(NOTE: This first paragraph is a paraphrasing of last year’s intro. I thought it would be useful for those new to the list of recipients.)
It’s been seven years since the crash. Every year, starting maybe two weeks out, but really ramping up in the final week, my brain becomes weighed down with thoughts and images and reflections of and on my experience since that night. I have discovered that writing out my more complex or frenzied thoughts, be it in prose or poetry, tends to help release them. It allows me to reflect on and, in a way, distance myself from them. I am able to hold them and look at them analytically, as opposed to just being overwhelmed by largely illegible noise. That is the reason I write this letter every year. I send it to a community of people whose energy has been helpful in large and small ways over the last six years. If I simply wrote it out and saved it, it would not have the same effect. The thoughts must be seen to be released. It may seem self-important to assume anyone wants to read this stuff, but it is helpful to me. And I don’t think it is unhelpful to understand the wide-reaching and constantly changing consequences of one’s actions and one’s responses to the actions of others. Grief and trauma are foundationally human experiences and I think by living through and better understanding those experiences we better accept humanity in all its pros and cons. If you would like to not receive these letters in the future, please let me know and I will be happy to take off your name. But, thank you for reading.
As one ages, birthdays and anniversaries become useful, largely, as markers of time. You reflect upon the past year. You add distance between the person you were and are now. You take stock of how far you’ve come, of how much you’ve endured, of what has or hasn’t happened, of how much closer you are to wherever you may be headed. Of how much you have or haven’t changed. Of how long you’ve lived. Our anniversary of the crash is no different. It has become a marker. A point to and from which we measure.
We think about how far, physically and mentally, we’ve come since that night. We remember how much, internally and externally, we’ve endured. We dwell sometimes on what did or did not happen. We take stock of what has and hasn’t changed. We realize how long we have lived without Alex.
This year, up until this week, when things traditionally get heavier, and darker regardless, my crash-ripple response has evolved into a more matter of fact, if no less deep, state of mind. Seven years on, I am still triggered relatively frequently, but it has become somewhat expected and is only rarely debilitating. Even those moments that cut more deeply tend to fade within an hour or two, as opposed to the days-long doldrums of the early days, or even the 12-24 hour funks of more recent years. Physically and mentally, injuries flare, but rarely sideline. Last month at my monthly MADD talk was the first time I thought to mention that things were getting better. “It’s taken seven years,” I said. “But things have gotten better.” Seven years.
In early March I was told by Facebook I had been using the site for seven years. The sole reason I created a Facebook account was to create a page for mine and Alex’s band, Thea, since I had been told MySpace was no longer relevant. I had intended to avoid social media entirely, but chose to fall on my promotional sword for the betterment of the group. When I explained how painfully annoying it was, Alex gave me a (only mostly) mock heartfelt, “I know that was hard for you. I appreciate it.” Then followed with the trademark honesty of, “Brian and I were not going to do it.”
We recorded six songs with our friend Josh in late February. On March 28 I posted most of them on Facebook. The last went up on April 1st, thirteen days before the crash. Both of Thea’s two shows happened in March, after I set up the account. It’s crazy to me how condensed that all seems. The band existed for a little over a year, but most of the most significant events in its history happened over about two months. Things were really ramping up for us.
Now I measure those events in terms of the crash. We recorded our last songs two months before the crash. Our last show was two weeks before the crash. It took about a week in the hospital, after Brian, the guitarist, came to visit, that I realized I had lost the band as well. A week after the crash.
I have all this data at my fingertips because Facebook sees fit to remind me of it in its “On This Day” feature. Every year as April nears, I start noticing more the years of my various archived posts. Anything from March - April 13 of 2011 strikes me as relatively optimistic and maybe even a bit oblivious. April 14th - early May 2011 is sparsely populated, save a few updates from Nissa sent in my name. And, everything past then, regardless of content, is viewed through a post-crash lens...
...And here is evidence of the evolution. I find myself not knowing if I need or want to keep writing this. I’m stuck feeling obligated to honor this day, but not totally feeling like my long-winded thoughts are adding to my own conversation anymore. What I can think to say hews very closely to what I wrote last year, the only real difference being one year added. How many different ways can I say I think about the crash at least once a day and that’s just life? It’s not terrible all the time. It’s not great. It just is. This is life now. We all have a few stones in our pockets and these are a few of mine.
We live right by the highway. I’ve spoken before about how loud it is and how much it bugs me since the crash, but I’ve noticed recently what bothers me most is the cars that zip past the house on the road that separates us from the highway. The speed limit is 30. I’d say in most cases 35 is fine, but it’s also a street onto which a pedestrian bridge exits with no marked crosswalk at the top of an essentially blind hill, so caution is necessary. Not to mention, our son and our neighbors’ children play on the sidewalk that lines that road. Some people go the speed limit. Some that were speeding see the kids and slow down a bit. Some barrel through at 50 mph like they’re getting one over on all those suckers that decided to stay on the highway when there’s a perfectly good shortcut along this residential street. Sometimes these people are on cell phones. Nissa and/or I are out there with the kids, usually posting guard along the curb, sometimes stepping in to the street in an effort to get the drivers to notice us. I know it would take a wildly freak accident for even the most irresponsible speeder to suddenly jump the curb and hit the kids, but every car that zips obliviously by makes my eye twitch and my fists clench and unclench rapidly. Sometimes I give them a sarcastic “take it easy” hand motion. Sometimes I just glare at them not seeing me. Sometimes I flip them off. I remain outwardly calm, but inside it is an exhausting sort of tension. The vulnerability of human being vs. speeding steel box. The racing thoughts about generally selfish behavior on roads and highways. The indignation of some people’s choices. The thought that we’re out there on the road with these people everyday. The thought that my son will be out there someday too.
On a Friday night a few months ago, I took Oscar out to the backyard to pee. Out of nowhere I hear from the highway a high whine like a motorcycle and then three enormous booms, like a canon. The sound actually moved the air around us. Oscar and I both whipped our heads towards the noise. It sounded like it was right outside the door. I raced inside to see. Nissa had heard it too, but we couldn’t see anything that made it clear it was right next to us. We heard no sirens and traffic was still moving. I was a bit rattled, but settled back into the evening relatively quickly. The next morning in bed, Nissa was reading the news and told me what had made those sounds. A mile up the road a drunk driver caused a multiple car collision that left four people dead. The driver of one car, a local college student, lost his younger brother, his father, and two in-laws, all in the car with him. The moment I heard what had happened, I realized I knew exactly what those sounds were the night before. They were the sounds I have kept in my head since the night of the crash. I had always described them as cavernous. I thought this was because that’s just how I experienced them in my head. I had never realized that’s how loud and powerful they were to the outside world. I knew at that moment that I knew exactly how that young man had felt, what he heard, what he saw, what his body now knows, the only difference being the fact that he was driving. He knows how it feels to lose control of what he had been controlling, to have controI taken from him. I knew what he went through in the moments immediately after he realized what had happened. I also knew, for the first time, what those in the immediate vicinity of my crash may have experienced. It was overwhelming and I sunk into the bed, not getting up for an hour or more. Nissa was kind enough to get Jack up and get him ready while I laid there spinning. This is all the subject of the first poem below. The incident drove home once again the cruel unpredictability of the highway and my complete inability to protect myself or my family. We were supposed to go to Best Buy that day to pick up something we had ordered. I knew I couldn’t let them go by themselves and I knew I couldn’t ride in the passenger seat. I eventually got up and drove them all, white-knuckling it all the way. I feel connected to that man’s family and to him. We are now a part of the same community. Those who know.
I come from a long line of worriers. The kind of people who think you might be dead if you’re 15 minutes late and haven’t called. I have often had the thought that I arrived uniquely conditioned into this weird and stupid situation, because I had so much practice imagining terrible things happening. It is never far from my thoughts what I might do or think should the unimaginable occur. What would I say to my employer? Would I have to book travel? What kind of lee-way does one get with bills? What in the hell would I do the next day or even the next hour? Beyond all those (what I call) normal thoughts, this week has brought some disturbingly concrete fears about my son and what could happen to him. At this moment I can’t see myself being anywhere near as put together as Jeannine was and has been. Granted, I was not with her in those first few months and I know she went through and still goes through absolute hell. I can’t even picture myself speaking, let alone moving through the horrifically mundane bureaucracy of it all. This all a terrible way of saying Nissa and I are painfully aware now of what Jeannine and Sean lost and how ungodly hard it must be. I know standing still is not an option. I know they have and are moving and building and creating new and wonderful things for those who happen upon them. I know I would get up the next day and call who needed to be called. I would fill out the paperwork and make the plans. The fact is, I don’t want to think I could, because at the moment I have the luxury of not needing to. The last few days, when I have found myself losing patience with my son’s behavior and contemplating potential responses, I have occasionally asked myself, “how would I feel about that decision at his funeral?” Had I given him all I could? Had I offered my best self as often as possible? Death comes when it comes. We are not always ready.
This is all pretty rambling and unfocused, but I think that’s a decent illustration of what it’s like now. Fragments of feeling and unexpected reminders. Piercingly real possibilities and glancing, everyday pokes. It’s the year of a Facebook post sending you momentarily sprialing. It’s hearing a friend say your son is the same age as Alex was when she first met him and unavoidably peering forward to a time we will unavoidably hand him the keys and hope he comes back while at the same time loving the fact that his hair stands on end with slide-generated static on the playground on a sunny day in March with pink-blossoming trees and the ludicrously scenic fog drifting just beyond the towering green hill. It’s casually walking up to that same friend’s art project and recognizing the silhouettes of your shared endurance like a swift punch to the part of your mind that waits for just these moments, where you’re torn between thinking about lunch and just laying in the middle of the floor to let the past seven years wash over you while you’re son clacks together the library’s Legos. It’s wanting to text Alex about a new band I’ve found and it’s remembering Jeannine and Sean are no longer in town and knowing at least one of the reasons rests on the head of one man who made a terribly stupid and selfish decision. It’s knowing that decision is not at all an uncommon one. It’s feeling the tightness in my hamstrings and remembering I didn’t do enough to dig myself out that atrophic hole. It’s looking at my wife and knowing she’s got to deal with all this shit too. It’s looking at my son and knowing he might have to someday. It’s living just like everybody else and maybe sitting down and watching Parks and Rec again if that’s what is needed. It’s the quiet, often unsatisfying zen of moving forward with a bruised, but open heart.
I don’t mean for this to make my life sound bleak. This is just a corner of my life I tend to emphasize around this time of year. I don’t know. It is what it is. It’s a heavy day, but it’s just a day. The sun shines and my son needs to scooter.
I know I’ve been at my current job for six years because I got the job just over a year after the crash. I know we’ve had our 2005 Ford Focus for 6 and a half years because we drove it back from Wisconsin in autumn after the crash. My son was born a little over four years after the crash. It will be roughly twelve more before he learns to drive. My wife and I will have been married for 24 years by then. About 19 of that will have been after the crash.
I appreciate you all reading this far if you have. I love you all and hope for you decent neighbors, manageable traffic, healthy families, and patience.
Take care, have fun, drive safe,
WHAT IT IS SOMETIMES
Three cannon blasts moved the air at my elbow,
pre and proceeded by climbfading look-at-me engine whine and goodbye.
My dog’s nose jerked toward the noises
I did not recognize as mine until the next morning
news of their source.
Then began the customary sink and pull.
My spine to the bed, my mind to the brink.
Four more timelines ended. Countless more begun anew
or annotated. Now a before and an after.
Now a never more again.
I knew the sound only from the inside,
cavern metal crunch and slam, shoulders
driven back and dragging behind knees jut
quick past ankles. Unforgiving. I had long assumed
it deafening only because it lived in my head.
But the backyard we share with the upstairs neighbors
is miles from where it happened and the air around me moved.
I know now what the unsuspecting evening felt
as I spiraled, limp and nothing, down the highway.
I know what those four heard as they wondered when it would stop.
I lay, blanket-tombed, in bed, huffing back my own
carbon dioxide. My wife and son in the living room.
My wife and son without armor. Without assurances.
They we I must leave the house, must drive, must risk.
I we they are helpless outside.
I am no match for gravity. We are no match
for the unerring confidence of selfish whims.
I would have been no match for those four.
Some children. Some parents.
The highway carries us all the same.
We live by the highway. I bristle in the night at open windows.
Rain-slicked asphalt roars this morning
as I contemplate my complete inability to protect
my son from knowing tragedy.
I wonder about the son who survived and consider him a brother.
They are all my family now,
equally still in the hands of what happens,
tied together by knowledge.
We know the unique fullness of being there
and the intimate void of being told.
I have to drive to Target.
The wind will shove our fragile Kia at random,
will trip my hair-trigger memories of powerless tip,
of knowing I no longer decide.
We may very well die today on our way to pick up a new TV.
My son cannot live in fear.
I cannot protect him.
We will teach him how to drive.
I will tense on the wheel when young instincts flare.
They will drive to the funeral, and then to work.
TAKING A SHOWER
The twin-tone hum of the bathroom fan
sounds faintly of my son’s plaintive cry,
just as the highway’s constant roar
sounds of chaos
(Art below by Liebe Wetzel)