I was in the car headed down to St. George when I got a phone call from one of my friends from "American Idol," Clay Aiken.
“I need to give you some heavy news.”
Clay told me our dear friend and fellow “American Idol” contestant Rickey Smith had died in a car accident on May 6.
My husband held my hand as I softly sobbed in the front seat, thinking back on the short time I had known and grown to love Rickey.
He was the first person to welcome me to the “family” when I made the Top 12. I can still see the carpet of the red Coca-Cola “green room” backstage, lit up by the stage lights, and looking up only long enough to catch a glimpse of Rickey’s warm, encouraging smile as I took my place beside him to walk onstage.
He was the one who stood up for me when I was placed in several uncomfortable situations, including a movie night where the show picked was rated R.
“Carmen’s a Mormon, and she said Mormons don’t watch rated-R movies!” Rickey exclaimed. I was so grateful that he told me, and that he expected me to stick to my standards, even if it meant leaving the group to spend the night alone.
It was Rickey who told me he thought I was the true “American Idol,” because at such a young age (I was 17 when the season started), I had some idea of what was most important in life. He told me to stay good. To stay pure. To stay innocent. To stay sweet. He told me he loved me, and I will never forget the way he made me feel that night — like I was important to this world, like I was important to him.
A few months later, we went on tour. Rickey took it upon himself, along with Ruben Studdard and Clay, to be my “protectors.” They all called me “lil’ sis” and would yell “Earmuffs!” if they ever didn’t want me to hear a dirty joke or swear word. After touring all over the country, we had our farewell show in Los Angeles, and I said goodbye to my friends who were really more like family, promising to keep in touch.
But life has a way, over time, of slowly erasing good intentions, and I lost contact with many of my friends over the years.
A few years ago, I received a message on Facebook from Rickey. It read:
“Carmen!! How are you darling? I hope all is well with you, you have a beautiful family, thank you for adding me as a friend on Facebook I hope we can keep in touch. I love and miss you. We need to catch up soon!! Love and blessings, Rickey.”
I wrote him back, but that was the last correspondence we had. It hurts my soul to think I won’t get to catch up with him soon.
But because of his passing, I was able to get in touch with almost every other Season 2 contestant. We all messaged back and forth, stating how this tragic event has made us realize how much we really love and care about each other.
"It certainly makes one realize the importance of staying in touch with people who are important to you. It may have been a decade and a half ago … but we are all such an integral part of each other's stories. I love each of you," Clay said.
Rickey had a way of doing that, even in death. Bringing us all together.
A few days ago, I sat around the breakfast table in Oklahoma City surrounded by friends from my past, thinking about how precious and unpredictable life is. We laughed, cried and held each other as we relived stories about our "Idol" days and how special that time was.
Ruben was still the same old Ruben, talking about how much he craves “that Nielsen’s Frozen Custard;” Julia DeMato was still dramatic; Vanessa Olivarez was still a spitfire; Charles "Charlie" Grigsby was as sweet and genuine as ever. And I was still the “baby sis,” with a baby of my own on my lap, silently taking it all in, even as Ruben looked at me and, smiling, said “Earmuffs!” as he said something he thought I might not think appropriate.
I have learned so much from this diverse group of people who shared one incredible life experience with me. And as heart-wrenching as it was to get up on stage one more time as an "Idol" family and sing Rickey home, it was, at the same time, healing.
As we stood at his gravesite saying our goodbyes “for now, until we meet again,” I had the feeling that if he were here, Rickey would be telling us to continue to live, to continue to love, to hold on to each other even as we let him go.
Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.