In Loving Memory - For Tayah

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“They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.”

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August 18, 2007. Ten years ago, my best friend died in a car accident. It was a Saturday. I was working as a waitress at Ribs Restaurant near my house in the mountains just east of Albuquerque at the time. I called her during my break and we made plans to go to town that night for a movie. We spent most weekends together at one of our houses. She was spending time with her family at home that morning, and I’d agreed to run errands with my mom after my shift. We agreed that on my way home, my mom would drop me off at the East Mountain Library near the freeway and I’d hop in the car with her from there. We often said, “love you!” to one another, but at the end of this particular phone call, she made sure I heard it. 

“Wait, Bree!” She used to say my name in this long, high pitched voice that made us laugh. Like there were about a dozen extra “e’s” at the end. 

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

“Hah. I love you too, Tayah.” 

That was the last time I heard her voice. 

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Tayah Lashé Cox was born on September 4, 1990. She was kind, loyal, and free-spirited. I met her on my first day of high school. She sauntered into first period with these giant sunglasses on looking like she just rolled out of bed. I, on the other hand, had woken up before the sun to get ready. I cared too much and tried too hard. Tayah was effortless. She never took her sunglasses off in that class, and she never said a word. We had fourth period together too. It was the last class of the day and when she came in this time, she sat down next to me, took off her sunglasses, and shot her skinny arm out at me!  “HI! I’m Tayah, whats your name?” She took me off guard but I introduced myself and by the end of the class we were both in trouble with our teacher, Mr. Jameson, and she had invited me to her birthday party a couple of weeks out. 

Every day she came late to first period and every day we pushed the limits in fourth. Bless our teachers. They loved us and didn’t, at the same time. The next semester, we had every class together. I carried her through Humanities class by completing our group projects, and she carried me through Geometry by flirting with the smart boys so they’d help us. We’d sit on the floor underneath the tables in Jameson’s class, but he’d get most mad when we chewed gum. He said we were tricking our bodies into thinking we were eating, and the stomach acid meant to dissolve food would burn holes in our stomachs instead. Maybe he was just looking out. 

I was the odd-ball at Tayah’s birthday. My parents met hers and gave me the go-ahead, and we stayed at a hotel for a night with a group of her other friends from middle school. We swam and sauna’d and ate junk food all night. We ran around the hotel like wild animals hopped up on too much sugar. Tayah was the ring-leader and the rest of us girls trailed behind her and tried to keep up. When it was about time to leave the next day, a couple of us went to the lobby. Maybe to check for breakfast, or maybe just to explore. A man had just finished mopping the entryway and there was one of those yellow “wet floor” sandwich boards near the middle of the room. Tayah sneaked up to it real slow-like with the man’s eyes straight on her. She grabbed the sandwich board and stuck the thing right up her shirt and took off out the door past the rest of us! If you only knew how skinny she was, you’d know how absurd the whole scene was. The man watched but didn’t move, and after a split second, we all just ran back to our room. Tayah was keeled over laughing. Thought it was the funniest thing ever! I still have that “wet floor” sign. 

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I finished up work and met my mom at home. We went to town and went grocery shopping together. When we were getting ready to head back to the mountains, I texted Tayah that we were about 30 minutes out. I don’t remember if she ever responded. 

My mom and I took Route 66 and pulled up to the library a few minutes early. We talked some and listened to the radio. I texted Tayah that we were there. No answer. We waited. Ten minutes or so later, I texted again. No answer. I tried calling. No answer. 

My mom suggested we go home and wait for her there. She wanted to unload the groceries and said she’d give me a ride back down when I heard back from Tayah. I was irritated but agreed. We pulled out of the library parking lot back onto 66. About a half a mile up, there was an intersection where you could veer right and stay on 66 headed east towards Edgewood and Moriarty. Towards Tayah’s house. Or you could wait at the light and get on North 14 towards my house. We pulled up to a red light and saw wreckage just past the bridge near the offramp. 

The whole north-bound side of the street was blocked off. There were police officers directing people onto Route 66 where they could take a detour down and around the wreck, essentially heading east to get back on the freeway headed west, exiting right beside the crash site but turning right onto North 14. My mom immediately started praying and we started veering off towards 66. I looked back over my shoulder to try to see what had happened. I saw a flash of yellow and my heart just about exploded as I shouted for my mom to pull over. 

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She was a cowgirl who loved horses, country music, and the rodeo. I was not a cowgirl and I loved none of those things—but I was raised with horses, so when we decided to ride hers around her family’s property, I was super excited. Turns out, I had developed an extreme allergy over the years and my face blew up like a balloon. I could barely breathe and my eyes just about swelled shut. We cancelled our plans we’d made for later that evening and binge-watched America’s Next Top Model instead. 

We rotated between houses most weekends. My house was closer to town, so on the weekends we stayed there, we often visited friends or Tayah’s sister, Teila, in Albuquerque. We always made chocolate chip pancakes on Saturday morning. The weekends we stayed at her house, we mostly had scary movie marathons (I wasn’t allowed to watch those at home) and ate boxes and boxes of Velveeta Mac N’ Cheese and brown sugar by the spoonful for dessert. So gross. One time I gave her highlights using a bleach cap and spent hours pulling pieces of her hair through the holes using a crochet hook. When we were done her hair had been effectively turned bright orange. She cried and I laughed until we switched and she was laughing and I was panic-crying. We dyed her hair back the next morning. 

Tayah drove a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. She drove a blue and white truck sometimes too, I don’t know the make. I do know she dreamed of having an F-150 one day. We drove all over the city in her yellow Bug. We listened to pop songs on the radio. Occasionally she’d show me one of her country favorites, but with me she kept things a little more thug. 

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I flew out of the car as soon as my mom pulled over and ran to the intersection where a police officer stopped me. My mom was close on my heels and we told the officer we knew the driver, that we wanted to go to her. 

“I really don’t think you should go over there.” 

I couldn’t see much past the bridge and emergency vehicles surrounding the crash site. Just a yellow car door in the middle of the street. 

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She’d rarely be awake early enough to meet me and some other friends behind the Shell Station close to school, but occasionally she’d roll up all grumpy and share a cigarette in silence. I went to the Shell station every morning and bought a dollar cup of soupy, syrupy coffee. Sometimes I’d have one waiting for her when she got to class. 

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My mom and I got back in the car and took the detour route to circle back around to the accident. The drive was a blur. My limbs felt like they were disconnected from my body, and my mom immediately started praying. I called my friend, Rian Padilla. He didn’t answer and I left a panicked message. He asked me later what made me call him and I didn’t have a good answer. He and our other friend Sean Hellwege were favorites of mine and Tayah’s. We loved each other a lot and I guess I thought he could have seen the accident or would know what to do somehow. Before I had the chance to try Sean or anyone else, we pulled off the exit inches away from the accident and parked on a patch of dirt off the side of the road. 

Another police officer stopped me from getting too close. I told him that the driver of the Bug was my best friend. I asked him where she was. 

“The ambulance took her to the hospital.” 

“Is she alive?”

“She was when she left.” 

I don’t think I cried. I surveyed the scene in front of me and took it in in an instant. Tayah’s car had been T-boned. There was a truck in the lane closest to the exit that had stopped a few feet back. The smaller car in the far lane is the one that had hit Tayah. The Bug was crushed on the drivers side, the door having been removed and set aside. The seats of the car were dislodged and piled on top of each other. The windshield was shattered and glass was everywhere. The police officer wouldn’t let me get any closer. My mom and I got back in the car and got straight onto the freeway headed west towards the hospital. 

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There was not one boy who knew Tayah who didn’t have a crush on her at one point or another. And in return she was flirty, but not committed. One time we were at the soccer field watching a game and Tayah said, offhand, that Chinese sounded good. One of our schoolmates, Tyler Corey promptly left and came back awhile later with three plates of Chinese food from a local restaurant down the street. Another time, on a camping trip, she asked this random boy she saw if she could try on his sunglasses. Apparently they were name brand something-or-other and super expensive. She put them on and walked away, and he just watched her go! I think Teila has those now. 

Out of the boys who found themselves interested in Tayah, the one she liked in return was my brother, Levi. I think it was the summer between our freshman and sophomore years that they first started dating. Most of the time I liked them together, but it could definitely drive me crazy when suddenly he had interest in being with us the entire time on the weekends we spent at my house. She was good about it though, and split her time well. Once school started back up again, they still dated, but things got rougher. Things had never gotten especially serious between them, but when she picked back up flirting with the other boys, my brother stepped back. I know he was bummed, and that he still liked her, but having her split attention between him and others didn’t appeal to him and he separated himself. 

By the time she realized that she had ruined things with him, it was too late. He met Brandi, who would later become his wife. I have notes saved from her, passed back and forth in class, full of regret that she hadn’t held onto him. They were never on bad terms though, and they stayed friends until the end. 

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During the drive, my mom and I continued to pray. I called Tayah’s mom, Trina, and left a message on her voicemail. I know I tried to sound calm, but let her know that it was an emergency and asked her to call me back as soon as she possibly could. 

My mom pulled up near the emergency room and I went inside while she parked. I asked the woman behind the counter about Tayah and she hadn't been processed yet, because there wasn’t any information about her. Mom and I waited. Trina called me back and I told her there had been an accident and to get to the hospital. I don’t remember our conversation or what I said or if I said it sensitively or not. She thanked me and said she and her husband, Larry were on their way. I think Teila was the first one to arrive. She lived in town, so she was closest. The waiting is a blur. We were finally told that Tayah had been taken to the ICU. She was getting help breathing and they were surveying the damage. Trina and Larry came, Trina hugged me and they went off looking for answers. I can not fathom how they felt in those moments. 

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Tayah was intelligent and intuitive. She knew things before they happened. Or knew when something was happening without being told. She’d get a feeling or a have a thought, and she didn’t brush it off. I think the biggest thing is that she paid attention. She could be as scattered and high-strung as any of us, but she also knew how to be present. 

One day after school, I was sitting on the grass out front by the parking lot. I was upset about something, I don’t remember what now. There was a class just getting back to campus after a field trip. I remember watching people get off the bus. Dillon Glazebrook and Oona VanSwol stand out in my memory. It was a sunny day and there was a breeze. I remember feeling comfortable, like I could curl up and fall asleep. But I was upset and felt that despairing, dramatic feeling like teenagers sometimes do. The kind where there’s an old favorite song playing in your head and you make it out in your mind that this is a crossroads of your life, and your song is the soundtrack. Drama. 

Tayah hadn’t made it to school that day but she called me then and said, “I’m on my way. Tell me what’s wrong.” We met behind the Shell station and I told her about whatever it was that was on my mind. But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Sometimes she just knew things, and she always showed up. 

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The night of Saturday, August 18th, 2007, Tayah had an emergency surgery during which the doctor removed a piece of her skull to allow her brain to swell without damage. She had other breaks and bruises, but the main priority was her head. She had severe swelling. 

By that night, word had spread about Tayah’s accident amongst the school. Dozens of friends showed up and sat together in the ICU waiting room. I went to the parking garage with a few friends and we smoked cigarettes and waited. Cigarettes and waiting. I went back inside shortly before the rest of our friends and caught my first glimpse of Tayah as her bed was being wheeled from the surgery room to her room. I think Teila had just given her a pedicure, and I recognized her polish. Half of her head was shaved. 

My dad had come to the hospital to see me then and he hugged me tight and switched places with my mom to sit with me for awhile.

That night, my friend Sarah Henson offered to let me stay at her apartment nearby the hospital. We didn’t leave until early that Sunday morning, and I was back after a few hours of half-sleep at Sarah’s. My brother had come the day before, but on Sunday he came back with our friends Ryan Fini and Seth Buckwalter. They brought coffee and doughnuts, then posted up on the floor and did homework there for the day. 

On Monday I missed school.

On Tuesday I missed school. 

Every day more friends came to sit and wait in ICU. 

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Smart as she was, Tayah despised school. She ditched every chance she got, showed up late most days, barely scraped by with her grades, and by summer of sophomore year, she wanted out. 

What she was interested in, she excelled in. What she wasn’t interested in, she wouldn’t fake. 

That same summer of sophomore year, the Cox family invited me to go on their annual camping trip to Silverton, Colorado during the week of the 4th of July. I think it was during that trip that Tayah convinced her parents to let her drop out and get her GED. 

My mom was afraid of bears and I was afraid of hiking, but I was allowed to go. I slept over at her house the night before the trip so we could get an early start the next morning. And let me tell you, this family knows how to camp! We drove up into the Silverton Mountains and put up our tents (and blew up our air mattresses), pulled out our camping chairs, set up an eating area, and unloaded the ATV’s. First thing Tayah did was paint her fingernails. Larry started a fire and we all roasted marshmallows. We all piled into one tent after that to snuggle up to the radiator heater and watch Harry Potter. Yes, air mattresses, radiator heaters, and Harry Potter. Definitely camping I can get on board with. 

The next morning we had the most delicious breakfast of eggs, bacon, toaster strudels, and coffee. It’s the Larry special. From this point, I don’t remember what order we did things in. Even so, that week was one I’ll never forget. We rode ATV’s, went on hikes, went four-wheeling on the most treacherous, skinny roads in the Jeep, cooked meals on an open fire, explored the old mines, trespassed on restricted land, peed behind trees, told stories, laughed, stood still, took in the view and the cold, listened to Big Head Todd and the Monsters on a loop, and soaked in the experience and the memories as we went. 

It was during this trip that I truly got to know and love Larry, Trina, Teila, and Aaron (Teila’s boyfriend, now husband). We’ve always agreed that it feels like that trip was our true introduction, the thing that would ensure we would still have each other after Tayah left. 

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On Wednesday, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to try to go back to school. The year had just started and they didn’t want me to fall behind. I had spent that last few days at the hospital, and we still didn’t know anything. She had been in an induced coma since that Saturday, and we were waiting on scans to come back to know the extent of the damage. 

Her family had been allowed into her room to see her since Sunday, I think. Maybe even sooner. I don’t remember what day it was that I was allowed in. It was one morning when fewer people were around. The doctor offered to take a couple of family members back, and Larry waved me over. The doctor asked if I was family, and Larry said “yes.” 

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On the 4th of July, we went into Silverton to watch the parade. Silverton is a tiny, magical town. There’s a main strip with shops and restaurants for the tourists, and houses on either side. There’s a park and a courthouse and a fire station. We visited the family’s favorite coffee place there, and wandered in and out of the shops. When it came time for the parade, we set up our camping chairs and watched the procession, collecting Mardi Gras beads as they were being thrown to the crowd. Tayah had a giant collection of them hanging from her bed post at home. After the parade, we went to the big field nearby with all the locals and other out-of-towners and set up our chairs to watch the fireworks later on. It was somewhere around this time that Tayah took off with that poor boy’s expensive sunglasses. 

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6 weeks later. 

On Wednesday, August 22, 2007, I had not gotten to first period yet when I convinced my parents to let me collect my school work and do it at the hospital. I had just gotten back home with my things when Teila called me and told me that I’d better come right away. 

I dropped everything and must have kind of come across as frantic, because my mom wouldn’t let me drive myself. She said it would be safer for me if she drove me there. Again, she dropped me off at the emergency exit while she parked. I knew the route to the ICU like the back of my hand and I headed in that direction. At this point, it’s almost like I was outside of my own body watching myself move through the hospital. It felt like I was moving in slow motion. When I came to the entrance of the hallway just about to the ICU, I saw Teila standing at the end of it, waiting for me. She didn’t move and I quickened my pace. When I was almost to her I saw her just barely shake her head and next thing I knew we were in each others arms sobbing. 

I didn’t know how or why, but at that point I knew that Tayah wasn’t going to wake up. 

We were escorted to a private waiting room around the corner and the rest of Tayah’s family was there. 

I called my mom before she had even caught up to me and told her on the phone. I couldn’t bear to see her face when she found out. I asked her to tell Levi. I couldn’t bear to see his. Or even to hear his voice. I couldn’t imagine being the one to tell this news to anyone. 

My dad and brother came soon. 

Tayah had been taken off of the coma-inducing drugs, and she had not woken up. After four days of waiting and tests, her scans came back and her brain had been damaged beyond hope of healing. She was being kept alive by a machine and nothing more. 

Extended family was called and invited to come. Larry and Trina asked me to help them update the school and her friends. They blew me away with their constant consideration for others through that whole week. They had every right and reason to close up and keep a wall around themselves and their daughter, but they wanted everyone who wanted closure to have it, and to know before it was over, that it was ending. 

It was probably close to noon when the news started to spread around the school like wildfire. Students from every year started to walk out of class and get in their cars to make the drive from the East Mountains to the hospital in Albuquerque. Once the teachers and principal caught wind, they made an announcement that everyone needed to stay on school property until it let out for the day. They closed and locked the gates in an attempt to keep kids in. It wasn’t out of a bad place, but for liability sake, I know they had full responsibility of their students. Try as they might to contain them, students started piling into the larger cars and going up and over the curb surrounding the parking lot and over the grassy hill that led to the main street. The part of the property that wasn’t gated in. 

By early afternoon, the ICU was swarming with students from East Mountain High (the school we attended) and some from Moriarty High (where she had friends from middle school). The hospital personnel couldn’t help but notice the crowd that Tayah had pulled, and many of them commented on how loved she must be. 

There were few allowed in to see her, even in the last moments, but that didn’t stop anyone from being close by. 

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“Is she family?”

“Yes.”

Larry led me in back through the double doors, down a short hallway, and through the door to her room. She laid there, connected to various wires and tubes. She was swollen. Puffy, from the insulin injections. Half of her head was shaved and I cried for her over that. She loved her hair so much. Teila and I would joke that when she woke up, she would slice the doctor in half who cut her hair off. 

After the accident, no one really had any doubts that she would wake up. We didn’t know when, but it didn't feel like an option that she wouldn’t at all. Tayah was tough. She had this air about her. But that wasn’t it either. She was kind. There was no “type” of person who showed up to the hospital. She was a friend to everyone. She didn’t step on anyone to get to the top, she was just always there.

The doctor encouraged us to talk to her. They said sometimes even if she can’t respond, she may still be able to hear us. So I talked to her. I told her about school. About family. About Josh, the boy I was hung up over at the time. I told her about how many people were praying for her. I gave her personal messages from friends. I asked her questions. Like was she scared? Did she see the other car coming? Could she hear me? I asked her if she could feel Jesus. 

There were a couple of times I thought she squeezed my hand. Or fluttered her eyelids. She could have. And maybe it was just a muscle reaction. Or maybe she heard me. 

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On the last day, I went in and out of her room a dozen times. A couple of times, I thought I’d be strong enough to let it be the last. Then I’d leave the room and my heart would just ache. I couldn’t grasp the finality of what was about to happen. So I’d go back in and hold her hand and talk some more and cry and try to imagine what a world would be like without her in it. I’d never lost someone so close to me before. I tried to prepare myself and force my mind around the thought that she wasn't there anymore. Her body was a shell and it had likely been a shell since the moment that car collided with hers days before. But still. There was someone to look at and touch and talk to. 

During my true last moments with her, I talked to her about Jesus. I prayed with her out loud and asked God to take her home to Him. 

When I finally left the hospital, friends and schoolmates had cleared out. It was Tayah’s family that remained, and I hugged each one of them goodbye.

My mom and I got in the car and headed towards home. We had barely made it out of the parking lot when we hit traffic. I was anxious and irritated by the slow pace. My mind wandered back to the hospital and I knew any moment could be her last moment, and there was no going back. I asked my mom if I could walk and I did. From Carlisle to Tramway. Fast paced, talking/arguing with God. The feeling was surreal beyond my ability to explain it. 

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Tayah Lashé Cox was 16 years old when she died. 

She wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But she was real and full of life and fun and color and I wish she didn’t have to go when she did. 

In my brother’s most recent poem, he wrote something about legends that rings true to me: 

“Stay for every memory, we’ll embellish around the dinner table until it becomes legend — not quite the way it happened but certainly not a lie — memorialized and floral, the way that fiction gets at truths like laughter when we tell the stories year after year, and they grow and we’re all sure that, “yes, as a matter of fact it did rain literal cats and dogs during our darkest nights”  and we thought god was gory but they're all grace now and life is movement and we are healing and breaking and making and being made all of the time.” 

Tayah was a real person, not make-believe. But ask anyone, she’s legendary. Memorialized and floral. Maybe our own memories and fondness embellish the truth, but it’s certainly not a lie. 

I’m thankful for the time I had with her, for the impact she had, and for the memories I’ll always carry. 

Bree BarelaComment