She’s not gone… she’s just elsewhere.
This is the reminder Christine Olson lives with daily that helps her turn her grief into purpose and her tragedy into hope for others.
She was just spending a quiet evening at home alone. After checking on her grown kids and knowing they were with their friends, Christine came home from work to drink a cup of tea while watching a PBS documentary on Pope John Paul. When the show ended around 11pm, she headed to bed. And that’s when her nightmare began. The phone rang at 11:15, and Christine’s initial reaction was to let it go to voicemail. Who calls someone that late at night, anyway? But a mother’s instinct is rarely wrong. She answered to hear her son’s panicked voice: “Mom, she’s been hurt in an accident. Get to Manatee Memorial!”
Not remembering any details of the car ride to the hospital, let alone which pajamas she was still wearing, Christine met her son, Derek, at the entrance to the Emergency Room. But a quick check with the hospital’s computers revealed that Tiffiany, Christine’s daughter and Derek’s sister, simply wasn’t there. Since HIPPA laws wouldn’t allow the hospital staff to search elsewhere for her, Christine began to panic.
And when Christine feels panic rising up, she prays.
She asked directions to the hospital chapel. At the time, the hospital was undergoing construction. Directions to the chapel were convoluted and confusing. With panic continuing to rise within her, Christine eventually gave up trying to find it and made her way back outside.
There, Derek explained that he had been called by Tiffiany’s friend, Clyde. Clyde had been on the motorcycle behind Tiffiany and her boyfriend, Dustin, traveling north on U.S. 19 in Palmetto. The three of them were headed to St. Petersburg to meet up with friends. Clyde watched in horror as a car pulling onto U.S. 19 made a left turn, not seeing Derek and Tiffiany. “Please go fast and miss them,” he prayed. He watched the impact helplessly as his friends were thrown from Dustin’s bike and pieces of the bike flew everywhere. That was around 7pm, earlier that evening.
Now, as Derek and Christine stood in the parking lot of the hospital at 1:30am, Christine had no idea where to go next. Who to call? She had a vision of her daughter crying out to her, “Mom, Help me! Help me!” but Christine didn’t know how.
While trying to make sense of what they knew had happened and make a decision about where to turn next, two Florida Highway Patrol officers approached Christine and Derek. “Sorry, she’s gone,” they said as Derek collapsed on the ground.
“Where did she go?” Christine asked, not comprehending.
“We presume the medical examiner’s, but they won’t be open until morning,” one of the officers said matter-of-factly as he pressed a ziploc bag into Christine’s hand. The bag contained a broken earring, a watch, and a toe ring.
You cannot sum up a person’s entire being in a plastic bag, yet that’s what they do.
In shock, Christine turned to Derek and simply said, “I have to get gas on the way home.”
Christine describes the next few days as existing in a third world. “I could see people’s lips moving but no sound was coming out,” she recalls. She knows she went through the motions of getting her nails done, buying a dress for the memorial service, gathering mementos from Tiff’s apartment, greeting people who called or brought food. But she doesn’t remember any of it. “God is protecting you from so much in those moments,” she muses.
Odd snapshots of moments blaze across her memory: A woman at church who told her, “I believe in angels. I believe they’re everywhere.” The smell of lilies and carnations filling her home. A rainbow when she opened her front door.
On Christmas morning, Christine drove to The Rod & Reel Pier, the restaurant where she’s served for years, which was closed for the holiday. She and Derek were going to meet there to spread Tiffiany’s ashes on the water. She drove by herself.
“Oh my God… look at all the people!”
That morning, God showed up, in the form of a rainbow. In the form of seabirds flying low overhead. In the form of friends, and food, and music. There was coffee and coffee cake and prayers and music. Derek threw Tiffiany’s ashes into the water in the special marine urn they had purchased for her. At the last note of the song, “I Can Only Imagine”- the one about meeting God face to face- Tiffiany’s urn slipped quietly under the water and out of sight.
This beautiful girl who loved sledding and swimming with dolphins, who had a compassion for people around her, who made presents rather than buying them, who gave butterfly kisses and smeared lipstick on her mom’s face and kept a smiley face mug on her desk at work… this beautiful girl left our world too soon. But she is not gone. She’s just elsewhere.