My father died when I was little, and my mother remarried Ronnie Campbell. Ronnie was born on March 17, 1954, St. Patrick’s Day, and he died on June 7, 2009. He was 55. Unlike my father’s death from cancer, Ronnie’s death was an accident and completely unexpected.
Mom had known Ronnie since elementary school. He had been one of her best friends. I remember their wedding. My stepsister and I got to be flower girls, which was a great excuse to be princesses for the evening in our white dresses and ballet slippers. After that, my mom and I moved into Ronnie’s house to live with him. What I remember most about that house is the green carpet in the bedroom I used. I was only four, so it’s funny what things stick out in my mind.
Growing up with Ronnie was fun. He always treated me like I was his own daughter, patching me up when I scraped my knees and taking care of me when I was sick. He called me “Brandi Boo” and liked to joke around. (I based the character of Mark in Caroline’s Lighthouse after Ronnie.) I was a pain in the butt when he first married my mother. I told my grandmother that he had hit me, which started some family drama. (Sorry, Mom!) Ronnie had spatted me on the butt as a correction for riding my bicycle out in the street. I totally deserved the spanking and never made that mistake again.
Soon, we moved into a mobile home on ten acres of land so we could build a house. Ronnie and my mom built it. He did a lot of the wiring for the house and sub-contracted some parts. Mom handled the wallpaper borders and the flooring in the kitchen and baths. We had a circle driveway and lots of trails to ride our bikes on during the summer and two ponds to fish in. We were hardly ever inside. There was a basketball goal in the driveway and a large swimming pool off the back deck that Ronnie built himself and used a store-bought liner. I never knew until years later that money was tight, but Ronnie had wanted to give us the best childhoods possible. He succeeded.
During the summers, we went to Magic Springs and to the lake to camp, boat and ride tubes. We also went on several family vacations. One trip was to Memphis to see Graceland. Another was through Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, which was the first time I got to see a lighthouse and see the ocean. The last one was a trip on Route 66 before we ventured off to our final destination of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
Ronnie helped me buy my first vehicle, a solid metal Chevy S1o navy pick-up truck with pink pinstripes. He taught me how to drive because he was more patient than my mother with those sorts of things. Later, he helped me move out when it was time to leave for college. He also helped me move furniture into my first apartment.
When my heart was broken, Ronnie gave me the best advice: Stop looking, and someone would find me. He was right. I only took two guys home to officially meet my parents. The first, Friend, the one I thought I was going to marry, was not enough to impress Ronnie. He told me that he didn’t think Friend was the right guy for me. Later, when I took Jonathan to meet him, Ronnie took him on a tour of the property, complete with a show-and-tell of the old abandoned well at the end of the acreage. He told Jonathan that someone could fall into that well and no one would ever find them. Jonathan didn’t realize until years later that Ronnie had subtly threatened his life that day. According to my mother, Ronnie told her after the visit that he was certain Jonathan was the man I was going to marry and less than a year later I did just that. Ronnie was always a good judge of character. He could read a person and knew instantly if they were a bully. He hated when people were bullies and made a point to stand up for people who were mistreated.
When Ronnie walked me down the aisle at my wedding, the photographer captured several sweet moments that day, like the look Ronnie gave me as he gave me away, and when Ronnie was smiling at me as I gave him his instructions before the ceremony. While Ronnie and I were waiting to walk down the aisle, I thanked him and told him that he’d been a good dad to me. Later, my mother told me that he had teared up when he told her how much me saying that had meant to him.
He had been a good dad. I never called him “Dad.” He was fine with it. According to him, I’d already had a dad, a great one that he could never replace but would do his best to fill the hole left in my life after my dad’s death. Ronnie had known my dad, so he told me lots of stories about him while I was growing up and always made sure I was able to visit with my dad’s family. He comforted me during the deaths of my grandparents.
When Drew was born, Ronnie loved on him and talked to him, telling him all the things the two of them would do together when Drew got older: fishing, hunting, swimming. He was happy to have a grandson, and I was thrilled that Drew would have two wonderful grandfathers in his life and one in heaven watching over him. But Drew would soon have two grandfathers in heaven. The last communication I had with Ronnie a few days before he died, I had emailed a photo of Drew in his baby pool. Ronnie wrote back that he was anxious to see him, which would have been in a week and a half when I would be visiting for my high school reunion. I saved that email.
The morning of Ronnie’s last day with us, I was at my home in Pottsville. It was a Sunday, so my husband and I went to church with our son, Drew, who was being a pain that day. In his defense, he was only 15 months old, so it wasn’t unusual behavior. Jonathan and I had a minor argument. I don’t remember about what, but it was probably stress from Drew’s behavior. The reason I remember that is because I’d posted something on Facebook about having had a rough morning during which I had yelled at my husband and child. If only I had known that the bad feeling I had that morning was something more than just a bad mood.
Later that afternoon, I made a drive by myself to meet my mother in Little Rock for a baby shower for my stepbrother and wife’s son. My stepsister and younger sister were not at the shower; they were with Ronnie at Remmel Dam kayaking that day. During the shower, my stepbrother and mom received phone calls that there had been an accident at the dam. Ronnie’s kayak had flipped over, and they couldn’t find him.
My mom was freaked out and left the shower. I followed her even though she told me not to. She was low on gas, so I stopped with her at a gas station and then drove behind her on the interstate. We didn’t speed, but we drove fast. I had run off without my phone charger, and the GPS on the way to the shower had just about zapped my battery. I recall having about 10% battery. I quickly called my husband and gave him a very cryptic message. I told him to get Drew to his parents’ house, grab my medication, get me some clothes and start the trip to Benton. I knew that I wouldn’t be coming home for a while. I told him not to call me, but to wait for me to call him because of my battery.
I prayed during the drive for Ronnie and for us to get there safely. I cried and listened to music. When “Pain” by Three Days Grace came on, I turned it up and sang along loudly while I cried. (I think of that drive every time I hear that song now.) I knew that Ronnie was dead at that point, but hoped like hell I was wrong. My mom pulled off the interstate at JJ’s Truck Stop, which is at the interstate exit closest to Glen Rose, where I grew up. There, I left my car and got into hers, and we went on to Remmel Dam.
Everything was crazy, my phone was almost dead. There were people everywhere. Divers, police, friends, family, bystanders. I felt like I was in the middle of a made-for-TV movie. I talked to one of the divers. I asked him what was being done to find my dad. He told me they were doing everything they could. I said that Ronnie was a strong swimmer. The diver gave me a smile that wasn’t a smile—the kind you give someone when you pity them, but your eyes aren’t smiling at all.
I called a few of my mom’s friends from my mom’s phone. I talked to my sister and stepbrother. I found out my stepsister had almost drowned trying to find Ronnie and had been taken to the hospital. At that point, I got a ride back to my car with one of my parents’ friends. I then drove to my parents’ house and grabbed my little sister’s phone charger and quickly left to get to the hospital to be with my stepsister. I stayed with her for about an hour until she was discharged, during which I charged my phone. I got ahold of Jonathan and told him to come to the hospital. When he got there, I met him in the parking lot and cried for a bit, and then we went back to the dam.
As we arrived at the dam, we received word that Ronnie had been found. It was getting dark, and they had to bring in a boat to retrieve his body. I remember crying with my mom and sisters and my aunt on the tailgate of somebody’s truck. There comes the point in crying when you think you cannot physically cry anymore—but then you do anyway. That’s the point I was at during those few minutes.
People started to leave so they could go tell Ronnie’s mother about his death. Up until then, the family had made sure she didn’t know anything was wrong. A chaplain showed up and spoke to me, asking what he could do to help. I pointed him in the direction of my aunt and uncle’s van and said, “Follow them, they are going to tell his mother, and you’ll be needed there.” The chaplain thanked me and then left. A bystander with the look of sympathy on her face asked me if I knew the victim. I said, “He was my dad.” and walked to Jonathan’s vehicle. Something I remember about walking that evening was that I couldn’t feel my feet touch the ground.
I know that Jonathan drove me to my mom’s house that night. Thinking back, I have no idea who drove my mom home in her car. I left my car at the hospital because I really wasn’t thinking about it. I made some phone calls during the drive to friends and then to a lady at work to ask her to call my boss and tell her I would be out for the next week. I also called the pastor from our church who prayed with me over the phone.
The rest of the evening was a nightmare, as were the next few days. I don’t think I ate at all that night. My husband made me drink something, and I cried myself to sleep. The next couple of days were filled with details that must be dealt with during tragedies. I made phone calls, cursed at a few telemarketers who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and went with my family to make funeral arrangements.
Late Monday evening, we went to the funeral home so our family could see Ronnie before the official viewing started. We had him dressed in hunting camo because it was more “him” than a suit. It was only the third time I had seen a dead person in that way. I sat with my mother beside Ronnie’s casket and held her while she sobbed. To this day, that is the still the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done, trumping giving birth twice. I wanted to take away her pain, but I didn’t have room for more because my own was brutal as well.
The next day was my 28th birthday. My aunt bought a cake for me, but my birthday was the last thing on my mind at that point. I didn’t feel like celebrating. (My birthday is still a reminder of Ronnie’s death.) Jonathan and I went shopping that day for clothes to wear to the funeral. I also needed other things because in his rush to get out of the house, he had grabbed winter clothes for me. Up until that point, I had borrowed my sister’s clothes to get me by.
We had the visitation the evening of June 10, a Wednesday. It was standing room only in the large chapel. It was obvious to me that Ronnie had been loved by many. I saw several friends and teachers from high school and family from my dad’s side, who had always embraced Ronnie as part of their family too. The pastor from my church made the trip as well. I never went inside the sanctuary that evening because I stayed outside and greeted people as they filtered through. I didn’t sit down once the entire evening and couldn’t begin to guess how many people I hugged or shook hands with. When it was all over, Jonathan and I were the last to leave. I asked him to give me a moment. I left my husband and walked the long distance to the front of the sanctuary where the open casket still lay. I stood for a moment, staring at the body of the man who had raised me, and my heart physically ached while I looked at him. I thought about all the ways he had loved me, even though he wasn’t related to me by blood. He was my dad, and I had been one of the luckiest people in the world to have had two in my lifetime. And I was so angry. Pissed at God, and at everyone, I think. I didn’t want Ronnie’s story to be over. I bent down and kissed him on the forehead, told him goodbye, and then turned around and made the long walk back to my husband.
We laid Ronnie to rest on a Thursday morning, a lovely sunny day. There were tons of people at the graveside service, including my in-laws, who had brought Drew to us. I had never been away from my son for so long before. Drew being there was a comfort to my mother as well. He was decked out in camo just like the pallbearers.
The rest of the week passed by in a blur, and then I went to my ten-year high school reunion on Saturday. It was the first day I felt normal again for a few hours. After that, there were days when I forgot for just a moment. Days when I would pick up the phone to call Ronnie and ask a car or house question, but then I would remember that I couldn’t call him anymore. The holidays were difficult. All of them, Father’s Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Wedding Anniversary, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day—his birthday, Easter and then the anniversary of his death rolled around.
Time has made it easier, but grief isn’t always linear. There were several times during the past few years when the grief resurfaced without warning and made me feel like the tragedy had just happened. I am just now to the point where I can remember Ronnie fondly without feeling the entire brunt of the grief, for it now manifests as only a dull ache and a stray tear or two.
The most recent stray tears occurred when my husband was playing with Meredith. He was teasing her and used the phrase, “When I was a little girl” to start a story. I got chills and tears formed in my eyes because it was something Ronnie had said to my sisters and me all the time preceding one of his silly stories when we were kids. I had never told Jonathan or anyone else about that.
I still think of Ronnie often, and it makes me smile. I dream of what might have been. How my children would have loved him as much as I did. How he would have done science experiments with Drew and taken him fishing. How he would have played tea party with Meredith and willingly worn a tiara if she’d asked. I am so sad that my kids won’t know Ronnie like I did.
The sunsets behind my childhood home during the fall were always what I envisioned heaven to look like. Fall has always been my favorite season. The crunchy leaves on the ground and the smell of leaves burning remind me of Thanksgiving breaks when I was in high school. Ronnie would always walk around our yard dropping lit matches, and us kids would scramble to rake the leaves away from the house into piles. We never had to call the fire department, but a couple of times we had to call on Ronnie’s friends to help us fire-fight when things got out of hand. Those memories shaped me. I am so thankful to have had him in my life. Now, whenever I light a smaller fire in my yard, using dryer lint as a starter, Jonathan always asks me if I am channeling Ronnie. Of course, I say, every single chance I get.
-Brandi Easterling Collins