Jacques: When death calls at Christmas

Ingrid Jacques

I can still hear the doorbell.

It was Christmas morning 1987, in Salem, Oregon. My brother and I had just finished opening presents and had taken our new treasures upstairs when the police officer and chaplain showed up at our door.

They had the worst news imaginable.

My aunt Amy and her boyfriend Marty had been broadsided by a drunken driver just a few miles from my parents’ house. They died at the scene. It was hard to believe. We had seen them hours before at a Christmas Eve gathering, full of life.

Amy was 26. I was only 8, but that day is scorched in my memory.

It was the first time I saw my dad cry. Amy was his baby sister, and she was often at our house. I remember her well — her bright smile and fun-loving spirit.

When the police left, my dad and his brother had to go tell my grandmother what had happened. I can only imagine how heartbreaking that was.

It seemed so senseless. Amy and Marty had gone back to her house to pick up some presents they’d forgotten. On the return trip, the drunken driver ran a red light.

If only they’d not gone back or if they’d taken another route. One minute could have made the difference.

Without Amy, Christmas was never again the same. We still celebrated with family, but each Christmas morning was marked by the tragedy.

Her death also created fractures within my dad’s family that never fully healed.

My grandmother’s strength and faith amazed me. She adored Amy, and that feeling never left. She would speak about her daughter in the present tense, and she often wondered what her life would have been like if she’d had more time.

On what would have been Amy’s 50th birthday, I remember Grandma imagining how she would have looked and what she would have accomplished.

I’ve wondered how my life would be different, too. Amy was my youngest aunt, and it would have been wonderful to have her in my life as I got older. And I’m sure she would have had children.

Amy loved kids. She was a fifth-grade teacher at a small country school. Her students were fond of her as well. After she died, the school planted a tree in her memory, and it’s still there.

Last Christmas Day, when I was visiting my parents, the phone rang that evening.

It was one of Amy’s former students. She called out of the blue to ask where she might find Amy’s grave, because she wanted to put some flowers there.

This woman had never forgotten her favorite teacher, and still thought of her often — nearly three decades later.

That call made me realize that even when a life is tragically cut short, its impact will still be felt for a long time by many people.

Amy’s time on this earth wasn’t a waste — it was a gift.