RED SPRINGS — For Bryant Johnson, March 17 should be a joyous time, but he says it’s hard to feel “anything but pain” on that day.
The day he was born, in 1990, is the same date his sister, Octavia Tanisha Renee Shaw, died 22 years later.
“What can I say? It hurts,” the 23-year-old said on Sunday as he joined a crowd gathered at St. Joseph Miracle Revival Center in Red Springs on the first anniversary of his sister’s death. “But I try not to let things keep me down, especially something you can’t control.”
Shaw, 23, a senior at North Carolina Central University and member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, was killed on March 17, 2012, in a car accident where Old Lowery Road intersects with Daniel McLeod Road — the same road that she lived on. Her car was T-boned by a pickup truck at 6 p.m. on a Saturday.
Shaw’s older brother, Jeffery Johnson, saw the accident.
“I was there,” he said. “Everything at first, it was like a movie. When the car hit, it was like everything disappeared. It was unreal.”
Johnson said Shaw’s death has left a void in his life.
“I used to tell her all my problems, so it’s kind of hard,” he said. “It’s like I don’t have anybody to talk to.”
Carmelo Montalvo was engaged to Shaw when she died
“For me, the whole thing is difficult,” he said. “Because you get to a point where you think you’re going to be with someone for the rest of your life and it doesn’t work out that way.”
Clad in blue T-shirts bearing a relief of Shaw’s face, her sorority’s Greek letters, and a poem titled “If Tears Could Build a Stairway,” people gathered by the front doors of the church and shared memories about the Red Springs High School cheerleader, band member, and the Class of 2007’s Homecoming Queen. More than one person recalled Shaw as being a “best friend.”
One of those was Khala Fluker, who met Shaw in middle school. She described her friend, now the honorary godmother to her 2-month-old son Michael, as a “people person” who was “free-spirited” and an “inspiration.”
“The effect that she had on people’s lives was momentous,” Montalvo said. “We had her in different capacities, some of us as sisters, friends, or roommates — everybody had her on different levels but everybody’s message is synonymous. That’s just the kind of person she was, beautiful inside and out.”
Shantel Reams worked with Shaw at a retail store in Durham, where Shaw worked for three years while attending college. Reams said Shaw was much younger, but taught her a lot.
“A lot of things that’s occurred in my life, I can actually reference the conversations, or a smile, or something she’s given and impart it into a situation in my life to make it better.”
Dina Johnson, Shaw’s college roommate and a sorority sister, said that the event was to celebrate — not mourn — her friend’s life.
“No tears today,” she said. “Just laughing and smiling at her memory, despite the pain. Just celebrating her as a person and remembering stories about her and laughing, that’s what today is going to be about. … Today is the day we have to start moving on.”
Shortly after noon, the group made its way to Shaw’s grave, near the church. Her sorority sisters formed a circle, joined hands and sang, and her family released balloons. Her mother, Audrey McLean, thanked everyone for coming, her voice breaking as she spoke of how much she missed her daughter.
“Octavia had an impact on a lot of lives when she was here,” she said, “and she still has that impact now.”
McLean led the group from the church to the place where the accident occurred, about a mile down Daniel McLeod Road. On the way, McLean told of how she walked across the stage in December to accept Shaw’s bachelor’s degree in Social Work on behalf of her daughter
“She was pushing me across that stage,” she said. “I felt her, just like I do every day.”
McLean’s sorority sisters sang as Red Springs police escorted the group down the road, ending with a chant at the intersection where a roadside memorial had been placed. A collage of photographs rested on an easel; a teddy bear wearing a pearl necklace sat propped up against the trunk of a tree; and a college yearbook lay open among floral arrangements. With his hand outstretched towards the tree, Pastor Anthony Buie said a prayer for Shaw and her family.
After the walk, Shaw’s family gathered at her home to celebrate Bryant’s birthday.
They said it’s what she would have wanted.
Abbi Overfelt works for Civitas Media as editor of The Red Springs Citizen and The St. Pauls Review.