Covid-19 and A Celebration of Life

By Linda Starkey

Hot and humid. It’s typical weather down South in August when taking a breath makes one feel like one is drowning and any excess flesh manufactures rivers of sweat that pastes clothes securely to the body revealing unflattering rolls that might as well be naked. I reluctantly leavemy husband and fur-babies. Having been sequestered in our house since March 2020, my car has not moved for three months. I am scared to be around people because I am high risk of dying if I contract this new-found pestilence on mankind called COVID-19. Even one nightaway from my refuge makes me anxious.

A trip to the beach is something I normally anticipate with excitement and enthusiasm. But this time is different. Because of the pandemic, nothing, and I mean NOTHING could get me driving to the beach by myself on a hot muggy day except this mission of final farewell for a man that put his own life in danger to save mine.

I leave the B&B early for the short drive to First Baptist Church in Little River, SC. I don’t worry when I can’t find the church immediately. Afterall, ‘First Baptist Church’ in any southern town is usually the largest church around. But contrary to what it’s name implies, I have to ask directions twice to no avail. Finally, I drive back one mile to the “SC Information Center” located just over the NC/SC border but inside Little River’s city limits. All three ladies serving as South Carolina’s ambassadors of southern hospitality cannot, for the life of them, tell me where the First Baptist Church in Little River, SC is located. I’m late and agitated. In spite of the car’s air conditioner, set at 64 degrees, and the fans on high, my clothes now soaked with sweat. I decide to stop once more to ask directions. As I reach for the store’s front door, anolder man holding an open beer in a not-fooling-anyone brown bag, almost runs into me. ‘What the heck?’, I think. I ask him if he knows where the First Baptist Church might be located. Amazingly, he does! I almost hug him—but I’m sweaty, and he smells like beer. I dash to the car, taking off like a drag racer. I just can’t miss Gary’s Celebration of Life!

The church sign is so small, I almost miss it. Well actually, in my haste I do miss it. Swiftly backing up, I make the turn. As expected, the parking lot is full, but no one is standing outside. Sometimes, things work out for the best. There is one chair at the open sanctuary doors and as quickly and as quietly as possible I sit down. 

The service is sweet. Having worked as an EMS and firefighter in the Calabash area for the last ten years, the front pews are filled with uniforms. The small church is filled to capacity.There is story after story of his good deeds or ‘little boy’ antics. I note recognition registering on the faces of people as they listen and visualize the friend they knew. He is still alive in their hearts and memories. These wonderful stories are testimonials to honor a man that lived his faith each and every day without fail. After local friends had their say, I stand up and raise my hand while walking down the center aisle saying, “I wish to say a word.”

I turn, the only familiar face is Vickie’s, Gary’s widow. All eyes and ears trained on me, the stranger, now standing in front facing these people, sharing a common admiration and grief for the life we gather to celebrate. I have no idea what I am going to say. I take a deep breath and begin, “I met Gary Taylor at about 9:00 p.m. October 31, 2006 at mile marker 199 on I-40 East 3 miles from my house.” Suddenly, my face is crumpling, and tears are tumbling down my cheeks landing on my blouse as I say, “You know, I didn’t really cry through the accident or the recovery. I guess I saved it up to share with you.” Then, I relate the story of our meeting.

My best friend, Pam Wichmann, and I were decked out in our full Halloween costumes on our way home after a Halloween dinner out with our Red Hat group.Conversation stopped abruptly as we watched the car cross the median, and the loose control. We both said, “Oh, no!” at the same time. Then I turned the steering wheel sharply right as the other car hit us mid roll. In a few seconds, I literally returned to life with a “woosh,” and was amazed I was still alive, andaware of the profound silence. As I became more alert, intense pain filled all of my senses. I heard cars and trucks passing. Then suddenly, I realized Pam had not moved. I fought the air bags to look at her. Her head was tilted forward, and her skin was translucent ivory in the dim light. She was very still. I knew she was dead.

With that realization, the pain flooded over me anew and I started screaming for someone to please help. A foggy realization of fire ringed my subconscious. A slipping movement outside the car caught my attention and a voice introduced itself, “I’m Gary Taylor from Watauga County. I will stay with you. You stay with me.” I was immediately swathed in a calmness that belied the situation. I felt no  

pain. I told him my name, address, and phone number along with my husband’s name and phone number. I told him where my husband was when he would behome and then told him Pam’s name and her husband’s name and where they lived.

Then, I said, “Pam’s dead, isn’t she?”

He replied, “Yes. She is.”

My car was engulfed in fire and the dashboard was laying on my right leg, and my right foot was wrenched tight under the brake petal. Gary put the fire out with a fire extinguisher from the ambulance he was driving while taking a patient for treatment to Duke Hospital. He called in the emergency giving all the critical information.

A chorus of voices and frenzied activity surrounded my car. There were many heroes and “sheroes” in the 19 emergency vehicles that answered the call that night, but Gary stayed with me as he had promised, watching, waiting, overseeing the rescue efforts. As the rescuers prepared to remove me from the car, I heard his voice, “You might need to put a collar on her neck.” 

Everyone froze for a second, then a collar was swiftly placed around my neck. 

A shot of morphine was supposed to help with my pain as they moved me, but when they tried, I screamed, “I can’t! I can’t!”

Then Gary’s voice once more, “Yes, you can!” as many strong hands hefted me out of the car onto the gurney. I passed out.”

“Now,” I continue, “there’s more to this incredible story.”

“I discovered much later that Gary, himself had been burned very badly when an oxygen tank exploded landing him in UNC burn center for about 6 months. Think about that! A man who nearly died from burns sees a car on fire and runs toward the car to put out the fire and save whoever is in it. You have never met a more grateful person than I am for this courageous man. I used to tell him that he left feathers in his wake ‘cause he was the angel who saved my life. Well, now I know he has the real, forever, non-molting kind.

And as for the “collar” situation? If Gary had not been there to oversee what was happening, I may have been a quadriplegic because my C6 had exploded. As it was, I was 5-points immobile. This means that besides my neck, both arms and legs were also broken. I also had a broken sternum, nose, and virtually all my ribs. Additionally, I had a head injury.

Had he not put out the fire, I would have been a crispy critter for sure.

I turn to Vickie and say, “Thank you for sharing this incredible man with us. Without your support and love, he could not have been the man he was born to be.” 

My mind ruminates about what had just occurred as I drive home. Gary Taylor was far more than his NC country accent and jokester demeanor would make a person think. He was powerhouse of personality, faith, and love—how can he possibly be gone? He was courageous, and kind. Jennie Sealy’s “Peaceful Waters” plays on the radio and as I listen, my vision blurs and sobs escape me.

Composed again I assure myself, “Everything’s going to be alright. But I sure am going to miss Gary’s call on Halloween saying ‘Trick or Treat! Trick or Treat! Give me something good to eat!’”