One of the most compelling stories from NBC's "The Biggest Loser" was the story of Abby Rike, who's journey began after a police officer told her, "We found no survivors." Her husband and two children — one of whom was a newborn — were killed in a car accident.
In her new book, "Working It Out: A Journey of Love, Loss and Hope," Rike reveals how she gained the will to live again and claimed victory over her weight problem thanks to the weight-loss reality show.
Chapter 1: Into the Depths
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our own will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. —Aeschylus
I am standing on the side of the road. It’s as though my feet are planted in the ground, planted in cement. And I’m just waiting. No one will tell me anything. The dreadful scene that lies around the curve ahead remains a mystery for now as I’m frozen in place, standing like a statue at the defining moment of my life—eerily controlled while the life and love I’d cherished slips from my grasp. The intense combination of the red, white, and blue lights from the multitude of emergency vehicles penetrates my vision so severely I am overwhelmed by the visual assault. These are the lights that embody emergency, rescue, and often tragedy. Only this tragedy—my tragedy—has left us with no one to rescue.
My heart beats as if it wants out of my body, as if my heart knows it belongs in the van with the three people who had filled it with the joy of a truly perfect love. I ask the unavoidable question piercing my soul: “Is there a white van in the wreck?”
“Possible family member” is the emergency responder’s reply into his radio.
“I need to know if there’s a white van!”
And then simply, “Yes.”
Friday, October 13, 2006, began as a calm and quiet day of precious hours shared between a mother and her brand new, beautiful baby. And I knew beauty. I had watched it grow and radiate from every part of my daughter, Macy, for almost six years. I had witnessed the beauty of her innocence and the gift of her vivacious spirit. And now we’d been blessed once again with our blond haired, blue eyed, nine and a half pound perfect baby boy. The past eighteen days spent with Caleb had been absolute bliss. Caleb represented our hope for the future, and Rick and I savored the joy he added to our lives.
He was the only boy, Mommy’s handsome “feller” (as I so lovingly called him), PaPa’s fishing buddy, Daddy’s little Longhorn, and the most wonderful completion of our family.
In those moments with my new family of four, I was acutely aware of the blessings that had been showered upon me. Not once did I take what I’d been given for granted; they were my purpose, my joy, my truth, and my everything. My roles as wife and mother were everything I’d ever wanted, and I would not have traded lives with another human on the planet.
That particular Friday I wasn’t feeling well. Aside from the normal fatigue every new mother faces, my chest felt unusually tight, and I was running a low grade fever. Nevertheless, I wasn’t too ill to miss time with my delightful son. With my husband Rick, a teacher, and Macy at school for the day, I had time alone with Caleb to play and treasure those fleeting moments of a child’s infancy. Sitting on my bed with him in my lap, his head at my feet, I talked to him and cuddled him as we studied each other to our hearts’ content.
When Macy and Rick eventually came in from school, I was immediately captured by Macy’s excitement over what she described as the best day of her life. As part of fire safety week at school, she had climbed on to a firetruck and embraced that occasion with the unbridled zest for life she brought to every experience. She went on to tell us about a sweet little boy named Mcguire who wasn’t in her class but had made her feel special by knowing her name. As I watched her trademark red curls dancing around her jovial face, she ran off to draw a picture of herself and Mcguire each wearing a crown, poised in a whimsical carriage.
Meanwhile, Rick and I discussed whether some of the symptoms I was having warranted a visit to the emergency room. Deciding I should go—better safe than sorry—we agreed that we didn’t want Caleb exposed to any potentially harmful germs lurking in an ER waiting area. Rick would take him, Macy, and our two nieces, Madelyn and Maryl, to an open gym while I sought medical attention. I kissed Caleb and then Macy. I walked over to Rick standing behind our counter and kissed him, then went out to the car. Darting out from the house, Macy ran toward me as I was about to leave. From the car I called out, “Baby girl, you have got to get back in the house. You cannot just run out of the house!”
She replied, “I just wanted one more hug.”
And then she stood in front of the car, wrapped her arms around herself, hugged herself, and said, “I love you!” I watched that exceptional child run back into the house, then pulled out of the driveway.
I’m at the emergency room and of course there’s a long line. My name has been on the waiting list for almost an hour. I determine that my family—my life—headed in the opposite direction on their fun outing together, have surely arrived by now. I call Rick to check in and to my surprise he doesn’t pick up. Weird. He always answers his phone. I call back. It rings and rings and rings. Voice mail. I call again. It rings and rings and rings. Voice mail. I know that more than enough time has passed for him to have arrived at the open gym, so I place a call to my ex sister in law’s house, where Rick was to pick up our nieces. I get right to the point. “What time did Rick pick up the girls?”
“He hasn’t picked them up. I just went ahead and took Madelyn and Maryl.”
And the feeling that something is horribly wrong begins to rise up from the pit of my stomach. Every fiber of my being knows that there’s been a wreck. What I don’t know is how bad it is.
I’m not completely conscious of my legs as they carry me to the front desk of the emergency room to explain that something has happened to my family. But somehow my body successfully reaches my car and I’m driving—fast. I’m driving and crying and praying out loud. “Please put angels all around my family. Please. All around them.”
Five miles past our house, on the two lane highway we’ve traveled so many times as a family, the sun begins to go down in the sky and a barrage of flashing lights comes into view.
Please put angels all around my family.
The onslaught of lights is almost too much, as I recognize the telltale signs that something truly terrible has occurred. I watch as uniformed officers redirect traffic around the blockades they have positioned, but I will not be redirected.
Please. All around them.
I pull over to an open space and get out of the car, standing there with my emergency room bracelet on. The frantic words escape my mouth. “I need to know if there’s a white van!” I hear the “Yes” in reply. But my life is in that van. My life is in that van. Panic stricken, I turn to the man beside me and ask, “Is it bad?” No one will make eye contact with me as the lights continue to flash and engulf my senses. The curt answer I am met with barely registers.
“Well, both of the cars caught on fire.”
WHAT?! And I see the fire trucks, but no one will tell me anything. I call my mother who is on a trip with my father in Florida with the Trinity Valley College board of directors. I cry out with a torrent of incomprehensible explanations of the events unfolding before my eyes.
Approaching me from a distance, two stone faced officers are coming with the news. I am vaguely aware of the phone still at my ear when each officer takes one of my arms. And from the mouth of a wonderful man named Officer Clint Pirtle—the only man to make eye contact with me—came the most horrific statement ever to reach my ears: “I’m so sorry. We found no survivors.”
I drop to my knees, only to get right back up and plead, “Well, I need you to keep looking!” Surely they just haven’t found everybody yet. And then I remember the phone in my hand. “Mother, he said they’re all gone. He said they’re all gone.”
As Officer Pirtle takes the phone from my hands, I am left with the wave of numbness that has begun to infiltrate my body and mind. I instantly know Officer Pirtle’s words are true; I know that they are gone. I know that I will never see them again. Without the benefit of denial, I’m left on the side of the road with only myself—truly broken, violently severed from the life I’d known only hours earlier. And just as if a limb has been severed from my body, shock takes over quickly, and I don’t feel the pain right away. As I absorb that everything precious to me is gone, my mind becomes flooded with the knowledge that I have nowhere to go, no one to call, and nowhere to be.
Sitting on the back of an ambulance beside a young paramedic, I think back to that frantic drive toward the unimaginable place in which I now find myself. I prayed that God would put angels all around my family. I just didn’t mean this way. I turn to the unassuming paramedic and am overcome with the urge to tell him our story. I tell him, with an eerie calmness, as though I haven’t just been told that every member of my family is dead, “I have to tell you how wonderful my family was.”
And as I explain that I’d had the most perfect husband, and the most perfect five year old daughter, and the most perfect two week old son, that precious man stands there and listens. I wonder aloud, “How could this be real when they were just going to open gym?”
And that wonderful man, a complete stranger, stands there and listens. A female paramedic joins us only to leave minutes later, unable to handle the words I feel compelled to share. But he never leaves; he stands quietly, offering no inane platitudes meant to comfort me.
As my ex sister in law arrives on the scene and I get into her car, I am starkly aware of my complete solitude. I recognize the face of Ronnie Daniel, justice of the peace and the man here to fulfill the unimaginable duty of declaring my family dead. He comes to me and says, “Abby, I’m so sorry. If I could take their place I would.” And he means it. He truly means it. “Is there anyone I can call?”
No, I think. I don’t have anybody to call. It’s just me. My parents are on their trip in Florida; my brother is at a football game in Georgia; and my husband’s not answering.
I leave the scene with my ex sister in law and head to my house—our home—to pack some things. I have no reservations about returning to the house we shared as a family. It is truly a home in every sense of the word: a place of safety, love, and comfort. It is the happiest place on earth to me. As I enter the house, I am greeted by balloons saying “It’s a Boy!” I pass Caleb’s stroller in the living room and walk into our bedroom, robotically filling a bag. My face is strangely dry; I am without tears. I walk out the door into an existence I cannot comprehend. Just like that, at one fell swoop, I know that I’m no longer a wife to the most amazing man I’d ever met. No longer a mother to the two most precious children in the world. Where do I go? What now?
From "Working it Out: A Journey of Love, Loss and Hope" by Abby Rike. Copyright © 2011
Reprinted by permission of FaithWords/Hachette Book Group.