She draped the gown on his grave, propped the cap beside his temporary marker and took the only picture she could of her 20-year-old son’s high school graduation.
Lisa McFarland Husley will accept her son’s diploma Wednesday night at a graduation ceremony for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College students at the Coast Coliseum.
Braydon Lynn Hester earned the high school equivalency degree before he died February 28 at the afternoon Mardi Gras parade in Biloxi. He was so proud of the accomplishment his GED represented that he slept with the certificate for two nights.
Husley, 40, will earn her own high school diploma in the next month because her son kept after her until she, too, enrolled at MGCCC.
Hester was the oldest of four children and the life of their home on a winding rural road just east of Ocean Springs. Before he died he was working toward a certification in welding at MGCCC, and helping care for his toddler. Her own schooling was the first normal activity Husley resumed — before her two jobs — after her son died.
She’s determined to earn her associate degree and hopes one day to be a nurse.
“I’m not who I used to be before the accident,” Husley said Tuesday afternoon in her quiet, darkened den. “I’m trying to find the new me and I’m trying to build myself around it. It’s been very hard for me to find a smile since that day.”
Assumptions replace facts
The last 72 days have bathed Husley in an anguish understood only by parents who have lost children suddenly and violently.
Husley is a worrier, the kind of mom who lies awake at night thinking about where her children are sleeping and how she would get them out if the house caught fire.
She and Hester spent time the day before he died, eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant and talking like the close friends they were. She worried about him going to the parade. Not about him misbehaving but about the crowds and the drinking going on around him.
When they parted, he told his mom he loved her. He would talk to her soon.
The next day, she was getting dressed for her job at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino coffee shop. She’d planned to leave a couple of hours early because of the parade traffic. Her phone rang.
Hester had been in an accident.
As the parade rolled by, he’d fallen from a truck bed onto one of the rebar spikes the city used to block off an area on the parade route, under Interstate 110. The uncovered rebar pierced his right side beneath his rib cage and exited under his left arm pit.
On the phone, Husley peppered her son’s young friend with questions. What happened? How did Braydon look? The color drained from his face, the girl said. He turned white, she said.
Husley, who had studied phlebotomy, knew then her son was dead from rapid blood loss.
She asked to speak to one of the police officers, who told her Braydon was stable. The officer had to tell her that, she knew, so she could make the drive to Biloxi.
The parade was over by the time she arrived but with traffic it took her 45 minutes to make it the few blocks through downtown Biloxi to the hospital. She tried to tell herself that maybe, just maybe, Braydon was alive.
A doctor gave her the news in a private room off the emergency room.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t save your son.”
Thirty surgeons could not have saved him, the doctor said. The rebar punctured all his major organs. They took him off life support after a couple of minutes.
She later learned a friend had held her son after the accident. Hester couldn’t talk. He stared into the young man’s eyes until he faded out. Around them, the rowdy parade rolled on for a brief time.
News spread fast. On social media, the gap in facts was, as usual, filled with conjecture and judgment. A 20-year-old falls from a truck at a Mardi Gras parade in Biloxi? He must have been drunk.
No, Braydon Hester was not drunk. His mother knew that, even before toxicology reports showed he had no drugs or alcohol in his system. He did not drink, not that she knew of. He hunted, he fished, he played guitar, he babysat the son he’d quit school to support. He loved his family.
Husley did not eat or sleep for four days. She reached out on Facebook, asking for videos or photos that might illuminate what happened to her son.
She talked to the friends who were with him. She concluded he had either tripped on something in the truck bed or over one of his steel-toed work boots.
“He was a special person,” Husley said. “He was a good person. It just hurt me that they were saying those things about him.”
‘You can do this’
Hester was an old soul in a child’s body, she said. As a 10-year-old, he preferred sitting around the kitchen table with the adults to playing outside. He liked to sit around a fire in the yard. He liked to fish with her, or just by himself. It was his relaxation.
He could take apart and put back together most anything. When he died, he was trying to build an electric bicycle with the motor from a weed trimmer.
He babysat his young brother and sister for her; she sometimes watched his toddler, Davin Lynn Hester. She learned after his death that his second son had been born a week earlier. The baby was two months premature. Hester never knew Maverick Wyatt Mason had arrived.
Davin and his mom had moved to Tennesee a couple of months before Hester died, so the new baby has been a comfort to Husley.
Husley herself dropped out of school when she was pregnant with Hester, who was born in November 1996. She always encouraged her son to finish his education. After he enrolled, he told her she should finish school, too.
“Mom,” he told her, “if I can do this, you can do this.”
The program at MGCCC allowed them to take college courses while pursuing their GEDs.
Husley has two jobs. After school, she works at an alterations shop, then heads to The Roasted Bean at the Beau. She had a hard time dragging herself back to school. Her professors caught her up on the three weeks she missed.
She’s determined to finish. Sometimes, she puts her head on her desk and cries, then she hears her son’s voice. “Mama,” he says, “you can do this.”
She finally washed the little pile of laundry that smelled like him in the bottom of his clothes basket. It was one of the many tough steps she’s taken.
Graduation Wednesday night means more of those steps, walking into a life she is trying to understand. She will graduate in four weeks and walk for her own diploma next spring.
“I’m walking for him,” she said. “I didn’t really care about me walking his year . . .. He was just so proud of that step he had taken in life, the least I can do is put that cap and gown on for him and accept his award.”