Voices of Victims: Ryan Nealon

I remember my mother in fragments.

I know that her name was Terri and that she was 44 when I was born. I know that we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego, just the two of us and our cat. I know we didn’t have a lot of money, so it wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was our situation. We made the best of it and she did everything she could for me.

Ryan was just 5 years old when a drunk driver killed his mom, Terri.

I know she loved listening to music and making me laugh. She played a lot of records – she loved artists like the Commodores and Toto and Earth, Wind and Fire. I know she worked very hard to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads.

But that’s where my memories mostly end. My mother was killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Day 2000 when I was just 5 years old.

Never the same

My mom had gone to Las Vegas with a friend to celebrate the millennium. On the first day of the new century, a drunk driver sideswiped the car she was riding in, killing her instantly. My mom’s younger sister, Peggy, got the call first. She was in the desert for the weekend, and it fell to her to make that awful drive back to the apartment where I was staying with a family friend and tell me my mom was never coming home and nothing was ever going to be the same again.

My Aunt Peggy had always played a big role in my life, even before I was born. She was with my mom every day for almost nine months to make sure my mom stayed safe and healthy while she was pregnant. Peggy was nine years younger than my mom, but they’d always been close. She’d often stop by our apartment after work, and she’d always come talk to me, even if I was sleeping.

Peggy came over the night before my mom left for Las Vegas. “Be careful,” she told my mom. “I don’t want to be a mom at my age.”

Sisters Peggy and Terri. When Terri was killed by a drunk driver, Peggy stepped in to raise her son.

The drunk driver changed Peggy’s life forever, too. She and my uncle Ron stepped in and raised me as their own child. Peggy – I call her mom now – said I cried and cried when she told me the news. But I mostly remember feeling numb. I didn’t really understand. Even at her funeral, I saw all my little childhood friends, and all my family was there. It was really emotional for everyone else, but I was numb.

I didn’t know that her death would shape me as a person. That losing a parent is losing an extension of yourself. That it’s a weight you carry throughout your life. It’s always there. More than 20 years later, it’s still hard to open up and talk to people about what happened to my mom. It’s not something I can easily say.

Her death was a shock to everyone. No one was ready. I don’t think there’s ever a way to be ready for that.

A musical connection

My aunt and uncle gave me everything I could have asked for. I was so loved. Because of that, losing my mom was easier at the time than it might have been. My aunt also made sure my mom’s memory stayed alive. We’d send up balloons with messages on them, and every year we’d go to the beach on her birthday because that was my mom’s favorite place. We’d get lost sometimes looking at old pictures and my aunt would tell me all of these stories about how cool my mom was. She did a lot of things my mom would do. Every morning, she’d play records my mom liked. That was really special for me. I remember music blasting on the car stereo on the way to school every morning. We sang everywhere we went.

Peggy stepped in as a mother and gave Ryan everything he could have dreamed of after a drunk driver killed his mom.

After high school, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue music and study ethnomusicology at UCLA on a scholarship. I don’t know if I realized it then, but music was a link between all three of us – me, my mom and my aunt who became my mom.

Usually parents would say not to go into music because there’s no money in it. My aunt didn’t. She told me to follow my heart. She was always this amazing support system. In 2017, I earned a bachelor’s in jazz studies with an emphasis on jazz voice. No one else in my immediate family had gone to college. It was important for me to do this.

Music is a challenge. I work a lot of jobs so I can do what I love: write and perform my own songs. I’ve had the privilege of performing shows all across the U.S., including at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City and The Hotel Café in Los Angeles. Last year, my song “Sleepwalking” was placed in a Lifetime Original Movie, and my song “City” landed on Apple music’s “Breaking Pop” playlist in 2019.

Music is how I express myself, yet I’d never written about one of the most defining moments in my life. I’ve never dug deep into it because it was always something that hurt and reopened the wound for me and my whole family. Even though I wanted to put out music that told this story, I never had the courage to write it.

Until this last year. During the pandemic, I was alone in my thoughts for so long. I started thinking about what my mom would say to me if she was alive today. That’s how I ended up writing “Not Coming Home,” which is being released on Mother’s Day. It begins:

It’s gonna be alright/you won’t even miss me/ We’re both too young to say goodbye/ I know it’s hard to believe/ But someday you’ll do amazing things/ It’s easy to see on the other side./ When you dream and wake up/ Just try your best to forget you’re growing up with someone else./ I know that it feels hopeless, but know this/ I’d be there if I could/ You know that I would.

Ryan, a musician and songwriter, wrote a song called “Not Coming Home” about what his mother might say to him. The song was released on Mother’s Day.

The song in many ways gave me a kind of closure I’d never found before. When I shared it with my aunt, we had a good cry. There are days where she still misses my mom horribly. It’s never not going to be horrible. It’s never going to get better.

We can move on as much as we possibly can, but we can’t forget.

Not alone

The man who killed my mom got a 5-week jail sentence. As far as I know, he’s still out living his life while my mom’s life ended at 49. My aunt, who’d just lost her sister and now had a child to raise, flew down to Vegas to testify against the drunk driver. There was no justice whatsoever.

I was around 8 years old when I first heard about Mothers Against Drunk Driving. My aunt loved the organization. She had a MADD shirt. We always knew MADD was there. Knowing that – knowing that there was an organization out there fighting to stop drunk driving and improving drunk driving laws – made us feel safer.

MADD also helped us feel less alone. We knew there were others out there who’d gone through what we’d gone through. I hope that’s what my song is to people, too. Something people can relate to. Losing someone so suddenly and unexpectedly and in such a preventable way is horrible. It’s nothing you can ever prepare for. But you’re not alone.

You can listen to “Not Coming Home” on Spotify.

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