Hernando family seeks strength in grief

SPRING HILL — Take Brian Greene back to the fall of 1991, and he will tell you about the first time he saw Nissa Byrdsong.

He was 15; she was one year his junior.

He saw her from far away. She stood at a bus stop. Brownish-blond, curly hair. Olive skin. A wide, infectious smile. Her legs stretched a mile long.

"She was beautiful," Brian says. "Always really tall. A beautiful 5-foot-10, all of it legs."

Their first kiss was on a bench in Drew Park, near where they both lived in Jacksonville. They carved their initials onto the bench's seat.

Brionna, 14; Kierra, 12; Tika, 7, and Nathaniel, 6, giggle knowingly at the thought of their parents' first kiss. They've heard this story before.

The initials, so lovingly carved in 1992, were a reminder of their young affection for years after Brian and Nissa were married. When the bench was replaced about a decade ago, the couple recarved their initials on a nearby tree trunk.

Now, more than ever, Brian hopes that the initials on that tree are still there.

The love of his life is gone.

•••

Take Brian back to Feb. 7, 1996, and he will tell you about when Nissa Byrdsong became Nissa Byrdsong-Greene.

She was 19. And it was on his lunch hour.

They planned a small, backyard wedding. But the month before, as they signed the marriage papers, they had a better idea.

"As we paid the 80 bucks, the lady told us for an additional 20 we could get married right then," he said, smiling at the memory. "I looked at her, and she looked at me, and we talked about it and decided to just to do it. That's how we were as a couple, always spontaneous like that."

A cardboard box in the family's living room in the Trillium community holds piles of photos, some of them tinged with soot from a house fire in 2003 that took nearly all of their belongings.

The glossy papers are a montage of a life filled with love, happiness and children.

Nissa is a sassy, confident 13. Bearing her midriff. Leaning against the wall and smiling flirtatiously at the camera. She's on Disney's Space Mountain. She's nine months pregnant with her second daughter, Kierra, resting her hand on a protruding belly.

"She loved being pregnant," Brian said. "Some women don't like it, but she loved it."

She was a medical assistant turned stay-at-home mom, and she saw her time with her children as a gift.

"It wasn't a sentence for her. It was a choice," Brian said. "That was all she wanted to do. Be around the kids."

The children talk loudly over each other to tell stories about their mom.

She yelled and jumped up and down as she played Xbox video games. She let their boxer, Ella, chew up Brionna's scary bride Halloween costume to make it even more ghastly. She made up silly lyrics to every song. She went on every field trip. She shared clothes and size 9 shoes with her 14-year-old daughter, Brionna. She attended countless cheerleading practices and football games and took hundreds of pictures. When her children crossed the stage at ceremonies for honor roll, she hollered louder than any other parent. On Christmas, she made a cardboard fireplace for Santa Claus.

"Are we going to do that this year?" asked Brionna.

"Of course we will," Brian said.

•••

Take Brian back to Dec. 28, and his smiles turn to tears.

Nissa, 33, had taken the kids to Jacksonville to visit her family during the Christmas holiday.

She had dropped off the children at the home of one of her sisters and was on her way to pick up her brother.

As she drove over a flyover ramp where traffic from southbound Interstate 295 merges with northbound Interstate 95, she lost control of her Ford F-150 pickup, tried to overcorrect and crashed, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

She was not wearing her seatbelt, which was unusual, Brian said.

As a diver for Misener Diving & Salvage, Brian was in the Bahamas doing tile work on a fuel terminal. Someone from the FHP called to tell him his wife had been in a wreck. Nissa's mother called later to tell him about her death.

"I fell apart," he said.

Brian, 34, last saw her the day before the wreck, when she dropped him off at the airport and kissed him goodbye. The morning of the accident, she took Brionna and Kierra to Forever 21.

"I gave the girls gift cards for Christmas, and I wanted her to take just the two of them," Brian said. "She was always pulled in four different directions because she has four children. I wanted them to have some girl bonding time. She was so psyched about it."

•••

After the wreck and the funeral — Nissa was buried in Jacksonville on Jan. 5 — sweet nothings around the house are suddenly meaningful.

Mommy's necklace. The black-and-white picture taken in the photo booth at Chuck E Cheese's. Nissa's handwriting on the inside cover of Tika's pink reporter's notebook that says "Mommy loves you."

Questions weigh heavy in the room.

How do we go on? What will it take to feel whole again?

There are make-up assignments at school. Brian's work requires him to travel.

The children like their home in Trillium, and they've adjusted well since they moved from Jacksonville two years ago.

Nissa's sisters, Autumn and Chaie, plan to drive from Jacksonville to stay every Sunday through Thursday and help with the children. For now, Brian said, the family will stay put and try to make it work.

Brionna and Kierra are on the couch, and Tika sits on the floor pretending to write in her reporter's notebook. All are full of hope and energy, like their mother.

And then there's little Nate, the baby of the family — a momma's boy. Curled up in his dad's lap, the two of them play Spiderman on Xbox.

What choice is there but to keep going? says Brian — to try to live life as Nissa would have wanted. That bold, caring woman with her yoga and dancing and silly hats. Full-time mother, louder than all the rest.

"I'm going to do what their mom would have wanted," Brian said. "Keep smiling. Keep moving forward. We're a strong family. The kids have just got to realize their mom is going to be with them no matter what."

Hernando family seeks strength in grief 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 11:54am]

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