It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years … People say time heals all wounds, but I don’t believe that. Sure, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned how to manage my sadness in losing you. But the pain never really goes away. I think about you every day, miss you every day. Even as I write this, the waterworks are starting.
I still remember the last time I saw you. I remember what I was wearing that day; I remember what I had for breakfast (as usual, you made us banana pancakes). Mom then took us to school, and as we were pulling out of the garage, you were standing there on the stairs, blowing us kisses. I cling to that last memory, comforted in knowing how much you loved us.
A few hours later, I was in the school cafeteria. I couldn’t hear the intercom but, apparently, they were calling my name, and some friends told me I was wanted in the principal’s office. I didn’t think much of it, but when I got there, Aaron was there too. We were told something was going on with your plane and that we were being sent home early. Aaron said, “Why don’t we just call his cell phone?” And I thought to myself, “I’m sure they’ve already tried that,” but I didn’t want to scare him, so I didn’t say anything. So Aaron tried calling, but you didn’t answer; it went straight to voice mail, and I got more anxious. Johnny Brendle picked us up and took us home, and as we were driving, he wouldn’t turn on the car radio – another inkling that something was wrong. Then when we rounded the corner to go down our street, I saw a news truck. I remember that taking my breath away, that’s when I knew that it was something bad, but I tried to keep control of my emotions, mainly for Aaron’s sake. Or maybe because I didn’t want to let myself think the worst just yet.
There were lots of people at the house. Mom met us at the door and we went upstairs, to yours and Mom’s bedroom. We sat on the bed and that’s when she told us what happened. I fell backwards onto the bed, screaming. And I kept screaming for what seemed like forever Finally, the three of us hugged each other as tight as possible, and the rest of the day is a bit of a blur. That night, we all slept together in yours and mom’s bed. I fell asleep with the pillow you used for your sore neck. It smelled like you, and that smell helped me fall asleep that night and for many nights to come. I clung to that pillow and the smell of you for as long as I could. And Mom … she was hurting so much that day, but she stayed strong for us. You would’ve been so proud of her.
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I think it’s the milestone events when I’ve missed you the most these last 20 years. Graduating from high school, graduating from college – that was always a big thing for you. I know you’d be pleased that I got a degree from Clemson, but you’d be super-pumped that Aaron played golf at SMU, where he was the team captain. He’s done a better job than I have at following in your footsteps. I got three extra years with you, and he was robbed of that, but he’s an amazing person.
Aaron’s still involved in golf. He just got named tournament director for the season-opening event on the LPGA Tour. That’s a big promotion, and I’m so excited for him! He’s so much like you — he’s the life of the party, has never met a stranger. Everybody is his best friend. Sometimes when Mom sees Aaron walking, or sees some of his mannerisms, she’ll just say out loud, “Oh, that’s so Payne.”
He and his wife Naiara got married a couple of years ago, and they’re living in Orlando, close to Mom. Sometimes I’ll text him and ask if he’s checked on her lately – not that she needs anybody to do that. But I’m happy he’s close by.
Speaking of … I’m also married, to a wonderful man named Patrick. That was on Oct. 10, 2015 – and it was another day that I really missed you. I will always remember the time we watched “Father of the Bride” and we talked about you walking me down the aisle. I always dreamed of that day – with you in it.
When the day finally arrived, I knew you were there in spirit. After all the bridesmaids had gone into the church, I was waiting behind the closed doors in the back. Mom was standing next to me, holding my hand when Aaron came to get us to walk down the aisle. We all looked at each other and started to tear up, all thinking that you should have been there. But Aaron — just like you would’ve done — cracked a little joke to make me laugh so that I wouldn’t cry all the way to the altar. We then looked at each other and said, “It’s going to be a wonderful day.” And it was. The doors opened and the three of us walked together down the aisle. But the joy of that day will always have a tinge of sadness. That’s just how it is now.
You would love Patrick. He’s patient and kind. He’s a lot like Robert, so smart and he can command a room. He gets things done and he’s handy — every time we go home to visit Mom, she has a list of things for him to help her fix, and he does it with a smile. He’s also my partner in parenting, just like you were with Mom. And when he’s at home, he focuses on being a dad, wanting to spend time with William and me. We’re his priority. I’m sure you’re happy to know that I’ve found my soulmate, just like you and Mom did.
That’s another milestone I want to tell you about – my little boy. He just turned 14 months old. We named him William Robert, after you and Robert. William has your beautiful blue eyes. He also has your mischievousness. Oh, and not surprising – he loves to entertain, just like you did. Right now, his big thing is playing hide-and-seek; he thinks it’s hilarious. When I make pancakes for him, I’ll sometimes sing him the pancake song that you used to sing to us … “Aunt Jemima pancakes, without the syrup, is like the spring, without the fall …” I inherited your singing voice and can’t carry a tune in a bucket … but he lights up anyway, just like Aaron and I used to.
I told Mom recently that I’ve never appreciated her more than in these last 14 months since I’ve been a mother. If I was put in the same situation that she faced, well, I hope I would make the same choices and be able to raise my child the way she did. She pulled off a miracle with me and Aaron in that we’re not 100 percent messed up. She stepped up and was our rock, even though her world was falling apart. She filled that dual role. The sacrificial love that she gave us, basically putting her life on hold so she could focus on the two of us … it’s incredible. When you have a tragedy that early in life, there are a lot of different paths you can go down, and she was intent on making sure we lived up to your legacy. She came to every one of my volleyball games, and she watched Aaron play golf and other sports. She was always there to support us. She’s an amazing mom — and now she’s an amazing grandmother. We try to talk every day, and she gets bent out of shape if she doesn’t get her daily FaceTime. Of course, I think I’ve been replaced by William on those calls, but that’s OK.
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It’s wonderful to see her in that role. But at the same time, I know her heart hurts. She realizes this is a season of life you would’ve both enjoyed, being grandparents together. She pours everything into William and she puts on a wonderful face, but sometimes I sense a little sadness there. It’s bittersweet, as many things are.
Fortunately, we’ve been comforted by all the things that keep your memory alive, and all the lives that have been positively impacted since you died. We’ve received so many letters from people telling us how much you meant to them, and how they re-evaluated their lives after your accident. People have been brought to Christ through your death. I know you’d want to hear that.
Then there’s the World Golf Hall of Fame and the Payne Stewart Award and all the other things to keep your memory alive, with people realizing why your life was so significant — not only that you were a great golfer but that you strived to be a great person. That’s incredibly important in our society right now. Not sure if you can see it from up there, but we need more people like you. We need to know and believe in people who do the right thing.
One of my best friends from Clemson sent me a message on Instagram — that’s an app on social media, you would have loved it! – after this year’s Payne Stewart Award presentation. The sister of one of her friends was part of Kids Across America, which is supported by our family foundation and Southern Company’s Payne Stewart Award Grant, and now she’s a teaching professional! Such a small world, to see how this person’s life was impacted by you. That connection is one of many “winks from God” I get on a regular basis to let me know you’re watching over me.
People still ask me, even 20 years later, how I’m doing. I tell them we’re OK. A lot of people lose a father, and they don’t have the backbone of support from their mother like we did. We were very fortunate that way. But the holidays are coming up, and those always bring back memories. I remember how much you loved Christmas; the music on full-blast as soon as Thanksgiving arrived, and you wearing your Santa hat and putting up the huge tree with all the lights. You made it such a joy. After the accident … well, to be honest, that joy was missing for a few years. But as our family has expanded, we’ve done a better job at celebrating together.
As much as we love and miss you, I’m so grateful for being your daughter. Although I only had you for 13 years, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. You showed me more love than a lot of kids get their entire lives from their dad, and I feel incredibly blessed to have been given that amount of time.
I’ve often described myself as Daddy’s little girl. It’s a label I wear proudly, and it’s your legacy that I look forward to sharing with William one day. He needs to hear about his granddad. He’ll never get to meet you, but he will keep you alive in his heart, just as the rest of us have been doing for 20 years … and will continue to do, forever. I love you, Daddy.
Editor’s Note: Payne Stewart died at the age of 42 on Oct. 25, 1999, in an airplane accident that also killed five others, including Chelsea’s godfather, Robert Fraley, whom she refers to in the letter. (Johnny Brendle, also referenced, is a retired PGA TOUR rules official and was the Stewarts’ next-door neighbor). Chelsea Stewart O’Brien, her brother Aaron Stewart and their mother Tracey Stewart have kept Payne Stewart’s memory alive with their involvement in many charitable activities, including the Payne Stewart Award, given annually by the PGA TOUR and presented by the Southern Company to the PGA TOUR player who best embodies character, charity and sportsmanship. For more information on the Payne Stewart Award, click here.
This piece was originally published on PGATOUR.com. Please follow this link https://pgat.us/TheStewarts to listen to an original PGA TOUR Up & Down podcast featuring Chelsea, along with her brother Aaron, discussing their father’s legacy and the frightful day of his plane crash.
PGA TOUR Up & Down podcast link: https://www.pgatour.com/radio/up-and-down.html