A MOM'S MISERY - Air Force civilian loses daughter to drunk driver

  • Published
  • By Jeannine Roberts as told to Tim Barela
  • 82nd Communications Squadron
I recognized her long, dark, curly hair immediately. She lay under a white sheet, simply appearing to rest peacefully. She didn't seem to have a scratch. Hopeful, I started bargaining with God: "Please, Lord, just let her open her eyes, and I will do anything."

Not a movement. Not a sound. Nothing.
I wanted to touch her, but I was afraid. When I finally gathered up the courage to grasp her hand, it was icy cold. A wretched emptiness filled me. I knew my baby was gone.

The violent crash that broke her rib, which then punctured her heart, had broken my heart as well. And why? ... It was all so senseless.

When I read the e-mails about Airmen getting caught driving drunk, all the old feelings knotted up my stomach like a volcano about to erupt. Each transgression caused me to relive my private torture. I felt anger, sadness, frustration and a sense of helplessness. I wanted to scream, "Wake up! ... You just don't know the pain you can cause."

What could I do to get through to these Airmen or anybody who chooses to drink alcohol and then get behind the wheel of a vehicle? What could I do to make a difference?

Deep down, I knew the answer. I just wasn't sure if I was strong enough to do it.

But I had to tell her story. ... I owed that much to Holly.

Holly V. McBride is my daughter. She was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on Dec. 22, 1977, one of the best days of my life. She grew up a happy girl, with a goofy grin seemingly permanently affixed to her beautiful face. No matter what kind of day you were having, when you saw her smile, it cheered you up like some sort of magic spell. She had that effect on nearly everyone around her.

She simply loved life and lived it to the fullest. She was a drum major in band, played basketball and softball, and she loved dancing, singing, sewing, cooking, fishing, camping, four-wheeling and canoeing. But most of all she loved children. Even in high school, she worked with a children's mentoring program.

As an adult living in Naples, Fla., she knew she wanted to continue working with kids. So she worked for an orthodontist, training to be a dental hygienist. What a perfect profession for someone who was known for lighting up a room with her smile; now she would be able to help kids get a brighter, more confident smile of their own.

When she had her son Dakota Dec. 28, 1996, her love for children only grew. She cherished her baby boy.

Since they had birthdays only six days apart, Holly and Dakota had just celebrated her 20th birthday and his first in December 1997. And things were only getting better. By Jan. 31, 1998, Steve Carrington, Holly's longtime boyfriend and Dakota's father, had proposed to Holly, and they were going to get together to discuss wedding plans that night. The day before, I had come down with a bad case of the flu. Dakota was staying at my house. However, since I was sick, Holly decided to take him to his other grandparent's house in Alva, Fla., so she and Steve could make their plans for a long life together.

She never made it.

A half mile from her soon-to-be in-law's house, Holly, with Dakota in his car seat, drove along Bateman Road, a dark, two-lane street. A van, weaving in and out of traffic, approached. Holly never had a chance.

My husband John and I sat on the couch watching TV that fateful evening when the phone rang a little after 9 p.m. John answered it. With a puzzled look on his face, he handed the phone to me and said he didn't know who it was.

As I said "Hello," I recognized Steve's voice, but something was wrong. His voice cracked as he tried to find the courage to tell me that Holly had been in an accident.

"Jeannine, I am so sorry,"
he said. "They say she's not going to make it!"

"What?" I screamed, with my heart pounding and a lump in my throat. "No!"

Crying now, Steve told me to hurry and get to the hospital. I threw down the phone and yelled for John and Cajun, Holly's younger brother. We rushed to the truck and began our frantic race against time.

The hospital was in Fort Myers, Fla., about 30 miles away. While speeding down the interstate, fear set in that we weren't going to make it in time. With my husband clutching my arm, I began crying and screaming, "Oh my God, please don't let her die! Please drive faster!"

John had already hit speeds of 90 mph, but that wasn't fast enough for me. I wanted him to drive 150. I can still feel the truck laboring under the speed, John pushing its limits trying to get to Holly. And all the while, I'm rocking back and forth, trying to urge the truck to go even faster.

I start wishing I had driven. When Steve called a second time, and pleaded, "Jeannine, where are you? Please hurry!" I told John to pull over and let me drive. He knew I wasn't thinking clearly. He just kept driving.

Do you know what it's like to race against time desperately trying to get somewhere fast before someone you love dies?

When Steve called a third time, his words sent a chill over me like I had never felt before.

"Jeannine, she's dead!"

I remember screaming and beating the dash of the truck with my fist. John's hand was on my shoulder trying unsuccessfully to calm me down. I screamed for John to hurry. That moment was the worst feeling in my life. I felt helpless and angry at the same time. I just couldn't get there fast enough to say goodbye and I love you one last time.

When we arrived at the hospital, I saw some of Steve's family in the reception area. I asked about Dakota. They told me that he was being X-rayed for any injuries but would survive.

As I was being led to the room where Holly was, I asked the sheriff what happened. He told me that Holly was hit head on by a drunk driver, an 18-year-old boy named Joel. I asked if he was OK or if he was fighting for his life. He said he was a little banged up, but he'd make it.

What was I suppose to feel? Part of me wanted Joel to live, and part of me felt rage and hoped that he, too, would die.

Before entering the room where Holly was, horror overtook me, and I began shaking and feeling cold.

When we entered the room she was lying there on a table, flat on her back, a white sheet draped softly across her and her beautiful brown eyes closed ... forever. I wanted her to look at me just one more time and again say the words she said just earlier that day, "Mama, you know I love you!"

I am still waiting to hear those words from her.

I stood over her body and prayed for a miracle. I thought if I stood there long enough that she would wake up. As I stroked her hair, I softly kept repeating, "Holly, please wake up. It's Mama, Holly. I love you."

When I touched her hand, she felt as if she'd been in a freezer. I began to realize that life had left her body. I didn't want to leave her side because I knew it meant admitting she was gone. I kissed her cold lips and said, "Holly, I don't want you to go. I love you, baby girl."

John finally had to pull me away.

I just wanted her to live. I wanted to give her birthday cards, Christmas cards, visit her and tell her I love her.

Even at the funeral, as they lowered her body into the ground and covered it with dirt, I hoped that somehow she would give us a sign that she was still alive.

My daughter -- my best friend -- was gone.

When I found out the details of the crash, my anger deepened. Joel had been partying most of that day, but still decided to get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

The lady who was driving in front of Holly saw him cut into her lane. The truck next to him slowed down so he could get over, but he made no attempt to do so. The lady veered off the road and into a ditch. The van plowed through the rear of her vehicle and hit Holly's 1997 Ford Probe head-on.

The collision was so violent that Holly hit the steering wheel with sickening force. The impact broke her rib, which punctured her heart. Dakota's car seat cracked in the middle but did its job. My 13-month-old grandson couldn't walk for a couple of weeks because his legs were too sore, but at least he was alive. Doctors worried that he could have suffered brain damage from the crash, but thankfully that wasn't the case.

As for Joel, his blood alcohol content was .26, far above the minimum legal driving limit of .08. He killed Holly the instant he put his keys into the van.

I don't hate Joel. I actually feel sorry for him. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He will get out early this June for good behavior. But still, he lost nine years of his young life, and his family suffered, too.

I will write him a letter before he goes free. I don't know exactly what it will say, but the words also could be aimed at these Airmen I read about or anyone else who chooses to drink and drive.

I know that I will tell him that Holly's big brown eyes, gorgeous smile and kind heart are in my thoughts every day. I will tell him that I remember her taking me by the hand and dancing around the living room during the Top 10 Countdown on the radio. I remember the hugs and kisses she'd surprise me with, and the times she would climb into bed with me and say, "Let's cuddle, Mom." So, I would wrap my arms around her body, kiss her and say, "Goodnight, Pumpkin. I love you."

I will tell him Dakota is 10 now, living with his father, his stepmother and two younger half brothers. He calls Holly his "angel mama," but he'll never really know her or how special a person she was.

I will tell him to take responsibility for what has happened. Don't make excuses. Tell your family and friends what happened, so they won't make the same mistake. Don't let this kind of tragedy happen again.

And to anyone else who will listen, I will say how many parents have to lose children before people take notice? I lost a daughter. My grandson lost a mother. If you don't care about yourself, then at least think about the other people you could affect. If you've been drinking, give up your keys and save a life.

I never knew just how precious each moment Holly and I spent together really meant. I never knew that Saturday -- Jan. 31, 1998 -- would be our last day together.