Losing a Child

What it's like to Be Lisa Pyche

Previously in "Curiouser": Chris Nash, single father.
He was curious about: The life of a parent whose child has been killed in a DUI.

Lisa Pyche uploaded separate graduation photos of her two sons, Philip "P.J." and Travis Combs, and messed around in Photoshop until her two boys appeared to be standing together in their matching bright red cap and gowns. It's an imperfect draft, but it will do until she gets a professional to make it better.

Her youngest, Travis, graduated recently from East Bay High School, class of 2007. P.J. walked the same stage three years earlier but was killed 17 days later by a drunken driver.

Lisa's life seemed to stop after P.J.'s death. The 44-year-old quit her job of six years as staff coordinator at South Bay Hospital; she couldn't take passing by the crash site every day to and from work. Her daily activities included sitting on the couch, "bawling my head off" and going to court to eventually see Isaac Vasquez, the driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.28 (nearly four times the limit at which you are presumed impaired, or 0.08), found guilty of DUI manslaughter.

A year and a half after P.J.'s passing, Lisa realized that staying in the Parrish home she'd lived in for 20 years was self-destructive, so she sold her house on five acres where her boys grew up "playing football in the yard and riding four-wheelers." She rented a condo for a while before buying a three-bedroom mobile home in Riverview in February, but she says, "It'll never be home."

Though she no longer keeps a room for P.J., her computer room is well stocked with NASCAR memorabilia, most of it his. He was fond of saying "I have grease in my veins" and had interviewed at the NASCAR Technical Institute in North Carolina. He aspired to be a mechanic on high-performance engines. His '93 Jeep Cherokee, once a rolling homage to Dale Earnhardt Sr., sits at her parent's house. It led P.J.'s funeral procession. "From NASCAR to bowling to violin, he was so diverse," Lisa says proudly.

After the crash, Lisa joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, and Travis joined the student version, SADD. He began to go bowling again, which had been an activity the threesome regularly enjoyed. Lisa has not been able to take that step with him.

Instead, she spent a great deal of time at "P.J.'s Place," her designation for Ruskin Memorial Park, where he's buried. "The meds block the pain out a little," she says of the anti-depressants she's been on for several years. She helped with upkeep at the community-owned cemetery and one day in 2006 was inspired. Looking at the wooden planks that passed for bridges over small ditches, she decided to build a real bridge for P.J. Her family bought supplies and built not one but three bridges, each celebrating the life of a different person laid to rest in the park.

Occasionally, she'd run into old friends and acquaintances at the grocery store, automatically responding "fine" when they'd ask how she was doing. "They don't know how to act. It's painful," she says. "If I bring it up, it's OK. I want to bring it up first." She only has three friends left from her previous life, old neighbors who kept in touch. When she runs into others, "They say they'll reconnect but they never do."

It took meeting someone new to really bring Lisa back to the living. "I don't go places myself," she says, but on a whim in April, she borrowed the keys to a friend's vacation home in Venice and went on a solo weekend trip. When she got there, she called a cab and went to a place called Sharkey's Bar. Immediately feeling uncomfortable, she got a drink and found a solitary spot to look out over the water.

A man approached her and asked, "Do you see any sharks?" His New England accent was immediately apparent. Steve, a widower, had lost his wife two years earlier and was in town from Massachusetts, visiting his siblings and their ailing mother. Lisa met the family, also at the bar, and she and Steve danced all night. "I felt in my heart my son had a lot to do with it. He'd want me to go on."

It wasn't easy, however, to let go of her grief. "At first, I felt that if I got better, I'd forget my son. I would feel guilty having fun. After three years, I've learned to live with it. I don't have a choice. In my heart, I wish to God it never happened."

But she continued to let her life happen, and since Steve's entered it, she says she's cut back on her anti-depressants by half. Lisa hasn't been back to work since she quit her job at the hospital. She recently came across a listing for a mentoring position that piqued her interest; she is considering applying. But she's held off on that; she's been traveling often to her native Massachusetts, considering relocating back to the Great Northeast. "Not to run away," she says, but to carry on.

As of late, she's found herself giving away P.J's possessions, such as clothing, to mostly random people. She gave Steve, who plays the mandolin, P.J.'s violin.

"It's something in a million years you never understand or get over," Pyche says. But at this point, "I feel like I can help people where I was three years ago."

Lisa still buys presents for P.J. on birthdays and holidays, and gives donations to MADD, an organization she's leaned on constantly. "You need to talk to people who understand and don't form opinions, who focus on the positive of your child." She submits stories to MADD and Broken Hearts Living Hope, a newsletter for anyone who's lost a loved one. And though she never particularly cared for tattoos, she got one of a butterfly, "the universal symbol for loss," on her left shoulder.

Lisa is curious about couples who've been able to stay married for more than 40 years. "Divorce rates are so high now. People don't believe in the institution of marriage anymore." 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article gave the wrong name of Lisa Pyche's current residence.

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