Winter, the Death of Autumn

[I wrote this a few days after the death of Autumn Mehl, a young lady who taught Zumba classes at our local YMCA. I recently updated it and decided to share now that it’s been over six months since her death.]

I am still in shock. I suppose I will be for quite some time.

I did not know her at all, really, but she became an important role in my recent journey to fitness, and I was inspired by her enthusiasm and energy on the Zumba fitness floor.

My husband and I joined our local YMCA in October 2015, after several years of discussing and then ultimately rejecting because we thought the price was out of our budget. Through a few efforts, finally we were able to, and I noticed that an almost-two year old back injury began to feel the benefits of regular exercising (not only at our local YMCA, but at others that I can visit while traveling for my work).

I noticed on the local Y’s fitness schedule that Zumba was a daily offering, and I began attending the Sunday morning class.The instructor’s name was listed as “Autumn” on the schedule. Autumn quickly broke a sweat with her routine, and so did I. I watched in fascination as her trim body moved  like fluid and guided her students through an hour’s worth of high-energy Zumba moves. I began to think, “I wonder if she looks amazing from just doing  Zumba, and if I keep doing it, will I look the same?” I tried hard to mimic her moves, just in case the answer was “yes”.

I had no way of knowing that my last class with her would be Sunday, 2.7.16. She threw me off the first half-hour, doing songs that I did not know, so that I fumbled around a bit and had to work especially hard to watch her – I usually go to the front of the class so I can see better, but now I was potentially misleading the people behind me. The last half hour, she reverted back to songs that I knew which brought relief. I left there that day feeling my “Zumba High”, the rush of endorphins that I get from a good class.

On Saturday evening, 2.13.16, I was preparing to go to bed, eager as usual for the Sunday morning Zumba class. I took a final glance at Facebook, and I saw something that caught my attention – someone had changed their profile picture to a picture of Autumn, and around her face it said “Missing – Help Find Autumn”. After doing some checking, I found a Facebook page that was created earlier that evening. It appeared that Autumn and a male friend left a local bar at 2 a.m. on 2.13.16 and had not been seen since. I felt my stomach turn. I looked at her Facebook page – she had over 1,000 friends, and no one had heard from her all day. Both of their phones were shut off, an ominous sign. Search parties had formed and dozens of people were driving around the frozen, snowy Michigan night searching for her white Toyota. I stayed up until after 2 a.m. reading posts, and posting my own notices on local police Facebook pages. I prayed several prayers that night, knowing the outcome was not good, but hoping for the best anyway.

It was a bad night of sleeping – I had been fighting a constant cough anyway – but I awakened at 6:30 a.m. on 2.14.16 and kept reading the posts. Another search party was gathering at our local Y, and within an hour and a half, they found her car, upside down in a creek, both she and her friend dead inside the car.

It appeared that her car slid off a very narrow road (that had no guard rails) into the creek below. Even if alcohol was not a factor, the weather that night was not good; we had received more lake effect snow on top of snow that had fallen during the week. It was not a good night for driving for anyone. Later, toxicology results confirmed that her blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit. Howevever, I am of the persuasion that if there had been guard rails present, the outcome would have been very different. In fact, guard rails were finally erected soon after their deaths.

I think what bothers me more than anything is that she left behind three small children and two step-children, who will grow up not knowing their mother, not having her in their precious lives. Her life, which was energetic and enthusiastic from what I could tell, was now snuffed out, all because she made the choice to take a road that should not have been taken that night, figuratively and literally. I will miss her in Zumba, but more importantly, those who loved her will miss her for all the right reasons: they will miss her as a mother, a sister, daughter, and friend. All because the perils of winter claimed her life way too soon.

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