The Little and Big  ENGINES that Could

Justin’s 18th Birthday September 13, 2014

I’m sure that everyone probably remembers the classic children’s tale: “The Little Engine that Could.” It is the story that teaches children the values of optimism and hard work. When a train carrying toys to kids breaks down at the base of a mountain, it hopes that one of the larger trains passing would help pull it over the difficult terrain. To his chagrin, not one of the bigger capable trains stopped to help as they each declined for various (selfish) reasons.

 However, it was the smallest and happiest BLUE ENGINE that stopped on his own and assisted, without hesitation. Even though he had never traveled this road before, this littlest of the trains, believed in himself so much that he found the inner-strength to pull an impossibly heavy load up a steep hill (subsequently overcoming a seemingly impossible task) while repeating the mantra “I think I can.”

Justin loved this story and you know he had the “Thomas the Train Set” and he built cities (with all the accouterments) all around the tracks that he laid between rooms and dared anyone to mess them up. Since, I have wanted to share this story for awhile I guess there is no better time than now to write on this eve of my precious little ENGINE Justin’s would be 18th birthday.

This past year, Darrell and I have heard many wonderful untold stories that warmed our hearts- about how Justin (the boy who loved BLUE) in his selfless own ways managed to help and carry many people to safe passage on their various journeys during his short life. The good thing that has come out of this shift in our life is that we are seeing how his impact will last through the ages in various ways. These are the greatest gifts of all.

This story is also about the power of  many other BIG ENGINES who are still on this planet traveling difficult terrains, willing to risk their own safety to save lives and property. They have the public’s trust and gratitude and they are empathetic and compassionate humans too. And, I’m sure many times they chant the mantra, “I think I can” to get through difficult patches. The key is they don’t give up.


One afternoon this past February, after I finished a brisk walk with a friend in the 90210 flatlands, I headed home over one of the canyon roads. As I reached the top near Mulholland Drive, I saw a Fire Station to my right. I must admit that in the prior months, very time I would pass a fire station or (stressfully) pull to the side of the road when an ambulance would pass, I often wondered were they the ones that responded to the 911 call when Justin needed them the most? As I sat daydreaming at the light- wondering if this was the ENGINE company that where the first responders, I decided to find out. I searched for the non-emergency number and found out that this station was not the one, but it was another one less than a mile from the school.

My heart was beating fast as I drove to Station #78. Initially, the place was abandoned and all locked up, but I decided to wait just a few more minutes near the back of the building by the garage. Soon, a Fireman driving a red pick-up truck drove up and as he was backing into a parking space, he nonchalantly asked: “ Can I help you?” I said: “Yes. Does this station handle Harvard-Westlake school calls?” He callously said: ”I don’t know, maybe we do?” Once again, I was about to do an “exorcist” move on him because he did not appear to be caring. Fortunately, after I gave him the address he clarified himself and got more brownie points when he said: “ Yes, we do. This is not my normal station I am here just to do some relief. ” So, I felt better because initially I thought he was playing with my already high strung emotions. I then told him why I was there and that I wanted to speak with anyone who may have responded to the call when Justin was in distress. He had not heard of Justin’s story. But, he quickly became compassionate, introduced himself as Roger and invited me inside to wait for the guys that were either out on a call or shopping for food.

I sat down and told him that I was surprised that I even had the gumption to come near any fire station let alone walk inside one because of my aversion to anything related to emergency vehicles. I told him that I usually cringe, plug my ears and cry profusely hearing constant siren sounds knowing that I was not there to help or ride with Justin to the hospital. But that day, as I sat there, for that moment, a calm came over me.

We sat in the uninterrupted station for about 30 minuets and I told him more about Justin. He asked me: “Was Justin was a believer in God?” I said” Yes he was, but at the moment, I am mad at God for taking my baby away.” He proceeded to tell me his own personal story about his son who has major health issues and has been near death many times before due to a serious heart condition. He said:“ You have to have faith Susan. Each and every time we take our son to the hospital for surgery, we do not know if he is going to come back home with us or go home to God. “ Justin would want you to be happy.

One by one, eleven different strapping and strong firemen returned to the station. Each time, Roger would gently introduce me saying: “ This is Justin Carr’s mom, the student who died swimming almost a year ago. Did any of you respond to that call?” One by one they all said,”No,” with unimaginable looks of sadness on their faces. Fortunately, Stephen, the last 30 something year old handsome fireman, came in and when Roger asked him if he was aware of the case and he said, “Yes.” He then sat down next to me and the rest of the guys all huddled around the large table. I stoically spoke about Justin, my only child  – who died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition during swim practice minutes after concluding a happy call with me, a selfless Earth angel, Renaissance Man, scholar, singer, actor, artist, Junior Olympic BUTTERFLY swimmer, an underdog supporter who repetitively since age 4 prayed, “God, help us achieve world peace”, – an ebullient charming child…  left them SPEECHLESS.

I then shared the CBS video with them and showed them pictures of what he really looked like and they got an intimate cursory snapshot of whom “that kid” who suddenly passed away really was. After I finished, they stood up in solidarity, hugged me and shed a few tears. Then, the  Roger, the Paramedic, proceeded to tell me everything he remembered from arriving on campus, running to Justin’s aide and how they painlessly tried to save his life. His details were so succinct it was as if it was just yesterday. He said proudly, “all six of us who got there became paramedics and we tried everything before we took him to the hospital-even the Captain.”

I then asked them collectively as they tried to fight back their tears :“ How do you guys manage your jobs? What do you do? “In unison they said “We try and save everyone from the senior who inadvertently steps on the gas and not the brake and runs over their spouse, to the smallest of the babies. We try to save everyone. When we see kids, because we all have them, we want them to go home to their families we work hard and hard and hard to save them. The aftermath of each event we come back and we sit around this table and we support and help each other get through, we are humans too they all said.”

Then I sternly asked: “I want to see the vehicle that Justin was riding in.” I saw them look at each other in shock, like OMG,  but I got my wish. A sense of calm came over me when I realized that this Big ENGINE Company #78 did what ever they could to try and save my little ENGINE. They tried hard hoping they could until they passed him over to the hands at the hospital ER. They were emotionally affected as if Justin was one of their own kids. They did their best but because of the suddenness of his condition, there was nothing that they could really do to change the situation. As I walked away from the truck, I thanked them for aiding my son, and they all hugged me again. Roger on the other hand asked me if he could walk me to my car and I agreed. When we got outside, he put his arm over my shoulder and asked if he could say a prayer. It was a beautiful calming moment and at that juncture, I found a little peace. A few hours later I sent the station an email saying:

“There are no words I can say but thank you for being patient with me today. To connect with you all has been lurking on my mind during this complicated grief for almost a year since the passing of my baby.  Thank you for trying your best to save one of the best Earth Angels… Justin Carr.”

Later I got an email from Roger and he said:

“Susan I’m so glad you came by the station today and I thank God I was working and got to meet you. What an amazing mother you are and I was truly blessed by your visit. I pray that you and your husband will find peace and joy; I know Justin would want you to be happy and live with passion and joy as he did. Death is not the end but the beginning of a new chapter. I will be praying for both of you and may God give the peace and joy you deserve. “

These BIG FIREMEN who drive these ENGINES never give up on the helpless at the bottom of the hill. They help others try and get over the hump each and every day.


Justin may not be here physically to be celebrated as we usually do it on earth, but his legacy lives on and his story is saving and changing lives. Earlier this week, I woke up to an email from a Nurse from a local high school who started testing their students soon after she saw “ Justin’s Story on CBS” The Subject line said: “ We Saved this one for Justin.”

“Dear Carr Family,

I have wanted to reach out to you to tell you about our August Screening event we had. You were on my heart that day as we were able to screen over 100 students through Cardiology and provide physicals. When I saw concerned Echocardiogram techs running down to catch a parent to meet with the cardiologist again, I knew we had found something significant. The screening captured a serious life threatening undiagnosed condition in this young man.

I have wanted to tell you of this and let you know that I was thinking of Justin that whole day as I do at every event. Sadly, I did not know you personally at that time and I am so sorry for your loss of such a great young man. But that day I also felt a sense of peace as I told Justin…”we saved this one for you.” There was a sense of immense emotion as we gave this child back to his mom and told her about your story. It brought tears to her eyes and she pledged to be praying for your family as well.

We are happy to have saved this one young man in Justin’s honor and memory and we will continue to move into the future to provide cardiac screenings for our students. Hoping to save families the terrible grief you have been through. May God bless you today and everyday.

This is a gift in Justin’s memory for saving the life of another.  Although, receiving this wonderful message was bittersweet ,it is still a blessing that a story on TV changed others lives and how they do business…


Time flies by and 18 is that milestone age when your child becomes an adult and you see the fruits of your labor… just like we wrote on Justin’s birth announcement back in 1996- when Darrell created a personalized “New Carr Registration.” In my wildest dreams, I never thought that Justin would not be here…

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Justin was born on September 13, 1996.

I can honestly say that this past 1.5 year without him, my BUTTERFLY, life has not been easy. But, what I can say with a bit of joy is that he was the little ENGINE that could, and that did do his best! We have learned that this gentle giant of an ENGINE was happy and helpful just like the  little BLUE ENGINE  in the book “The Little Engine that Could.”   Justin would often put people before himself, help when someone fell down (physically and mentally) and his signature smile would brighten up anyone’s day.  He also had many special friends who took good care of him too! He even coined his character traits as being helpful, observant creative, sensitive and skillful. So, as I pay tribute to my selfless angel on the eve before his would be 18th Birthday, I have comfort in knowing that he never gave up, did his best and helped without hesitation so many people he came in contact with. This is a gift that I will cherish each and every day.

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My dear butterfly Justin, the infinite and unimaginable trauma that we have endured has recently catapulted me to a higher understanding of how I am going to live my life in the days and years to come. I have come to experience an indescribable “knowing” within my soul that somehow during this difficult journey from my chrysalis – a catalyst will move me toward to find my voice, and my wings, once again.

Tonight my love, the choirs will sing loud for you and I hope you can hear them.

This swim cake was one of your favorites!
This swim cake was one of your favorites!

Happy Birthday honey! I love you forever, and I love you always. As long as I’m living, my baby you will be…

Love, Mom

P.S. I Can’t make this stuff up…As I just finished this entry, this email with a poem popped up.  It was from my cousin Burl who lives in Memphis, Tennessee…

Our Train Ride

 “At birth we boarded the train and met our parents, and we believe they will always travel on our side. However, at some station our parents will step down from the train, leaving us on this journey alone.   

As time goes by, other people will board the train; and they will be significant i.e. our siblings, friends, children, and even the love of your life. Many will step down and leave a permanent vacuum.

Others will go so unnoticed that we don’t realize they vacated their seats.

This train ride will be full of joy, sorrow, fantasy, expectations, hellos, goodbyes, and farewells. Success consists of having a good relationship with all passengers requiring that we give the best of ourselves.

The mystery to everyone is: We do not know at which station we ourselves will step down. So, we must live in the best way, love, forgive, and offer the best of who we are. 

It is important to do this because when the time comes for us to step down and leave our seat empty we should leave behind beautiful memories for those who will continue to travel on the train of life. 

I wish you a joyful journey on the train of life.

Reap success and give lots of love.

More importantly, thank God for the journey.

Lastly, I thank you for being one of the passengers on my train”

*** Justin’s Great Grandfather Arnold Toler was a Pullman Porter and he worked on the trains back in the day…


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Justin on the Train with Daddy
Justin on the Train with Daddy
Justin on Grandma Melvia's favorite Christmas Train
Justin on Grandma Melvia’s favorite Christmas Train

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Jay and Mary and Darrell and Susan ( A Labor of Love)


My entry tonight – “Jay and Mary and Darrell and Susan” is quite different from the old movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”. However, an old review of the movie caught my attention. Today, my message of hope is about “life-swapping” and is far from the plot of this movie of wife -swapping -but there are a few similarities like what Roger Ebert wrote about “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”:
“Roger Ebert
December 22, 1969
“Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” isn’t really about wife swapping at all, but about the epidemic of moral earnestness that’s sweeping our society right now. For some curious reason, we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.”
Last month my USC sister friend Merike (aka my southern belle from Arkansas) sent me a copy of the poignant obituary that was written about a young man Nick Fagnano (Venice Beach lightning strike victim) by his beloved Mother Mary. Merike wrote ” Sue, I’m quite sure you have heard of this News story, and after you read it you will see that Justin and Nick’s lives and characters were uncannily similar. He was an only child too. In bold she wrote: “If you CHANGED the name to Justin, and the sport and activities to swimming, painting, and singing…it would be about yawl’s BABY!!”
Nick as describe by his mother Mary…
“Taken to heaven by a flash in a cloud, this beautiful young man, who radiated joy, kindness, humor and love touched the lives of everyone he encountered. He had a maturity and wisdom that was beyond his years, yet an innocence of spirit that was evident from kindergarten all the way into his adult life.”
As you know Justin died suddenly (from and undiagnosed heart condition)  during swim practice mere minutes after concluding a happy call with me. His 1st grade classmates described him as being kind, talented, great singer, actor and artist.  At 16 years old, these latter same traits were used by his high school peers. Justin was, an old soul, selfless Earth angel, Renaissance man, scholar, singer, actor, artist, Junior Olympic BUTTERFLY swimmer, an underdog supporter- who repetitively since age 4 prayed, “God help us achieve world peace”

After I re-posted Nick’s Obituary on Facebook, a lot of my friends said I should reach out to Nick’s parents. I said that I would after the fanfare dwindled down. But, the roar of the crowd said: “ You need to do it now!” So, a few weeks ago, I did. I wrote to Mary and Jay and I can’t even remember all that I said, nor did I think that the letter would even reach them. Well it did. Last Wednesday when I was with my 8-year-old niece Mia, I looked at my phone and there was an email from Mary. She was writing me on the one-month anniversary of losing her only child- and I was speechless. I gasped and started to cry. Mia looked at me in silence and then down at the ground because she did not know what to do. After the lady next to me asked me if I was okay, I nodded and gave her a cursory breakdown about the tale of losing two beautiful sons… without warning. She then began to cry herself (as she grabbed hold of her young son sitting next to her). She then said:” I can’t even imagine.” I rushed Mia to the car and I told her: “ I want you to always look out for your friends, and help others when you sense that they may need your help. You will never know how you can impact someone’s life even with small acts of kindness.” She said:”okay Tauntie”…
Late last night, we made plans to meet the Fagnano’s early this morning for breakfast. You know how it is trying to find a decent place to eat so I asked my number one Foodie Ed Hu where we can go that was quiet, and convenient with decent food and hassle free. He suggested Little Dom’s in Los Feliz. I called yesterday and was told that they could not take a reservation for parties under six. I tried to see if they would make an exception, but the hostess said: “ No, Exceptions! Well, here is where Merike steps in AGAIN. As I hung up the phone, there was another ring and it was Merike. She asked:“ What are you doing?” I told her I was trying to make a reservation but they would not take one for a party of 4. She slyly asked the name of the place and got off the phone. Five minutes later she sent a text saying: “ You have a reservation under Darrell’s name at 9 a.m. at Little Dom’s. I told the Manager that you are VERYYYYYY popular on Facebook and we would really appreciate them making an exception”!! My beautiful southern belle was at it again! She said: “ DON”T COME FOR ME UNTIL I SEND FOR YOU… LOL!!!

For the first five minutes after Jay and Mary entered the restaurant, all we did was embrace, look at each other in silence and shed a few tears. The rest of the time we proudly shared stories of our precious boys and shook our heads in dismay  to the thought of their lives ending so soon, when they were both at the top of their game. Nick was accepted into USC for Real Estate and Urban Development.

Nick Fagnano At USC

Had Justin been accepted into USC for Architecture, their paths would have surely crossed.

Justin at Architecture Camp

But, now as we look up to the sky we can only see hope and believe that the images in the clouds are in fact Nick playing baseball, surfing and dancing with Justin (Juju) in tow singing, dancing and swimming with the biggest beautiful smiles ever. Jay said that they got a special call from Tommy Lasorda the night before Nick’s celebration of his life. Tommy asked them “Would you trade the 20 years you had with Nick, for no years at all? Maybe his work was already done…. We all agreed that we would not trade what we had, but only wished for more…
Well this Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a holiday for the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country. Today, Jay, Mary, Darrell and I spoke about the work that we now have to do so that our boys continue to live through us and shine and light up the lives of the people they touched and those who never met them.
Jay and Darrell agreed that since their lives have changed forever, they are now working and dealing each day with the Labor of Love that they have for their boys. The ones they proudly raised to be strong viable, kind, and loving young men. Labor of Love is described as “ productive work performed voluntarily without material reward or compensation”. Jay wants to help coach a baseball team, and Darrell opted to teach young boys how to use their hands constructing and building things from scratch- one rock at a time. Mary and I seem to get through the day by writing. It is imperative that we all stay connected to our boys dreams and visions and their friends. It helps us get through each day as we continue to reveal our endless love we have for our young men and for the new found friendship that we have as we grieve with gratitude knowing that we are not alone. Like Ebert said in 1969 about that movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”: “For some curious reason, we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.” We have learned to tell the truth how we feel each day. It helps us and it helps those all around us.
And one more thing, Darrell and I have to agree with Mother Mary’s (Fagnano’s) words to us: “Joy is the infallible presence of God” and that if, even in our deepest sadness we see reasons to smile each day, to see a glimpse of the joy that was always there with Nick, that we will be able to somehow get up each day and find a way to honor him as you have Justin. When you transition from living a life of infinite possibilities to living a life of infinite questions, it changes the way you look at everything.”
As for Miss Merike, she was too busy trying to make sure we got a reservation even though she was carrying a extra heavy heart today in her own right. Twenty-three years ago today she delivered her  a stillborn daughter. I can’t believe that she put us ahead of her sadness and day of reflection, trying to make sure our day went well. No words… So, it was a blessing for all of us today Jay and Mary and Darrell and Susan and Merike too that we have each other. The right people will always find their way into your life if you are open to it and receive.
** One more thing that connects us together with the Fagnano’s. Nick was a very close friend with Molly Chapman’s older brother Jake when they were in preschool. Molly was one of Justin’s very good friends at school. The world is too small.
I can’t make this stuff up!!!


Mary & Darrell & Susan & Jay
Mary & Darrell & Susan & Jay

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