One year later, Chip dearly missed
Today is Candice Williams’ birthday, but she has no plans to celebrate it.
“This is Chip’s day,” Williams said Thursday, adding she would recognize her birthday the following month.
Charles “Chip” Williams, the only son of Candice and husband, Evan, died one year ago today when the Sea-Doo he rode hit a pier south of Nevada Beach that night.
The driver of the watercraft, Gregory Westbrook of Michigan, also died at the scene.
Since the accident, the owners of Evan’s and The Cantina restaurants have endured a rollercoaster of emotions often impacted by triggers that remind them of the life-altering experience.
To heal, they’ve relied on the power of prayer, a long-term commitment to each other and the warmth of South Lake Tahoe’s cohesive community.
“Losing a child is something no one expects,” Evan said, reiterating what many say represents the most heart-wrenching experience one could live through.
“This is debilitating. It’s something you just don’t move on very easily,” she said. “I wake up every morning, and I still think that it was a dream.”
Her mother died five months before the death of her 24-year-old son.
“We had just wrapped up her affairs,” she said.
In the first six months, the two found it difficult to work and leaned heavily on a highly competent staff of 80 restaurant employees — some of them refer to the couple as “Mom and Dad.”
“We discovered we knew a lot more people in town than we thought,” he said.
The hugs and caring thoughts from people around town — from Raley’s to the church — have contributed much support.
“We owe our highest gratitude to God. The power of prayer is just miraculous. It’s helped to keep me out of despair,” she said.
Her husband agreed.
“I don’t know how we could go through this without our faith,” he said.
But the baby steps of grief haven’t been easy.
“At first, you just go through the motions. Fortunately, we were surrounded by loyal, compassionate employees. There were days I couldn’t even get out of bed,” she said.
“And when you’re not functionally normally, it’s distressing,” he said.
They lamented how there’s no handbook on dealing with the loss of a loved one, much less that of a child.
The couple have worked through the bereavement process at a varying pace, reinforcing a common notion that men and women grieve differently.
Some couples have been known to divorce.
“Grief is a very personal thing. No one can sympathize or experience your grief,” Evan said. “She’s had more trouble moving forward, and she sees me plow ahead.”
Candice nodded as tears welled up in her eyes, adding she feared getting left behind.
In many respects though, the Williams agreed their tested relationship became stronger.
“(For) this entire year, we’ve been together. It’s been really intense,” she said. “We were feeling the dread of facing that anniversary. It’s affected our relationship. It’s affected ourselves. But I don’t think it’s something we can’t weather.”
As the Williams approached the monumental date, they went to the Hawaiian Islands in May to honor Chip at his favorite place. The grieving parents scattered his ashes along the Na Pali Coast Trail on Kauai and visited Chip’s friends on Oahu.
Other events have triggered setbacks and reminders for the two, who have recently considered adopting or mentoring a child.
“Any time a child is killed, either by accident or murder, we think of what the family is going through,” she said.
This includes the latest spate of child abductions and the death of Samantha Runnion, who would have also celebrated her sixth birthday today too, according to news reports.
“When Sept. 11 happened, we sat in bed and watched. I thought, ‘Good Lord, all those people are dying,'” he said.
As the nation cried, the Williams’ grief was accentuated.
“It was so fresh for us,” she said.
They relived the experience again when the police report arrived from Douglas County six months after the tragedy.
“We crashed and burned all over again,” Evan said. He added they were “devastated” by the lateness of the report and further indication the authorities were out “looking for a missing Jet Ski, not a missing person.”
“We were traumatized a second time,” he said.
The Williams received some solace in hearing that Chip tried to help Westbrook find his way on the lake at night.
“Chip was a helpful kind of guy. He probably didn’t know this guy for five minutes,” Evan said.
Chip, an avid sailor and photographer who enjoyed life in the basin, was living on his boat on Lake Tahoe at the time. He also had a special place in his heart for rainbows, Candice recalled.
An air-brush photograph of a rainbow leading to the horizon sits over the china cabinet in the couple’s dining room. A friend of Candice’s whose child also died gave her the picture.
“I think it’s symbolic of God’s promise,” she said.