Frank and I belong to an exclusive group. It’s one into which we have no desire to induct new members, and it’s one into which no one wants to be inducted. We have no formal meetings encouraging all members to be present. Occasionally, we seek each other out, especially looking for those who have recently found themselves members. No one pays dues once he or she is a part of the group—all of us have paid lifetime dues before becoming members. Those dues are an absolute necessity before joining the group, and they are dues that we pay kicking and screaming. You see, we are all members of the Parents Whose Children Have Died Society.
On May 29, 2009, Betty and Ward (Wop) Powell became members of our group. None of us are happy that they have joined, but we all welcome them in the sense that we love them and know that they need the steadfast support of those of us who truly understand how they feel right now. Their wounds are raw and green, and they need our assurance that they will survive. And survive, they will. If they will accept the love of their friends and if they will allow God to wrap His strong arms around them during this tender hour, they will get through this unhappiest of times. Please note that I didn’t say that they’d ever get over the death of their son. They’ll get through the active grief period and on to—not life as it was with Gary—but a different life . . . one without Gary but one with each other and their sweet daughter Debbie, who loved her brother with a love that only sisters and brothers share.
By the time that I met Gary Powell, he had been a quadriplegic for several years. His paralysis was the result of a tragic, fluky accident when he was fifteen-year-old sophomore, just two weeks away from his sixteenth birthday. Gary was a runner on the Pine Forest High School track team; and one Saturday morning in 1983, while he was waiting for a race to begin, a policeman suddenly lost control of his motorcycle, the vehicle hitting Gary, bruising his spinal cord and causing the injury that would change his life forever.
My introduction to Gary was during the heyday of Velvet Melon, our son Jay’s band. I knew that he and Jay had been friends in high school; however, I was unaware of the strong bond that had developed between these two young men. One Sunday afternoon, Jay informed me that Gary and his mother, Betty, would be at the gig that night at Coconut Bay, a local bar. I immediately began to worry about how Gary would get through the crowd, where he would sit, how the “kids” would treat him—all those mama worry things. I should have known that there was no need for concern.
Jay knew exactly when Betty was scheduled to arrive with Gary, about half way through the first set. Just before Gary’s arrival, Jay stopped the music to make an announcement. “OK, everybody, here’s what’s gonna happen. In just a few minutes, Betty Powell will be coming through the door with Gary, so you need to spread out to make a path for him. Hey . . . those of you right next to Jimmy and the sound board, make a place for him. Thanks!” And so it was every time Betty and Gary showed up for a gig. Jay took care of his friend. The bond was still there, stronger than ever. As soon as the set was over, Jay would head for Gary to visit for a few minutes before he began to “work the crowd,” as he called making the rounds from friend to friend.
Through the years, Frank and I came to love Gary and Betty and were always so happy to see them coming into Coconut Bay. We also felt great respect for this mother and son, neither of whom ever complained about their lot in life. Instead, both of them always had smiles on their faces and upbeat attitudes—such beautiful examples to all of us.
When Jay died in July 1992, Gary and Betty came to our house. I wish I could remember exactly when they came, but I can’t. From almost seventeen years’ distance, it’s difficult to remember exact times of visits. In my heart, I think it was a few days after the funeral. We were so happy to see them. We needed them. In the South, almost everyone who visits the bereaved comes bearing food. In my memory, I see them coming in with a ham, something that could help feed the hoards of young people who made themselves at home in our home for days. They stayed for a long time, reminiscing about Jay and making us know just how much both of them loved our boy. They made our hearts happy at a time when happiness was elusive.
Just before Christmas that year, Angela Hinkley and our daughter, Wendy, presented Frank and me with what has come to be called The Jay Book, a collection of stories about Jay, written by friends. Angela had gotten in touch with many of Jay’s friends and relatives and had asked them write remembrances of Jay. Gary was one of those friends. His recollections about Jay show the personalities of two good friends:
"Back at the time of my accident, all my friends kind of dumped me. My sister’s friends kind of picked me up. Jay was one of those friends. Jay always, no matter where he was or how busy he was, would take the time to sit down and talk with me. Not everybody did that. Even if Jay was runnind late and supposed to be someplace else, he would make time for me. It was enough to know that he cared that much for me.
"One time in high school, Jay was late for band practice. I was in the commons and Jay sat down to talk. We were discussing running before my accident. I was telling Jay that although I could not run any longer, I would often push my wheelchair on the driving range for exercise. I would go fast, then pop the brake to spin around. I told Jay I couldn’t really go very fast, though. Jay got up and told me to get ready because I was going to come as close to flying as I would ever get! Jay took off, driving my chair at top speed through the hallways. We flew so fast that I thought we were going to crash! I was so scared I almost lost my water. My heart was in my britches!
"I really appreciated that no matter how large the crowd around him was, Jay always made time for me. He wanted to get personal with people."
During his short twenty-four-year life, Jay had hundreds of friends. Some of them were just acquaintances to us, and I hate to admit that I have trouble remembering them. Gary wasn’t among those whom I can’t remember. I’ll never forget him and his family—Betty, who was always by his side, who devoted her life to him after his accident; Debbie, who was such a caring, loyal sister and who told me just this evening that she’d happily do all that caring all over again and do it even better; Ward, whom I never met but who I know was right there for Gary along with Betty and Debbie. The Powells are such a special family to Frank, Wendy, and me.
God has promised that when our lives on earth have ended and we Christians join Him in the heavenly home that he has prepared for us that these old bodies that we’ve had here will be perfect . . . free from illness, pain, infirmities. We’ll have new bodies, whole bodies. On May 29, Gary Powell went to be with Jesus. He welcomed Gary with open arms and gave him that new body with strong arms and legs and absolutely no pain. I picture our friend running and leaping and having the time of his life. I also picture my boy greeting him with a huge smile, throwing his arms around him in a big Jay hug, the kind he used to give to me, saying, “Gary! What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for you. You’re gonna love it here!”