By Sonia Fernandez LeBlanc
My grandfather and uncle were killed together in a car accident. Every bone of my grandfather’s body was broken. The back of my uncle’s head was severed. It’s one of those stories you hear as a child that never leaves you. Even if you heard it and you didn’t know the people involved, you would still remember it.
So when the phone rang in the dead of that cold December night, 29 years ago, I can still close my eyes now at 40 years of age and return to my 11 year old self. I can sink back into that cozy old four poster antique feather bed with the rocking horse comforter that I adored, and with all my history between that moment and now, I can pinpoint the moment when trouble crept its way into our lovely little family and the unraveling began.
We all know that a phone call in the middle of the night is either a wrong number or something terrible. When it woke me, I waited and listened to hear if my parents would go back to sleep. But their light came on down the hall and didn’t turn back off. Then came murmuring and movement from their room. When it was clear that they were very much awake, I left the warm comfort of that bed and crept down the hall to discover my father packing a suitcase. I crawled into their bed and between calls to more family and booking travel plans for my father, I learned that my grandfather, my Papa Rufino, and my Uncle Anibal, my father’s older brother and only sibling, were dead. And when my grandmother, my dear Mama Lina, was told, she had a heart attack and a mild stroke at the news. So my father was leaving for the Dominican Republic, his birthplace and family home, on the first early flight to deal with the tragedy that had befallen the members of his immediate family.
Before this moment, my life was a beautiful steady flowing stream. Loving parents, a very connected and involved extended family, the cutest 2 year old baby sister, a good school, lots of friends, and my most beloved ice skating, where I spent most of my waking time outside of school. This was thanks to my parents who made tremendous sacrifices to ensure I could skate before school and after, which if I never had to leave the rink would have been even better but this was a close second. We had a good thing going! And it all ended with that ringing phone. It all ended with a flat-bed truck parked along the downslope of a hill on a deserted two lane winding road between the capital city of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and my family’s 6,000 acre cattle ranch about an hour’s drive into el campo.
It’s very rare that my Papa Rufino ever left his beloved ranch, while my Mama Lina was always eager to spend time in the capital whenever she could. She loved to be around her friends and family as much as her husband loved to be around his cows. The evening of the accident, all the family and friends of my uncle and grandparents had converged in Santo Domingo to celebrate a festive occasion; the second wedding of Uncle Anibal. There was a big party to kick off the wedding festivities and I have no doubt that my uncle, who was the life of every party, had no intentions of traveling that evening. But his father was stubborn and after the party ended wanted to return to the ranch. So my uncle obliged and they hopped in Anibal’s small truck and set off on a trip they had been making for 40 plus years. Just ahead of them by 30 minutes or so, another truck driver made his way along that dark, bumpy, winding road and made a choice to park his flat-bed truck along the side of that road, Carretera Sanchez, and go visit someone in a little village off the beaten path. But he didn’t actually get off the road entirely and the bed of his truck jutted out a bit into the lane. To top it off, he had parked on the down slope of a hill. So when my uncle and grandfather crested that hill in the pitch black that is el campo in the dead of night, they never even saw their fate. It’s estimated that they were going 60mph or more when they struck. The truck smashed up under the back of the flat bed and lodged there. We don’t know how long before the driver returned but by this time he was drunk enough that he didn’t even notice that he was dragging my grandfather and uncle for at least 10 miles to the nearest town of San Cristobal. As he entered the town someone stopped him, as they recognized the truck and who it belonged to, as my family was very well known and respected in the region.
When my father received the call, it was not only to relay the devastating news of death and his mother falling ill from shock, but there was an added urgency to 1. come bury his father and brother that day (the island heat and the fact that embalming is not practiced on the island means burials happen fast there) 2. determine steps for his mother’s care, and 3. take over the day to day operations of a working dairy ranch in a country he had not lived in since he was a child of age 11, when he was sent to boarding school in the states. That meant my mama was left to handle shutting down our life here; my father’s small business, our home, ice skating… The life they had built here in Nashville was forfeited for loyalty to one’s family in crisis.
We moved to the Dominican Republic a few months later and it was one of the best parts of my life; to live abroad at such a pivotal age; go to an international school with kids from across the globe; spend my weekends and summers at our wonderful ranch; and develop deep lasting friendships with my father’s family, especially my Mama Lina, who I remained very close with into my adulthood as she lived to be 92. Although I had all these wonderful experiences that shaped who I am today, it took a toll on my father. When he left early that cold dreadful morning headed to the airport to bury his father and brother, nurse his mother back to perfect health, and attempt to run and then sell the land that sustained his family for over 50 years, I never saw him whole again. An inward madness, that had been lurking in his genes and building up from his previous hardships of life, broke free inside my father. This latest burden that befell him and his family was his undoing. Not even his lovely family, my wonderful mama, baby sister or me, not even me… could save him from the darkness.
After the ranch was sold four long years later, he was free to return to the states and pick back up where we left off. But he disappeared and we never really saw him again. He abandoned me, my sister and my mother and he never spoke to or saw his own mother again. With this final blow, she lost everyone in her immediate family that she loved dearly too. Her three granddaughters, me, my sister, and my older cousin, Sarita, the daughter of uncle Anibal, were all that remained of the family she and Papa Rufino created.
The slow disintegration of our family from the moment that fateful phone call pulled me from my dreams to when my father chose to walk away from us is the biggest reason why I am never taken by surprise by anything in life. I always expect trouble, the worst scenario at all times. Because I have lived the worst scenario and made it out on the other side better for the journey. So if I expect the worst all the while believing that I can handle getting through it no matter the outcome, then if things go well, I can be pleasantly surprised and never have any disappointment for expectations not met. This has served me well and will continue to for as long as trouble lies in wait, which it tends to do in the dead of night when you least expect it.