So, it’s been six 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. Every year I do this I am conflicted. I worry about my true motivations. I worry that it will be seen as as just wanting attention or being unable to let it go. 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. Sorry it’s long.
Six years ago I watched my good friend die. He was two feet away from me in the cab of his truck. I didn’t do anything about it. I don’t know that I could have. In the moment, I did not realize I had witnessed his last breath. The wet, gasping cough. He bucking against his seatbelt. I guess I don’t know that it was his last. There was no one to ask for help. I wanted to get out of the truck because I was scared and because I thought maybe I could find someone. I didn’t think about the phone in my pocket. The passenger side door was pinned against the asphalt so I crawled, legs first out the windshield. I left him there alone. I didn’t realize my legs would not work; or that I wouldn’t even be able to sit up because of the fire in my abdomen. I did my friend no favors lying cold on the highway shoulder. He was alone when the off-duty EMT arrived to press two fingers to his neck. I didn’t even think about that until two days after I arrived at the hospital. There was too much noise and pain and nauseous certainty. In the minutes, hours, days after the crash there was no foresight or reflection. Nothing but what was needed to survive to the next moment. A blur of concussive metal sparks and plastic masks and tubes and glass and cold and kindness and practicality and claustrophobic screams echoing across the black spaces never filled in but told about later and guessed at years after that and in the midst of it all the warm, familiar depth of sweatshirt arms patiently making sure I knew I was still alive while, behind me, never seen, they began to handle my friend. Before the sentencing hearing, the court asked that I describe my memories of the crash. In it, I wrote that, before the ambulance arrived, I had heard the second EMT say she needed gloves, but I don’t remember that happening.
Before the ambulance arrived, I asked the off-duty EMT who held me in her sweatshirt arms to call my wife, but she said not to worry about that now. I wanted my wife to know where I was, what had happened. I wanted to tell her I was alive at that moment. I did not think about her birthday eight days before. I did not picture her waiting for three hellish hours alone before the hospital called her. Her birthday cards were still on the refrigerator and the counter. In the month I was away from home after that night, she saw those cards. I did not know that every year after she would dread the approach of her birthday, knowing how it will feel eight days later.
Over the last six years, my experience with and responses to the trauma of that night and the months that followed have shifted and mutated many times. In previous years I have talked about becoming bogged down in a sort of existential mud as the anniversary approaches. At other times I have written of the futility of anger and the disatisfaction of acceptance. A consuming heaviness. The insistent, battering roar of the highway. The fullness and warmth of the deep void left by the loss of Alex.
This year brought another shift, one away from the creeping dread of recollection and toward the bare understanding of flat inevitability. I think about the crash at least once a day. Usually, these thoughts are sparked by a sudden, burning twinge in my knee. Planting my foot incorrectly as I stand up from the car; lifting my son, Jack, from the floor; carrying a duffel bag full of drum hardware up some irregular steps; dancing in the living room with Jack; sometimes just walking the dog. One careless footfall and the pain races the length of my body like lightning. Regular exercise seems to make these strikes more frequent, but also recede more quickly. However, the effect is never benign. Sometimes my response is little more than a heavy sigh or quick grimace, a flutter of eyelid spasms to register, absorb, and move on from the shock. Sometimes a clenching of teeth and a biting of the lower lip. Sometimes a solitary, even-toned, “Fuck.” (Sometimes the tone used is less even.) Sometimes a flash of Chevy side panel and sparks. Sometimes a flash of Joshua Blackburn and the meeting I was denied. Sometimes a few minutes of “god damn it. I did absolutely nothing to deserve this and it’s incredibly unfair and there’s nothing I can do but keep fucking walking.” Sometimes I have to sit down, or at least stop moving, and wait in silence for whatever it is to ebb. Sometimes I want to punch Joshua or the wall or something. Sometimes I just see Alex and Nissa in our living room together, laughing and eating and drinking before the whole thing rips apart like film slipping off the projector sprockets, melting into white and tickticktickticktick. Sometimes I see myself in the future explaining to Jack why I have to stop. Sometimes I see Jeannine and Sean, huddled together on the couch. The initial stab of pain soon fades to an ache and lasts an hour or the rest of the day, but the images generally last only a few minutes. This is a welcome change from the more crippling episodes of past years, but it also reveals the cold reality that this is not going away. It will never not be a possibility. I do not spend as much time as I used to anticipating its arrival, but the insistent disruption of its presence has not diminished. The needling thing is it’s entirely possible that anyone of my age and fitness might feel a similar pain without having been in a crash, but it doesn’t matter. I associate any pain below my waist with the crash. Every time my feet or ankles are sore, every time my knee aches. And it isn’t always limited to my legs. Every time I have difficulty swallowing a piece of pasta I wonder if it's because of undiagnosed neck trauma. Every time I have a pain in my chest I wonder if it’s untreated bruising of my ribs. It is a constant thought, an inescapable presence; and each new year brings with it the further understanding that it is now an inextricable part of our lives. Nissa’s birthday has been corrupted. She hates its coming, because of what comes with it. Each time one of us passes the scene of a crash we are thrown into reflection and anger and sadness. And, again, that is likely the case for many people, but we have no option but to associate it with what has happened and what can never be changed. Be it a simple, “ugh, and this too.” or a drawn out and draining mediation on sleepless nights and unknown darknesses and tender understandings and surreal moments and gasping frustrations and just plain, stupid truths. There are still the odd days at work or the evenings at home where very little gets done because my mind has become so distracted or consumed with melancholy and/or frantic dwellings on crashes and pain and loss that productivity cannot penetrate, but those are fewer and further between. The hallmark of this year has been the bare, unflinching knowing that some things will not leave. Money will not return. Knees will not regenerate. Calendar days will not cease to have relevance. Alex will not come back. We continue to live with tragedy and gratitude.
I credit much of my ability to bounce back from episodes of heaviness to Jack. He forces me to remain present and, sometimes merely as a practical matter, to dwell on nothing but what he needs or how far I think he can climb up that table before intervention is necessary. The simple contentedness of being with him is a gift, but it is also a prism through which to view my experience. It is the exception which proves the rule. The (more often than not) clarity of focus when I’m with him throws into sharp relief the cluttered state of my mind the rest of the time. His carefree nature sometimes reminds me that there will come a time when he needs to know things he would rather not. His transformative presence reminds me how cruelly world-altering would be his absence; and how I know Jeannine must feel.
A revealing episode occurred a few weeks ago. I was struck with a medium case of food poisoning a day after a particularly demanding gig with the band. We went on at after midnight and didn’t get back home until 3 am and my joints were feeling it the next day. So there I was on the couch, nauseous and disoriented from sickness and sore from performing, feeling for all the world like I was back in the hospital. That night, in a brief moment of more intense fever, I told Nissa how it made me feel, like I was back in the bed, unable to move my legs, constantly just a little queasy, unsure of how long it would last. I told her I didn’t want to go back to the hospital. I told her I didn’t want Jack to ever be in the hospital. Two days ago, after the most recent shooting in San Bernardino, Nissa told me she worries about Jack going to a big city school, but also realizes that being in a big city has nothing to do with it, that there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I replied, “nothing we can do about anything. We have to show him that fear is irrelevant while attempting to create a world in which fear is unjustified” That’s the way I genuinely feel, but it is not always easy to convince my brain of that. Greater than my discomfort at re-living the crash is my fear that Jack will someday know how I feel.
Anyway, I fully realize there are more immediate and more widespread tragedies than this occurring every day to humans that do not deserve it. I understand our problems are relatively mild in the larger scheme of the world. And, I’d like to add, my thoughts are not this heavy every day. There are just sometimes that are worse. The poem included at the end of this describes a very specific feeling I experience sometimes. Sometimes I still feel like this; and sometimes I likely always will. Like my leg pain, it doesn’t come as often or stay as long as it once did; but when it does come, it stings.
I like to use this day to track my experience though this mess, much as some might use a birthday or wedding anniversary to reflect on the past year. I appreciate your listening and your patience.
SIX YEARS SAME AND DIFFERENT
The upturned carpet corner smoothed.
The mosquito needle swatted.
The molding drywall chlorine wiped
The road-etched kneecap kissed.
Insanity is repetition
borne with different expectations.
Futility is understanding
what’s repeating cannot change.
The missing tissue.
The moments stolen.
The date approaching.
The fucking choice.
I wondered loudly
why his face
is like an anvil
out at sea.
The silent hands.
The certain eyes.
I want to
Take care, have fun, drive safe.