Local Voices: Aztec & Four Corners healing will take some time

Vangie Garza Neil
Special to The Daily Times

On Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, evil showed its face in Aztec, New Mexico and to the Four Corners community. We lost two wonderful teenagers to a lone gunman. They have since been laid to rest. The community now has its biggest task ever – to heal. 

I know what it is like to lose a child. Erin was 16 years of age when she and friend, Ryan were killed in an auto accident during the worst rains that could ever hit San Antonio, Texas. They, like Casey and Paco, were innocent children attending school, enjoying their teenage years, and looking ahead to what life had to offer. Unfortunately, they did not know what was to come. 

For Erin and Ryan, it was bad weather. Driving schools have state requirements to meet in teaching them "how" to drive, but they do not include teaching our children how to drive in hazardous weather. They were both killed instantly when Ryan lost control of the car and hit an oncoming utility truck. 

I was in Dallas at the time and was to have been with Erin that weekend. Our plans had been laid out. I spoke to her at seven that Thursday morning to tell her to have a great day and to do her best in school. At eight o’clock that evening, I received a call no parent should ever receive – to learn their son/daughter had breathed their last breath. 
Except for two of my employees, I was alone at work. I dropped the phone and screamed when I received the news; they came running. The rest was a blur. My heart was broken. I arrived in San Antonio to find Erin's friends were having difficulty processing what had happened and like Mr. Fernandez, Jamie, brothers and sisters, and friends, we never had a chance to say goodbye.

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This past week, tears rolled down our cheeks and our hearts ached when we lost Paco and Casey to a senseless, selfish and heinous act of evil. Everyone was taken aback when we heard the news. We are still in shock. Most everyone is back at school, but the healing will be ongoing and it will be different for everyone.

I was once told, “Time heals all.” That is not true. The truth is, “it is what you do with your time that helps you heal.” A stranger I met this week told me he had lost two sons in December several years back. He added, “It’s like a Band-Aid on a wound, trying to help it heal, but it still leaks!” 

Most teens, Paco and Casey’s age, have never lost a friend that same age, much less to something so horrific. I still have my moments. In fact, this event brought back tears for me and all I could think of were Paco and Casey’s parents, their friends, the many unanswered questions they still have, being overcome with sadness, and pondering how to move forward.  

Erin has been gone 17 years and I still shed tears during holidays, birthdays, Christmas, and when one of her favorite songs comes on the radio. Those tears are short-lived however as she enters my heart to remind me, “Mom, remember where I am," and I do! I now share my experience with those who have lost loved ones in an attempt to help others begin the healing process. 

Mr. Fernandez, Jaime, and to all their relatives and friends, know that sometimes God uses His young to do His work. On December 7th, Paco and Casey completed their assignment on earth and God called them home! 

Also know that it will always hurt, but the pain softens along the way. They touched the lives of many, befriended some, and brought light to lives of their families, to Aztec, New Mexico and to others. Laugh. Cry. Call on memories from the past as you watched them grow up to be wonderful young men and women. Hold on to all of that when your eyes well up with tears. Lean on each other, talk to each other and share your feelings. It will always be difficult. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

When we lost Erin, a friend told me, "the last time we see them may be the last time we see them." So true. Give your children a kiss in the morning before they go to school, before they go to bed, and do the same with your spouses and loved ones. Most importantly, know that we are stronger than we realize. 

We are also Aztec Strong!

Vangie Garza Neil is a journalist, writer and author.

Aztec High School supporters hold up signs for their boys basketball team before the start of a game against Piedra Vista Dec. 14 in Aztec. The contest was the team's first since a deadly shooting took place at the school on Dec. 7.