Jodi Brown was the first person Bri Mullinger asked to see the day after she awoke from a medically induced coma.
Her parents had just broken the news that Cody Brown was killed in the Dec. 16 train accident that cost Bri her left leg and nearly took her life. She needed to see her best friend's mom.
“I just wanted to make sure she was doing OK,” Bri said.
Mrs. Brown and her husband, Jeffrey, are taking life without their tall and talented 15-year-old son one day at a time. Bri's survival has given them hope, they said, given them a final connection to Cody.
“She is our last link to our son because he told her everything. She told him everything,” Mrs. Brown said. “Things he couldn't tell us, he could tell Bri.”
Mr. Brown said they've known and liked Bri for a long time.
“They were best of friends for the last couple years,” he said. “They were so much alike, it was unbelievable.”
Cody, a freshman at Springfield High School and standout baseball player, spent nearly all his free time with Bri — playing basketball, sitting around the Mullingers' fire ring talking and talking, and, of course, walking to school together everyday.
The Browns said they never worried about them getting to school safely — Cody and Bri never gave them a reason to worry.
“We trusted their instincts,” Mrs. Brown said.
Longtime Holland residents, the Browns accept trains as a part of the local scenery. On an average day, more than 80 trains pass through the McCord Road crossing where the accident occurred.
“Cody walked to school. He walked home from school. He walked Bri to and from band,” Mrs. Brown said. “He'd do his homework while she was at band because her mom would be working and she only trusted Cody to be walking her to and from, so they walked across those tracks every day.
“That was the least of our worries. If you're going to walk in the dark, I would be more worried about a car hitting you. It just was never, ever a concern with the tracks.”
‘There's an accident'
On the morning that would change their lives, Mr. Brown was at work at Sun Chemical in Maumee. His wife said she stayed in bed longer than usual because she wasn't feeling well. By 7:45 a.m., she started getting phone calls.
“My boss called and she said, ‘You'll have to go around the tracks at McCord. There's an accident.' I didn't think anything about it,” she recalled. “Then [Jeff's] mom called and said, ‘Are the kids OK?' I said, ‘Yeah. They're in school.' I thought they were already there.”
Mrs. Brown said when she heard two kids had been hit on the railroad tracks, she assumed a car was involved. She felt sure it wasn't Cody and Bri because Bri's sisters usually walked with them.
“They walk in a group,” she said, adding, “Just something struck me funny and I thought, ‘You know what, I'm going to get my cappuccino and ride down there and see if they can tell me if it was Cody or not.'”
She drove to the scene, which was by then crawling with police cars and rescue squads. She asked a police officer whether Cody Brown was involved in the accident. He asked her for her name and led her to a rescue squad.
“A lot of it's pretty much a blur,” Mrs. Brown said, fighting back tears. “He did then tell me it was Cody. I wanted to see him, but they told me I couldn't.”
Mr. Brown was informed at work that there was an emergency at home. A co-worker drove him home, but he had no idea what had happened.
“I wasn't sure. I thought maybe my house was on fire or somebody broke into my home or something. I never would've thought it was that,” he said quietly. “It was a blow. It was bad.”
Hugs and prayers
By the time he arrived home, the house already was filling with people bearing food, hugs, and prayers. It was overwhelming at first, but the Browns credit the support they've received from school officials, co-workers, family, and friends with getting them through the nightmare.
Teachers brought the Browns' daughter, Shelby, a Springfield sixth grader, home.
As difficult as it has been for them to accept Cody's death, it's Shelby they worry about most.
“The counselors at school say she's handling it typically for an 11-year-old girl,” Mrs. Brown said. “She still sometimes says it doesn't seem real. To us, it doesn't seem that real.”
‘A coach's dream'
The Browns said their son, a popular boy who made friends wherever he went, lived for baseball.
He started with Little League at age 5, graduated to travel ball by 8, played with the Springfield Thunder travel team, and last summer found himself the youngest member of the Toledo Renegades, an 18-and-under team.
Cody was “a coach's dream,” said Dave Whitmire, head baseball coach at Springfield High. The teen was “the first one there and the last one to leave” team workouts.
He hadn't officially tried out for varsity baseball yet, but his talent was apparent, the coach said. Cody was a pitcher but played third base and catcher too.
“It's unfortunate because guys like that don't come around much,” Mr. Whitmire said. “He reminded me a lot of myself. He kind of breathed baseball. That's how I was as a kid growing up.”
Mr. Brown said Cody hoped to play college baseball and dreamed of a career as a professional ball player. Short of that, he planned to go into law enforcement.
His father said Cody joined him for numerous trips hunting, camping, and riding dirt bikes. He and his wife like to remember his sense of humor, his big heart, his love for his friends.
“Cody easily attracted friends,” Mr. Brown said. “He always did. He had a smile and a personality. That was just his style, the way he was.”
“One of his friends said, ‘It didn't matter who you were. You were nice to Cody, Cody was nice to you,'” Mrs. Brown said.
A devastating void
Their only son's funeral was Dec. 22.
Mr. Brown said Cody's absence was difficult as their family gathered for Christmas and New Year's, but the presence of family was a huge comfort.
“The holidays were very, very hard without Cody, but they made it better for us as far as grieving for that first couple weeks,” Mr. Brown said.
Ironically, the Browns had not yet gotten Cody's Christmas gifts.
“Cody was a last-minute person. He generally knows what he wants. It's generally a couple big things,” his mom said. “Friday was supposed to be our day — two days after he was killed — he was supposed to go out with his dad and we were going to get a new baseball mitt. Then he was going to come home and I was going to take him out to get a new Droid cell phone. He couldn't stop talking about it.”
They laugh when they remember things like that.
Mrs. Brown said the simplest things bring the reality of Cody's death back to them: grocery shopping and picking out food that Cody liked, going out to eat and seeing that fourth, empty seat, walking into his bedroom.
An enduring pain
Like the Mullingers, they blame no one. Mrs. Brown said she's almost relieved there is no one to blame. She feels certain that the kids simply misjudged the speed of the train, feeling they had time to get across.
“It was just an accident,” Mr. Brown said. “It can't be taken back. It can't be changed.”
The couple have not been back to work since the accident but are slowly making plans to return.
Mr. Brown said he may return to work this week. Mrs. Brown, an office assistant at a Toledo Clinic satellite, may go back the week after.
Neither is convinced they are ready. Neither is certain the reality of Cody's death has sunk in.
Talking to Bri and her mother daily helps, Mrs. Brown said. Learning about their final moments together helped too.
“At least that morning we know he was with his friend and he was having a good time. That makes us feel better,” Mrs. Brown said. “Now, we've got to get Bri through this and get her better.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6129.