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'Goodbye mama': the final messages sent in the midst of tragedy

The Guardian The Guardian 26/06/2016 Angelina Chapin
Anne Mulderry's son worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center. © Source: Doug Kanter/EPA Anne Mulderry's son worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center.

After the Orlando shooting, one story immediately put a human face to the unfathomable tragedy. Mina Justice, who was asleep and oblivious to the fact a gunman had opened fire in the Pulse nightclub, was woken up just after 2am by a text from her son.

“Mommy I love you,” 30-year-old Eddie Justice wrote on 13 June. “In the club they shooting.” She tried to call him but there was no answer. She texted back and Eddie told her he was being held hostage in the bathroom and to call the police: “He’s coming I’m gonna die.”

The pain of losing a child is profound, but hearing from them directly, just before their death, produces a more complicated kind of heartache. Those final messages force parents to helplessly relive their loved one’s terror-filled final moments, but they also become an eternal reminder of a child’s love.

Below, three mothers share their final connection with the children they lost, and how those words have shaped their grief.

‘Do. Not. Lose. This. Text.’

The Colorado movie theater following the 2012 attack. © Source: AP The Colorado movie theater following the 2012 attack.

The night of the mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, Sandy Phillips received a text from her 24-year-old daughter, Jessica, who was about to see the midnight screening of The Dark Night Rises with her friend Brent. Phillips had been awake for about an hour, texting and scrolling through Facebook, unable to sleep. A minute before the movie started, Jessica wrote to her mother in San Antonio: “Get some sleep mom. I’m really excited for you to come visit. Need my mama.”

“Need my baby girl,” Phillips replied. “Hang in there.”

In four days, Phillips was going to visit her daughter to help set up a new apartment; she had no idea “Need my mama” would be the last message she would ever receive from Jessica.

About half an hour later, Phillips’ phone rang. When she saw it was her daughter’s friend Brent, she had a bad feeling.

“Hi baby, what’s going on?” she asked. She heard screaming in the background. He told her there had been a shooting and that he had been hit twice.

“Where’s Jessi?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Brent, tell me she’s OK,” said Phillips.

“I’m sorry, I tried,” he said.

“Oh God Brent, tell me she’s not dead. Tell me she’s not dead.” Brent didn’t answer.

She screamed.

Phillips’ husband rushed from the bedroom and caught his wife as her back slid down their hallway wall. What came next were not days, but a blur of grief. Every time Phillips woke up, she wondered: “Why am I not dead?” Her only solace was the final messages exchanged with her daughter.

Jessica Phillips © Photograph: Sandy Phillips Jessica Phillips She reread them for the first time the morning after the shooting when an ABC news reporter – someone her daughter knew – asked to see Phillips’ phone. “My first thought was ‘Thank God she knows that I love her and I know she loves me because I have that last text,’” she says. “So that became very [important], to protect that text at all cost.”

A few months after the shooting, her phone crashed. She told the technician: “You don’t understand how important this is, you have to save [the texts].” Whenever Phillips leaves her cellphone somewhere she panics (she was unaware she could back up the texts), and when she has to get it repaired, she points to the messages and tells whoever is behind the counter: “This is the only thing that matters. Do. Not. Lose. This. Text.”

Four years after her daughter’s death, Phillips and her husband have become gun control advocates. Last April, they sold most of their possessions, bought a campertrailer and hit the road. They now travel across America telling their daughter’s story to organizations and others who have lost loved ones to gun violence. 

Phillips usually rereads the final messages from Jessica four times per year: on her own birthday, her daughter’s birthday, the anniversary of the shooting and Mother’s Day. They provide comfort but can also send her down a spiral of looking at old pictures and reliving her trauma. “We call it ‘going into the pit’,” she says. “It’s like you get sucked under and can’t get yourself back out.”

Sometimes reading the texts can transport her back into the theater, imagining the terror her daughter will soon feel. But she’s grateful her daughter’s texts weren’t sent during the shooting “out of fear”. “It was just ‘I miss my momma’ and ‘I miss you baby girl,’” she says, choking up. “I had no idea how much I was going to miss her the rest of my life.”

‘If I indulged, I could listen to nothing else’

On the morning of 11 September 2001, Anne Mulderry was at a 9am yoga class in Kinderhook, New York. She had moved into the village that summer, after her son, who worked at an investment firm in the World Trade Center, bought a retirement home for her.

When Mulderry’s class ended at 10.30am, she stopped by the post office, a daily ritual, and saw she had a package.

“I hope it’s something fun,” she told the woman behind the counter.

“I hope so too on a day like this,” the postal worker responded, explaining that planes had flown into the World Trade Center. Mulderry’s body went still.

“I have a son who works in the World Trade Center,” she said.

The woman looked up from the mail, a pained expression on her face, and locked eyes with Mulderry. The mother had no idea that the south tower, where her 33-year-old son worked, had collapsed at 9.59am, but from that moment on she knew she was “headed into hell”.

In the living room, Mulderry’s answering machine light was blinking red. Her first message was from Stephen, and amid the panic, he mixed up his words. “A building went into my plane,” she remembers him saying. “I just want to tell you that I love you. I’ll be all right and I’ll call you.” His normally buoyant voice was hesitant and broke a little when he said “I love you.” Mulderry knew it was a goodbye.

She listened to the other voicemails, from her daughter’s fiance, friends and relatives. Her husband, who she was separated from, left a message in a voice “twisted with suffering” telling her not to turn on the television. She took his advice and went to the backyard. She sat on a plastic chair underneath a maple tree and prayed for strength. “I knew I would be tempted to just want to die and … I didn’t want to do that,” she says. “I wanted to be strong.”

A little while later the portable phone on her lap rang. It was her daughter Amy, who worked in a building near the towers, calling to say she was alive. Mulderry was overjoyed, but her happiness was quickly paired with pain. “Where’s Stephen?” she asked. Amy, who had heard the south tower go down after she had been evacuated, didn’t answer. Mulderry let out a primitive howl.

Anne Mulderry near the World Trade Center construction site in New York © Source: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images Anne Mulderry near the World Trade Center construction site in New York It would be some time before she would listen to her son’s final message again. Her neighbor had made CD copies from the voicemail tape, but Mulberry was reluctant to hear it. “I didn’t want to face the fear again,” she says. “There was a catch in his voice that allowed me to know that … he knew he was facing death.” She kept the recording in a cabinet next to her television, along with tapes of Stephen’s college basketball games and a recording of him singing as a child. 

Mulderry, now 80, doesn’t remember exactly when she first replayed the message, but she knows it took her a long time. Though she’s listened to it again since, always alone, she’s had to control her urges. “If I indulged, I could listen to nothing else,” she says. “And that would not be a good thing for me or anyone else to do.”

When Mulderry hears the voicemail the grief she initially felt on 9/11 returns, but the message also reminds her of her son’s integrity. Stuck in the conference room, she now knows that Stephen and his colleagues passed around a phone to say their final goodbyes. “He knew he was going and his last wish was to send messages of love,” she says. “In the midst of that terror … they still had that human impulse to connect one more time.” Though her son sounds afraid, she thinks the message proves his love was stronger than his fear.

Last month, Mulderry moved from her cabin in Kinderhook to an apartment on the Upper East Side to be closer to her sons and daughters who live in the city. She burned a lot of the mass cards she received around 9/11, but put the CD marked “Anne’s answering machine” in a trunk along with other memories of Stephen.

Will Mulderry listen to the voicemail again? One day, sure, when she feels up to it. “I don’t want to face that fear again,” she says. “But I want to encounter the expression of love.”

‘Goodbye mama … It’s heading right for me’

Rescue workers and volunteers stand amid debris of homes one day after they were destroyed by tornado in Vilonia, Arkansas. © Source: Carlo Allegri/Reuters Rescue workers and volunteers stand amid debris of homes one day after they were destroyed by tornado in Vilonia, Arkansas.

On 27 April 2014, Regina Wood was getting ready for work when she learned a tornado was speeding towards her son, Jeffrey Hunter, in Vilonia, Arkansas. The state suffers from frequent natural disasters, but the weather channel was calling this twister “very dangerous” and “very destructive”, predicting it would be the most severe of the year. The national weather service anticipated hail larger than golf balls. The 59-year-old was 20 miles away and terrified for her baby boy.

Before Wood was about to leave for an overnight nursing shift at 7pm, she received a troubling text from her son.

“Mama, I’m so scared,” wrote the 22-year-old college senior who was visiting his dad and stepmom’s house for dinner. “It’s going to be a direct hit.”

While Jeffrey hid in a bathroom, his mom stayed glued to the weather channel, texting him the exact location of the tornado as it moved through town. There was little she could do – the winds were already up to 200mph.

His next text made her heart stop.

“Goodbye mama … It’s heading right for me.”

Regina Wood's son, Jeffrey. © Photograph: Regina Wood Regina Wood's son, Jeffrey.

Her only thought was to find him. She jumped in her car and drove towards the disaster despite the danger.

“I love youjeff you will make it,” she texted. “Going to elpaso.” He didn’t write back. She tried to call but there was no answer. She pictured his phone smashed on the ground and hoped he was still alive.

By the time Wood was on the road, the tornado was wreaking havoc. It had split open houses and splayed their insides – dishes, clothes, framed pictures – all over the roads. She ignored her emotions and focused on rescuing her “gentle giant”.

Tornadoes were one of his biggest fears, and it made her sick to think how scared he must be. But as she drove on, and the extreme weather sirens started to howl, Wood realized she was entering a death trap. Big black clouds spread like ink blots across the ominous sky and lightning electrified the darkness. After 10 minutes, she turned the car around. As she pulled into her driveway, her daughter Anna called. She told her mother Jeffrey had been found dead. Wood screamed.

She frantically called the hospital and police station to try and find her son but they had no information yet. She sat on her bed, still in her hospital scrubs, and reread the last messages from her son over and over. 

“Mama, I’m so scared.”

“Goodbye mama.”

“I kept reading them because that was my connection to Jeffrey,” she says. “I just wanted to feel [near him].” As she cried, she questioned whether she had done everything possible to save him. But she was powerless against the force of nature. The tornado ended up being the deadliest of the year in the US, killing 16, injuring 193 and devastating three counties.

Wood didn’t eat or sleep for days. She was stunned and completely lost.

Wood says the grief has consumed her life. She’s retired from nursing and become more reclusive. She spends most of her time alone, watching TV, playing guitar and making jewelry, diverted only by occasional visits from her stepson in Michigan. Wood keeps the cellphone containing his messages powered off and in a safe. She reads the screenshots loaded on to her computer once a month.

The messages remind her how scared Jeffrey must have been, but they also give her a sense of security. “I loved him very much and I know he loved me,” she says. “That is the one solace and comfort. If a child is reaching out to you like that in the face of adversity – that’s the most blessing you could have.”

The Orlando shooting triggers a lot of pain in her; watching parents grieve transports her back to the worst moment of her life. But when Wood thinks of Mina Justice, who received the final texts from her son, she wants her to know they will become a gift over time. “You will always … know you were loved,” she says. “[At first] all you feel is the heartache but then you think of how special he was just to be able to reach out.”

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