She made sure her tight-knit family remained close and helped her brother, John McGee, organize an annual memorial cookout to celebrate their mother’s life.
On July 19, 2015, two days after the anniversary of her mother’s death, Darlene McGee died in a drunken driving accident on her way home to Charlotte, N.C., from the cookout.
Police say former UNC student Chandler Kania was driving the wrong way down Interstate 85 when he hit a car head-on.
The crash killed three people — Darlene, 46, her friend Felecia Harris, 49, and Harris’ six-year-old granddaughter, Jahnice Beard — and injured a fourth, authorities say.
Kania’s trial will begin today. Kania’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.
July is a hard month for John.
“We were like Frick and Frack,” he said. “We was one of a kind.”
Darlene also had two children and two grandchildren. She never got to meet her second grandchild — a boy.
John said everything is different now.
“This year we missed her birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving — and this guy is home with his family,” he said. “He’s supposed to be behind bars. I feel like he needs to be responsible — those are three people. Three people that he killed.”
Even though he was the oldest of four siblings, John said he looked up to his younger sister for guidance.
“She was the one that held everything down like my mother,” he said. “After she left, I can’t even explain it. It weighs on my heart every day.”
John has missed talking to Darlene and having her check up on him.
“Anytime I had a problem I could go talk to her about it,” he said. “She said things would get better in time. It’s been a year, but to me it’s been longer than a year.”
Darlene was a good person, John said.
She stayed busy, she had a job and she stayed in school. He’s struggling to understand why her life ended this way.
“I want to know the reason why he got on that road and drove drunk,” John said. “Anytime you drink and you drive, you put your life in jeopardy and other lives in jeopardy.”
Dionne McGee, John’s wife, knew Darlene for more than 20 years. They talked almost every day, and when they didn’t have time for a phone call, they texted.
She said Darlene’s bright smile could light up a room.
“She was a beautiful person,” Dionne said. “(She loved) singing, making people happy, going to church, helping people.”
Darlene worked with people who were handicapped and had special needs.
“Everybody at her job, they fell in love with her,” Dionne said.
As Kania’s trial approaches, Dionne said she’s struggled to try to forgive him.
“I believe in God, I believe in forgiving people, but it’s just so hard,” she said. “Her brother misses her daily. They were like twins, they were so close.”
This year, the memorial cookout for the McGees’ mother also remembered Darlene, Felecia and Jahnice.
“Everybody felt it this year because (Darlene) wasn’t here,” John said. “We couldn’t give a big one because she wasn’t a part of it.”
Barbara Blackburn, state victim specialist at Mothers Against Drunk Driving N.C., works with victims of substance-impaired car crashes. She said people who grieve loved ones who’ve died in crashes feel a range of emotions, including denial, fear, anger and guilt.
“Every person’s grieving process is different, but none of us can imagine the magnitude of pain associated with a traumatic death like this,” Blackburn said in an email. “Your world is changed after this experience and you may feel totally out of control.”
John said he’s had trouble sleeping, eating and focusing at work since his sister’s death.
In the past year, Dionne and John moved from New York to Wilmington, N.C. They had planned to attend the trial, but in the end they decided against it.
John is worried race and socio-economic status will affect the case in Kania’s favor.
“The family’s white, they’re alumni of N.C., the father’s a doctor, he’s alumni of the school,” John said. “I feel that it’s going to be some kind of different weight because they’re part of North Carolina. Their family has been a part of it for years.”
He said he’s not sure how he’ll be able to face Kania in court.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said. “But hopefully it’ll turn out the right way and something will be done.”