A mother’s undying devotion


2013 photo by Terry Byrne

For two years, someone has kept fresh flowers and memories alive on a patch of median on busy Pickett Road in Fairfax, Va. Until this weekend, I had no clue on Earth who.

As I motored northbound, I spied her with a jug of nutrient-laced water and fresh white roses and carnations. I did a U-turn, hoping to find a place to park so maybe we could chat.

Wasn’t sure what I planned to say. Certainly not “Happy Mother’s Day” … but I needed to tell her that, even without knowing a single detail of her story, I had reflected almost daily on that makeshift memorial she lovingly tended … and on life’s tenuous tether … and on a mother’s unmatched devotion. For I had no doubt it was a mother placing the blossoms there, fresh ones every few days, as she projected to the world her indefatigable love for her child while embracing passersby with a radiant hope for safety along a surprisingly hazardous stretch of suburban road.


Managed to snap this quick photo of the mysterious flower-and-water bearer — didn’t care about holding up traffic. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

Sure enough, her son Marvin had been driving southbound in a black 1997 Ford Explorer, possibly too fast, at 1:30 a.m. May 23, 2011 — nearly two years to the day — when he hit the curb, then a tree, causing the SUV to flip, ejecting him. His younger brother was in the car and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Marvin, 24, was pronounced dead at the scene.

I know that spot in the road, where surveyors seemingly skewed the lanes just enough so that the curb jumps out at you. Coming home at night, given my failing eyesight, I sometimes have to swerve to miss that curb, even while going the posted 30-mph speed limit. It’s a speed trap, too — goes from 35 mph to 30 mph. Most cars travel 45 mph to 50 mph.

Marvin and his brother were nearly home. Just a quarter-mile more, and it would have been their turn at Mathy Drive, into the apartments on Persimmon. Instead, a miscalculation, and the light that brightened her life for two dozen years, her firstborn, burned out in a flash.


The May 2011 accident scene. Photo by Jummy Olabanji, WJLA

It’s not exactly legal to garden on public property; then there’s Marvin’s dad, patiently waiting in the car across the street, idling illegally in a towable space. But no one disturbs the peaceful scene. This part of Fairfax doesn’t see many traffic fatalities, and maybe local cops remember that awful night, when they had to close down that section of Pickett Road until 7:35 a.m. Perhaps they just agree to look the other way. Word has it Fairfax City was facing a lawsuit over the accident, as the trees were planted in the median in violation of VDOT and NHTC regulations.

Before Marvin died, the most recent traffic fatality in Fairfax had been Dec. 8, 2009, on Blake Lane (US 9), at two minutes after midnight, involving a driver and a pedestrian. There is no makeshift memorial marking that spot.

How did I gather facts beyond what I witnessed and documented? Google. She didn’t tell me. I had to dig. Along with news stories I pulled up about the crash were racist comments, blind and false claims about the Jimenez Centellas family being illegals. Trolls attacking them mercilessly, thoughtlessly.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped cold. Notice the beautiful dove drawn in the center, and the Christmas ornament still hanging on the side. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

I wonder how many motorists zoom by thoughtlessly, oblivious to this reminder of this family’s ever-fresh wound.

One thing for sure: There’s nothing more American than building makeshift memorials. From the Vietnam Memorial (The Wall on the Mall), which pretty much institutionalized the practice of propping up teddy bears and pinning notes, to the more recent Boston Marathon attack, which turned busy city streets into a battlefield, cascading tragedies have breathed new life into local Hallmark and Party City economies.

What might be considered litter or vandalism elsewhere is allowed on America’s forlorn streets. Maybe even expected. Evidence of pilgrims claiming sacred ground, marking territory, conquering grief.

The couple were polite and trusting when I approached them in the parking lot. They lowered their windows, smiled, answered my few questions, accepted my condolences. Perhaps they first thought I was issuing a warning about trespassing.

Or maybe they felt, having lost their beloved child in the blink of an eye in a place they thought he was safe, that they had nothing left to lose.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)