By Jenny Reyes
For the last five years of his life, my father, Walter Reyes, rose at 4 a.m. each day to cycle a popular route that connects our home in Miami to the Florida Keys. He’d be back by 6, in time to say good morning and get ready for his job as an accountant at a real estate firm.
My dad’s own father had died at age 50 of a heart condition. My dad took up biking because he didn’t want the same thing to happen to him. I remember my dad saying when he turned 51 that he’d outlived his father.
My dad would never see another birthday.
A 21-year-old college student who had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana struck my father and his friend as they biked across the Rickenbacker Causeway on the morning of Jan. 21, 2015. I was 19 at the time. My sister, Natalie, who was away at college, was 21.
I was at home waiting on a ride to class when my mom called me on my cell phone. She asked me where I was. When I told her I was about to leave for school, she told me I couldn’t go. That was the first indication that was something was wrong. My parents always made us go to school, sometimes even when we were sick. I asked her why, and she told me my dad had been in an accident. Today, I use the word ‘crash.’
When I asked her if my dad was OK, she answered with a sob: “No, baby. He’s dead.” I’ll never forget the sound that came out of me. It sounded like an animal. Like something dying. I ran into the family room, where I started grabbing at family photos. All I could say was, “Are you sure?” Over and over again.
She assured me it was true before she had to hang up, promising to be home as soon as she could. Just then, my maternal grandfather, my abuelo, pulled up. I ran outside, still screaming. Eventually, he understood what I was trying to say. My father was dead. I collapsed in my grandfather’s arms and he pulled me into the house, where we turned on the TV. The crash was already on the news. There was his photo, his name. You see this stuff on the news all the time, but let me tell you it’s a whole different story to see a loved one on TV. A news helicopter was on scene, and the camera panned out to a wide aerial view. There was his bike, the one that had been in the garage just that morning, now mangled, the light still flashing. And there was a tarp with a body under it. My father’s body. It became all the more real in that moment.
My father’s death changed everything. I couldn’t concentrate so I took a break from school. My father was the fourth person to die on Rickenbacker Causeway in as many years, so his death received a lot of press, and I became my family’s spokesperson. My father had been loving and well-loved. Once, when a family friend who lived a couple of blocks away mentioned she was looking for a playground for her young daughter, he offered to give her ours since we no longer used it. She politely declined; she was looking for a Victorian-style playground. A couple of weeks later, she heard a noise outside. My dad had redone the playground in a Victorian style and was putting it in their backyard.
That’s the kind of man he was.
Both my dad and I suffered from insomnia, and often he would join me in the kitchen in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. After chastising me for being up so late, we’d sit around and talk about our day and things going on in our lives. For three months after his death, I sat in the kitchen, waiting for him to come in. My head told me it was illogical. But my heart kept thinking if I waited just five more minutes, he’d walk in.
My parents had always instilled in my sister and me how important it is to never drink and drive. They didn’t just tell us. They showed us. Between my dad and mom, one of them was always the designated driver. Even though I knew drunk drivers killed people, in my child’s mind, in my happy bubble, I didn’t think that applied to me. Then it did. It was something 100 percent preventable. And it took my father’s life.
If one person does it, everyone is at risk. One driver out there could plow into that family and that family is being so careful and they could be dead anyway. One of the things I tell people is that often you don’t get caught the first time you drive drunk. But the sad truth is that you could drive drunk once, twice, 100 times, 1,000 times and never get caught. You can be lucky 1,000 times. But you only need to be unlucky once to change your life and to create this rolling ball of death and destruction.
One of my greatest fears after losing my dad was that I would start to forget. My greatest fear is coming true. In four years, I forgot his laugh. Those deep, belly laughs that are so hard you laugh with them. I can no longer remember what it sounds like. I can picture it in my head but I can’t hear it. My mother found a recording of my dad talking recently. When I heard it, I cried, because I realized I was forgetting his voice as well – that quirk where he’d clear his throat when he talked. I wonder what else I am going to forget 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road.
When I get married, he’s not going to be there. When I graduate college, he’s not going to be there. There will be no father-daughter dance. When I have kids, he’s not going to be there. My dad used to talk about his father all the time, and I never really understood why he was so desperate for us to hear his stories. Until I lost my father. This is what fuels me to tell my story. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have to go through for the rest of my life.