But six weeks after the accident that injured Wilson and claimed the life of her 14-year-old son, Rafael, the former Supreme has come to know that some wounds can't be healed with medicine alone. Despite her determined efforts to move on with her life, the images of the Jan. 29 crash play repeatedly in her mind. Wilson breaks into sobs when she thinks of those last seconds when Rah reached out to help her with the wheel as the Jeep spun out of control.
"It will be with me all my life," says Wilson, 50. "I see every little bump. I see the median as we hit it. I remember him trying to help me get the car back on the road. He always said, 'Mommy, I will always take care of you.' He was trying to take care of me then."
The two were on their way from Wilson's Los Angeles apartment to Las Vegas, bringing boxes of dishes, pots and other household items to Wilson's daughter Turkessa, 18, a senior at Green Valley High School there who had recently moved into a new apartment. Wilson was initially planning to drive up alone, but Rafael, who had spent the past year living with his brother, Pedro Jr., 16, and Mary's ex-husband Pedro Ferrer, 49, in Beverly Hills, while Wilson juggled career demands, offered to come along to see his sister. "I was so thrilled," remembers Wilson. "He came over and spent the night."
On the evening of Jan. 28, Rafael helped Wilson pack up the Jeep, after which the two had dinner and then went to bed early. Rising before dawn, they loaded Wilson's three cats and her cocker spaniel into the car—the animals survived the crash—and hit the road. Wilson put Toni Braxton and Brenda Russell CDs in the player, and Rafael listened to rap on his Walkman. For a while, they chatted lightly. "He said I corrected him all the time," says Wilson. "I said, 'I want you to be the best you can be.' He laughed and said he knew I was always going to be his mom and would never change."
But sometime after passing Barstow, Calif., about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles on Interstate 15, conversation flagged. "I remember I was planning to stop soon," says Wilson. "That was the next thing I was going to do." But she never got the chance. For reasons she still doesn't understand, she apparently nodded off, and the Jeep veered right, off the highway. "As we started going off the road, Rafi yelled, 'Mommy! Watch out!' " Wilson recalls. She swerved back onto the highway and skidded across the lanes into the center divider. The Jeep flipped over at least once and landed upright on the left shoulder.
Rafael was unconscious. His seat belt was still fastened, but he had been thrown halfway out the passenger-side door. Unable to move, Wilson was pulled over his body by motorists who stopped to help. One of her rescuers prayed with her while they wailed for medical help. "I would say, 'How is my boy?' and the man would say, 'He's holding on, he's a fighter,' " Wilson recalls. "Even though he was saying this, in my heart I knew that Rafi was not there."
By the time a helicopter arrived to take Wilson to Loma Linda (Calif.) University Medical Center, Rafi had died from multiple internal injuries. At the hospital, Mary was joined by Pedro, Pedro Jr., Turkessa and Mary's close friend singer Rita Coolidge, who drove in from L.A. to slay with Wilson. "She was so banged up, so swollen, with lubes coming out of every place, my heart just dropped," says Coolidge, who spent three hours combing dirt and gravel from her friend's hair after Wilson was moved from intensive care to a private room.
But as the days went by, Wilson stunned even her friends with her determination to put the tragedy behind her. "She had tubes coming out of her back and her arm, and her left eye was a big old shiner," Coolidge remembers. "When she saw herself in the mirror, she just screamed, 'Here these doctors are coming in here and I'm flirting with them, and I look like this!' "
Coolidge is aware that some who don't know Wilson have mistaken her zeal to recover for an attempt to block the tragedy out of her mind. "People say, 'She's just not dealing with it; she's in denial'—but she's not," says Coolidge. "She talks about it all the time. She had her hospital room decorated with pictures of Rafi. That's not denial; that's walking into your worst nightmare."
Still, Wilson's appearance at the American Cinema Awards one week after the accident, and her quick resumption of her performance schedule four weeks after that—since launching her solo career in 1977, she has supported herself primarily through appearances at corporate functions—surprised many who know her. "People think that the only way you [deal with] pain is to cry out in public and pour out grief, and for a year you have to wear black and you can't go anywhere," says Wilson. "I am totally the opposite. I could say, 'If only I'd stayed in L.A., if only he'd never come along'—all those shoulda wouldas. It's really stupid. My advice is to make your life a testimony to your child. Obviously I'd like to have my son back, but I can't. So I need to do everything I can to bring myself to a higher level. It will mean I've done something better in his name."
While she lay on the side of the road after the crash, Wilson believes she heard Rafi's voice telling her to stay alive. "She finds comfort in that," says actress Beverly Todd, a longtime friend. "Mary has to forgive herself so she can heal."
Even through her grief, Wilson points out the good things that have happened since the accident, including a rapprochement with onetime best friend and fellow Supreme Diana Ross after years of estrangement. "My son's passing has brought a lot of love back into my life," says Wilson. "Diana called me, and I think our relationship is on the mend."
Even Wilson admits that getting on with her life won't be easy. When she recently drove to pick up her son Pedro Jr. at school, she says, "I could just see [Rafi] loping over to the car. I could feel that presence. Those things will be with me a lot. If I see a basketball game, I will think of him. Or football. Those things I know will remind me of him."
But she takes comfort in the times they shared. "He was a very affectionate kid, always hugging his mom," says Coolidge, her voice thick with emotion. " 'Mary's little angel' we called him all the time. And now he really is."
DANELLE MORTON in Los Angeles
- Danelle Morton.
MARY WILSONS BODY IS ALMOST HEALED. Her broken collarbone and ribs are slowly setting, and the lung that was punctured when her 1992 Jeep Cherokee crashed into a highway median is once again functioning.