Content Warning: details of gruesome car crash fatality; death; grief; trauma; first responder
I’ve never written to you before, but I’ve thought of you often. We never spoke; I didn’t meet you until moments after you had died. So I guess that means you never knew me. And I never knew you in any traditional sense, but you have been inextricably bound to my life ever since your death.
It’s been ten years.
It’s odd, the things I recall with crystal clarity, while other things have persistently alluded recollection.
I remember your arm dangling out the car window – looking so casual. Your wedding band. The tone of your skin. I remember thinking that your car – an old Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla I believe – looked too small for you; or you too large for it. But maybe that was because the car had been crushed, and there was no longer enough room for your body inside it.
I am almost positive that the top of your car had been peeled off, but I have never been able to retain that imagine in my mind. But that is what makes sense. Otherwise why would I have been able to see you, looking down in from above, when a blanket hastily laid over the car was pulled back?
It was a hairpin curve in a long series of tight corners, narrow lanes – one going each direction – and no shoulders, spindly guardrails between pavement and steep cliffs leading down to houses or the water. They say you were drunk, even though it was in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday. It would have required only a moment’s distraction to miss the signs, not turn, not slow down, and you would not have had the opportunity to correct.
Your car crossed the other lane and hit the guardrail, then ricocheted off it coming up onto two wheels. But a large RV was in that lane, their lane, with nowhere to go and no time to stop. Your car crashed into the RV and kept on going, back across your lane and finally smashing into the cliffside. As your car, on two wheels, scraped by the RV the top of your car was peeled back like a can of sardines. That’s what I remember; from the scene, and from the fire department photos afterwards. But I remember the information only; my memory refuses to release the image of it.
I think it’s because that image was when I knew you were dead, and there was no point in giving CPR. Looking down where there should have been a roof; looking down at the top of your head, where there should have been your head. Whatever I saw in that moment, within minutes I could not bring it to mind; and never since have I been able to.
The woman from the RV (it was her husband who had been driving) was distraught that your body was left there for so long – hours – while the scene was first investigated, then the RV moved to the same lane as your car, so that traffic could finally go single file, one direction at a time. At that point it was time for me to go as well. It was just coincidence that I was the first officer on scene, and with state patrol there I had neither expertise to lend, nor authorization to stay.
I understand your car had to be dismantled, in order to remove your body.
Was it just the following day when a state trooper stopped by the park where I worked and started chatting about the accident, running off his mouth even though he hadn’t been there? He informed me and the other park ranger that you were a deadbeat. I cut him off saying sharply, “I was at the scene.”
He abruptly stopped talking. I didn’t want to chat about your death. I didn’t want to talk about the one thing I couldn’t think about, if I wanted to continue to function. I was terrified that if my thoughts lingered on any of it I would completely collapse, unable to work, unable to take care of myself, swept away in an endless flood of horror and despair. And I certainly didn’t want to hear the opinions of someone who had no connection to it or to you.
Deadbeat. What did that mean, anyway? Who was this officer, who didn’t know you, to so summarily dismiss the significance of your death, so succinctly sum up your life as one not worth crying over? Did it make it easier to bear the senselessness of your death, thinking you were a deadbeat?
What a pronouncement. No one is irredeemable. If you were a deadbeat, your death ended any chance that you might have turned things around. While you lived, you had unlimited potential. You may have had great things yet to do in your life. But your death ended any such possibility.
In the hours and days after your death, things had trouble sticking in my brain. My boss would give me a task to do, and I would immediately forget. He would check in with me about said task, and it would be as if I’d heard about it for the first time. I had no sense of how much time passed when I was at the scene; how much time before I was not the only one there “in charge;” how much time before the EMTs arrived; how much time before the state trooper. I would ask for details to help fill in the blanks, only to have them slip away instantly. As much as I tried to create a timeline of your accident, my brain would not allow it.
Somehow I was able to be friendly and helpful with park visitors. But I could barely remember how to tie my boots.
In the weeks and months following, I struggled with human interactions beyond those done perfunctorily for work. It wasn’t just that typical conversations seemed mundane or even pointless in the aftermath of such tragedy, although that was true. I seemed to have lost the ability to carry on a conversation, or even follow along. After a few early, awkward attempts with well-meaning friends, I stopped talking with all but four people – friends and family members. These four all had experiences with tragedy and trauma, and phone calls with them became my lifelines.
There was also a psychologist whose assistance was invaluable, although an unforgivable breach in agency protocol delayed my debriefing for four anguished days. Not long after I started working with a therapist regularly as well.
All the other well-wishing friends and family in my life seemed to expect things from me that I could not provide. They would offer care-giving, or time in their company “without expectations,” but they didn’t realize that everything was an expectation, because everything was monumentally difficult. Returning their messages. Answering questions. Helping them understand. Trying to express my feelings. Trying to bridge this gulf that arose in a heartbeat between me and “normalcy,” between me and most of the people I knew.
And most of the well-wishers did and said things that made it worse. At work I had to contend with coworkers who had their own traumas triggered, and would unthinkingly start detailing some of the horrors they’d witnessed. Friends and family would offer platitudes, or simple remedies for feeling better, or “moving on.” Sometimes my inability to interact was seen as being standoffish or hostile. And perhaps worst, many failed to understand why I was so deeply impacted. They would express confusion, and misunderstand me. Surely I had only offered to help at the accident, as they would have done in a similar situation. Surely I understood this was part of the job. Surely others had encountered far worse, and learned to carry on. I would try to explain, but how can you explain that you’ve been traumatized, when you don’t have that word for it yet? When you don’t understand yourself that you’ve been traumatized? How can you explain that it isn’t a contest about who encountered the worst event; it’s about the entirety of the circumstances and the person that determines if they will be traumatized.
And it took years before I realized that in the moment I first found out that you had died, my entire spiritual foundation collapsed. This was more than I could handle. This was not ok. There was nothing looking out for me; this was far more responsibility than I wanted. Everything I had believed was true spiritually, was disproved in an instant.
I didn’t even have the words to understand what was happening to me, to be able to explain to others.
I wanted to put some silk roses by the place where you died. It wasn’t just a dangerous corner to drive, it was dangerous to walk. I asked my boss if he thought troopers would help me get to the spot safely; he thought not. It was a gesture I was unwilling to forgo.
Since you crashed into the hillside where there was no shoulder, the only pull-outs were on the far side of the highway. After purchasing a bouquet of silk roses, it was time. I drove extra slowly as I approached the pull-out I’d determined to be the safest one, turned on my hazards, and after scanning carefully, drove across the highway and into it.
I parked and stood by the car. I couldn’t see the spot from here because the road curved around the outcropping. I looked carefully, and jogged across the highway. My heart started to beat more quickly, in part because of the significance of what I was doing, and in part because it was dangerous to be walking on such a narrow part of highway. I hugged the rock and came around the corner to the place where your life came to an end.
The skid marks and paint markings still decorated the highway. There was a bit of broken orange plastic swept onto the sparse shoulder. I stopped and looked out across the highway to the guardrail, and beyond. Not for the first (or last) time, I wondered what had been going on in your life on that day. There had been mention of either a girlfriend or estranged wife. Had you had a fight? Is that why you’d been drinking? Were you angry? Despairing?
How did she feel when she heard that you’d died? Was she relieved? Heartbroken? Or a tangled mess of love, complicated emotions, and shared history?
What thoughts went through your head as you realized you were coming around the corner far too fast? Did you realize you’d misjudged? Did you have a surge of adrenaline? Did you think you were going to go over the guardrail? Did you realize that you were going to crash?
A week or so had passed, and there were no flowers, no balloons, no indication on this spot that anyone grieved your passing. Of course they might not choose to put up a memorial on the side of the highway, like so many others. But still I was sad for you. Was anyone missing you? Where did they bring their flowers?
I gathered the flowers, knelt down, and secured them to a grill coming up out of the concrete. They were really pretty. I got the silk ones, rather than fresh, because I wanted them to stay there for a while.
“I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “I’m sorry that your life ended too soon. I’m sorry we never had a chance to meet. I want you to know that your life mattered to me, and I will grieve for you.
“In a way, our lives are connected now. Because I will always remember you, and your death will always be a part of my life and my story. And because a piece of my heart died on this highway, along with you, on that day.”
I stood up and brushed dust off my pants. I looked up at the sky, out at the trees. Then quickly and cautiously I walked back around the outcropping, and across the highway to my car. I sat there for a few minutes to allow my breathing to slow down to normal, and drove home.
I never saw other flowers there on the side of the highway. But the ones I left for you were there for as many years as I routinely traveled that highway. Even when they repaved; repainted the lines with thicker and brighter yellow; installed bumps to the entire middle line; and added flashing lights to the warning signs along that stretch of road and that corner in particular – even then, the flowers remained.
Yours was the first death I responded to as a ranger, but only the first of several that summer – and many of them on that highway. In all there were five places along the highway that marked the deaths of people whose stories intertwined with mine. For a long time, I couldn’t drive by any of them without noticing. Depending on where I was starting and where my final destination, I could count off all five. Each one compounded the despair and disorientation I already felt. But your story is the one that inexorably changed my story. And the ending of your story is the one that I know so well.
Except for those parts that my memory has steadfastly kept hidden away.
Ten years later, and you are still a part of my life.