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"You Can Change Your Story": Why I Wrote a Book About the Death of My Mother

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 18, 2023 3:01 am

"You Can Change Your Story": Why I Wrote a Book About the Death of My Mother

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 18, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, David LaBelle's last memory of his mother was seeing her washed away in a raging flood when he was a senior in high school. She would never be found. It took David years to wrestle with the loss, and eventually he decided to write a semi-fictional book about the event called Bridges & Angels as a therapeutic exercise.  

David's books (and photos) can be found on his website.

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Learn more at slash skills. This week on Leguizamo Does America, John Leguizamo visits Miami to find out how this city became a Mecca for Cubans leaving their homeland. Since the Cuban revolution, Cubans have been flocking to Miami any way they could.

Boats, planes and rafts. Little Havana is filled with crazy amounts of Latinx everything, but the best part is the people. Leguizamo Does America, all new episode Sunday, April 23rd at 10 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show, including yours. Send them to

They're some of our favorites. And up next, a story from California about love, loss and coming to terms with grief. Here's David LaBelle with his story. My name is David LaBelle. I'm primarily a teacher and a photographer and have been for the last 50 years. I started in high school when I was a junior in high school. I was probably the kid most likely to end up in prison.

In fact, I think some kids probably wrote that in the yearbook for me because I came from a difficult family and I wasn't a good student and I hated school. And so, you know, I stayed away from school. I did school as much as I could. And then eventually they caught me. A truant officer caught me, I think, as a junior. And then I had to I had to go to school, had to go to night school in order to even graduate from high school. When I used to walk to the halls of the high school when I was a junior and I would see these photographs on the walls and I thought, boy, that's what I'd like to do. And then eventually when they asked when they took me, the truant officer took me to school and they asked me, you know, how do we keep you in school? I said, well, I'd like to take photography.

I think that would really be something that would center me. And he said, you can't do it, basically. He said, you know, there's a there's a waiting list of 300 kids. You have to be a good student and you're not.

And so we're not going to let you in. And then what I'd learned 40 years later, when I was talking to my high school photo teacher one night, he said, you know, had it not been for your mother, you know, you would have never been in that photo class. And I said, I don't know what you're talking about. He said, your mother came came to me by night and begged me to let you in the photography class because she was so worried about you, worried that you were really going down the wrong path and that you were going to be in trouble. So, you know, I mean, that's very humbling when you realize that, because it did change my life. And I ended up being pretty good in photography. And so she she's the one that believed in me.

She's the one that certainly was my advocate many times, had it not been for her. And I'll give one quick one quick example. When I was a senior, you know, we didn't have any money. I was a senior. You had to have a ten dollar craft card to be able to take the photo class. And I didn't have ten dollars. My mother went to my dad and she asked him, you know, said that she needed the ten dollars.

And he kind of reacted bad, like, what do you need ten dollars for? What are you going to mean? What's he going to do with photography anyway? What's the what's that going to do in his life? And so she advocated for me and said, you know, I think that he is going to do something.

I think this is something that that there's going to be a lot of potential. So she again, she she stood up for me. She I mean, basically she was my matrix.

I mean, people need that in their life. You know, in every family, there's usually there's usually one pillar. And sometimes it's the mother. Sometimes it's the father.

If you're really blessed, it could be both of them. My father, bless his heart, tried to do well, but he wasn't he wasn't a great father. He struggled with a lot of things. My mother was when she was in high school, she met my father. And my father was a handsome guy, rode a motorcycle and get whatever it was, there was an attraction. So she got married and and then she had five children. That became her life. And it was a burden. I mean, it was it was a financial burden.

It was an emotional burden. My mother was, I think, always sad, always a dreamer, wishing that we had a better house, that she had a better kitchen, that we had more money, that we that there was more stability in the family. She always she always dreamed that. I think she just pretty much lived her life in pain, which always was painful to me. You know, she went through high school.

She could type very fast, probably had a great career in something. And then married the dreamer, my dad, who so it kind of came to a screeching halt. But she was always, I don't think I remember about her more than anything. She would read to me a lot growing up, even when I was 15. I would we would drive and she would read, read books to me, you know, read The Wind in the Willows, read, you know, Where the Red Fern Grows. She's the only one that really played baseball with me. I mean, she would pitch to me out there on the on the rocky field. And I wanted to be a baseball player so she would get out there and pitch to me. And, you know, I mean, we did a lot of things together.

I wish I was kinder to her. I'm trying to think. I was 17. A friend of mine named Randy Miller, he dared me one day to run away to go to Missouri. I took the dare. So I took my mother's car, which was a Plymouth station wagon, and we headed out at two dollars with me. We headed out for Missouri on a Saturday. And we made it. It was I siphoned gas. We had people help us.

That is in itself is a credible story. Well, the long story short is it broke my mother's heart. And I didn't even realize until in the last year or two how devastating that must have been for her, because I was closer to her than probably anybody else. Not that she wasn't close to my brother and sister. She was. She was loving and she caring. We had a special relationship. I just the one person that I felt like I could talk to and trust. And so when I still basically stole their car, she's afraid for my life.

She doesn't know what's going to happen to me. We're driving across in the winter. And then I remember when we finally got home, we were gone about two weeks. We finally got home. The look on her face haunts me to this day. It was a combination of of relief, of contempt for what I did, of anger.

But above all, there was just disappointment. I disappointed her. And that I wish they just would have beat me with a stick rather than it was so disappointing to look at her eyes. But she one thing about her is that she saw. Yeah, I was pretty reckless and wild, but she but she knew that I had a good heart. And so she.

I mean, she would mean she was my comfort. And so losing her as a high school senior was was pretty tough. And it's not something that you ever forget. And it's something that forever shapes who you are and how you interact with others. And you're listening to David Labelle tell the story of his mom and my goodness, how he must have felt bringing that car home. And we've all been there disappointed our parents or loved ones. And you don't need to get yelled at.

You've already beaten yourself up enough. But what a feeling that is when we come back. More of the story of David Labelle and his mom here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American stories dot com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's our American stories dot com. Buying a home can be an anxiety inducing endeavor.

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Listen to Echoes of History, Assassin's versus Templars on I heart or wherever you get your podcasts. And we're back with our American stories and David Labelle's story. When we last left off, David was telling us about his mother, a woman with a lot of sadness in her life, but whom he truly loved.

He also mentioned how he wished he was kinder to her because she passed away young when David was a mere senior in high school in a terrible flood. Let's continue with the story. It had been raining a lot. Ventura County had a lot of rain and so much so that my mother and I had a conversation. We read in the newspaper about eight Boy Scouts who died while trying to cross the river on a giant caterpillar. And we said, God, what what if it got that bad here?

What would we do? You know, and within five days, the same that happened to us in five days, the creeks kept swelling, you know, swelling. And on this particular night, it was it was Friday night. The creek was it was so deep and so fast and it was tearing up houses and tearing up all kind of stuff.

Well, that that night, about, you know, 10 or 11 o'clock, my dad came in and they went to bed. And then about five in the morning, my brother wakes us up and he says, look outside. It was just getting daylight and the cars were moving and there was water all around the house. Everything was starting to move.

He couldn't stop him. My dad had a power wagon and all of a sudden it's going down the river. And eventually we were able to get everybody on top of the roof of the house. And I was still inside trying to call flood control, trying to call anybody to get us help. And actually I was on the phone with a friend and she said, are you all right?

And I said, I don't I don't know. I said, we're really desperate situation here. And right then the back door broke open and all the water came through. And I went out with it and I was able to get pulled on the roof. And we were on that roof for, I don't know, four or five hours. It's freezing rain.

I mean, it's probably 33 degrees. It's just rain is beating you and it's ice and we're frozen and it's cold. And now you have five hours to think about what the end of your life is going to be. It's not like, wow, I almost hit the curb and boy, I saw my life.

No, I hadn't. I saw my life flash for me in over hours and pray to God that I would be saved, that we'd all be saved. You know, bargaining, doing anything to try it because you know you're going to die. And it's like that. You get this terrible cottony feeling in your mouth because, you know, this is the end. I mean, there's just was not a way out of it.

And I'm pretty good at looking for ways out of things. There wasn't a way out of it. So we waited and waited. And then eventually we knew the house was going to break up and we were all going to get chucked in the river. And there's no way you could swim in that.

There's nobody could swim in that. So I kept pacing the roof and telling, trying to tell my family, I said, you know, when this thing, when this roof breaks, it's going to go toward the main current. Then it's going to bounce off and it's going to go to shallower water for a couple of minutes here. And when that happens, we have to jump as far towards the hills as we can.

That's the only chance we're going to have. So eventually we heard the walls crash and everybody was like, oh my gosh, here we go. The roof starts down the river. And it did just as I had predicted because I watched sticks in the creek all my life. I jumped as far out as I could and I actually, you couldn't see it, but there was gravel under the water. I hit gravel and I was able to stand up.

And I looked back and nobody else had jumped. And here comes, there goes the roof down the river. I mean, there's no way they're going to survive this.

And so I'm helpless to watch this. And then a big sycamore tree comes rolling down and crashes into the thing and knocks everybody off. And people are hanging onto the tree. Part of the roof pins my sister against the tree. My mother tries to get to her. She's like hanging onto the tree, tries to get to my sister. My brother tries to get to my sister to free her.

They eventually pull the piece of the wall away from her enough. And she passed out basically. And my brother grabbed her. My mother lost her hold. And so my last image is watching my mother, you know, sitting backwards, slapping the water and screaming. And that's where she disappeared. That's a really hard last image, you know, for anybody.

Particularly somebody who was, who, you know, who you loved that much. We never found her. We looked. And then about, it might have been five or six years or eight years after the fact, a car rolled over the side of the hill up the R&S grade, which is about two or three miles from our house. And when it rolled over, it unearthed a skeleton. And that skeleton was, you know, only a few feet from the highway. Which means if someone was thrown out of a car, somebody, they don't know why that skeleton was there. And so for a while it was presumed that that skeleton was the skeleton of my mother. And if that was the case, which was really troubling, it meant that she survived the water and somehow had climbed that 75 or 100 feet up the side of this hill and almost made it to the highway before she died. That could have happened.

So I got to thinking about that over and over. And I'm like, oh my, what if that's her? What if that's what happened?

The coroner called my dad and I and they asked us would we come there to try and take DNA samples. So after the test they just said the tests are inconclusive and the coroner said I don't believe that's her. But from that I thought, okay, what if she did survive?

It's possible. What if she did climb up that hill? What if she was so beaten and stripped and disoriented that she didn't know what she was doing? What if somebody, you know, she could have amnesia? What if somebody picked her up and helped her? She didn't know who she was at this point. And so that became a very remote possibility.

I know it's remote. As remote as that is, that possibility gives you something to kind of build on. And so from that point on, after I was given the news, I started putting a story together. And I realized through the course of writing it, over 25 years writing it off and on, that something really incredible happens.

Is that when you're working on a story, particularly when you get into the fiction part of it, as long as you're working on the story, those characters are real and they're alive. And it was when I finished the story that it really got me. I finished the story on Christmas Day and I was working out of Starbucks.

They had this kind of a balcony I was working out of and was there a lot and can't allow. When I finished writing that on Christmas Day, I sat there and just wept. Because it really struck me then that this is fiction. She's not alive.

I made this up. But until then, you're kind of living on false hope. And I know, mentally you know that.

You know that the chances of her being gone are great and that she's not alive. But that's the miracle of fiction when you write, is that those people can live forever. You know I worked in a program in Ohio that's called the Athens Photo Project.

And what we do is we use photography and the arts to really kind of help stabilize people. To help them get over their stories. And one of the things you learn about that when you work with this group is that you would tell them, you know you can change your story. Just because you're a drug addict doesn't mean you have to be a drug addict. Just because you were abused as a child doesn't mean you have to live that abuse. You can change your story.

And you think about it, that's what I'm doing. I'm changing my story. I'm changing the ending of what I think happened to what I wish could happen. An ending that I can live with, that I can have peace with.

You know, instead of always having to live in the past. I don't always have to be the suffering child. I don't always have to be the, you know, as my wife says, the kid with no lunch money. I don't always have to be those things. So just as those, you know, in mental health recovery, how we use photography and the arts for them to change their story. And to kind of stabilize them and balance their lives.

I've been able to do the same thing. Self-therapy, you know, I didn't go to a therapist. You know, writing and my photography was therapy. All that is what makes me who I am today. And a special thanks to Monty on the production of that piece. And a special thanks to David LaBelle. His book, Bridges and Angels, the story of Ruth.

Get it on or the usual suspects. And there's so much in this story that most of us can relate to. And my goodness, that last image, seeing his mother slapping and screaming in the raging flood and never seeing her again.

Well, that's not something that happens to most of us. You can change your story. That's what David LaBelle closed with. I don't have to always be the suffering child. I don't have to always be the kid without money.

David LaBelle's story, his grief story and how he rebounded here on Our American Story. On April 25th, the S8 series is on sale for 20% off at Or we could get the S8 Pro Ultra and Dyad Pro Combo for 15% off only on

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-18 04:33:12 / 2023-04-18 04:42:52 / 10

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