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Column: San Diego mom saluted in special way 21 years after her death

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 5/8/2021 Diane Bell
a person sitting next to a window: San Diego single mom, Terri Lynn Nealon, was killed by a drunk driver when her son, Ryan, shown with her in this photo, was 5 years old. (Courtesy of Ryan Nealon) © (Courtesy of Ryan Nealon) San Diego single mom, Terri Lynn Nealon, was killed by a drunk driver when her son, Ryan, shown with her in this photo, was 5 years old. (Courtesy of Ryan Nealon)

After years of grappling with pent-up emotions, Ryan Nealon is talking publicly about his mother's death in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.

Actually, the native San Diegan is singing about it.

On Mother's Day, the singer/songwriter is releasing a single that explores aspects of his life that his mother missed.

And Mothers Against Drunk Driving has taken notice.

"We’re featuring Ryan’s story and song over Mother’s Day as part of our MADD Voices of Victims blog," says Kristin Davis, communications manager at the group's national office in Irving, Texas. "Ryan is also going to be a guest of MADD National President Alex Otte on her Facebook Live on Monday, May 10."

Ryan's biographical ballad, "Not Coming Home," also will be released this Sunday on major online streaming platforms.

"It took me 21 years to gather up the strength to write this song about what I think she might have told me if she was still alive today," says Ryan, who was only 5 when his mother was killed. He hopes listeners with similar stories will know that they are not alone — memories can never be taken away.

Ryan was the only son of a single mom, Terri Lynn Nealon. "Mom worked at an auto parts store in City Heights," he says. "It was just me and her and the cat."

She and her best friend took a weekend getaway to Las Vegas for New Year's Eve 1999 to celebrate the new millennium. She never came home. Terri died early New Year's Day 2000 when their vehicle was T-boned at an intersection by a motorist who ran a red light. The man was later convicted of driving under the influence.

Ryan's mother's closest living relative, her younger sister, Peggy Nealon, received the call that no one ever wants. She drove to the home of a family friend to get Ryan and take him to live with her in San Carlos. The only thing she could think about, she later told him, was how she was going to tell him that his mom wasn’t coming home.

He recalls that she walked in, picked him up and simply said, "Hey, bud, you're going to come live with me. Mommy's not coming home ... I cried and cried and cried."

Peggy later confessed to Ryan that when her sister had left for Las Vegas for the holiday, Peggy was worried about drunk drivers. The last thing she told Terri was, "Be careful; I’m not ready to be a mom yet" — words she later regretted.

Nevertheless, she became a very special substitute mother, Ryan says.

She kept memories of his mother alive by playing music from bands Terri loved — Toto, the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire.

"We talked about her all the time and wrote messages to Terri on balloons we released," recalls Peggy. "It got a little easier each day."

He has called his Aunt Peggy "Mom" most of his life and spends every Mother's Day with her and his Uncle Ron. In fact, they plan to spread a vial of his mother's ashes at one of her favorite spots on Mother's Day.

"I grew up in such a loving household," Ryan says. "They let me be myself and pursue music." He attended Creative Performing Media Arts Middle School, a magnet public school in Clairemont, and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, then he went on to UCLA to pursue music and jazz studies.

Now 26, Ryan doesn't have an agent or recording contract, but he does have Hollywood friends in the music business — Jeoff Harris and Bret Paddock — who helped him write and produce "Not Coming Home."

He also has a track record, so to speak. His song, "Sleepwalking," was in Lifetime original movie "Black Hearted Killer" in 2020. His tune, "City," made Apple Music's "Breaking Pop" playlist in 2019. Another release, "Until The World Ends," won praise from independent music blog BuzzMusic for his falsetto, emotion and passion.

"I want to write songs that make people feel things," he says.

Before the pandemic, Ryan performed periodically at live music venues around Los Angeles — The Hotel Café, The Mint, El Cid, W Hollywood, The Satellite. Peggy says she tried to drive up for his appearances. For now, though, it's his day job as a personal assistant that pays the bills.

Writing his newest song was especially challenging because it evoked feelings Ryan had suppressed for years. "I had to be in the right mental space," he says. "It’s a really strong statement piece for me as an artist and as a person."

He calls this the first song that truly takes a deep, personal dive into his emotions. "It exposes my story and exposes everyone around me."

Because of that intimacy, he hopes his words will resonate with others.

After the recording was finished last September, Ryan stalled. He didn't want to hurt Aunt Peggy's feelings, so he took it to her.

“Are you OK if I release a song about my mom?” he asked.

“Let me hear it,” she replied. He played "Never Coming Home," and they both got emotional.

"Oh, my God," says Peggy, "it just brought me to tears." They both cried.

Ryan describes his aunt as his super hero. "She had a job at an elementary school as a janitor and worked hard to keep a roof over our heads." She put aside the insurance payout from the car accident to go toward his college tuition, his first car or maybe even a down payment on house. "She took no money for herself," he says.

When writing the song he wished there was a way to get it to MADD. So when he finished, he sent it, along with his personal story that inspired it, to the nonprofit group.

"If just three people connect with the song emotionally, that will mean more to me than a lot of streams," he says. "There are so many families who have had to deal with death by a drunk driver. It’s just devastating."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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