Last Jan. 9, Tony DeMarco’s world turned upside down. The Denver Post sportswriter got word that his wife, Maureen, 37, on her way to a memorial service in Michigan for her brother, who had died in a plane crash 18 days before, had herself been killed when a commuter plane went down in a snowy field and ended the lives of all 29 people aboard. Suddenly, DeMarco had to deal not only with his grief but with a question usually asked only of mothers: Should he remain fully involved in a promising career or should he cut back for Alexandra, his then 8-year-old daughter? The answer, says DeMarco, 40, who chose Alex, was a no-brainer. He recently sat down with correspondent Karen Roebuck at his Englewood, Colo., split-level home to discuss his loss and how it led him to reassess his life.
I WAS ON THE PHONE WITH A COWORKER, talking about plans for the Colorado Rockies’ spring training, which we were going to cover, when I got a call on the other line. It was a chaplain, speaking from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. She said, “The plane crashed.” I asked if there were any injuries—a pretty stupid question. But I was just so in shock. She said, “There were no survivors.” I think it was about 4 p.m. our time. I could hear my mother-in-law crying in the background, so I knew it was real.
I knew I had to tell Alex. I don’t think there will ever be a worse moment than that. She was still at school, working on a project for extra credit. I went in and hugged her. I told her, and she burst out crying. Alex had been upset that morning that her mother was flying to Michigan, because of what had happened to her uncle. When I told her Maureen was dead, she screamed, “I didn’t want her to go!” I just hugged her.
That night, Alex said she wanted to go to school the next day, which was a Friday. I tried to talk her out of it. But she said, “No, I want to go.” Alex is a very good student, and she has a lot of friends at school. I realized that’s where she’d be comfortable.
A week later, Alex and I had to go to Michigan ourselves for a memorial service. Maureen and I grew up in the same Detroit suburb, Harper Woods. We worked at the same movie theater when I was 18 and she was 16. She was my first girlfriend. Because of Alex, I didn’t even think about flying to Detroit. We took a train. The day before Maureen had flown to Michigan, she had gone to the bookstore to find a reading for her brother Brian’s service. It ended up being for her too. They ended up having one memorial service for both of them.
Maureen’s mom came back with us on the train for another service, at St. Mary’s Academy in Englewood, where Maureen taught Spanish. It was really special, because all the students were involved. They planted two spruce trees behind the school for her.
I’ve gone a couple times to Maureen’s trees. Alex and I went on Mother’s Day. Alex didn’t want to stay long. She was sad. It was a bad day, but there are a lot of bad days; it doesn’t take an anniversary to create one. Sometimes they come out of nowhere. Songs trigger it, especially “Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder. We danced to it at our wedding.
I don’t like holidays right now. Fourth of July was no fun. Seeing fireworks and stuff, that was more sad than anything. Alex’s birthday, April 21, wasn’t very good either. We had a big party for her and had a bunch of friends here, but it wasn’t the same.
Alex and I have just finished counseling. We went together for six months. I think it helped a lot. Alex would say things there that I couldn’t bring out of her. For example, she was afraid whenever I got angry that I was angry at her and that I was going to leave her. She would just kind of hold it inside. I didn’t know about it until she told the therapist.
Most of the time, I wasn’t mad at her but at the situation. I was feeling overwhelmed or sad or lonely. Now I try to tell her that it’s not her—unless I am mad at her. Sometimes I am; I mean, she doesn’t always listen. She understands a little of what I’m going through and the extra burden on me, so she’s listening more lately, putting her dishes in the dishwasher and cleaning her room. She knows I can’t do everything.
Counseling helped us open up a bit. Alex comes to me now with basically everything, so I feel pretty good about that. She was closer to Maureen, I won’t deny that. I was always the fun parent, and I still am. I like to get down to the kids’ level and be kind of goofy with them.
If I’m struggling, it’s probably because I have to do things that I’ve never done before—like cooking and keeping house. For the first four months, teachers at Alex’s school, neighbors and Brownie troop mothers brought us meals twice a week. Now the people at Maureen’s school have started bringing meals. Cooking is probably the hardest thing for me. I can do some basic stuff, like make spaghetti sauce, and I grill a lot in the summer. We eat out sometimes, and we order pizza. Before, Maureen did most of the inside work, and I did the outside work. I do everything now when I’m not at the ballpark. When I am there, my sister Sandra, who moved to Englewood from Michigan after the crash, fills in.
A lot has changed since Maureen died, and I will never look at things the same way I used to. It was always my dream to cover Major League Baseball. But in mid-March, when I went back to work at the Post, I gave up a good portion of the baseball beat, although I still cover home games. It wasn’t a hard decision. I just wasn’t going to travel anymore—not because I’m afraid to fly but because I wasn’t going to leave Alex. How could I say goodbye to my 9-year-old daughter, get on a plane and fly to New York or Philly? Alex didn’t ask me to do this. But she was relieved when I did.
My career has taken a hit, but it’s okay. My priorities are different now. I really believe in fate. I believe that your time to die is determined when you are born, and this was Maureen’s time. And I’m supposed to take this tragedy and make something good come out of it.
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and I think it’s my job, in some small way, to make people aware of what they are doing with their lives. You’re married, and everything’s going good, but you don’t think about how much better your marriage and your life could be until it’s too late. You take your wife or your kids for granted. You don’t think enough about giving to other people. I want to tell people to change now, while they can. It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to figure out what really matters.
There’s so much I miss about Maureen—her intelligence and her humor. I really liked to go out on dates with her, to the movies, to dinner or wherever. Maureen was a very thoughtful person. She died 15 days before my birthday, but she had already bought me presents. That was typical of her. There were a couple of pairs of pants and shirts and a card. We always bought each other cards, but this is the first time she ever bought a religious card. It said, “If I could sit across the porch from God, I would thank him for lending me you.” That’s where she is now, with Him.