Monday, July 13, 2009

"Power Included" - BASE of what Little Misty, the book, is about.

I didn’t like to lie, but by the time I was six years old I’d already discovered that it was easier to selectively reduce my family tree rather than trying to explain why I was being raised by my grandmother. When speaking to adults and to my peers, divulging details about the loss of my mother, father, or sister, simply sprouted too many questions. Quite often, it sprouted nothing short of blatant disbelief. One story was bad enough, but when all three were combined it wasn’t uncommon to be accused of making it all up.

To realize that the circumstances of your own life are so horrible that others simply can’t believe its true is an unfortunate revelation to have at such a young age. Despite the personal cost, I soon learned life was much simpler if I kept the majority of those who surrounded me at an arms length.

As if the events had been a morbidly planned agenda, I’d lost my immediate family members in two year spurts. And though it’s portrayed in movies as the most common intro to a first time visit with a psychiatrist; it did, in fact, all start with my mother.

When I was just a year and a half old, my mother, Debra Wilhite, dropped my older sister and I off at our grandmother’s house before proceeding to her job at a local restaurant where she worked as a waitress. At some point during her shift, a scruffy man came in to seek shelter from the stormy night. He told Debra he’d hitched a ride there on a cattle truck and he asked her if she could give him a ride when she got off work. At the end of her shift, she and the man left at the same time, but it’s not known if she had agreed to give him a ride. The man was never identified, and it was unclear if my mother knew him or if he was a stranger to her.

That rainy night was the last time that she, or the car she was driving, was ever seen. She was listed as an endangered missing person in October of 1974, and her case is still open and unsolved. There have been numerous leads over the years, but none have uncovered the truth, or her remains.

Several years later, my grandmother was given some information regarding her daughter’s disappearance. A man had confided in a young girl who happened to be a good friend of one of my aunts. He told her he’d shot Debra, put her body in the trunk of her car, and then shot-gunned the vehicle into a stripper pit that was filled with water. Back then, this stripper pit was somewhat of a hangout for certain individuals and it had been nicknamed “The Duck Pond.” The next day, my grandmother called the detective that was on her daughter’s case and gave him this information. She was told that it would be looked into, but when she didn’t hear anything back she assumed the scenario had been disproved.

Nearly twenty years later, after my husband and I had our first son, Jeffrey, I began writing to all of the local newspapers, news outlets, and even the national talk shows on television. My goal was to get my mother’s story out into the public’s eye in hopes of revealing the truth. The local newspaper did a two page cover story and it turned out the journalist who interviewed me for the story was acquainted with the key detective that had been on my mother’s case so many years before. A meeting was put into place and my husband and my grandmother and I met with him at the Indiana State Police post.

My mother’s case file was opened to me and I was able to sit quietly and read every word in the inch-thick file folder. But, to my surprise, after I’d finished I realized there was no mentioned of “The Duck Pond” anywhere in the entire file. Though the detective denied ever being given any such information, he said they could certainly look into it… now. However, the effort was found to be mute. Sometime later when I heard back from the detective, he told me the pit had been filled in with thirty feet of dirt back in the 1980’s… it was as if someone had given me a swift kick to the gut.

The further details were no better. When the pit was drained of its water contents, the bottom still held about 15 feet of silt, or quicksand-like dirt. If my mother’s car was there, it would not have been visible to the workers on site. If the specifics my grandmother was given were true, they weren’t just filling in a hole, they were unknowingly covering my mother’s grave. The detective then told me an excavation simply wasn’t plausible due to the lack of evidence. When the cost and the labor that the endeavor would entail were combined with this fact, it simply wouldn’t be authorized. Because this information had not been investigated when it was given to the police, we may never know the truth. Like so many other missing person cases, hers has gone cold.

Shortly after our mother’s disappearance, my sister, Amy, was diagnosed with leukemia. “Happiness is helping St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital...” This is a phrase that will forever be burned into my memory. A lot of it has to do with the wonderful services that the hospital provided to Amy and to our family during her treatment there, but it’s significant in regards to our father, Jeff Wilhite, as well. Two years following the loss of our mother, our father was killed in a tragic accident. While driving in a rural area, his car was struck by a train. He, and a good friend of his that was with him, were both killed instantly.

That day, he happened to be wearing a T-shirt that displayed the St. Jude saying on it. Because of the extremely destructive damage that was caused by the collision, he was identified by the shirt that he wore that day.

Like our mother’s disappearance, the occurrence is coiled with numerous questions. The actual cause of the accident is unclear and only assumptions can be made. Some have said my father’s friend was injured and he was racing to beat the train to get him to a hospital as quickly as possible. Though no witnesses came forward, another theory that has been voiced is that a third friend was following my father and the injured companion.

The theory states that my father abruptly stopped at the train crossing, but the friend that was following him was unable to stop in time. The ending result of this scenario would be the third friend unintentionally rear ending the car ahead of him; devastatingly pushing his two friends into the path of the train.

Out of the three losses that I have endured, my father’s is the one that I have actually been more at peace about than the others. I was only three years old when he died, but I have one memory of him that is very vivid and has remained so, even after all of the years that have passed… I was sleeping next to him in his bed when I awoke and was crying. He got up and walked to the dresser to turn the light on. As he turned around to reach for me, I stood up on the bed reaching out for him. At that moment, the bells of the alarm clock on the night stand went off loudly… and that’s where the memory ends. Though it’s a short memory, its validity has been confirmed by my description of the surroundings.

Although it may be difficult for some to comprehend how this one very simple recollection could hold any meaning, it’s something that has brought a great sense of comfort to me. I was reaching out for him, and he was reaching for me... because that is where the memory ends, I see it as him saying to me, “I’m not quite there, but yet, I’m still right here.”

With a void of where our Mom and Dad once were, Amy and I quickly grew to call our grandmother, Lucille, “mom.” She became our legal guardian, yet so much more. She was our world. She raised us as if we were her own, alongside her own two daughters who were still at home.

Despite the fact that my two aunts, Brenda and Carol, are actually the younger sisters of my mother, I’ve always thought of them as my older siblings. And as a child, it was much easier to say “This is my mom and these are my sisters,” rather than trying to explain the family tree that had become distorted.

When I describe my sister, Amy Sue, it sounds as if we had no resemblance at all. She had blue eyes and blonde hair, while I have our father’s dark eyes and dark hair. Sadly, the only memories that I have of Amy include her being sick, and as hard as I may try, I can’t recall any truly good moments between she and I. The leukemia and chemo took her pretty blonde hair; moreover, it took away a relationship between two sisters that I will never know.

Two years after the train accident, I was awakened in the middle of the night by one of my aunts. With me curled up in the back seat in my pink footy pajamas, we drove from Evansville, Indiana to Memphis, Tennessee where we joined Mom and Amy at St. Jude’s. At the time, I didn’t understand why we couldn’t wait until morning to leave. After I was older, I knew it was because they didn’t know if Amy would still be with us at daybreak.

Thirty years later, I’m still not exactly sure how long we were at the hospital. When I was five, it seemed like weeks. In reality, it probably wasn’t more than just a couple of days before that last night. I’d been sleeping in a big yellow chair in the family room when I awoke to find myself alone. When I looked through the observation window that adjoined the room to Amy’s hospital room, I saw Mom, Brenda and Carol standing near the foot of Amy’s bed; a doctor was also in the room. I knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t yet grasp the situation.

I stood looking through the glass, waiting for an acknowledgement from the others that I’d been seen. But, when none came, I decided to make my way down the empty hallway, through the big wooden double doors, past the nurses’ station, and to the doorway of Amy’s room.

When I’d pushed the big red button on the wall that opened the double doors, I quickly remembered my earlier endeavor. Mom seldom left Amy’s side and she’d asked if I would go down to the cafeteria and get her something to drink. While it would entail some winding hallways and taking the elevator several floors down, I’d gotten to know my way around the hospital quite well. Nonetheless, several times during my journey I thought an adult was going to insist I go with them because they thought I was surely lost. My replies to their questions must have been convincing because I did make it all the way back up to the big wooden doors that led back to Amy’s room.

It was then that I realized my dilemma. With two hands free, I could easily balance myself with one hand, stand up on my tip toes, and reach up with my other hand to hit the red button. Only this time, I had a big glass of iced tea in one hand for my mom. I knew I was going to have to ask for help. But, I wasn’t used to voicing my needs or my feelings yet at this time, and so many years after.

If it would have been for me, I would have simply scrapped it and left the drink. But, this was for Mom and I would have done anything for her. When the next adult passed, for the first time in my life, I spoke up. “Excuse me… Could you please open the door for me?” The woman hesitated for a moment. “Are you supposed to be going in there?” she asked. After several minutes of convincing, I was on my way.

That afternoon, I’d felt a great sense of accomplishment as I walked through the doors. As I went past the nurse’s station, I remember thinking I had proven to myself that I could speak up when I needed to... and realized that people actually listened when I did. Overlooking the familiar pity in their eyes, I even mustered some solid "Hello's" to the nurses as I walked by them.

Unlike earlier in the day during my great feat, the light was now dim behind the nurse’s desk. I stood at Amy’s doorway for several moments; observing the surroundings and evaluating the situation before deciding my next move. The doctor was speaking; mom and my two aunts stood quietly and were at a distance from the bed that seemed peculiar to me. Amy appeared to be sleeping, but… nothing seemed right.

When the doctor stopped talking, I saw my opportunity and quickly walked over to Mom. “Is Amy sleeping?” I whispered quietly. Mom just looked down at me and shook her head. She didn’t say a word, but when I felt one of her warm tears drop upon my cheek… I knew. And a great feeling of remorse swept through me. Standing there, hugging Mom’s side tightly, it occurred to me that I had actually been smiling to myself just a moment before while reminiscing of my grand triumph.

Out of guilt, I pushed that brief feeling of confidence so far deep down that I forgot I’d even had a glimpse. For twenty-five years, that confidence had lain dormant until I discovered stand-up comedy and was on a stage in front of three hundred people.

It's a shame that it took so long for me to re-discover my strengths. At a very young age, I’d learned to put on a good face and accept things as they were. But, in the process I’d become shy, quiet, and basically intimidated by the world itself.

It was never about the comedy... it was about the strength I’d found within myself again to speak up. Standing on a stage with nothing but me and the mic, I was confident. And when I was up there, I felt as comfortable as if I were sitting on my living room couch. If I made a few people laugh here and there, to me, it was seriously just a bonus.

Growing up, and even on into adulthood, if I was out with Mom and we saw someone who hadn’t seen me for years, I was usually greeted by a tilt of the head, a look of pity, and something like “Ohhh… little Misty…” But, when I was on stage, that little girl was no more. The stage was my big red button, and this time, I’d opened the big doors all by myself.

My husband, John, and I had managed a comedy club together in our hometown of Evansville, Indiana for about six years before being relocated to a new club in Orlando, Florida. It was there that I decided to try out the other side of the microphone. A small and casual six week comedy class that started out as something fun to do with friends quickly turned into a great passion.

After just two weeks, I was looking for any kind of stage to get onto. Six months later, some other local amateur comics and I were picked to be filmed for a new semi-national comedy show on cable. The night we all gathered to watch ourselves on television at the premier party, I didn’t think it could get any better; but, I was wrong.

After I’d started hosting shows, I decided I wanted to use comedy as a resource to do something good. So, I took it one step further by combining comedy with worthy causes that were close to my heart. “Misty Lynn’s Comedy for the Cause” premiered at the comedy club on August 2, 2006… it would have been Amy’s birthday. The live show that featured great local comics as well as some pro’s, was intermingled with information about the American Cancer Society and 100% of proceeds from the ticket sales were donated to the organization.

During the months that led to that first show, I’d been following a local missing person’s case very closely. Jennifer Kesse had disappeared on January 24th from her condo in Orlando earlier that year. Like my mother, Jennifer had simply vanished. After their daughter had been missing for six months, Jennifer’s parents asked for assistance from the community to find alternative resources to keep the case in the public’s eye.

After weeks of consideration, I emailed the Kesse’s with a proposal for a type of event that had never been done before… a live comedy show with information about a missing person’s case intermingled within it. I envisioned it as something that would both create and sustain awareness, and in a highly positive atmosphere that would bring encouragement.

It was unconventional, but to me it made perfect sense. I was joined to both of these worlds… my own mother was a missing person; and comedy was my life, both on and off stage. But, what would someone else who didn’t have these things in common think of such a notion? I really had no idea what type of response I was to expect.

After speaking to the Kesse’s, “Stand Up for Jennifer Kesse” was held the week after that first show and it was exactly how I’d envisioned it. Nearly 200 people attended, and included the media and news cameras to carry on Jennifer’s case. After the show, I was greeted by a young man who walked over to me; he extended his hand and simply said, “Thank you.”

I’m not exactly sure who he was; maybe a family member or a friend of Jennifer’s. Unable to speak, I stood looking at him like a deer in head lights. I plainly could not bring myself to say “You’re welcome.” To be able to do something for someone else… something that no one had done for my mother… I felt as if I should be thanking everyone, not the other way around.

Over the course of the year, I did more “Comedy for the Cause” shows including more for missing children and adults. I had plans to feature the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida at my next show, but my passion for the stage had abruptly vacated just as quickly as it had emerged. Working in the comedy industry for ten years, and then also doing comedy the last two, I was immersed by both sides of it 24/7 and it simply got to be too overwhelming. My family was suffering because of it… and I was burnt out.

After taking the summer off to spend some overdue time with our two boys, Jeff and Chance, the perfect job seemed to simply fall into my lap. I knew I would love it then, and I still do now. My husband and I still work together, but now at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. The Coalition once signified the end of my time on stage, but it soon became a beginning – the beginning of the rest of my life.

The label on this new life reads, “Power included - No red button or microphone required.”

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