Johnny and I at the airport before I left for Honduras
Johnny and I at the airport before I left for Honduras
Vanessa Lara Mendoza

Don’t Drink and Drive

My brother’s name is Johnny, named after our father. He was a bright 19-year-old and had so much ahead of him. He was one of the few people in the world who made me feel important and loved. He made my childhood wonderful and gave me so much to look forward to. I was still a child when his accident took him away from me. I didn’t understand much about who he was until I spent more time with my other brother, Kevin. Kevin was closer to Johnny than I ever was. He treasured Johnny and has told me so many stories that have further proven that Johnny was just another beautiful soul taken from us too soon.

Growing up, my family had always been split. My mother has three daughters (including myself), each with a different father. My father was married before he met my mom and had two boys with his ex-wife, Johnny and Kevin. My parents met and fell in love, had me after just two years of dating, and married when I was four years old. They celebrated their 12th anniversary earlier this year. I was technically an only child since all my siblings were my half-siblings, and considering I was so much younger than they were, I never felt included with them. With my parents working a lot and most of my siblings still in school, a lot of responsibility fell on the shoulders of the oldest sibling, Johnny. He would pick me up from my babysitters and spend time with me until my parents came home. He would entertain me and help my parents out a lot. On Johnny’s maternal side, he had three younger sisters, just about the same age as I was. He was a caring boy who just loved spending time with his younger sisters.

My dad spent a lot of time trying to ruin our family.

After his parents’ separation, I could see how angry Kevin and him were at my father. I still don’t know the full story to this day, but I know it was bad enough to drive our family apart. Johnny and Kevin lived with their mom most of the time, but they would spend a couple of weeks at our home, and that time with them is what I looked forward to the most.

My dad spent a lot of time trying to ruin our family. He would go out all the time and drink and try to get with other women. I remember all the times when my mom would take me to the movies or to get ice cream to avoid being home with him. Thankfully, he got better. I think Johnny and Kevin saw how all of this was taking a toll on me and my mom. They would often come and help my mom with household stuff and take me off her hands for a while to give her some space to breathe. Since Johnny was the only one driving at the time, I would spend more time with him. I remember us driving around and laughing at stupid elementary school jokes. I wish I had spent more time listening to his laugh and watching him smile. He was a ray of sunshine. He made everyone happy and made my childhood memorable. Although our family was torn, Johnny was a constant reminder in my life that no matter what, someone will love and care for you.

I remember the exact moment I found out.

I remember the exact moment I found out. It was four days after my birthday, January 17th. My parents and I had driven to Disney with some family friends to celebrate my birthday. Unknowingly, we ended up finishing the Disney trip two years later. I had just awoken from the long drive we had taken the night before. It was dark in our hotel room, so my eyes immediately noticed the small sliver of light coming from the bathroom door. I headed over and heard sniffling coming from the small bathroom. I looked around for my dad, but he was nowhere to be found. I entered the bathroom to brush my teeth, but since I knew my mom liked her privacy, I didn’t ask her any questions. She walked out of the bathroom once I turned the faucet on. I follow my routine as any other person would. I grabbed my toothbrush, placed a small line of toothpaste on the bristles, and began to brush. My mom came back in after a minute or two. She looked at me through the mirror and said the words I expected the least. We had to drive back down to West Palm because Johnito got into a car accident. I put my toothbrush down and asked her if he was okay, and she replied, “We’ll see when we get there.” I had a pit in my stomach: something wasn’t right. I looked back at myself in the mirror as she walked out the door. I finished up and put the little things I had taken out of my luggage back in. My dad had been walking around the hotel hallways. He had this look on his face that I still can’t explain. He looked so pained yet hopeful.

The trip back felt so long. I didn’t know what to think or feel. I hoped for the best, but the pit just kept growing. A total of three words were exchanged on the way back. The only sound filling the car was the GPS and my mom’s silent cries. Kevin waited to break the news until we had arrived at his house. He knew how badly we needed to be around our family to hear it. Johnny drove an old, beaten-down Nissan, and there was a small wooden stick that kept the CD player open. I remember the countless times I had to push that stick in and out to play a song. That stick was found pierced in his neck. Johnny was driving south on Haverhill Road, approaching Cresthaven to go pick up his girlfriend from her job at MetroPCS. We will never know his last words or actions, but we pray he wasn’t in too much pain.

…he was already gone when we got there…

The EMT’s said he was already gone when they got there, that it was a quick death. There were no tire marks on the road, indicating that he didn’t break. I think he was gone before he had the chance to. The Chevy pick-up truck was driven by a man with his two teenage kids, all wearing seatbelts. They made it out of the wreck and were treated at St. Mary’s Medical Center. My mom always told me not to hold any resentment against the man who killed my brother, but I can’t help but wish it had been him instead of Johnny. Johnny was only 19. He was just starting his life. He wasn’t irresponsible or reckless. He was driving safely with his seatbelt on. Most importantly, he wasn’t intoxicated.

The man who crashed into my brother had been drunk driving with his kids in the middle of the day. With no regard for the safety of himself, his children, and especially not my brother. He got off with a DUI and a slap on the wrist. I guess things like this happen so often that they just decide to let people off the hook, even when they take beautiful souls away.

It’s been eight years without my brother…

It’s been eight years without my brother, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I wish he had seen me grow into a young woman. I wish he had given a toast at my quinceñera. I wish he could have taught me how to drive, how to deal with boys, or simply be there for me when I needed him. Most importantly, I wish he could see the wonderful ways that our family has grown. All his nieces and nephews will only see pictures and hear stories of him. They will never get to be blessed by his presence and wise guidance. He is so important to me and my family, and we’ve learnt to continue living even if he can’t be here. Even if we can’t touch him, hug him, or hear that contagious laugh.

Following the accident, my father found sobriety and started to spend more time with his family. He was grieving but he knew he had to do better for us and for his son. To this day, my father continues to make my brother proud. Johnny’s death was a complete eye-opener on the battles of today. Driving intoxicated might not seem like a big deal until you have to suffer a loss at the hands of alcohol or drugs. We can’t change the past, but we can move forward and help people find guidance to avoid things like this. I hope anyone reading this never has to go through what my family went through and aspires to help change our world. Don’t drink and drive.

Author’s note: before publishing this, I spoke to my brother about writing this story, and he wanted to include a paragraph he wrote on Johnny’s 6-year anniversary in 2021.

“Dear brother, today I remember and celebrate your life. I miss you more than ever but I thank God for those 18 years we got to spend together. As I write this I can feel the tears falling down my face, it still hurts, it still plays out again and again in my mind. I can’t believe it’s been 6 years already, it’s crazy how time passes us by but your memory is so fresh in my mind as I recall how hard we laughed together on moms couch days before your accident. You were there with me through thick and thin and that’s what hurts the most. You were my partner in crime, my confidant, and my best friend. As a kid I sometimes felt alone not realizing that you were always there by my side. I wish we could’ve been together for my 21st, or when I moved out on my own, and I especially wish you could’ve been there when my daughter was born, you would’ve made a great uncle. I choose to remember us as innocent kids just living and enjoying life. You will always be in my heart and in my mind, I am your keeper and I will never let your memory fade. Rest in eternal peace big bro we will one day meet again and be like children.” – Kevin

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  • A

    angelicaOct 10, 2023 at 1:37 PM

    This is a sad, heartbreaking story of an example of the dangers of drinking and driving. Drinking and driving isn’t talked about enough and this article helps people want to do better. This story of Vanessas brother johnny dying is heart touching and very detailed. You can feel the emotion by the description of the article and it makes an emotional connection with the reader.

  • A

    Alexis SarriaOct 9, 2023 at 9:10 PM

    This article is something a lot of people should really hear and read. There are many ways we can avoid getting into a car accident like dont text a drive, wear a seatbelts , but the most important thing is not drinking and driving. Im so sorry for you lost and no one at a young age should ever go through that type of pain. Your article was well written

  • D

    Daniela ZOct 2, 2023 at 10:40 PM

    I can tell Vanessa put her heart into creating this article. The way she retold her story intergrading different people involved really made it feel more real and in turn even more devastating. To lose someone so integral to your life so unexpectedly while being easily preventable is unfortunately something that happens much too often.

  • K

    Kamryn KennedyOct 2, 2023 at 10:32 PM

    This article is something to be shared and to be talked about rather than ignored. People as important get their lives taken daily due to drunk driving and it’s not fair. So many people can relate to his story including myself and it needs to be recognized. We are all proud of you for sharing and i’m so sorry for your loss. 🙂

  • B

    Brooke CarvalhoOct 2, 2023 at 3:18 PM

    Reading this article was heartbreaking you really showed raw emotions of the events that took place. I loved the included last paragraph from your brother Kevin it was a good heartfelt ending. You experienced this tragedy at such a young age and grew into the young strong woman you are now. You have created such an important read. I am so sorry for your lost RIP Johnny.

  • J

    Jordyn GrantOct 1, 2023 at 8:29 PM

    This article is beautifully bitter sweet. It starts off pleasant, but then when you approach further and further it just goes “boom!” and hits you with devastating emotions that make you want to cry and reflect on who is in your life and value them for each and everything they do, every moment you spend with them because nothing is ever guaranteed. Thank you for sharing your story and for having the courage to write is and make it public, it was very beautiful. I hope you have a blessed life.

  • J

    Jasmine brooksSep 27, 2023 at 2:10 PM

    This article is something a lot of people should hear I know we hear wear your seatbelts and just take it as a saying but it is something very serious just like drinking and driving .. I am so sorry for your loss and you have turned your pain into something beautiful which will benefit others. Well done <3

  • R

    Raphna DorvilSep 26, 2023 at 4:56 PM

    Vanessa Lara Mendoza not only highlights the pain and grief but also the positive changes that occurred in the family, particularly with the father finding sobriety and spending more time with his family. The story serves as a powerful reminder of the devastating consequences of drunk driving and the importance of preventing such incidents.
    Including the note from the her brother, Kevin, adds a heartfelt and personal touch to the narrative, emphasizing the enduring love and memories they have for Johnny.
    At the end of the story, encouraging readers to avoid drinking and driving, serves as an important reminder of the real-world impact of such actions and the need for responsible choices.

  • F

    Flaco RiveraSep 26, 2023 at 1:51 PM

    It’s was a great article it really touched my heart.

  • A

    AHSep 26, 2023 at 9:22 AM

    This article was an eye opener about how real and serious drunk driving is, and brings awareness to a topic that affects the lives of families everyday.

  • D

    Delilah LinanSep 25, 2023 at 9:00 PM

    I couldn’t help but cry reading this. I know how sharing your story must be hard, but you are leaving an impact on others that you should be proud of.