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On May 14, 1988, Lee Williams’ life ceased to make sense. Family was replaced with emptiness, routine swallowed up by chaos.
He lost everything in a bus crash on Interstate 71 that killed 27 people, leaving him alone to contemplate the senseless violence of one destructive decision by a drunken driver.
“I lost my wife, two little girls. I lost my marriage,” he said. “And I lost my title. I wasn’t Dad any more. I didn’t understand what the word meant until I didn’t have it any more. I thought I’d always be Dad.”
When he placed his wife, Joy, and his young daughters, Robin, 10, and Kristen, 14, to rest in their hometown of Poplar Bluff, Mo., he asked God for answers, looking for a reprieve from the emotional bloodletting and an explanation for why he only had a combined 24 years with his daughters and 18 years of marriage.
As others grappled with the deaths of children, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues, Williams asked God why he had to lose all three members of his family. Why was he left to inhabit a home with no soul left — nothing but agony?
“If I could just have one to help me through all the pain,” he said.
The rest of 1988 was cloaked in misery as Williams wrestled with depression to the point he acknowledged he must rebuild his life or succumb to sorrow.
He was invited on a trip with Bill and Maddy Nichols, who lost their only son, Billy, in the crash.
Williams was grateful for the invitation as he yearned for some time away from Radcliff. But he said he also was awash with self-pity and stifled by a debilitating grief as he watched the couple talk and spend time with their own family. It was a reminder that he had no one.
On New Year’s Eve, roughly six months after the crash, he vowed to restore meaning to his life, inscribing “power scriptures” and uplifting notes on index cards he stuffed in his pocket and read when he was feeling low.
In February 1989, he asked Dotty Pearman out for lunch. Pearman lost her husband, John, in the crash and was left to raise their three children, Christy, Robbie and Tiffany, on her own.
They ordered food and talked about their loved ones. A short lunch turned into a deep conversation lasting hours.
“I fell in love with her that afternoon,” he said.
They started dating and married in July of the same year. Williams considered the lunch a turning point toward reclaiming his life, but moderation was necessary in his interactions with the children, who were grieving the loss of their father.
Williams noticed he was overextending himself and wanting too much too soon. He just wanted to be called dad again, but he reined himself in.
“I had to let Dotty be mom and dad,” he said.
Without consulting their mother, the three children surprised Williams during Christmas of 1989, calling him “Dad” for the first time.
That three-letter word was an ointment for a soul battered by loss and weighed down by the realization he would build no more memories with his two daughters. He had resigned himself to the notion he would never walk a daughter down the aisle or caress the heads of grandchildren.
Tiffany Hargis, who was 7 when her father died, said she struggled to “understand the totality of it all” in the days, weeks and months after the crash.
“From the beginning, I loved Lee with all my heart,” she said.
He immediately stepped into the father figure role she desperately needed at such a formative age.
“It was something new,” she said. “Something to grab onto.”
She cannot remember who made the suggestion to start referring to Lee as Dad, but she recalls the giddiness and excitement she felt when they decided to do so.
“Over time, it has really fulfilled my life to call him ‘Dad,’” she said.
In many ways, Williams has been restored because he has learned how important it is to cherish something once you have been given a second chance — once something lost is returned to you.
He walked his stepdaughters down the aisle and entertains a home full of lively grandchildren, 11 in all, on a weekly basis.
“I lost two little girls, but God gave me two more little girls,” he said.
Hargis said Williams is an optimist who surrounds himself with those who keep him positive and energized.
“He doesn’t take it for granted,” she said.
Not that he has abandoned the memories of the family who left his side after an innocent trip to King’s Island, an amusement park north of Cincinnati. Framed portraits of Joy, Kristen and Robin, taken in April of 1988, are central in the couple’s living room. A photo of Dotty and John sits nearby.
“We’ve not forgotten anyone,” he said. “We’ve just made room for each other.”
He remembers his family in a positive light, refusing to dwell on regrets or wallow in sadness. People ask him what Kristen and Robin would look like 25 years later, but he has no interest in wondering because they are distilled in his mind as little girls.
“I don’t want to picture them older,” he said.
He returns to the questions he asked in the days after the crash claimed so many: Why so soon? Why all of them? Why wasn’t I given more time?
The answers never came, but he has learned to reframe his mindset about their deaths.
“As time goes on and you begin to heal, I say thank you God for 14 of the best years of my life, thank you for 10 of the best years of my life,” he said.
And he thanks God for the new bundles of joy. Tiffany recently gave birth to her fourth child and made another decision as an adult that, in many ways, parallels the decision she made more than 20 Christmases ago as a child.
In the hospital, she was unaware of the child's sex but drafted two letters. After giving birth to a little girl, she handed one of the letters to Lee and Dotty, who read it aloud paragraph by paragraph. Inside, the name of their newest grandchild was revealed: Anniston Lee.
It was her way of honoring the man who had accepted her as his own daughter at a time when she needed a father.
“He kind of has a legacy now he wouldn’t have had had we not come into his life,” she said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or email@example.com.