WARNER ROBINS -- They hold the memories close to their hearts.
The last text message. (“Let your light shine.”)
The last post on Facebook. (Colossians 1:17)
The words to the solo that was supposed to be performed in church that next Sunday. (“You dwell in the songs that we are singing. Rising to the heavens, rising to your heart.”)
The last words spoken between them. (“Love you!”)
James “Sully” Sullivent and his wife, Melva, never could have known the evening of March 9, 2011, would be the last time they would see their two youngest daughters.
Leslie and Bridget walked out the door and never came home.
There is no greater grief than losing a child. On a drizzly night, along a straight stretch of Ga. 96, the Sullivent girls were killed in a two-car accident.
Leslie was 17 years old and a junior at Veterans High School. Bridget was a sixth-grader at Mossy Creek Middle School and would have turned 12 at the end of the month. Both were outstanding athletes in softball and soccer.
They were returning home from Bonaire United Methodist Church, where they had attended an Ash Wednesday service. They both had ash marks on their foreheads, a sign of the cross. Their Bibles were in the seat.
“They were involved at church,” said Melva. “They loved God out loud.”
Leslie lost control of the Pontiac G6 and veered into the path of an oncoming SUV. Bridget died at the scene. Leslie passed away from head injuries the following day at The Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon.
One can only speculate how the accident happened. Leslie’s cellphone showed no calls or text messages at the time of impact. A black box pulled from the car traced their route, indicated they were wearing seat belts and that Leslie was not speeding. The car stereo was not playing. The only excessive steering reaction was when she swerved at the end. Her parents believe she might have been trying to avoid hitting an animal in the road.
“They have ruled everything out,” said Melva. “They just can’t rule anything in.”
Two months before the accident, Melva was putting away clothes in Leslie’s room. Leslie was on her bed, doing her homework. When Melva reached to pick up her daughter’s driver’s license, which had fallen on the floor, she noticed Leslie was an organ donor.
Her lungs went to a young woman in Milledgeville. A 12-year-old girl in Atlanta received her heart. Her liver, kidney and other organs also were harvested and have breathed new life into others.
In a rare transplant that made national and international news, Leslie’s left hand and forearm went to a college student from Orlando, Florida, named Linda Lu. The 19-hour surgery took place at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and was the first of its kind in the Southeast.
“They told us Leslie must have had beautiful fingernails because Linda has to trim her left nails twice as often,” she said.
There were so many times Leslie reached out that hand to help others, it was only fitting that it would be her final gift. She was always encouraging those around her. She would seek out the misfits of the world, the kids who had nobody to sit with in the school lunchroom. She motivated her teammates in sports. She was as much of a cheerleader as she was a star athlete.
“We often say she had the eyes of Jesus and the heart of Mother Teresa,” Melva said.
Bridget was both silly and affectionate. She chose to lift people up rather than bring them down. Melva used to tease that she wouldn’t let Bridget watch the Disney cartoon “Bambi” because she would end up an “absolute bawling, sobbing mess” every time. She could act out the “Bon Qui Qui at King Burger” and recite it word for word for her classmates.
Both girls were excellent softball players and had their numbers retired at their schools and scholarships designated in their honor. “Sullivent Way” at Warner Robins American Little League is named in their memory.
Sully and Melva met while in the Air Force stationed in New Mexico. They married in 1985. They have two older daughters, Angela and Rachel, and an adopted son, Damian. The Sullivent family has lived in Warner Robins since 1993. Sully is retired from the military and is a contractor with Northrop Grumman. Melva works in the technology department at the Houston County Board of Education.
A month after the fatal accident, the Sullivents were invited to attend a meeting of The Compassionate Friends of Middle Georgia, a support group for families who have lost children.
Melva was eager to begin the healing process. At first, Sully was reluctant to attend the chapter meetings, which are held on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at Byron United Methodist Church.
“I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to have to relive it,” he said. “As Christians, we know our girls are in heaven. But the human side of it still hurt.”
At their first meeting, they introduced themselves. They were embraced by others who had walked in their shoes and shared their grief.
“Initially, we went looking for answers,” said Melva. “When you’re the newly bereaved, you’re with other families who are further along than you are, so they understand what you’re going through. Sometimes it’s just letting you talk, because you need somebody to listen who is not going to judge you. You want to know how are you going to get up the next day and live without your child. When does it stop? When does it get better? When can I laugh again?”
It has been three years, five months and 21 days. The grief passes slowly. The first Christmas after Leslie and Bridget died, Sully could not walk into a store displaying Christmas decorations. It made him too sad.
He and Melva now consider Compassionate Friends a gift. And they are now the givers. They attended the national convention in Chicago last month. Compassionate Friends is the largest self-help bereavement organization in the world, with more than 650 chapters in the U.S. The Middle Georgia chapter was started in 1980. There are other area chapters in Cochran, Vidalia, Griffin and Columbus.
Melva and Sully will participate in the first annual “Walk To Remember” from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at North Peach Park in Byron. There will be a short memorial service, potluck lunch and balloon launch. The cost is $5 for individuals and $10 per family. (Call 954-4592 for more information.)
For the Sullivents, the local chapter of Compassionate Friends has become more of a family than a support group.
“We feel like we have known each other for years and knew each other’s children,” Melva said. “We enjoy hearing the stories and sharing memories, because we know how very special they are. It is not denial or trying to keep our children alive or not letting go. Instead, it is a way to honor their memory, share their story and allow other grieving parents the opportunity to do the same. It is about helping each other. It is about being beside someone in the dark when they are in need.”
Reach Ed Grisamore at 744-4275.