In a few weeks, it will be 25 years since I moved away from Bakersfield, California to Western Kentucky.
One of the most difficult things was saying goodbye to Dana’s parents (Dan and Mary). I had become very close with them in the 2 and a half years since Dana had died. But I knew to move forward; I needed to move away. I promised that I would keep in close touch and continue to see them whenever I headed back to visit Bakersfield.
Less than a year later that all changed when Shelly and I became a couple. As I have previously mentioned, Shelly and I had become the best of friends after Dana’s death. Shelly was part of Dana’s circle of high school friends, but I did not know her very well. Shelly got an apartment with one of Dana’s best friends in the months after Dana’s death, then I began to get to know Shelly. Over the next few years, she became a person that I could easily talk to about the despair I was dealing with. She would listen when I felt that nobody else would.
Shelly came to visit me in Kentucky and our relationship surprisingly changed during that visit.
This sent shock-waves to Bakersfield. Her parents reacted as if we were disrespecting Dana’s memory in the worst possible way. Mary even called my Mom to tell her how disgraceful it all was.
This reaction by her parents and by a few of Dana’s friends hurt Shelly and me tremendously. We moved forward and regretfully my relationship with Dan and Mary ended. I hated this, but I felt they were so upset with me that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. They had no idea that Dana would always be such a major part of my being and that I would deal with the anguish of losing her daily. I wish I would have attempted to salvage our relationship back then. But I didn’t, as the pain was too intense, instead I let anger and rage manifest.
Then in 2013, Shelly had her life-changing accident. Her remarkable positive attitude dealing with a situation that almost took her life and forced her to relearn to walk and talk again surprisingly created a big change in myself too. I was finding peace in so many areas of my life as I was washing the years of rage away.
I decided to write to Dan and Mary. It was twenty years since we had last spoken. I gave a little detail on the past twenty years and told them that I missed them. Mary wrote back that they were really happy to hear from me. We continued to occasionally write over the next two years.
November 13, 2015, was the 25th anniversary of Dana’s death. I was taking this particular milestone exceptionally hard. I decided I would call Dan and Mary on the 13th. To dial Dana’s phone number again was surreal. Mary answered and was so excited to hear from me. She even asked about Shelly’s brain injury and our two boys, Dylan and Taylor. I also talked for a long time to Dan. I seemed to struggle more than them to keep my emotions in check, but it was all so good. From that point, we continued to talk regularly.
Late last summer my uncle passed away in Hanford, California, which is an hour and a half past my hometown of Bakersfield. I was asked by my cousins to be a pallbearer. My parents could not make the trip due to my Dad’s frail health. So I decided to make a quick turn-around driving trip by myself. I left my home in Arizona at 5 AM, needing to be in Hanford for the rosary at 5 PM.
The night prior I called Mary and asked her if they would be home that next day around noon. She was excited and said they would make sure that they were home. This had all happened so quickly that I did not really have time to be nervous. But it felt good to realize that I was about to see them after all this time.
Upon arriving in Bakersfield I first drove to the house that I had bought just four days prior to Dana’s death. Our last weekend together had primarily focused on the excitement of doing fun stuff for what was to be our first house. I never moved in and sold it a few months after her death. As I drove up to the cute 1950’s California ranch house, the emotion of our shattered future hit me hard.
The tears flowed down my face.
I then made the quick half mile drive to Dana’s house. Her parents still lived in the same house. I pulled up and parked at the spot that I had parked to see Dana so many times before. It quickly hit me that it was the first time I parked there in over 24 years. It sure did not feel like it had been so long. I sat for a minute or two as I attempted to regain some sort of composure.
I rang the doorbell and Dan and Mary both quickly answered. We hugged and I cried. They looked great. Mary was now 74 years old and Dan was 79. It was crazy to think that the last time I had seen them they were around my current age. They gave me a tour of the bottom floor of the house. I think I expected to be stepping back into 1990. But I was not, they had done a lot of upgrades and remodelling over the years. But pictures of Dana and I were still throughout the house.
We then sat in the family room and talked for 45 minutes or so. We talked so much about Dana. It felt really good to be reminiscing about the memories that were so clear and vivid for me, but I rarely had the opportunity to discuss.
I finally said, “I need to go upstairs”.
As I entered Dana’s bedroom, now it was as if I was stepping back into 1990. As it did then, her room still centred around me. The realization of this engulfed me with emotion. Pictures of us, many in the frames I had bought her. My 8×10 college graduation picture. So many of the gifts I had given her. Wow, such overwhelming pain and joy simultaneously took over me as I absorbed it all. I then went through all of the drawers, cabinets as well as her closet. So many items, keepsakes and little mementoes. There were many reminders of things I had not thought of in so long. As well as other reminders of things that had been at the forefront of my mind for all of this time.
Her clothes were all gone, as they had fallen apart many years ago, but much of her room was still intact.
I had gathered my composure pretty well until I saw something on her bulletin board. It was a half-folded piece of paper with a drawing of the cartoon puppy that she would so often doodle when she was bored. But it also had her signature. Then underneath that was another signature, this time of her full name. Then lastly she had written Dana Millsap. I had forgotten how she often would practice signing the name that she was so anxious to have one day. A day that never came. I felt such a powerful surge of sadness upon seeing this.
I wanted to stay and spend much more time with Dan and Mary, but I needed to get back on the road. For me, these two hours were more meaningful than I could have ever possibly imagined them to be.
For Dana’s parents, I believe it finally gave them the understanding of how much I love their daughter.
An understanding of how she is never forgotten.
As well as an understanding that I never moved on, I simply moved forward.
It means so much to me that they finally are aware of this.