Last year at this time, I was preoccupied with large, hypothetical questions. About Jack’s arrival. About the unspoken agreement into which one enters when welcoming a child into the world. About loss and acceptance. Over the last year I have found a parent has little time for such existential pondering. Concerns are more immediate. One thinks only a few days ahead. Is he fed? Is he tired? Are his clothes washed? Is he in any impending danger? How long will it take him to reach that cord and do I have time to get there first? Does he need a hat or does he need sunscreen? How cold out is it to a baby? Even at 3 am, squinting into the darkness, quietly singing and trying to discern whether he’s sitting up or lying down, I’m much more concerned with remembering all the words to “Hey Jude” than I am about what it might mean if he was taken from us.
On this, the fifth anniversary of the reason I write these emails, I find this trend applies to my thinking on the matter in general. More often than not, more immediate concerns take the place of getting caught up in memories of the crash. My sleep is rarely bothered by flashbacks to that night. I’m a great deal calmer when riding in the passenger seat. I’m less worried when Nissa is late that she is likely dead on the side of the road somewhere. Even vehicle crashes on tv and in movies are less apt to send me spiraling than they once were.
However, this distance from troubling thoughts makes those thoughts all the more affecting when they do come to the surface. Those moments reveal the deep, insidious nature of trauma and the wide-ranging consequences of one bad decision.. Now the already familiar pain is coupled with a feeling of, “Is this still happening?” and “How long does this last?” It leaves one feeling marked forever, that one will never be free of this knowledge or its influence.
feel the weight of my purpose there. I wish I had no expertise to offer. Each morning I open the door to leave for work, the blaring rush of the highway strikes me full in the chest, washing over me and filling my brain with its cold and tragic potential. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I just cringe at how loud it is outside our house. I can never know until I step outside how large or small the blow will be. Each time a car comes up behind me too quickly, each time a car cuts me off suddenly without a signal. Each time an ambulance passes me with lights flashing, I feel a twinge of recognition. Each time I pass an accident, I remember it could happen again. Each time I pass a serious accident, a body on the pavement or a stretcher, I am lost for a day or two. I dwell on how it felt, how it would feel again, if it were me, if it were Nissa. What would happen to the other of us? What would happen to Jack? What will happen to the family of the victim? How long will they think about it every day until it becomes a thing that has happened?
Some effects are less expected. When I apply for a new credit card and am rejected because my credit score was ruined when my hospital bills went to collection while I was waiting for the financial assistance program to kick in. When I look at our savings account. When I jog around the room while holding Jack to make him giggle and my knee hurts for hours afterward. When I step over the couch and tweak my joint so badly that it aches for days. When I’m on the floor doing stretching and strength-building exercises and my knee still can’t bend more than 80 or so degrees. When I watch Jack learning to crawl and stand and I realize that it was only five years ago that my movements mirrored his. When Jeannine casually mentions Alex in conversation and her voice suddenly catches, a tear glistening at the corner of her eye. When I watch Nissa cringe as she opens her birthday cards, because it reminds her of a time five years ago when birthday cards hung on the fridge and she was at home by herself.
It is in these moments that I come closest to anger, to bitterness, towards Joshua Blackburn, the man responsible. I hate feeling both of these things. It makes me upset at myself to be angry, which of course makes me all the more angry at Joshua. In last years email I wrote,
“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.”
While I am grateful for my ability to view the situation with a certain amount of balance and empathy, I can say definitively that such a measured response is not often satisfying. I sometimes long to act on my immediate reactions without filter, to lash out, to throw something across the room, to give into bitterness and spew my momentary pessimism and vitriol on Facebook. I come as close to wanting to punch someone as I can ever remember. But I know it is not productive. I do not want to be an example of bitterness, of fatalistic “Why me?” thinking. I want to respond with empathy and logic, to encourage others to do the same.
This is why I continue to give the MADD speech, despite its heaviness. To reveal the true consequences of one stupid decision and to inspire empathy in others. Not just empathy to the victims or to themselves and their immediate family, but to all of humankind. I hope with all my heart that they understand how much damage they are capable of doing another’s life, and how closely all our lives resemble each other’s, how easily it could be them. I want to make clear the idea that pain is universal. If one could knowingly prevent another from potentially experiencing pain, the effects of which one knows to be terrible, then why wouldn’t one do so? It is the understanding of our shared human frailties which can most meaningfully bring people from disparate backgrounds together. Our collective refusal to acknowledge the universality of tragedy as a human constant tends to preclude the idea of compromise, or decisions, for the greater good.
Alex was highly empathetic. He was not always the most tolerant or the most understanding person, but he had a way of locking in and being completely present in a conversation. If he decided you were worth it, he was dedicated to honoring your existence. He was warm and funny and honest and clever. I don’t know that I ever met a man more capable than he, certainly not any at his age. I only knew him for a year and a half, but I think of him as one of my closest friends. I know that my deep connection to his death gives him a special and permanent place in my being, but in life he was as close to me as any friend I’d ever had. I don’t know if I always responded as well as I could have. I have never found it easy to make friends and I have always struggled to be open. Once when I was visiting my parents in Minnesota, Alex texted me “Listening to William Elliott Whitmore and reading your blog. I like you.” William Elliott Whitmore was a musician I had recently recommended. He sang dark folk ballads about farming and prairie life. I had told him about it a few days before about my blog, which at the time, featured a story I was writing in short, serialized chunks. I’ve always been upset at myself for my response to his text. I wrote simply, “Awesome!” I wish I had said, at least, “me too.” I have often beat myself up for this. But I realized something, Alex had always liked me for the person he knew me to be. He liked me. I don’t know that he was expecting anything when he wrote that. He just wanted me to know. This year I find myself thinking, when listening to music or watching movies, “Oh, Alex would like this.” I don’t even know if it’s true. Alex and I often disagreed on music. I think just want to be able to share things with him again. I liked Alex.
I don’t particularly want to write any of this. I do not write it to ask for pity or for help.. Each year in the days leading up to April 14th, the ever-present whirlpool of crash-related thoughts grows wider and more rapid. It pulls me in and weighs me down, until I have to expel the thoughts into these rambling emails and poems. I appreciate very much that you are all out there to read it if you like. (Let me know and I can take you off the list if you prefer.) Sometimes one just needs a wall to splash with whatever’s inside. Seeing it up there allows some reflection and distance. Having others see it allows the burden to be shared. I appreciate the opportunity to share my burden. I know I am a very lucky man to be able to ramble like this I’m doing well. I’m stronger than I’ve been in years and grateful to say so. I thank you for being there to listen.
LIVING NEAR THE HIGHWAY AFTER WHAT HAPPENED
It's just too loud outside sometimes.
The highway washes over us
like shattered glass, like crooked
on the coffee table next to his
dusty motorcycle boots. Gluten free
and piled high and served like family,
slouched deep in the sofa, feet up and
talking open -- nonsense and some not
and how could he find a woman like
my wife. A real woman, he and my
My wife who sat alone waiting,
surrounded by birthday cards.
Who will open her cards each year
remembering what it will feel like
eight days later. Who remembers
what if felt like five years ago.
He laughed from the sofa, nodding.
He was twenty six. He had spent
his whole life learning how to make,
how to forge and create and self-sustain.
He built his own tools to build his
own guitar. He cobbled together his
motorcycle, which leaned on its kickstand
outside our front window. He left
it there that night. Walked home just
across the highway, over the bridge. He
was always completely responsible about
things like that. If he could help it
he would never jeopardize another.
Why couldn’t he find a woman like
My wife who held bedpans under me.
Who lotioned my chapped and useless
feet. Who looks at our son each day
knowing full well how Alex’s mother
feels. Our son who never met
and will not meet our friend.
A different night, months later, Alex
left his motorcycle leaning in his
parents’ backyard and drove to
Oakland for band practice. The
motorcycle stayed there gathering weeds
and cobwebs for years until it was
removed. Until it was removed
leaving a matted depression of
tall grass like a scar across the
yard, along my left titanium knee,
across the asphalt of the highway,
scraping metal on metal on road and
sparking dead and fading grasses each
year at this time. It’s too loud outside.
we sit and listen to the road. My wife
My wife who built her own business.
Who shopped with Alex for wood to
mount her visions in a coffee shop.
Who stopped her life to make sure my
life did not stop. Who sat there waiting
To hear if I was alive.
We sit and listen and remember we
all still need to drive sometimes.
Sometimes we forget what happened and