This is a very personal story about loss, grief, and how losing someone you love changes your entire family forever. I am writing the whole story of November 26, 2014 as I remember it today, as some sort of therapy for myself. As the days go by, several things keep running through my head, distracting me while I should be doing something else, and keeping me up at night. I’m hoping that by writing it all out, I can let some of it go and be at peace with it. It’s as if my brain keeps wanting to relive it all so I don’t forget anything. Anyway, here’s my family’s story.
This is Jennifer.
It was a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I was working an alternate work schedule of four ten-hour days with Wednesdays off, but we were also working overtime, so I was getting ready to go in to work, taking my time. I think it was around 10:00 in the morning and I was putting my shoes on. The boys were not home; since it was Thanksgiving week, Devin had the week off and both he and Taylor were spending a few days with their sister and grandma. Eric was already at work. As I was putting my shoes on, my cell phone rang. It was Eric. Before he could even say hello, the dogs began barking ferociously because someone was at the door. I told Eric I’d call him back in a few minutes.
I opened the door, just a crack so that the dogs wouldn’t get out, and the man at the door asked for Eric. I told him he was at work and I was his wife. He said he was from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and was looking for the family of Jennifer Twiss. As I stepped outside, closing the door behind me, I told him she was my stepdaughter. I was thinking, “Jen must have gotten into some kind of trouble, but what kind of trouble could it be? Jen never got into trouble. What could she have done for the police to come to our house looking for her?” All of these crazy thoughts were going through my mind in the few seconds it took for him to tell me why he was there. “Jennifer was killed this morning. She was hit by a truck while riding her bike to work.”
Wait a minute. What did he say? I heard him wrong. I had to have misheard. But his face, it was so serious. Ok, so he did say that, but he obviously has the wrong person. This is the type of thing I see on the news or read about online. This doesn’t happen to us. His eyes looked down at the clipboard in his hand. Clipped to the corner was Jennifer’s California ID card. It was real. It really was her. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel my heart beating. He said she was riding her bike to work, it was dark, and a “box truck” hit her from behind. He said they didn’t really know what happened, but she was just a few blocks from work. We stood there in silence for what seemed like an eternity. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything. My heart began pounding out of my chest. I felt more lost and alone in those moments than I’ve ever felt in my life. My hands began to tremble. I asked him, “What now? What do I do? What am I supposed to do?” He asked where Eric works. I told him. He told me it was up to me how to proceed from here, that we could go there together, we could call him on the phone, or he could go alone to notify him. I told him that I needed to go with him. I couldn’t not be there when my husband was told that his oldest child, his first-born daughter, his beautiful Jennifer was gone and she wasn’t coming back. I asked him about Traci, Jennifer’s mom. She didn’t know yet, either. He told me they had gone through a list of addresses for Traci, for Jennifer’s sisters Heather and Brittany, and for Jennifer herself. They had only been able to contact Jen’s very good friend and ex-roommate Mark, and then they came to our house.
He followed me to Eric’s job. I focused as hard as I could possibly focus on everything I could see in order to keep myself from falling apart, so I could drive safely. I focused on car colors, license plates, street signs. I said the thoughts in words in my head – “Honda Accord,” “Turn right,” “Stop at the stop sign” – whatever it took to keep from thinking about the reality of the situation. We pulled into the parking lot and parked. As I got out of the van, I felt the world start to go black. I was going to pass out. “Focus on your feet on the ground, the door handle, come back to this reality.” I got myself together so we could go in.
We walked to the office door and knocked. Eric opened the door. He looked at me, not recognizing me at first. After all, I was supposed to be at work, and who was this man standing next to me? I told him we needed to come inside and I told him to sit down. I sat down and I could not speak. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say anything. As I listened to the words, I saw the life drain from my husband’s face. The big, strong man I loved turned into a crumpled mess, and that was only the beginning. Together, we had to tell the other kids and, worse than that, we had to tell Jen’s mother. The woman who carried her for nine months almost 30 years ago didn’t yet know her daughter was gone. We needed to tell the other daughters first. They needed to be there when their mom was told.
Brittany was at work, only a mile or so from where Eric works. I waited in the van while he went inside. I heard her wails before I saw them coming out. Now to get Heather. Heather was at Brittany’s apartment. Again, I waited in the van. Eric and Brittany went inside and the three of them came out shortly after, a huddled, crying mess. Heather kept asking if they were sure she was really dead and what happened. Brittany just sobbed. Eric was silent.
We drove to Traci’s parents’ house. Once more, out of respect, I waited in the van. With the girls in front and Eric in the back, they knocked on the door and she answered. I heard Eric ask to go inside the house, telling her it was important. I heard Traci ask what was going on. I could hear the girls crying and then I heard the worst sound I’ve ever heard, a sound that haunts me at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. I heard Traci yell, “Will someone say something?!” followed by the sounds of a mother’s cries that can only be described as horrific.
We spent the next few hours there, outside Traci’s parents’ house. One at a time, family and friends began to show up. Phone calls were made. Sierra Donor Services called. Eric and Traci graciously agreed to let them use whatever they could to help others. Everyone wanted to share photos and stories, so I made a Facebook group so that everyone could do it all in one place and they would be there forever, for everyone. We talked about money for arrangements. Everyone wanted to help. To make it simpler, we set up a fundraiser account online. That way, we could keep a running total and keep everyone up-to-date.
In the coming days and weeks, we experienced so much love and kindness it was overwhelming. We learned how deeply Jen had touched her family and friends. We learned how much everyone loved her and we learned how many people loved and cared about us, too. My three closest coworkers got together and planned Thanksgiving dinner for Eric, the boys, and me. They all pitched in and one of them cooked us enchiladas, beans, rice, everything I’d already talked about making myself. She even made two different sets of everything – one vegetarian for Taylor and me and one traditional for Eric and Devin. When I went back to work in the next couple of weeks for a day here and a day there, I found flowers, cards, even a bottle of wine at my desk. Along with family, others began donating to the online fundraiser. People Jen had worked for, coworkers of mine, friends and coworkers of Eric’s, friends of friends and friends of family, some people who never even knew Jen, but who knew people who loved her. We ended up with much more than we needed, so we donated the excess to charities we knew Jen cared about – Front Street Animal Shelter, the Sacramento SPCA (which is located just a few feet from where she was killed), and the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center. Her name is now on the wall at each of these places. Front Street even put her photo on a cat kennel.
Jen’s family installed a ghost bike at the site of her death. I had never heard of ghost bikes before and I had never noticed one, but it seems I see them everywhere now. It seems I see a news story at least once a week about a bicyclist being killed, too. I really don’t know if it’s happening more frequently, with all the distractions we now have in our cars – cell phones, GPS navigators, all the dash displays, etc. – or if I’m now hyperaware of it, but it puts that familiar lump in my throat every single time.
Just a few short weeks before her death, on September 16, 2014, California began enforcing the “Three Feet for Safety Act,” officially known as AB 1371. This new law states that motorists must allow at least three feet of space when passing a bicyclist. If a driver violates this law, there are two possible penalties. If there is no injury, the base fine is $35, plus court and administrative fees, for a total of $233. If the violation results in a bicyclist being injured, the base fine is $220, plus fees, for a total of $959.
Please, please, please give as much space as you possibly can when you pass a bicycle. No one, and I mean no one, should ever have to lose someone they love like this. Spread the word. Share it on your Facebook wall. Get a free bumper sticker for your car or your bike. Talk to people about it.
Jennifer Ashleigh Twiss was born on Christmas Day, December 25, 1984. She was killed just 29 days before her 30th birthday, on November 26, 2014. Jen loved her family and friends and her love was deep, strong, unconditional, and never-ending. She had a passion for photography, music, and animals. She loved her cats JC and Reagan. She rescued them when they were just teeny little babies born to a feral mama cat living at the nursery she was working at. She bathed them, fed them, and loved them as if she were their mama. They live with us now and their love provides some comfort, especially to Eric. Jen made friends everywhere she went. She enjoyed doing things to make people happy and she loved to be with people, whether she was at a concert or just sitting around the house talking.
Our family is forever changed. Eric is a different person. Even in times of happiness, there is an ever-present underlying sadness that I doubt will ever go away. Traci and I have become friends, despite our less-than-amicable past. We’ve learned that none of that matters anymore. We love a lot of the same people and that’s all we need. I’m more nervous and anxious than ever before. I refuse to let Devin ride a bike. Taylor, as an adult, can ride a bike if he chooses to, and he does. In September, he had an accident (not involving a vehicle, thankfully) and has now had two surgeries to repair his dislocated elbow and broken coronoid and a couple of days ago, during the second surgery, he had the shattered radial head removed and replaced. Heather is now expecting her first baby, due two days after Jen’s birthday, which is bittersweet. Brittany also recently had an accident, hers involving a motorcycle. Her broken ankle was repaired by surgery and she is also healing. Each of these events that have happened since Jen’s death, with the exception of the baby, has brought on a new wave of grief, fear, and sadness. I’m hopeful that the baby will bring with him a new joy and happiness to the family.
I suppose this ends my “diary” entry. I do feel a little lighter, having put my thoughts and memories in writing. I’ll end with this: Don’t wait to tell people you care about how you feel about them. Tell them what it is about them that makes them special to you, and do it now. Do not wait, because if I’ve learned one thing in the last year, it’s that you truly never know when you will see or talk to someone for the last time. Be nice to each other.
To learn more about bicycle safety in California, visit the California Bicycle Coalition.
To learn about organ donation and sign up online, visit organdonor.gov.
If you are in Sacramento and you need affordable burial or cremation, I highly recommend Affordable Cremation and Burial Center. They are kind, compassionate, and helpful. They made the process much easier for all of us and at a price much lower than most traditional funeral homes. We used their chapel for her service, which accommodated all of the guests and has a nice projector and movie screen set up so we could show the wonderful slide show Taylor made (below). This is not an ad, just a recommendation based on our personal experience.