On the afternoon of July 23, two Amherst County deputies came to the home of Katherine and David Tyree with very bad news. For their presence, at least, Katherine Tyree was grateful.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to have heard it in a phone call,” she said. “One of the deputies -we knew him- and I could see the look on his face when he walked up to the door. They spent a lot of time with us and were very compassionate, but those are six words I wouldn’t want any other mother to have to hear.”
The six words: “Ma’am, there’s been a terrible accident.”
People react in many different ways to the sudden death of a family member. Some retreat, seeking solitude and space to sort it all out. Others soldier on, hoping to distract themselves by following the usual routine. Then there are those, like some of the family members Wendy Maness left behind, who decide to cobble together something positive out of something unspeakably sad.
The thing the Tyrees can’t get past is that their daughter didn’t have to die. Wendy Maness, 35, drowned in the Maury River near Glasgow when the tube on which she was riding apparently tangled in some roots – or hit some rocks, no one is quite sure – and flipped over. She was not a strong swimmer, she wasn’t wearing a life preserver, and she was found just 20 feet from the tube, in less than three feet of water.
“They tried to resuscitate her,” Katherine Tyree said, “but it was too late. She was on the river with some friends, and the current took her off in another direction from them. By the time they looked back and saw what was happening, they couldn’t get back to her in time. She had a faint pulse when they pulled her out, but she died in the ambulance.
“There was a knot on the back of her head, I was told, so maybe she was knocked unconscious and didn’t suffer. I’d like to think that. She even had a little smile on her face.”
Left behind were Maness’ husband, Eric, two children (ages 14 and 6), her parents, two brothers and a lot of questions.
“She wasn’t a risk-taker,” David Tyree said. “She used to see trout fisherman standing out in the river, and think they were crazy. She never went into the deep end of a swimming pool.”
Yet there she was on her last afternoon, gliding down the Maury River near its juncture with the James. It’s not exactly the Colorado, but the Maury is a plucky little river with a few surprises to throw at boaters and tubers.
“Rivers are unpredictable,” said David Tyree. “It’s not like a pond or a lake. One year it will be clear on one spot, the next there might be a stump or rocks there.”
Rebecca Waggoner of the James River Float Company told News & Advance reporter Dave Thompson the same thing a few days after the accident.
“A lot of people have a misconception that when you’re on a slow-moving vessel, or in an area that’s a little shallower, that you’re in a safe zone,” she said.
And many people who don’t tube think that this pleasant summer activity is done with the tube encircling the body like a big rubber huggie. In fact, most tubers sit on top of their ride, a much less stable position.
Waggoner’s company provides life jackets to its customers, and she thinks everyone should wear one. The Tyrees would like to take that a step further.
“I think it should be mandatory,” David Tyree said. “The game wardens are always out there checking for fishing licenses and what not, and they could hand out tickets to people tubing without a life preserver.”
The Tyrees talked at length about their daughter, whom they described as “sunny” and “always happy.” Their Wendy, they said, was the sort of person who would rescue stray cats or take food to a homeless man she saw sitting on a downtown bench. Someone whose giggle was infectious.
Her older brother, Andrew, has made a concrete cross topped by an angel that he wants to place by the Maury in Wendy’s memory. His parents also want people to remember her in another way.
“Maybe it would be good to put warning signs at places where tubers put in,” David Tyree said. “If it made anybody think, it would be worth it.”
Wendy Maness is the second person in recent years to drown while floating in that general area. In 2006, Liberty University student Aaron Cooper died at Balcony Falls.
When I left the Tyrees’ Madison Heights house and turned on my car radio, the first thing I heard were these words: “If I die young … sink me in the river at dawn. Send me away with the words of a love song.”
That tune, by The Band Perry, has been all over FM radio this summer, but I don’t mind telling you that the coincidence gave me a chill.
And there’s another line in it that speaks to the fact that sometimes changes are only made in the wake of tragedy, like the stop sign erected after a fatal car wreck.
The Band Perry sang: “Funny when you’re dead how people start listening.”
That’s what Katherine and David Tyree can only hope.
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