Archived Story

Giving a first-hand account of an emotional sendoff

Published 9:32am Thursday, April 18, 2013

By Griffin Pritchard
Special to The Outlook

The threat of a late spring storm couldn’t stop a father and son from going on an afternoon drive.
They boarded the bright red big rig as the motor roared to life, humming at a contemplative growl.
The son revved the engine and then sat on the horn, bringing a smile to his old man’s face as the diesel shook and twitched.
The bright red monster lunged forward, moving slowly through the town.
Led by a loving wife, the son relived those precious moments knowing their time together was getting small as the distance to their destination began to shorten.
When the father and son reached the gates, the wife drove on through.
There was a  slight pause and a shift of the gears, the truck again lurched forward, and the father and son charged through to the other side.
The son navigated a tricky turn before finally pulling to a stop.
The band Aerosmith sang “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” And the events of last Thursday afternoon truly speak to that.
Once the son reached the destination, he exited the truck and a handful of his buddies – with friends and family watching – helped his father down and carried him to his final resting place.
More than 500 people turned out over the course of two days to pay their final respects to Debbie and Austin Gandy, whose lives were tragically cut short by a car crash in the wee hours of last Saturday.
But this is not a story about tragedy. This is about triumph. As Austin’s brother Bill said during the eulogy: “It’s about putting the pieces of the puzzle back together.”
I’m not one for funerals.
I attend the ones I’m required to but never do I say much about them.
This one was different. I grew up with the Gandys.
Whenever I’d go to see my parents and go to church I could count on two things – talking high school softball with Debbie (complete with scouting reports on certain area teams) and Auburn football with Austin (complete with a scouting report on what he thought of the new guy).
Both of their younger children, Morgan and Tatum, played softball at Benjamin Russell.
Morgan has just finished playing college ball and Tatum, a senior, will play at Central Alabama.
Judging by the turnout, and the amount of people who kept striding toward the church, I wasn’t the only one with such memories as people began to fill the pews of Comer Methodist Church in Alexander City nearly an hour before the start of the funeral.
By the two o’clock hour, inside the church was standing room only.
The great staff at Radney Funeral Home had to set up speakers outside the church to accommodate the more than 100 people gathered on the concrete steps and ramp.
Austin lived with and battled ALS for several years. Debbie stood by his side even as the disease began to take its toll.
No matter how bad it had gotten,  whenever you asked Austin – who was confined to a motorized wheelchair- how he was doing, his answer was always “just right.”
He had enough forethought to preplan his and Debbie’s funeral down to the songs the congregation would sing and the solos my mom would perform.
The last ride on a big rig — that was an audible called by Mark, his son.
As the two were carried out of the church, first Debbie and then Austin, onlookers watched and cheered as the pall bearers affixed his casket to a custom-made rack on the back of the truck — a truck that carried both Mark and his sister Bethany and Austin millions of miles across the country.
With Mark at the wheel revving the engine, making the beast roar, whoops and hollers and screams of “Roll on!” echoed through the parking lot.
It’s amazing that as raucous and humorous this funeral was, it still had its intimate moments.
In a show of total class, the entire Benjamin Russell softball team was in attendance and filled the church’s choir loft.
Morgan and her handful of former teammates and best friends stayed at each other’s sides throughout the weekend.
Rain began to fall at the cemetery, softly at first and then harder with each passing moment.
But it couldn’t drown out the family singing the chorus of Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job.”
“That’s my job. That’s what I do. Everything I do is because of you. That’s my job you see.”
Wow, just typing that brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not an emotional person.
“Life is about making adjustments and accepting new realities,” Bill said during the eulogy.
The new reality is this for this family: They may have lost their mom and pop.
But after the outpouring of support, they gained a whole lot of cousins, aunts and uncles.
There are still trials and tribulations and questions without answers, and some may never have answers.
But knowing the family and their stubborn tenacity and love for one another, they’ll be just right.
It’s that simple.
Pritchard is an Alexander City native and sports editor for The Wetumpka Herald.