Jason Wright: Teen is a living tribute to her older brothers

Jason Wright

Jason Wright

Aubri Whatcott sits in the front row in a classroom packed with more than 100 eighth- and ninth-graders at West Point Junior High School in West Point, Utah. She and her classmates are in the middle of my novel, “The Seventeen Second Miracle.” And thanks to the sly planning of their teacher, Michelle Denson, I’ve surprised them by showing up to answer questions in person rather than via Skype.

The enjoyable session flows smoothly, like a winding country road. When it finally comes to an end, I stay awhile to visit with Denson and several students. I tell them how Denson is one of my favorite teachers in America and a pioneer of teaching my books and their concepts in public schools. They answer that she’s one of their favorite teachers, too, and the bond between students and teacher is obvious.

When they leave for lunch, I ask about each student who stayed back for a photo and a few extra laughs. “Tell me about Aubri,” I ask. And I wonder aloud about the maturity in her eyes.

“Maybe she should tell you,” Denson says with tenderness in her voice.

Soon, Aubri and I are visiting again in the hallway.

Soon, Aubri is telling me about July 20, 2014.

Soon, I’m learning a lesson about friends, faith and what the word tribute really means.

On July 20, 2014, Aubri’s brothers Daulton, 19, and Jaxon Whatcott, 16, were killed when their private plane crashed in Arizona near the Virgin River Gorge. They were flying from Davis County to Mesquite, Nevada, for a basketball tournament.

“They were late landing,” Aubri tells me during a recent interview. “We went up to the airport where they were supposed to land to see what was up and I just had this horrible feeling.”

It wasn’t long before they got the call.

“I’ve never been more devastated,” Aubri says, describing the blunt force of the news. They drove to St. George, spending the night at a relative’s house, and waited for the boys to be pulled from the mountain. They even visited the crash site, because in the words of Aubri’s father, “they still wanted to believe it wasn’t real.”

By the time they returned home to Clinton, Utah, a loving mass of family and friends had assembled for a vigil.

During our interview, I share with Aubri and her parents how impressed I was with her steady, seasoned countenance the day we met in early May. “A few more months have passed and now you’re at the one-year anniversary of something most of my readers cannot even comprehend. How are you really doing?”

She pauses. “There’s not a moment I don’t think about them. Even now.”

Aubri describes the things she misses most about her brothers. “The teasing. They could be so annoying! And the trips to 7-Eleven. They made me go along, but I had to sit in the back of their little two-door car and wait forever.”

She explains how these and many other little memories are what she cherishes.

Later, we discuss the things she’s learned in the year since the crash. She talks about loving friends and having as many as you can, the way her brothers did. “I want to love people. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you do or don’t do, we’re all friends to support each other.”

Aubri has also learned to lean on her only other sibling, her oldest brother, Dace. “I would be a lot sadder because he was really there for me when everything happened. I don’t think I could be as happy without him. He is like my best friend.”

She also speaks freely about the many tributes organized for the boys everyone considered brothers. Both Aubri’s volleyball and basketball teams went undefeated during their regular seasons in honor of the Whatcotts and wore their initials on their uniforms.

They had special cheers, stomps and shirts to pay tribute to the brothers who were so passionate about sports. When prom day arrived, many young men showed up to present Aubri’s mother, Eileen, with a different kind of tribute — a flower.

But the family wasn’t surprised. Those same boys are frequent guests in their home and have become members of their extended family.

“Aubri has a lot of brothers looking out for her,” her dad, Rhett, said laughing. “She might not have a boyfriend until she’s 25.”

One of Aubri’s favorite tributes has come by way of the piano. In the past year, she’s taught herself to play her brothers’ favorite songs, Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She’s played both at memorials for Jaxon and Daulton.

We talk about faith, too, and Aubri speaks about her belief in God, heaven and prayer.

“I have huge faith in prayer,” Aubri said. “After this happened my mom had trouble sleeping and when she couldn’t, she was really sad. Not happy at all. I didn’t like seeing her that way — so exhausted. One night I prayed to let my mom sleep better. Like one good night. And the next day she took me out to the store and said she felt so good. She slept well for the first night since all this happened.”

I marvel at the blessing of such an immediate response to prayer — often we don’t get answers right away — and she agrees. “Prayer will always be a huge part of my life.”

Toward the end of the conversation, I refer for the fifth or sixth time to the event as an “accident,” and this time I’m kindly corrected.

“We don’t like to call this an accident,” Aubri says. “I think that no matter what, this was supposed to happen. It wasn’t an accident.” She and her parents allude to very personal bits of evidence in their lives that prove this to be true. They don’t like it, but they accept their Heavenly Father’s will.

“They are doing something greater now,” Aubri adds.

As our discussion winds to a close, much like the one that started our friendship in a cramped classroom months ago in Utah, I ask Aubri how she thinks her brothers would grade her life at the one-year anniversary.

“I think they would be pretty happy with how good I am doing,” she says, then pauses. “But sometimes, they probably wish I could be even better.”

By enduring with such maturity a tragedy most cannot fathom, it’s hard to imagine her brothers feeling anything but tremendous joy at the way she’s pressing on without them. They surely enjoy the temporary tributes, I suggest, but must be even more proud of Aubri’s courageous life.

Daulton and Jaxon Whatcott know what the rest of us are quickly learning about young Aubri. She’s not just wearing, cheering or singing a tribute to her brothers.

She’s living one.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or http://www.jasonfwright.com.


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