It's that time again, when the universe gradually attaches sandbags to my soul while simultaneously overloading my emotions until I have to stop and think and write some stuff in order to shake off some of the weight and calm my brain. Four years ago today our lives were changed forever by the thoughtless action of a man who momentarily forgot that his immediate priorities were no more important than anyone else's. Since that night, much time, energy, and money has been spent in muddling through the aftermath. And, while we have never once stopped moving forward, the heaviness of what happened remains, though it has evolved.
Over the last four years, I’ve experienced periodic bouts of sleeplessness, when images and sensations of the crash are so insistent that I can’t close my eyes until I’m so tired I can’t help but fall asleep. Over time, those experiences have decreased in frequency and intensity, and, with the help of my therapist, Craig Toonder, have essentially faded away, as has much of my fear when driving. However, in the last few weeks, the sleeplessness has returned, filled not with remnants of the crash, but with images of Alex. As inconvenient as theses sleepless nights are, and as haunting as the images can be, I take it as a sort of slow progress. My brain has shifted focus from my own physical and mental traumas to the loss of my good friend. My immediate transfer from the side of the highway to an extended hospital stay filled with pain and narcotics left little room for traditional mourning of Alex. I think the fact that he has become the focus signifies a move away from the relatively frantic survival mode in which I had found myself and into a more concrete sadness and recognition, a sadness for the loss of my friend, and a recognition of what that means regarding the upcoming birth of my own son.
I imagine most of you reading this already know, but for those who don’t, our first son, Jack, is estimated to be born in just over a month. I am happy and excited for his arrival, but there is an undeniable edge to that excitement. I am concerned about how worried I will be when driving with Jack in the backseat. How much will knowing he is back there amplify my already significant concern over the driving choices of others? Will I be unnecessarily cautious? Will I be crippled with worry? I imagine this is not a unique feeling. I know nearly all parents share these concerns, and that it is largely just nerves in the face of the unknown. Of greater impact is the more existential idea that, in welcoming Jack into the world, we agree to the possibility of losing him. The grand human contract we all make is that we will continue to walk out our doors each day knowing our return in not inevitable. We have all likely wrestled with that concept at least once in our lives. But, it is thrown in much sharper relief when one imagines the love and expectation one puts into a child, the hope and adoration. I have sat with Jeannine and Sean and seen them cry and listened to their moments of hell, but it was not until Jack began to grow that I began to understand more fully the weight of their loss and what it means. I don’t dare to claim I know how they feel and I don’t think it lacks empathy to say I do not want to know. It is a consequence of loss to recognize what more can be lost. But, in doing so, one must also recognize what all is left. It is a consequence of life to know loss is possible and continue on.
Please don’t take my somber tone as pessimism. I do not like the idea of sob stories or bitching about personal injustice. My goal in examining the full truth of what happened is to learn how best to move forward while maintaining an open and understanding view of my place in this universe. I am in the relatively unique position of having one simple and identifiable cause for my immediate troubles, a cause with a face and name. The reason I am privy to these thoughts is not a mystery. It is not divine and it is not complex. However, the necessary response is complex. Joshua Blackburn made a horrific mistake, one that I know he will spend the rest of his life haunted by. He is not inhuman. He is not evil. He made a decision to drive, knowing he was likely too drunk to do so responsibly. No one reading this can say they have not been in that position, and very, very few can likely say they haven’t also made the decision he made. Joshua’s second bad decision, to make a 90 degree turn across five lanes of highway because he realized he was going to miss his exit, stems from the first decision. I imagine he was a reckless driver when sober, maybe even a skilled reckless driver when sober. But, sober or no, one’s actions have consequences. Even if a 90 degree turn across five lanes didn’t result in the death of an extremely capable and intelligent and funny young man, it scares the hell out of everyone else on the road. It makes parents with young children in the backseat flash to unimaginable horror. It makes angry people angrier and it makes fearful people less confident. Drunk or no, to assume one’s immediate priorities over anyone else’s at any given time is the worst mistake one can make. The consequences of one selfish act ripple out through the lives of countless people just trying to make it back home each day. The response ripples out forever. It is tempting to demonize Joshua, to hate him. But, he is a human being that made a mistake. It would be easier to hate him, but I can't. I can only respond with patience.
I am so incredibly lucky to be here to respond, and I am so incredibly lucky to have all of you out there reading this. Your support has made all the difference in the world. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I get sad. Sometimes I get worried. But, I am so grateful to be able to do so.
Take care and drive safe,
P.S. I’ve included a couple poems I wrote recently. The second is actually meant to be a song. I hope to share the final product with you soon.
Upon Seeing Alex
You were standing at the bottom
of the footbridge steps
as I passed, hand in hand, with my son.
I affected a swagger
and thought to myself,
“This is one thing I’ll always have over you.”
You paused, stone-faced,
and then erupted in a signature
bout of resonant elation,
just as I remember you
striding down Telegraph, barking
about my particularly dark Nazi joke.
The pavement stood starkly white
against the aimless blue sky,
the scene set in that uniquely Californian saturation.
You in your boots,
permeated with dust,
black, sleeveless tee and multi tool,
your heels struck the concrete
like a muted woodblock.
I don’t remember what I wore.
We grinned to the car
with our remaining flyers,
both pretty sure very few would show up.
And there at the bridge
you grinned as before.
My son tripped and skidded to the curb.
You chuckled and shouted,
“Your son is a drunk.”
“Your son is a drunk.”
Then jogged across the street to help.
Leaning over, you froze,
eyes, still locked in honest concern,
fading to gray.
My son sucked his breath
and I turned to help him,
just the two of us beneath the aimless blue sky.
Don’t Know Much
Simple things get simpler
when you know how hard it gets;
and all the times you floundered
get put firmly into context.
Well I know I don’t know much,
but I have touched upon
what knowing more might look like.
Memories have consequences
stacked and building down;
but regrets dilute a little
when your friend is in the ground
The weight always remains
but can displace the heaviness
of all the rest of it so you can carry on
I can’t handle the news.
Tragedy comes two by two
to all the ones that least deserve it.
I know it’s doesn’t make it better,
but there’s some microscopic solace
in the fact that pain is universal
to the human race.
INSTRUMENTAL VERSE AND CHORUS
Melancholy’s easy when perspective is ignored;
and it’s easy enough to say that when
the point of view’s not yours.
The more we see we need
the same essential things
the more we can unite to find them.
I know I don’t know much,
but I hope that I have touched upon
what knowing more might look like.
I know I don’t know much...