By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
This Thanksgiving season is very different for the Gillis family of River Place. What was supposed to be a cruise trip of a lifetime for seven family members last year — an excursion to see Mayan ruins in the countryside of Belize — turned into a horrific nightmare. John Gillis, Jr.’s 77-year-old mom, Carolyn, was killed after being thrown from a SUV when it rolled due to a blown out tire when they were returning to their cruise ship. A year later, John is still devastated.
The longtime River Place family took the cruise over the Thanksgiving break 2019. It was a good time for the busy Gillis family to get away and invite grandparents from Dallas to join.
John put the trip together thinking that a cruise was the perfect trip with lots of activities for grandparents and grandchildren alike.
John and Lynette Gills were with son Rylan, who is now in 9th grade at Vandegrift High School, and the twins, Mary Claire and Caroline, who are now in 6th grade at Four Points Middle School.
Their oldest son Jack, a current junior at Vandegrift, wasn’t on the trip. He was in Zermatt, Switzerland finishing up the semester of studying abroad.
The Thanksgiving week trip stopped at ports in Honduras, Cozumel and Belize. John picked side excursions that they could do together, and could accommodate his parents who were in their upper 70s.
The day they went to see some Mayan ruins in Belize, however, would be a day he will never forget.
It was Thanksgiving Day, November 28, and day five of the cruise. They hired a tour guide who drove a SUV to carry all seven of them to see the ruins. Another driver drove them on a boat along a narrow river to get to the ancient sites. They then enjoyed walking around the peaceful beauty in the jungle.
The Gillis family was like the 5,000 or so other people who got off the ship every day to do various excursions. It was not perceived to be risky – the opposite in fact – it was an enjoyable activity for all ages.
Their tour guide was driving them in the SUV on the highway going about 70 MPH between Orange Walk Town and the port in Belize City.
His dad, John Sr., and the driver had seatbelts in the front seat, but there were no seatbelts for the others in the backseats.
In the second row was John, Lynette and his mom Carolyn, behind her husband. The three kids were in the third row.
“We were going back to the cruise ship to have our Thanksgiving dinner… we were to get on the boat in 45 minutes when the tire blew,” John said.
“We began to swerve. I said, ‘Hold on.’ Then we flipped, who knows how many times. We landed across the other lane of oncoming traffic. Thankfully, upright,” John said.
“The kids told me later that I said after the car flipping had stopped, ‘Is everyone here?,’” John said. The answer he got was that everyone was in the car except Caddie, as his mom was affectionately known. He spotted his mom laying in the middle of the road a little ways away.
“I ran up to my mom,” said John through the tears. “It was bad. External injuries. It was bad.”
“I got to her before anyone else had gotten to her. I was the only one there for the longest time,” he remembers.
Through the instant pain and shock he was going through from seeing his mom’s body broken, John was comforted by his Christian faith that her spiritual body was welcomed and “wrapped up” in the Lord’s arms.
“I said, ‘I love you’, over and over’” he recalls.
In the middle of the crisis, he was torn between trying to be a son, a husband and a dad all at the same time.
People stopped by to help. A lady stopped and comforted Rylan who was sobbing uncontrollably. The police officer was comforting Lynette and the twins, John remembers.
There were some injuries among the other six including broken ribs, broken back and a leg abrasion. However, it was the shock of the loss that made everything else minor.
The ambulance came and finally took the family to a local hospital. It lacked many modern conveniences like hospitals in the U.S. There were no pillows, six to seven people per room and outdated X-ray machines.
After staying strong for his family, John remembers finally breaking down “weeping and wailing in a foreign hospital emergency room.”
Several people came by to comfort the family, including the boat driver who heard the news and brought his personal clothes for the family to change into.
“I can’t even say ‘thank you,’ I don’t know their names,” said John, who added what a profound impact that had. “People who show up when you are at your lowest.”
The ship sent two representatives to also help and coordinate what to do. They were invaluable.
John also remembers thinking about his oldest son Jack, still halfway around the world. “It was horrible not being able to hug him, and hold him. There is no easy way to share the news, and over the phone makes it so much worse.”
Not only was the family trying to deal with trauma but John and Lynette had to navigate the devastating reality of having his mom’s body released for transport back to the U.S. They had to work with the third-world police station and the United States Embassy.
“We needed the embassy to help us to get her body to the U.S. because of her commitment to the Willed Body Program, using her body for the medical training of doctors,” John said. He admires that his mom participated in what he describes as an honorable program.
The family flew back to Houston on Friday, and drove to Dallas on Saturday. On Sunday morning, John Sr. was in the Dallas emergency room to properly take care of his ribs and back, which had been misdiagnosed in Belize.
An interesting fact is that Carolyn had actually left on her desk instructions detailing what she wanted for her memorial service.
Carolyn’s memorial service was held Dec. 13, 2019 at Wilshire Baptist Church, where the Gillises were super involved for nearly 30 years. The service included the Saint Francis of Assisi prayer, the Apostles Creed, a couple of hymns, scripture readings by the seven grandchildren, and the benediction. John and his sister Julie gave the eulogy. Almost 1,000 people attended with others viewing the live stream, and almost that many now having viewed the YouTube recording.
Born August 9, 1942 and raised in Clinton, Tenn., Carolyn attended Texas Christian University and married John in 1971. Carolyn was remembered for so many things including her love for her seven grandchildren, red lipstick, monogrammed everything, and mailing hand-written letters.
John Sr. and Carolyn lived in the Lake Highlands section of Dallas for 42 years. His community surrounded him with loving support before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
December through March, John encouraged his dad “not to be a hermit” and to socialize with his neighborhood friends and church support network so that the grief would not overwhelm him.
Battling cancer for 25 years and fearing death as well as leaving his wife behind, were real concerns for John Sr. for many years. “(But now mom’s) loss has lessened the sting of his metastasized prostate cancer,” John said. “His anxiety is replaced by a hope of reuniting with my mom in heaven.”
Then, COVID-19 changed all of that and his 80-year-old dad with a compromised immune system due to a quarter century of chemo and radiation battling prostate cancer could not socialize.
The pandemic has impacted on “the widowers out there who are grieving and more lonely and isolated than ever due to this virus.”
John Sr. is going to his second counselor and two grief groups, reading grief books like “A Grief Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” and “A Grief Observed”, and receiving daily emails through GriefShare.org.
The minutes, hours, days and months after the accident, John Jr. has had to grapple with what happened.
“I feel guilt. I chose the cruise, excursions… I picked the guy (driver), I should have looked at the tires,” John said. The tire that blew was balding. “I invited my family on what you think is a very safe family cruise,” he said.
For John, the only way through this traumatic event has been to lean into his faith “and lean further and further, as you reflect and get introspective on the meaning of life and what happens after.”
Members of the Gillis family continue to heal emotionally from the trauma from a year ago. Speaking of his three young children, John is distressed that his family went through the accident. “(It’s something no one should have to be part of. I thought they didn’t see (it all) but they saw everything,” he said.
John admits that holidays are horrible milestones including Mother’s Day, his mom’s birthday, wedding anniversary, and her favorite holiday, Fourth of July.
The tears come frequently. John said, “I appreciate the hugs, the texts, the messages on her birthday, the inquiries about my father. It is not the words that matter, as there is nothing anyone can say. Instead, it is just the thought, and those mean so much. So much.”
“I dread this Thanksgiving as everyone else eats turkey and we have to think, ‘we made it through the first year without her,’” John said. But he is comforted by the fact that his mom is alive in heaven. “This is just Part 2 of her eternal life, if you will… a simple change of residence.”
created by John Jr.
for the eulogy