Born From Loss, The Gene Yang Gang Brings Healing
The train was making good time as it cruised through the Arizona desert past Picacho Peak. To the east and west, mountain peaks rose above the desert floor, casting shadows in the late afternoon sun. The crew watched as the wilderness, ranches, and farms that lined the tracks rolled away behind them. Suddenly, a pickup truck appeared in front of them, crossing the tracks from a dusty desert road with no crossing guards. There was nothing the crew could do. The lead locomotive smashed into the truck. The driver, a Casa Grande dentist named Gene Yang, was killed instantly, while his passenger, Dr. Phil Horsley, was thrown clear and received relatively minor injuries.
For Janelle Horsley, this is the moment she lost her father and nearly lost her husband as well. It is the moment that sent her, along with family and friends, on a journey that started in grief but has led to healing and even celebration. As the one-year anniversary of the accident and her father’s death approached, one of his friends would be the catalyst for a celebration of a life well-lived that still brings family and friends together every year. The Gene Yang Gang would be born and become an inspirational instrument of healing and remembrance of the life that was lost.
Feb 12, 2021 marks the 11th year since Gene’s passing. Janelle remembers much of that day very clearly. It was a normal day, with normal conversations, plans, and anticipation. Then, in a moment, it changed into a day that no one should have to endure. She explains that her father and her husband were out in the wilderness together doing what they loved, and she would hear from them once in a while. She says, “They had been out hunting. The week before they had been out scouting and they had seen nothing. They were freezing and miserable. [The weekend of the accident] the weather was perfect, and Phil said they were having a really fun time.
“They left that morning and by about noon or two o’clock, I called Phil to remind my dad that he was supposed to pick up my uncle at the airport. My dad said, ‘No, no, your mom’s going to pick him up.’” Janelle recalls with a chuckle thinking, ‘What? Why? She’s the worst driver ever! Why are you letting her go pick him up?’”
“A couple hours went by and I called again – Phil’s phone this time – and asked, ‘Are you heading home? What’s the plan?’” Phil told her, ‘We got our truck stuck. The truck is bottomed out in this wash.’ Being stuck in a wash is just something that can happen in Arizona, and generally is not cause for concern.
Help arrived, and the truck was pulled free. The pair of vehicles began to make their way back. Janelle says, “They happened to call one of my dad’s friend’s nephews and he had a towing capability. So he towed him out and he was back on the road. A little ways back [along the road] there’s a gate you have to close before you get out of this wilderness area. My dad’s friend’s nephew called and said, ‘You want me to leave the gate open? You guys are right behind me, right? You’ll close it?’ My dad said ‘Yep.’
“This old dirt road didn’t have any train crossing guard,” Janelle says. At the gate, Phil got out, closed it, and jumped back in the truck. They drove away and right into the path of the train. She continues, “As they were approaching the train, neither one of them must have been paying attention. It was in a wilderness area. It was just crappy timing. There was a stop sign, right before the train tracks, but we think that he probably stopped at the gate and thought, ‘There’s no train coming.’”
“It hit right where the cab attaches to the bed. It pretty much broke the truck in half. Everything flew out of the truck. The train was probably going 65 MPH. They know from the autopsy that my dad died instantly.” Miraculously, her husband was thrown from the truck and survived. “That’s the miracle, too. I don’t know how he didn’t get caught up in the truck or the train. How did he get set down somewhere where they could have gotten to him quickly? He had lots of road rash. No brain injury, no internal injuries. He had a knee injury, and that was it, [on] his left leg, which was the only limb he doesn’t use for dentistry. If they hadn’t had him on a stretcher, he probably would have walked away!”
When death takes a family member early, it quickly brings into focus that person that was lost. Janelle has been able to reflect on how knowing her father has evolved, from her perceptions as a child to becoming his colleague, and now having to learn about the man through what he has left behind.
Remembering a Father lost
She recalls that as a child, “He was there. He would drive me to things. He was kind of quiet. He didn’t really do any of the disciplining unless my mom called him in. He was always on my side; I was his buddy. When I was growing up, it was just me and him going around and doing stuff. We’d go camping and my mom would stay home. She’d come with us sometimes, but most of the time it was just the two of us.
“He was dependable, for sure, but I don’t think it was until after we started working together that I knew him. He was very motivated; he always wanted to be the best at whatever he did. It didn’t matter if he was getting paid for it or not; he wanted to get the best and be the best.
“He would make jokes all the time. He didn’t do that at home, but at the office, with patients, he’d be telling them a story and cracking jokes. Just a pun, or tell his own story that was funny. He was always interested in people and was generous.
“There was one time a patient came in. My dad went out to the parking lot to throw out the trash or something. He noticed that her license plate sign was missing a screw. He went into the office, dug in his little toolbox and found a screw, and fixed it for her. She was leaving and we told her ‘There was a screw missing on your license plate frame.’ She waved it off and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take care of it.’ We were like, ‘HE took care of it already.’
“He did that kind of stuff all of the time. The front office manager who worked for him for a long time remembers that when her nephew was dying of cancer and he was taking her to the airport, he gave her a bunch of money and said, ‘Just buy him whatever he wants.’ Thinking back, it wasn’t small amounts of money. It was hundreds. He would just do it because he wanted to.
“My dad was the one who pushed everybody. He was the one to say ‘Let’s go do this,’ or ‘Hey, let’s do this crazy thing. I have an idea.’ He did that a lot at the office, too. I’d give him all the reasons it wasn’t a good idea, and he would be like, ‘No, we’re going to do it anyway!’”
“You know, he had a bunch of interests! The amount of stuff that he had! I mean, we are still going through his stuff, and it’s been 10 years since he has been gone. There are piles of boxes in the garage. There’s woodworking, hiking, fishing, camping, biking, hunting, photography stuff -there were all kinds of things that he wanted to do.”
Upon reflection, Janelle now sees some of her father within herself. “With him as my dad, you knew he was there. He didn’t really say much unless it was about my grades. When I got an A-minus he was the one that said–of course, he was joking– “‘Why wasn’t it an A?’ I think it was a lot of ‘We worked this hard to make a good life for you, so don’t blow it.’ A lot of it was me, too. I’m still super driven and I don’t know if that just started at an early age or if I was always like that. I just wanted to be at the top.” She even followed in his footsteps to become a dentist.
Healing can take a long time after a loss and comes in many forms. One of Gene’s friends came up with an idea, to not only remember Gene but to celebrate his life and his passions. This was the start of the Gene Yang Gang, an annual gathering at Picacho Peak, across from the accident site, that would grow and live on to this day.
Every Year, It’s the Gene Yang Gang
Says Janelle, “Wes, my dad’s best friend, in the year after my dad died, said, ‘I want to do something to remember him.’ They did everything together. They would go running and go hiking. They went to Austria together. He’s always been the glue. He has encouraged this every year. Once in a while, it’s like, ugh, this is such a hassle, just the logistics of getting people together in a big group. I think we’ve had probably anywhere from 20 to 40, 50 people at these picnics every year. Wes was the one that said, ‘Hey, what are we doing this year?’”
“Even if Wes wasn’t pushing us, I think Phil and I would still take the kids out there. We did this year. He is the one who pushed the comradery, I guess. He calls all my dad’s old hiking buddies and he tries to get together to go hiking as the Gene Yang Gang. They sign up for races and their name will be GYG, that kind of stuff.”
That first year, Janelle remembers, they developed their own swag which provides an additional bond. Janelle says, “Wes inspired that. He put the idea in my head. He said, ‘Hey, we should get shirts or something.’”
“I used my scrapbook and knowledge of design. That was really helpful for me, just having that project to sorta say, ‘Okay, this is something mindful that I can do that feels in control for me in that timespan.’
For the event, the group ended up at Picacho Peak, near the accident site. A few years before her father died, Janelle explains that “One of his other friends started a tradition where they would ride their bikes from Casa Grande to Picacho. I think it’s like 30 miles. They ride out, they hike up all the way to the top of Picacho, and then they come down and ride their bikes home. They called that the ‘Muy Macho Picacho’. That was my dad’s connection to it. His accident just happened to be right across from it, so we thought it was a good place to honor him, and they have picnic areas out there.”
So, every year, the clan gathers in that area. They take a group picture, many decked out in their Gene Yang Gang shirts and jackets. They have a picnic together and remember the part of the family that has been lost. Many of them take the opportunity to ride there or back, and/or hike up the mountain, following in Gene’s footsteps.
It can still be hard, Janelle points out, “Especially for my mom. It was hard for her to move on, and I don’t know if it’s her personality, or if it’s just where she was in life, or it was just so tragic for her. It took her a long time. I don’t know if she’s completely over it. There were years where she just did not want to go. We told her over and over, ‘Nobody expects you to go. If it’s too hard, don’t go. It’s okay.’” Yet every year, she went, too.
For Janelle, even with three kids, it’s a time to ponder all that has happened. She says, “Phil is, luckily, not a person to sit and reflect. He just gets stuff done. He is the one usually checking that the kids have their snacks and then making sure they all follow along so I am a little more free to just think and kind of sit with it.
“Over the years, it did become really cathartic. We were like, ‘Oh, it’s almost year 10! Might as well keep doing it.’ Just acknowledge it every year, to be there. Of course, as the kids grow up, they ask, ‘Why are we going out here again?’ We tell them all the stories and we make sure that they have that connection to him. We had my dad’s body cremated, and we don’t have a grave. So it’s kind of a place.
“It’s interesting, though, because every year we take a picture out there. In one of my pictures, there is almost always, like, a light -a little glow- in either the foreground or the background, which I think is so funny. It’s one of the coolest things to see every year. It’s like, ‘Here he is!
He’s here again!’ There are moments where you can tell he’s still around.
At some point in life, every person, every family, will have to face the loss of a loved one. There are many healthy ways to work through that grief. The Gene Yang Gang is just one way a group of extended family and friends has found a positive way to navigate through their feelings and healing.
Janelle knows that her father died painlessly while doing something he loved with people that he loved, and in the midst of the tragedy, this is a comforting thought. She reflects, “He wouldn’t have wanted to go out sleeping! That helps push me to keep doing the stuff that I do. That helped push forward the comradery. We have all been through this thing, but then we have hope, I guess.”
The loss of a loved one helps put life into perspective. The loss of her father has led to a closeness that is not found in every family and a heightened appreciation for what she has. Janelle is aware that, as bad as the accident was, it could have been worse. She could have lost her husband along with the future and family they have created. “Early on, one of the first thoughts I had was, in that instant my dad died, he said, ‘Nope, not Phil!’ He put in a petition, or whatever, if that’s allowed. He said, ‘No, this isn’t going to happen.’ Every time the kids are being kids, I’m like, ‘Well, there’s a pretty good chance that they wouldn’t have been here! So, I let it go a little and have gratitude.’”
As 2021 rolled into February, there was uncertainty about the gathering because of the pandemic restrictions. This year, even though they did take the kids out to Picacho on their own, Janelle decided to make it virtual for the extended family. For the 11th time, family and friends will share their memories while creating new ones– this time in a virtual setting. The Gene Yang Gang, and the memory of a well-loved father and friend, will live on.
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Photos Courtesy of Dr. Janelle Horsley