You’ll Never Walk Alone
Laura Williamson’s story as told to Steve “Brownie” Brown
In 2000, I was living in Flint, Michigan with my husband, Mike. I had studied acting and was pursuing a second degree in music therapy. On the weekends, I was performing in a dinner theatre production of a show called The Taffettas, which is a fictional story about a 1950s singing group made up of four sisters who happened to be from Muncie, Indiana.
I had never heard of Middletown Studies, and I didn’t know anything about Muncie being “America’s Hometown.” For over a year, I just learned my lines and talked about Muncie and Ball Jar canning contests in between singing songs like “Mr. Sandman” and “Johnny Angel.”
So it was quite memorable when I announced to our cast and crew that, following Mike’s graduation from medical school, we would be moving to Muncie, Indiana, for his internal medicine residency at Ball Memorial Hospital.
One of the reasons he applied to Ball’s program was because my parents had recently moved to Muncie for my dad to become the senior pastor of The First Baptist Church.
We kept hearing about Muncie’s struggling economy, but, after having lived in Flint and Youngstown, Ohio, Muncie seemed pretty great! These cities had been victimized by the deaths of the auto and steel industries, leaving many residents struggling to find new, well-paying jobs in an economy that lacked them.
Mike and I got involved at my parent’s church and also enjoyed getting to know the other Residents in his program. Soon, I was pregnant with our son, Pip, who was born at Ball Hospital in 2002.
After his residency, Mike decided to specialize in oncology, and he was accepted into a fellowship program at St. Louis University. The soon-to-be-built Cancer Center at Ball Hospital invited him to sign a contract to return after his three-year fellowship. Since we already felt so connected to the community, it was a pretty easy decision.
Our second son, Tristan, was born while we were in St. Louis. Those years were a blur, with two children in diapers and Mike working or studying all the time. Still, we had a good life and were looking forward to returning to Muncie, which we were already starting to refer to as “home.”
In 2007, we moved to Middletown, a town just outside of Muncie, and bought a farmhouse. There was a shallow creek on the back of the property, where the boys played and splashed. It was a long, beautiful summer that lasted into October.
On November 16, 2007, I kept the boys home from preschool because Tristan had a cold. I doubted my judgment several times that day, as both boys heartily engaged in their usual activities. Around 4 that afternoon, Tristan seemed a bit sluggish and warm, but he didn’t have a fever or labored breathing. Mike came home early that evening. We ate dinner, gave Tristan ibuprofen, and put on his jammies. He fell asleep in my arms around 8.
We watched TV with Pip, who fell asleep in Mike’s arms. A little later, Mike laid Pip down on the couch so that he could go upstairs to check on Tristan.
Suddenly, Mike yelled down to me to call the ambulance. Tristan wasn’t breathing. I grabbed my cell phone and called 911 and then my parents. Our farmhouse was easy to miss because it sat so far back from the road, so I ran down the nearly quarter of a mile-long driveway to be ready to signal the ambulance.
Meanwhile, Mike continued performing CPR on his son, who he knew, short of a miracle, was already gone.
I ran down the driveway behind the ambulance. By the time I reached the house, I saw Mike get into the ambulance with Tristan. I remember the sound of voices screaming in all directions. My dad stayed with Pip, and my mom drove me to Ball Hospital.
When I arrived in the emergency room, I saw the nurses and doctors hovered around his lifeless body. I heard them say, “One more time,” as they shocked his little chest again. My legs gave out as I cried out to God to intervene. After an eternal silence, they called his time of death.
A nurse placed him in my arms, and Mike and I held him for the longest time, washing him with our tears. I remember my brother, his wife, and my dad arriving. Our family doctor and friend, Brian Lumpkin, and the nurses who had witnessed our hearts being torn out, stayed with us as well. The Songer, Burton, and Naylor families also came in. These people from our church had left the warmth of their beds to be with us.
By now, it was the middle of the night. It was time to go. His little body was growing cold. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, laying him down and walking away. We kissed him again and turned to follow the nurses out. Without a word, everyone who was in that room silently walked down a long labyrinth of hallways with us. I barely remember walking, everyone was so close with their hands on our shoulders and backs. There were no words, just the presence of people who cared. No one had called ahead to ask if we wanted company in the midst of this nightmare. They just showed up. Everyone stayed through our meeting with the coroner. The two nurses walked us to our car in the early hours of the morning. One of them was the first person to come through the door of the funeral home two days later. I never learned her name.
It was an overwhelming experience to be the recipient of so much care and concern. People were so kind to us during this terrible time.
Mike asked his good friend, Dr. Janet Roepke, to do a second autopsy. We were so desperate to understand what happened. Respiratory failure was still the only outcome.
We walked through every minute of that Friday night 10,000 times. What did we miss? We talked about it endlessly, as if some new detail would emerge and solve the mystery.
About a year later, I knew that I could no longer be in the farmhouse all the time. Eventually we started getting involved at Muncie Civic Theatre. It became a second home to our family, which eventually grew to include our precious daughter Jing Jing, who we brought home from China in 2014.
It is a great honor to serve as Civic’s Executive Director today. Muncie Civic gave me a place to re-invent myself, to tell a different story, and it gives me such joy to see that happening for others as well.
I see the economic struggles that Muncie still faces, but the people who I’ve met here continue to work on this community, even when it’s messy, which it sometimes is, but it’s always worth it. It’s like being a part of a family.
My parents, my brother’s family, the Songers, the Burtons, the Naylors, and Janet Roepke never miss a play at Muncie Civic. The people I’ve met and friends I’ve made on and off stage over the past 8 years at Civic have truly become, as Carson McCullers perfectly describes in her play, The Member of the Wedding, “The we of me.”
I love the people of our town, and I’m so grateful to call Muncie home.
Steve Brown originally wanted to be a veterinarian. Instead, he’s the host of “Brownie in the Morning” for 104.9 WERK-FM and known to local listeners as “Your Old Buddy Brownie.” Steve is also on the Board of Directors for Muncie Civic Theatre. He and his wife, Sarah, call Muncie home.