Friends from near & far comfort family after tragedy
By Bill Boyd
Special to The Macon Telegraph
MCRAE - Sometimes it takes a community to bury a child, to ease
the pain of a sudden loss, to start the healing process. Sometimes the magic
tonic of friendship is the best medicine.
Wendy Lee of McRae knows about that. When her 15-month-old
daughter, Sailor Kate, died in the most heartbreaking of accidents, the
people of Telfair County responded with an outpouring of kindness that
comforted her family and set them on a road to recovery.
Perhaps you saw the story in the newspaper a little more than a
month ago. A grandfather was backing up his car when it ran over one of the
shining stars in his life. I'm a grandfather. I read the story and felt the
pain. And I wondered ...
Wendy eased my pain, too. I worried less about the well-being of
another grandfather after she told me this story of hope and a new beginning
with the help of a community that really cared.
To grasp the true meaning of what has happened in McRae and
Helena and the surrounding county in the past month, you need to understand
the people who make up this family and the community. Ask anyone who knows
the Yawns, and you get replies like that of Judy Harris, a librarian.
"In that family, cousins are like brothers and sisters, nephews
and nieces are like sons and daughters," she said.
One person who contributed greatly to that closeness was Wendy's
maternal grandmother, Marie "Mama Rie" Fowler. She ran a grocery store in
downtown Helena for more than 40 years, and she was forever telling folks
about some member of her family. I heard her stories when I stopped for a
Coke and some conversation, and I knew she surely understood the importance
of family togetherness.
Her daughter and son-in-law, Betty and Clif Yawn, tried to ensure
that the family remained close by turning their house into what they call
"Grand Central Station." Clif, a Navy veteran and gifted woodworker, fixed up
one of the old houses in Helena and told his children - Wendy, Bo and Brandi
- to "always remember where your home base is."
As they grew up, they never forgot. Brandi lives next door to her
parents. Bo and his wife, Jill, live directly behind the big house. Wendy and
her husband, Jonesy, and their two children, Rhett and Sailor Kate, settled
in another big house barely a mile away in McRae.
Close? Yes. These Yawns are very close, and in recent weeks they
have needed that strength of togetherness.
Mama Rie's big heart finally gave out and she was buried Feb. 19.
One week later, Clif and Betty, called "Poppy" and "Petty" by the
grandchildren, were going to the cemetery to put flowers on Mama Rie's grave.
As Clif backed up the car, Sailor Kate suddenly ran toward it and fell. A
wheel ran over her, causing serious head injuries.
Clif, a registered nurse for the past 30 years, picked up his
granddaughter and rushed her to the hospital. Wendy, a schoolteacher, was
just leaving the county's middle school when she found out something was
"You just never think anything like this would happen," Wendy
said. "When I got the message to go to the hospital, I drove myself, figuring
she was just a little sick again." Sailor Kate had been plagued by several
illnesses, Wendy said, but none of them was life threatening, and the mother
figured her daughter would "just grow out of it" someday.
Only when she arrived at the hospital and saw her tearful father
did she realize the seriousness of the situation. In the midst of the horror
of the tragedy, the Yawns held onto one another and the community drew close
Even at a time like that, the size of the gathering was not lost
"That place was wall-to-wall people," Wendy said. "Family,
friends, neighbors, hospital staff, students, ... literally hundreds of
And they weren't curious cruisers. They were genuinely concerned
about the family. Small-town folks are like that, Wendy said.
A helicopter carried Sailor Kate to Scottish Rite Hospital for
Children in Atlanta. The young parents were offered the use of a private
plane to fly to Atlanta, but those wanting to go would have filled a jumbo
jet. And, since Sailor Kate would be in surgery for several hours and the
family could do nothing more than sit in a waiting room, they decided to go
in a motor caravan.
But they knew there was little hope.
"My daddy knew she wasn't going to make it," Wendy said. "He's a
nurse. He has all of that experience. He KNEW. And I could see it in his
face, hear it in his voice. But I still held out hope. I kept thinking about
big city doctors, all of those specialists, lots of great technology. Surely,
they could do it."
Doctors at Scottish Rite confirmed the family's worst fears.
Sailor Kate was brain dead. All hope was lost.
"All night long," Wendy said, "I kept telling them not to give up
on my little girl, that God would reach down and save her."
Wendy knew the end had come when her father spoke to her about
donating Sailor Kate's organs. He said that perhaps their child would mean
life for another.
"I told them, 'If we can help, let's do it,'" Wendy recalled. "A
2-year-old got her liver, so my little girl will live on in that child."
The trip home was the saddest journey the Yawns have ever
endured. But the tragedy was put in a new perspective when they arrived back
home. The community made sure of that.
First, there were the pink ribbons - hundreds of them - tied to
trees in both towns. Then home-cooked food began arriving in the finest of
Old South traditions. But not just a few dishes, dear reader. Two additional
refrigerators were needed to accommodate that outpouring.
The family also found comfort in the numerous prayer vigils held
in area churches and schools. They were told that someone had established a
sibling scholarship fund for Rhett, who is about to enter kindergarten but
may want to go to college someday.
On the day of the funeral, a car dealership sent a large van for
the family's use. Schools let out early for the service, and the crowd that
showed up would have filled the local football stadium. Television monitors
were set up in other parts of the church to accommodate the huge gathering.
The demand for flower arrangements for Sailor Kate's funeral
depleted the stock of every florist shop in the area. Signatures of those
attending filled two books.
But the flood of correspondence had just begun. Hundreds of cards
and letters arrived in the mailbox, and even the Internet buzzed. You see,
Wendy was part of an on-line "mommies-to-be" group when she was pregnant, and
some of the mommies said they were planting flowers in memory of Sailor Kate
in places like Australia, Canada, Alaska, Portugal and New Zealand.
Oh, yes, candles were lighted in places as far away as Italy.
More than 350 messages about Sailor Kate were posted on the Internet, and
prayers went up in many different languages.
Donations in Sailor Kate's memory were sent to churches of all
denominations and to children's homes in Macon and Baxley. Also, a quilt is
being made in Sailor Kate's memory, and it will be given to Clif Yawn to
comfort a grieving grandfather.
But the most meaningful thing to come out of this tragedy? Dozens
of people have told Wendy that Sailor Kate's story has brought them closer to
their own children. And that's means a lot to the folks at Telfair County's
Grand Central Station.
Contact Bill Boyd by writing to him at P.O. Box 18063, Macon, GA,
31209-8063; by e-mail at email@example.com ; or at beeper number (912)
Photos: Above, Sailor's mother looks at a
drawing of the child sent to her- along with
the many cards she is surrounded by- from
people all over the United States and the
world. In the bottom photo, she holds hand
and foot prints of her daughter, sent to her by
the chaplain of Scottish Rites Hospital. A pair
of Sailor Kate's baby shoes are in the
Photo credit: Robert Seay/The Macon
|This is a story written by Bill Boyd that
was published soon after the accident in
the Macon Telegraph (2001).