The phone rang at 12:48 a.m., Nov. 16. I was sitting in bed in my room at the Four Queens Hotel in Las Vegas, where I was covering a trade show. It was my fiancee, Nancy, calling long distance from Southern California.
“Dean, Tracy has been hurt. He’s been shot.”
She spoke slowly, her voice nearly faltering. I knew this was no joke about my only brother. It was going to be a night of dread.
“Oh no! Oh my God! How bad is he?”
“Bad. I don’t know. Call Randy and call me back.”
I hung up and dialed my brother’s roommate. His voice was calm. A reporter, I started taking notes.
“He’s been shot. Paramedics took him to Gardena Memorial Hospital on Redondo Beach Boulevard,” he said, his voice dropping. “He wasn’t breathing when they took him away. It looked like he was shot once in the head and several times in the stomach.”
He said my brother had opened the door to gunfire. Randy and his other roommate, Brent, were upstairs. By the time they descended, they saw my brother by the doorway. No one else was there.
“Oh my God,” I kept saying, partly because I was too calm and my tears should have already been flowing.
I called my parents in Sacramento and told them to get to the hospital as fast as they could. My father, Thomas, understood quickly that it was life or death. He said they would be on the first plane available. I didn’t speak to my mother. It would have been emotionally unendurable.
I called Nancy and told her to meet me at the hospital. When I told her that Randy said Tracy wasn’t breathing, she began to cry.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you too,” she said.
At 1:02 a.m., I made a call to work, leaving a message of my whereabouts. Later, I thought that was the dumbest, most unnecessary thing I did that night. I was like an actor in a movie, following a script that I couldn’t change. How could I waste time like that? I checked out and feverishly loaded my belongings into my pickup.
I figured the airport wouldn’t have any flights until the morning. I didn’t want to waste precious time finding out. Sweat poured down my forehead in the cool night air.
I pulled out of the hotel lot and began the loneliest ride of my life. It was 300 miles through the desert from Las Vegas to Gardena. It was a race against time. No matter how fast I moved, death could reach my brother first.
My thoughts were practical. I had to get gas. I had to lock my bicycle to the truck. I had to try to travel the distance without a stop or a speeding ticket. Seconds mattered.
I pushed my Toyota to the limit, going 80 to 90 m.p.h. Then my mind began to drift back to center. I vowed not to cry because that would be an admission that my 30-year-old brother--13 months my senior--was dead.
This couldn’t be happening. This happened to other people who appeared in the newspaper or on TV. I was a newspaper reporter, objective. I was supposed to interview grieving families. Now I was to live out a news cliche: the grief-stricken family member.
I grew adept at suppressing my heaving chest. The cold air kept me awake. It was 19 hours since I had last rested, but I was too worried to think about sleep.
Why him? I racked my brains looking for answers. Did he have a hidden life? Was there something he couldn’t tell me? No way, not him. He was too gentle, too nice a guy. I was ashamed of these suspicions, but I couldn’t control them.
The police would later say it was a case of mistaken identity. Gang members, seeking to kill a rival who lived next door to Tracy, had rung the wrong doorbell. They fired a barrage as soon as the door opened. Pure stupidity on their part, pure innocence on my brother’s.
I found I couldn’t recall my last words to my brother. Our whole family had seen him at our cousin’s wedding on Saturday, three days earlier. He was dressed in a suit and tie. He kidded me about my wrinkled shirt and boring tie. Teasing was his way of telling me he loved me. I don’t know if I had ever told him that I loved him. We never had much time to talk these days. I was engaged, and he had his own circle of good friends in Gardena. We were always working.
Words like love never came easy in our family. Maybe the closest I came to communicating this was when I asked him last August to be the best man at my wedding. He said it would be an honor.
At the wedding, Tracy gave me a belated birthday present, and he gave one to my fiancee as well. She asked him why, and he said he just felt like it. That was his way.
“This is for all the birthdays that you’ve had that I missed,” he told Nancy. She was so touched that she nearly cried. She wanted to hug him but missed the chance. We left the wedding without saying goodby.
Guilt and regret hit me. I was now wearing the Warner Bros. cartoon character sweat shirt that he gave her.
I snapped out of a reverie. I wouldn’t think of him in past tense. Not yet. Come on, Trace. Pull out of it. You can make it. You can survive. You’ve got so many friends and family rooting for you. Put your heart into it.
I grew frustrated at every sign that measured the gap between me and Los Angeles. Too far away. Every time I saw a police car racing in the other direction, my heart pounded. They may be on their way to see some poor soul.
With 60 miles to go, I saw a panoramic view of the lights of San Bernardino. I started crying. The tears streamed down my cheeks. The red taillights blurred my field of vision. I could barely see the road. Sobs made my chest ache. A dread was overcoming me.
In downtown Los Angeles, with 10 miles to go, I came upon a traffic jam at 4:30 a.m. on the Harbor Freeway. Two miles of the freeway were shut down. I didn’t know whether to take surface streets or wait. My fuel meter was below empty.
For the 70th time that night, I pounded the steering wheel with my fists. After five minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the jam broke free. I sped onward.
I arrived at 5 a.m.
Randy and Gerald, a friend, met me at the emergency room doors. They blocked my way inside, and directed me to the parking lot.
“She’s over there,” Randy said.
That second, I figured my brother was dead. I walked to the car, my heart sagging. Nancy rushed out into my arms. She hugged me tight, and we both began to cry.
I still didn’t know for sure. Then she whispered, “It was too late when I got here.”
I hugged Randy, Gerald, and Randy’s sister, Jolene.
They said later that they hadn’t known if I would make it to the hospital alive. I look back and realize that it was on the open road that I had survived my most vulnerable moments--alone with my thoughts.
They had each other to hug at the hospital when my brother’s spirit was parting. Now that I was among friends, I would not grieve alone. I was safe from that fate, at least.
Dean Takahashi covers high-tech industries for the Times Orange County.