It should have been me, Joe Riddle thought. For months following the January 2001 plane crash that took the lives of 10 members of Oklahoma State's basketball program, the feeling haunted him. Riddle, a producer-engineer on the Cowboys' radio broadcasts, knew that if he had not asked his friend and colleague Kendall Durfey to make the road trip to Boulder, Colo., in his place, Durfey would not have been on the twin-engine plane that plummeted into a snowy hillside near Denver on the return flight. There but for the grace of God? Riddle didn't feel touched by grace; he felt crushed by guilt. I should have been the one to die.
He went to the funerals, so many funerals. At Durfey's service he offered condolences to his friend's wife and siblings, but neither he nor they mentioned the fateful switch. They all knew what had happened, that Riddle and Durfey split time on the Cowboy Radio Network and alternated on away games. It had been Riddle's turn to travel, but a friend with a radio show in Tulsa had asked him to fill in as guest host. Riddle could only do it if Durfey agreed to go to Colorado. "He said, 'Sure, man,' just like he always did when you asked him for a favor," Riddle says. Durfey told Riddle that he had planned to go out to dinner with his wife the night of the game, "but it's O.K.," he said. "We'll just do it next weekend."
After the tragedy Riddle went back to his routine, working Cowboys games and doing weekday traffic reports on a Stillwater radio station, his days filled with self-blame and grief. That August he attended the dedication of a memorial for the victims, and across the room he saw Durfey's mother, Ellen Durfey-Wright. In that moment he decided to talk about it, all of it, with her. Maybe it was because he felt the need to do penance, or maybe, since his own mother had died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism four months earlier, he just wanted to talk to a mom.
When Riddle introduced himself, Durfey-Wright recognized his name, but not for the reason he expected. "I really enjoy listening to you every day on KRMG," she said. Riddle was stunned. How could she stand to hear his voice every morning? "Doesn't it remind you that if it weren't for me, your son would be alive?" he asked. Durfey-Wright took his hand. "Oh, Joe," she said. "I've never thought that." With those words Riddle felt a burden being lifted from him. "I could see he was in such pain," Durfey-Wright says. "But I wasn't saying it just to make him feel better. I truly never looked at it the way that he did."
It would be enough if the story had ended there, with a man finding comfort from a mother, but Riddle and Durfey-Wright talked more, that night and later on the phone. They spoke mostly about Kendall at first, and then about themselves. Riddle told her how, as the only child of parents who themselves were only children, he had no extended family—no aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces or nephews.
Before long Durfey-Wright was asking Riddle, who is 49 and single, the things that mothers ask: Are you seeing anybody? Are you eating right? When she drove the two hours from her home in Coweta, Okla., to Cowboys games—always a fan, she became even more devoted as a way to feel closer to Kendall after his death—she would often meet Riddle for dinner. Riddle would do the things that sons do, such as calling her when he traveled to let her know he had arrived safely. So, when Mother's Day arrived in 2002, it seemed only natural for the son who needed a mother and the mother who had lost a son to be in touch. "Kendall couldn't call his mother and I couldn't call mine," he says, "so I just called Ellen and said, 'Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I love you.'"
"I love you too, son," Durfey-Wright said, and that is what they have been to each other ever since—mother and son. Riddle's framed picture is on Durfey-Wright's mantel along with Kendall's and those of her three other grown children, Amy, Karlene and Nelson, who have also accepted him as newfound family. "They all understand that Joe wasn't replacing them or Kendall in any way," says Durfey-Wright, who has been twice widowed and is now remarried. Riddle's Facebook page lists Durfey-Wright as his mother and her children as his brother and sisters. "For someone who has never had much family, this is an incredible gift," Riddle says. "A gift from Kendall."
Durfey-Wright thinks every day about the son she lost, but she also has room in her heart for the one she gained. In 2005 she was listening for Riddle on the radio one morning when she heard that he had taken the day off to be with his dad, who was having quadruple bypass surgery. She immediately drove to Tulsa, where she found Riddle alone in the hospital waiting room and stayed with him. Three years later, when his father died, Durfey-Wright and her children sat with Riddle at the funeral, in the section reserved for family.
On Sunday, Durfey-Wright will get a call from Riddle, just as she has every Mother's Day for the last nine years. It will probably come before the morning light, since Riddle likes to be the first of her children to call. He will keep it simple. He won't talk about how family bonds aren't always formed by blood, or how, in the face of great loss, something precious can be found. He will just say, "Happy Mother's Day, Mom," and that will say everything.
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Maybe it was a need to do penance, or maybe, since his own mother had died suddenly, Joe Riddle just wanted to talk to a mom.