001. He suffered a rare, aggressive thyroid cancer (the cancer that killed film critic Roger Ebert). In the years after Amy’s death, Dad had struggled to reconcile her death with his life and faith. Like most parents, he would have gladly died so she could live.

Meanwhile, my life continued with our healthy daughter, Audrey, born in 1994, and a healthy son, Logan, born in 1998; first in a small house, then a larger house; a promotion for Donnie to district manager, then regional manager; career opportunities for me--from performing to teaching. And then one accident changed everything.


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