Sunday, December 16, 2012

Guardian Angel

Do you believe in Angels?  I do.  I have to.  I mean, I always have, but not in the same way I do now.

If anyone is wondering why it's been so long since I've written, it's because I've been trying to figure out how.  A terrible, horrific and heartbreaking thing happened... and I've spent almost two months trying to find the words to express how I feel about it.  It's not just how I feel about it, it's how everyone close to me feels about it.  I need to do her justice.  I need everyone to understand how special she was.  So here is my best effort at explaining her and her amazing heart... my angel, Avery.

I met Avery two summers ago at gymnastics camp.  She was a tiny little thing, full of energy and SO in love with gymnastics.  She was only 9, and lucky for me, staying in the dorm room next to me.  I remember Avery was a little home sick, and she spent a lot of time in my room, talking about her family, camp and her roommate.  She was afraid of storms.  There was a big storm one night, and I remember speaking with her mom on the phone.  The conversation went a little like, "Yeah, she'll be fine.  If you think she's okay, I'm not coming to get her."  Most often, when I had to talk to Mom's on the phone late at night the conversation would go, "I'M ON MY WAY! I'll be there in an hour!"  Looking back, this was a glimpse into the amazing family, their faith in each other... and a ridiculously amazing mother who taught her children to be strong, independent people.
Letter from the Tooth Fairy to Avery, July 2011

Avery came to both weeks of camp that year.  She was what I would call a recreational gymnast.  Not quite good enough to compete, but that didn't matter because gymnastics was FUN.  She acted as though she was training for the Olympics... and that my friends, is a coaches' dream.  Through out her two weeks at camp Avery made a ton of friends... mostly college students. :) She loved the Warhawks so much, and if she wasn't hanging out in my dorm room, she was hanging out in a different coaches' room.  When she lost a tooth at camp, one of my girls decided it was NOT okay for that child to miss out on the tooth fairy.  So the tooth fairy visited Avery at camp.  My GOD, was she elated that morning!  I thank God now, for the good-hearted, Emily Gillis, who made sure to take care of her.  She made that little girl so happy that day... and those are great moments to remember.  We had a raffle for a free week of camp that year, and Avery won it.  It was the icing on the cake of those two weeks.  We had all fallen in love with her, and everyone was thrilled that it was Avery that would be coming again next year.

That September I embarked upon a journey that would completely change my life.  I started a recreational gymnastics program for the community.  It was small at first, and I taught almost of the classes myself.  Some of the classes only had one kid in them.  One of those classes was an Advanced Beginner class on Tuesday nights... my one student was Avery.  The first week, I could barely get Avery to say six words.  A couple of weeks into class, I couldn't get her to stop talking!  We would sit up on the balcony while she stretched, looking down at the collegiate athletes practicing below, and Avery would tell me everything and anything about her day, her sister, her clogging team, ANYTHING!  She was so spunky and in love with life. Oh, and she needed to know everything about the gymnastics team.  She knew all of the girls by name, picked out her favorite floor routine, and needed to know why "so and so" wasn't practicing that day, or how "so and so's" ankle was healing.  Some days I'd completely forget I was talking to a 10 year old.  And some days we would stretch for WAY longer than we should have... simply because we had gotten lost in a conversation about how the meet went that weekend.  It was so funny to me how much she cared about the big girls.  She worked so hard at practice, and in October, I made her the gymnast of the month, and posted this picture in the gym newsletter.
Gymnast of the Month, October 2011

Now I know, that's just how Avery was.  She cared so deeply... for anyone she could possibly care for.

Flash forward almost a year exactly...

I was in class with my students Thursday, October 25th while they were listening to a guest presenter when I got a text message from a mom of one of the kids in my program.  "I just sent you a terrible email."  Is all it said.  Naturally, I was concerned by this, but never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed what I was about to find when I checked my email on my phone.

It was a link to a news article.  With text in the message body reading, "Rumor is, they were coming home from gymnastics."  My heart dropped instantly, and I left the room as I waited for the article to load on my phone.  There it was in black and white... no names, no confirmation of who it was or what they were doing... but an eleven year old from Delavan, WI died in a car accident on highway 89 around 6:15pm Wednesday night.  A sixteen year old was driving the vehicle and suffered minor injuries, another teen was airlifted to the hospital.

It was AVERY.  I just knew it.  My heart instantly knew that the child who had died was our beautiful, beloved, Avery.  She had just turned 11... on October 5th.  I knew that because my birthday is on the 6th... and we had talked about our Birthdays a lot.  There are over 100 kids in my program now, and I have no clue where most of them live... but I knew Avery was from Delavan.  I knew exactly where the location of the crash was by the description... Avery left class on Wednesday just after 6pm.  It would have taken them about 10 minutes to make it to where the report located the accident.  I tried to convince myself that it couldn't have been Avery.  Her mom picks her up right?!  No.  Avery has a sister in high school.  Jadrian... Avery worships her.  She talked about her all the time.  "Oh God"... I thought out loud. I thought I was going to pass out.  There was nothing in that article that told me it was Avery in that car... but I KNEW.  I just knew.

I immediately texted Katie, Avery's coach, asking, "Do you know who picked Avery up from practice last night?" And she didn't.  The girls in her class were all hugging each other and walking out of the gym together... she wasn't sure who went home with who.  "Okay"  I thought... maybe it wasn't her.  But that wasn't enough for me.  I left my class, and ran across the street to our office.  I walked up to the woman who does my registration and said, "I need you to do a search on all of my participants.  Tell me who lives in Delavan right now." She did.  There were 3 names.  One I didn't recognize... someone I haven't coached, but was too young anyway.  The other was one of my little girls, who is 11, does not have a sister and doesn't practice on Wednesdays.  Then, there was Avery's name.  I almost threw up.

I texted my boss and forwarded her the email I had received.  She tried to calm me down via text, and was unsuccessful.  There was no way I was going to feel better until I knew that Avery was not the child that was extricated from the mangled vehicle on a road I drive so frequently.  When class ended I made my way back to my office, where Jen and Amy (head coach and assistant athletic director- both of whom I am extremely close to) were already trying to reach the county police.  They understood.  They didn't even have to ask.  They knew this was bad... and they were angels.  They didn't want me to assume... though without speaking I knew that they were just as afraid as I was.  Amy put in calls to the Walworth County Police, to a personal friend who had connections, Jen was searching the news on the internet for answers, and I was texting a friend who worked at the high school in Delavan just praying she had heard something.


No one could tell us anything.

And then my friend at the high school texted me back.  She had heard who was in the car.  It was Jadrian driving.  Avery was in the car. They didn't know anything about how the three girls were doing.  She just knew that one had been airlifted to the hospital. She said, "That name sounds familiar... did Avery come to camp?"  and I said "Yes.  I don't think Avery made it." That was all I needed to solidify the reality of the situation.

Avery died that Wednesday.  On her way home from Gymnastics.

A million things ran through my mind that weekend.  How do I tell my girls (the UWW team) who loved her like a little sister.  How do I tell the kids in her class, or her friends from camp.  I kept thinking, "I am not grown up enough and I am not equipped to handle this situation. Lord, please help me."  And then I realized how unbelievably selfish I was being.  "Bridget... oh my."  That sweet mother who just wanted her child to enjoy gymnastics.  She actually came to me just a few weeks before telling me how stressed Avery was about moving up... and Bridget just wanted her to enjoy what she was doing.  What on Earth must she be going through!? Or Jadrian.  My God I just wanted to hug her.  And sweet little Brody.  Avery would come to his class with him and help him through the obstacle course or jump in the pit with him.  She was literally an Angel and that little boy cherished his big sister.  This family didn't deserve this.

I spent that Thursday and Friday in a complete fog.  We were taking our team trip to the Wisconsin Dells, and I honestly couldn't tell you how I got there.  I drove... I know that much.  But it was like I just ended up there.  I don't remember the drive at all... a little scary... but my brain was somewhere else.  And my heart was broken.  I arrived early.  About an hour before everyone else. I wandered around the resort, got a coffee, and sat in silence in the lobby watching all of the happy families getting ready for the water park, or the arcade.  Knowing that Bridget was going through hell.

And then, she called me.  It was a number I didn't recognize... but something in me said, "get ready."  The next three minutes of my life are going to be imprinted in my brain forever.  A completely unwavering voice was on the other end.  Not what I expected.  "Hi Allison, this is Bridget, Avery's mom."  I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I got.  She proceeded to tell me about the accident, and that Avery didn't make it.  Everything I already knew.  And then she invited me and the team to the services.  She said she completely understood if we couldn't come... and I cut her off.  "I'll be there.  Jen will be there.  And whoever else can come will be there... I am so sorry."

What the hell do you say to a Mother who just lost a child?!  I was again, feeling completely not old enough to handle what was happening.  When does a person grow up enough to feel in control of a situation like this?  Is one ever truly able to understand this... is there an age limit or a certain point in time when we are filled with an all knowing wisdom and grace?  At 26 I can guarantee you that I don't have it.

Bridget went on to tell me how happy she was that we would be coming... and that was it.  She said she would text me the times and address... and I would see her in 48 hours to say goodbye to that little angel who only a year ago was SO goofy with her curly perm she refused to put in a ponytail.  (Her best birthday present EVER!)

Upon hanging up the phone I stood up, barely made it to the door of the hotel and erupted into tears.  I ran back to my car.  I couldn't be there.  I couldn't sit in that stupid hotel lobby with so many happy families and know what the McCarthy's were going through.  I sat in my car choking on tears until I could pull myself back together.

All I could think about was the conversation that I had had just two weeks ago with Avery's mom about moving up.  I told her she was almost ready... and Bridget didn't care (probably the best gym mom ever).  She just wanted Avery to relax and enjoy her time at the gym.  She didn't think she was very good.  But Avery loved gymnastics... and I knew how much she wanted to move up.  I knew how big her heart was and I wasn't about to let her down.  I told her coaches what she needed to move up and told them to just drill those skills... and if she's close we'll move her up.  I didn't want her to get discouraged and quit.  We needed her to stay with us in our program.  She was that special.  We moved Avery up at the end of the session... and that little girl was so proud.  But in moving up, Avery had to switch practice days... and her Mom couldn't pick her up on Wednesdays.  Cue my guilt.  Should I have kept her in Intermediate?!  I panicked.  If she hadn't moved up, she wouldn't have switched days, and she wouldn't have been in the accident! I have NO clue where that train of thought came from... but it was there... and it was overwhelming.  I still wonder about that...

I can't go in to details about the days that followed. The visitation and the funeral.  The mother who spent so much time comforting everyone else and the beautiful sister who made a point to tell us how much we meant to Avery.  Jen holding on to me tighter than ever, as we sat in the pew at church and listened to the most mesmerizing eulogy given by a mother who had lost nearly everything.  They should really place a picture of Bridget in the dictionary under "strength."  I sat there wishing I could take everyone's pain away.  All I wanted was to see those beautiful eyes and have them give me 'the look' that only Avery could give me.  And those hot pink fingernails...

I didn't coach Avery anymore, but I talked to her that night.  And I am SO UNBELIEVABLY GRATEFUL that I walked over to that class to watch for a while.  Though our last conversation was something silly about her bright pink fingernail polish... I thank God every day that she was the person she was.  That I had the honor and the privilege to know this amazing child... to learn from her and to love her.

Since Avery went home, I've learned so much more about her and her amazing family.  I could never thank her mother enough for allowing her to spend so much time with us and our Warhawk Gymnastics family.  This little girl who loved God SO MUCH, and brought her Bible to gymnastics camp, and spoke in scriptures and just radiated goodness.  That was Avery... she radiated goodness.  Avery who, with her passing taught me how much I love each and every one of the kids I work with.  The little girl who's greatest birthday present this year was a Gatorade water bottle that matched the college girl's water bottles.

"Thank you, Avery"- Level 6, Amanda Kubly
Two of my little GymHawks were competing this year, and I needed to do something for them.  You see, they didn't go to school with Avery, but they hung out at camp together... and 12 year-olds shouldn't have to wonder why their friend isn't coming to practice anymore.  I made them special hair ribbons with Avery's initials on them... and they've worn them for every meet.  They rub her initials before they compete every event.  Before Bars (both have a lot of fear on bars) I always remind them that Avery's best event was bars... and she is with them on every skill.
Keeping Avery close at meets.  

 Now, I am a religious person... but not an overtly religious person.  And I never thought that I would bring God into coaching the way I have.  Avery did that for me.  Thinking of her is when I feel closest to God.  Even though I was mad at Him for a long time... I know that isn't what She would want.  She needs me to keep doing what I'm doing, and I'm going to do that for Her and for all of the other little girls that love gymnastics as much as Avery did.  I wear the ribbon from her funeral at every meet.  Either inside my jacket by my heart... or on my hip, right next to my GymHawks logo.  She was one of my very first GymHawks... and she will always stay close to me.

Avery was special... she still is.  And I think of her every time I step into that gym.  She taught me more about the person that I want to be than anyone I know.  Her wonderfully, amazing mom, has a blog:  Stumbling Towards Perfect I encourage anyone and everyone to read the beautiful words that she has written.  This woman is a gift to the world.  And her struggle is already helping so many people.  -Exactly what her daughter dreamed of doing.  If you'd like to know Avery, that is the best way to know the amazing gift she was to the world.  Her faith, her passion, they live on in her mom's words... and in our Averyday attempts to live life the way She did.  I want to share this beautiful psalm that means a great deal to me now... something I learned from Avery:

Psalm 121:
“I lift my eyes to the hills.
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
Maker of Heaven and earth!”

Thank you, sweet angel for teaching me so much about Faith, Love and His unwavering guidance.    You are always in my heart, my God Girl.  Rest Peacefully knowing your memory lives on each day, and we will never forget your wondrous teachings.  Until we meet again, my friend.   

Coaching our God Girl at Camp in 2011
Love True,


  1. A thousand thank you's: for your beautiful words. For your love and guidance you gave to Avery. For making that girl love - and I mean absolutely LOVE - everything about gymnastics and the UW-W Gymnastics Team.

    Now I'm all red and blotchy and my nose is running and my eyes won't stop crying --- but it is all worth it for this beautiful glimpse you have given me, of who Avery was and what she meant to others. THANK YOU!!

  2. Bridget,
    I am so happy I could do that for you! She was so special to me, to all of us, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her. I definitely would have written it sooner... but it took me a LONG time to compile my thoughts about your remarkable little angel. She is always in my heart... as is your entire family! <3

  3. Thank you for sharing your unique insight to Avery with us Allison. And thank you for believing, comforting and caring for her gentle spirit. She & her mother a truly rare souls we should all aspire to emulate.

  4. This is a beautiful post, Allison. You are an amazig writer and person.
    Bridget, I also read your blog and am incredibly moved by your sweet family and your faith. Praying for all of you!

  5. Thank you, Brooke! That really means a lot! You are incredibly talented yourself! =) Take Care!