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In death as in life, Lyssa Rhubottom has united people. That is the saving grace for her parents, an anguished teenager, classmates and others asking the inevitable "Why?"

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 1, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Keeping Lyssa Rhubottom indoors on a sunny afternoon was like keeping a song inside a mockingbird.

Some things just aren't meant to be contained.

photo
Before school let out Friday, Kelley Flynn cleans out her daughter's desk. As Nicki Dennie, left, and Alisa Tripolino look on, Kelley finds spelling tests, a lunch ticket, a Babysitter's Club book and other stuff an 11-year-old might keep in her desk. "It's sad to talk about," Kelley tells the children, "but talking about it makes you feel better." [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Lyssa had just turned 11 and had come into her own as the unofficial neighborhood hostess. The Queen of Crescent Heights rode a purple bicycle and was in love with Steve Bianchi, who sat two rows behind her in school. She said she was going to marry him, which made Steve a little nervous.

It seemed as though nothing in the neighborhood could get done -- no remodeling project, yardwork or hopscotch game -- without Lyssa somehow getting involved. Fact was, if you lived anywhere near the little storybook house under the oaks at 757 25th Ave. N, you knew Lyssa.

So after she got home from Grace Lutheran School on a Thursday and finished her homework, she was off on her bike to survey her domain. Before she went out the door, as always, her parents made sure she was wearing her helmet.

A few blocks away, 16-year-old Pam Klein was turning her Buick Skylark off Fourth Street N and heading west on 26th Avenue N. She was going to the Kash n' Karry on M.L. King (Ninth) Street to buy some hair ties.

"We heard a screech of tires," said Kelley Flynn, Lyssa's mother, "and then somebody was banging on the back door. We thought it was Lyssa coming to tell us what had happened."

photo
Kelley Flynn and Geoff Rhubottom decorated their living room wall with dozens of cards, many sent by children at Lyssa's school. One of her favorites, Kelley says, was from a boy in Lyssa's class. "He wrote that Lyssa was nice to him when everyone else wasn't." [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
It was a neighbor.

Kelley and Geoff Rhubottom, Lyssa's dad, ran across the lawn, cradled their daughter in the street and tried to make her comfortable. She was bleeding and unconscious.

As Lyssa was wheeled into the emergency room, they were asked to wait outside. "But I wanted her to hear my voice ... to know I was there," Kelley said. "I wanted to touch her and hold her. But they made us wait in the quiet room."

The news was beyond bad. A CT scan showed no brain waves.

This wasn't happening. It wasn't real.

Lyssa was Geoff and Kelley's only child, their joy, their glue. She was lying there in the hospital bed, but she was gone.

* * *

Throughout the night and into Friday morning, Geoff and Kelley stayed by Lyssa's side at All-Children's Hospital. A nurse brought Kelley a basin and a washcloth.

"The nurses took such good care of her," Kelley said. "But I just wanted to clean her up a little."

Tammy Heino, Lyssa's homeroom teacher, and the Rev. Rick Armstrong, the senior pastor at Grace, stayed at the hospital until 2 a.m.

Around 9 a.m., Geoff, 39, and Kelley, 34, decided to take their daughter off life support. They also decided to donate her organs because, they said, that's what Lyssa would have wanted.

They listened as best they could to what the hospital people told them, signed some papers, and then there was nothing left to do but drive home.

"The hardest thing in the world was to leave without her," Kelley said.

Added Geoff: "And it was so quiet when we got home. I just wanted to go into her room, lay on her bed and cry."

* * *

photo
Lyssa died May 14. A week later, Kelley went to her daughter's Girl Scout meeting to ask the girls of Troop 566 not to cancel their field trip to Blizzard Creek in Orlando. Eleven-year-old Kaitlin LaBuda, hugging Kelley, 10-year-old Nicki Dennie, center, and 9-year-old Talia Nowicki, were excited to learn that Kelley would go in Lyssa's place. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
When the kids in Tammy Heino's fifth-grade class came to school Friday morning, they knew that Lyssa had been hurt. There had been a story in the newspaper, and word spread quickly. What none of them knew was that she was gone.

The Rev. Armstrong, Grace principal Mary Lou Wells and school psychologist Anna Eissfeldt gathered with the staff to decide how to tell Lyssa's classmates and the 400 other students. It had been nine years since a student had died at Grace Lutheran.

Wells was the interim principal and was looking forward to going back to teaching. She was just trying to finish out the year.

Heino also was new at this. This was just her second year in the classroom.

That left much of the responsibility to Armstrong, who had gone to Denver to train crisis teams after the Columbine High School shootings. He had seen one of the cars left in the Columbine parking lot by a student who had been killed. It reminded him of the car his daughter drives to high school.

When he got to Grace that morning, Armstrong sat in his car for several minutes, trying to think of what to do.

"When we got the staff together and told them, there were a lot of tears," he said. "But then we had to devise a strategy on how to approach the kids. Someone thought of a special chapel service, and I thought that was great."

The pastor and the school psychologist would speak to each class. They would tell the kids it's okay to cry, it's okay to be mad. There were no bad emotions, no wrong answers. Many of the kids had never known anyone who had died.

If there was any comfort, Armstrong told them, it was that Lyssa was with God in heaven.

That was the message Tammy Heino, 27 and just two years out of college, would try to convey to Lyssa's classmates. It wouldn't be easy. She cried on her way to school, and she cried when she arrived.

"I remember telling myself that I had to get under control before the kids see me," she said.

She had things under control until she broke the news. "Then I started crying and they did, too. We cried for a good 20 minutes."

"I thought, "Now, what do I do? I can't start teaching them math.' They said they wanted to make sympathy cards, so we did that. At first, I didn't think I could get through it. My dad died four years ago of cancer, and this brought everything back.

"Fifth-graders are unique. They're at the age when we can kind of talk to them like adults, but they're still babies.

"But Pastor Armstrong told me the right words will come. I just thought about all the good teachers I'd had known, and I have to say, I couldn't imagine not talking about God. If I was at a public school, I don't know how I'd have dealt with it."

* * *

Monday night, there was a closed-casket memorial service at Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home, a little more than three blocks from Lyssa's house. Most of the kids hovered around pictures of Lyssa, unsure whether they should approach the far end of the room.

It wasn't a normal-sized casket. It was kid-sized.

The next morning, the sanctuary at Grace Lutheran was nearly filled. The youth choir was there and dozens of kids from the school, many with their parents. At the foot of the altar was the small white casket.

There was an opening hymn and a reading from the Book of Romans. Then Geoff drew a deep breath and unfolded an orange sheet of paper -- the kind you'd find in a kid's notebook.

He walked to the microphone, hands trembling as he began to read. "She was a wonderful, good-hearted kid that as a normal parent I thought was the most beautiful thing on earth."

He thanked the children for sending all the posters and letters. He said he wished he could read them all. "There was one card," he said, his voice starting to crack, "that read, "She would be nice when other people were mean to me.' "

Geoff covered his eyes with his hand. He had read those words. But he hadn't heard himself say them.

"These past few days we've had so many people come to our door and start off with, "You don't know me, but I knew Lyssa.'

"One person told me that she had lived in our neighborhood for 10 years, and during that time, she said people had stayed behind closed doors and kept to themselves. Then Lyssa moved in. All of a sudden, doors opened, neighbors stepped out into the sunshine and walked together and laughed together and became a community together.

"That was what Lyssa did.

"She would come up to someone who had just moved in and ask, "Do you have a dog I could walk?' If the person would say, "No, I'm sorry. I don't,' she'd say, "Do you have a kid I can play with?'

"If the answer was no, she'd say, "Well, how about you then? You wanna do something?' "

Throughout the congregation, people smiled. Tears streaming down his cheeks, Geoff smiled, too.

"After Lyssa's death, we felt like our old neighborhood. We wanted to hide behind our front door. We wanted to keep to ourselves and be angry or sad by ourselves.

"But you all would not let that happen. The support we have received from so many wonderful people has not allowed us to. You've made us open our door, come out into the sunshine, and enjoy laughter and memories as well as look to the future.

"You all have been Lyssa to us, and for that, we thank you."

Geoff returned to his seat, and the kids in Lyssa's class stood before the congregation and sang a hymn. No one cried, but when one of the boys in the back row tried to sing, the words wouldn't come.

Throughout the pews, more than a few sets of adult arms instinctively found their kids and pulled them close.

The pallbearers wheeled Lyssa out of the church and into the hearse. A girl from Lyssa's class, having the boldness we lose as we grow older, got up on her tiptoes, cupped her hands on the glass at the back of the hearse and peeked inside.

At the cemetery, the procession passed a man and woman sitting on a marble bench in front of another headstone.

The marker read:

Meadow Brooke

Stickler

The couple, Bob and Kay Jones, explained that Meadow died in a car accident on 62nd Ave. N. She was a second-grader at Gulf Coast Christian Academy and a Brownie, a precocious little girl who loved to make people smile

Bob and Kay were her grandparents.

"We live in Orlando, but we come here every chance we get," Bob said. On this trip, Kay had brought a teddy bear to put next to Meadow's grave.

"We just like to talk to her," Kay said. "People must think we're weird."

They watched the ceremony at Lyssa's grave, then headed back to their car.

"The pain eases as time goes by," Bob said. "But it never goes away. You just try to live with it. Coming out here and being with her, that really helps."

* * *

The father of the girl whose car hit Lyssa struggled with what to do. Should he contact Lyssa's parents? Should he stay away?

"Her dad came out yesterday," Kelley said a few days after the funeral. "I saw him pull up out front, and he just sat in his car for a long time before he got out. It must have been terribly difficult for him. And when he came up the walk, he was visibly upset."

Kevin Klein and the Rhubottoms sat on the front porch. Nobody knew what to say, so they just sat there and listened to the birds in the oak trees.

"Finally," Geoff said, "I told him that it's all right. Go home and take care of your daughter. Their family is hurting almost as much as ours.

"It took guts to do what he did. I'm glad we met him."

Pam Klein is a junior at St. Petersburg High. She's a member of the honor society. She's only five years older than Lyssa.

A double tragedy. That's how the police traffic homicide investigator who handled the case described the accident. Pam did everything she could to avoid Lyssa. Now two families are hurting.

"She wasn't speeding and she was watching the road," Officer Mike Preshur said. "It appeared Lyssa came right off the sidewalk and into the street. Lyssa didn't look before she entered the intersection. The driver braked and tried to swerve, but Lyssa was just too close.

"Pam Klein wasn't cited," Preshur added. "Heavens, no. She tried to avoid Lyssa as best she could. It's just that now, she has to live with the fact that a death occurred."

Pam is struggling with that. "There's been a lot of crying," she said. "A lot of people were calling and sending cards, and I was wondering why they weren't sending them to the Rhubottoms. My parents tried to keep me busy, but I had a lot of guilt."

Like the Rhubottoms, she leaned on her family, her friends and her church -- St. Paul's Catholic.

"I had so many "what if?' questions," she said. "What if I'd bought the hair ties at Publix? What if I stopped to brush my teeth before I left, or changed shoes? What if I left just a few seconds earlier or later ...?"

She said she had gotten her driver's license eight months ago and that she was careful. And she knows the Rhubottoms don't blame her. She'd like to meet them one day, but only when the time is right.

"I saw them the day of the accident," she said. "They were waiting for the ambulance and didn't know who I was. I saw her dad looking up to the sky and asking "Why? Why did this happen?' I don't think ... " Pam's voice trailed off and she began to cry.

She said she's getting better. School is almost over, and her best friend's family has invited her to go to Europe with them for a month.

"I just have to believe this was for a reason," she said. "I'm just so sorry."

* * *

After the funeral, Heino let her kids skip school that afternoon and go to a pool party at the home of one of the kids in the class. "I just thought they needed that," she said. "Just as a release."

Some of the kids said they felt guilty that they had teased Lyssa or said something mean, and will never get the chance to apologize.

"I told them it's okay to feel that way, but that Lyssa would forgive them," said Rodger Wells, Lyssa's science teacher. As it worked out, their last encounter was something to remember. The morning of the accident, she had given an oral report on water pollution in Wells' class.

"Lyssa was very intelligent, but like a lot of kids, it was hard sometimes to get her to do her work," he said. "But this time, she did great. So when her dad came to pick her up that afternoon, I went over to the car. She probably thought, "Oh, no. What have I done now?'

"But I made a point of telling him, in front of Lyssa, what a wonderful job she had done. Her dad smiled at her and tousled her hair.

"I'm really glad I did that. We don't do it enough."

Steve Deininger is 11. He sat next to Lyssa. She used to swipe his pens and make him laugh. Now her desk is a shrine, covered with flowers and notes.

"It's weird that nobody is sitting there now," he said. "I'd feel better if it was an empty desk."

Ellen Sharp, one of Lyssa's best friends, says she's struggling with questions about why Lyssa was taken away.

"Somebody said I've stopped being funny," she said. "I think maybe I have. But just for a while. It's been very hard. One thing that helped me was that I went over and signed the sidewalk."

The sidewalk.

One of the neighbors came up with the idea, and one morning, it was there in front of the house. A jumbo bucket of multicolored sidewalk chalk. Within a few days, the entire length of the sidewalk was filled with angels, smiley faces and messages.

"People are careful about watering their lawns," Kelley said. "They don't want to wash the chalk away."

But Kelley and Geoff know that sooner or later, it will.

* * *

This was going to be a great summer. Geoff had taken time off from building computers, and Kelley had left Raymond James. As soon as school let out, they were going to rent a Winnebago and take Lyssa out west.

With Lyssa gone, the three Rhubottoms are two. They've been together 15 years and now, suddenly, they're childless. They're trying to fill every second of every day so they won't have time to stop and think.

"I'm no one's mom anymore," Kelley said. "I don't have anyone to take to school, to tuck in at night."

Geoff is struggling, too. Lyssa looked just like her dad, and he adored her. "She wasn't just our kid," he said. "She was our buddy."

How does he reconcile what happened with his faith in God? "He and I are not talking right now. I thought we were friends. But he's not the friend I thought he was."

Geoff paused and stared at the floor, then lit another cigarette. He had cut down. Almost quit, actually.

"Picking out the cemetery plot ... I'm sitting there picking out a plot for Lyssa. She was supposed to be doing that for us."

"We still feel like she's away at camp," Kelley said. "Like she's just away for a little while and she'll be back.

"If anything comes out of this, it's that every parent is going to go home and hug their kid."

Every evening on her way home, Mary Lou Wells, the principal at Grace, drives by Sunnyside Cemetery. She always looks over to Lyssa's grave to make sure the flowers are still there. Each time, she says the same thing.

"Good night, Lyssa."

Lyssa is buried under a large oak.

Up in the tree, almost any time of day, you can hear mockingbirds.

* * *

Parents and teachers have established a Lyssa Rhubottom Memorial Scholarship Fund at Grace Lutheran School.

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