Coming to terms with a senseless moment
Aspen, CO Colorado
Would happiness be happiness if it struck so quickly and unexpectedly as tragedy? Perhaps they each come to our lives with similar force of change, but we long for the former, so as to see it and urge it on at great distances. We close our eyes to the latter, as the best defense against what we fear and thus never see it coming, even as it heads straight into our path.
The bird song of an idyllic spring morning does not drown out the ring of a phone designed to gain our attention, above all other things. The sound pierces the pre-school breakfast time, the same as a thousand times before ” maybe it’s a daughter’s friend asking for a ride home from lacrosse later in the evening. Instead, it’s someone from the hospital asking absurd questions about your best friend’s parents’ address and phone number.
You haven’t called it since he moved away from there after college almost 25 years ago, but still recite it easily. It is an odd inquiry. Pleasantly, not to be embarrassed by fearfully assuming the worst, you ask if your friend is a patient there.
“Yes,” is the answer that you don’t want to hear. But they can’t tell you anything more.
How did they get my name? He’s a grown man; why do they need his parents? Why can’t he tell them who his parents are? Why can’t his wife tell them who his parents are? There is no way to answer these questions without feeling your legs beginning to give out beneath you. You stop for a moment to say good-bye to the kids, who have paused in the doorway on their way to catch the bus and are worried to see the look on your face that they have seen only one other time ” the moment they found out their grandfather died. You tell them not to worry and send them on their way, worrying. It’s not fair.
You sit down with your wife, knowing that something suddenly will make sense. But it doesn’t. You call your brothers and John, the rest of the group of friends who have been inseparable since grade school, for the first time feeling like you might really be separated. You leave a message for Father Michael: “I think Jeff is at the hospital and might need you there,” not knowing, only vaguely alluding to the last rites, as if not saying the words means he doesn’t need them.
At the hospital, we gather at the registration desk, inquiring about our friend.
“Are you relatives?”
We are his brothers.
It is a small hospital in a small town. They allow us to enter the intensive-care unit, where he has been stabilized. The doctors let us know about his condition.
His eyes are closed. There is a tube in his throat attached to a machine that is breathing for him. He looks larger in the bed than he did at his desk in the office next door to mine Wednesday, before he and his wife headed out to catch his beloved Cardinals playing the Rockies in Denver on Thursday afternoon. Coming home last night after the game, they turned off Highway 82 about a mile from their home. They were hit, head-on, by an oncoming car in their lane. Jeff was brought here. Susan was taken to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. They needed all the emergency doctors and nurses available at each. Both will be airlifted to Denver soon. It is best for us to leave.
I head to my office, in town, because I don’t have any clue what else to do. I sit at my desk next to the office where Jeff is supposed to be. The door is ajar. It is dark, and the room stale with the smell of paper that hasn’t been shuffled recently. I make my way over, flip the light switch and turn on the air, if only to convince myself that Jeff will be back soon.
It’s a small town in a small world. The phone rings incessantly. People have heard and want to know. Others have seen and want to tell. Jeff has a broken ankle and a few broken ribs. He hasn’t regained consciousness. Susan ruptured her diaphragm. It needed to be repaired before the Flight for Life to Denver. She has a broken femur. She has a broken pelvis. There is a fracture in her spine. She broke so many ribs they aren’t quite sure of the number, maybe seven or eight. Her left wrist and hand are mangled.
Her dog died in the crash. Man, did she love that animal. They found it on her lap. It must have crawled there after the impact.
There were no skid marks at the scene. The other guy hit them without warning, just swerved at the last minute. The other driver reeked of alcohol. He’d reportedly been drinking heavily at a bar in Basalt. People there heard him peel out on the street in front, heard the sirens a few minutes later. There were rumors that he had “issues with immigration.”
If only Jeff and Susan had turned off at the roundabout instead of taking the back road. If only they had spent another five minutes at dinner. If, if, if … There are so many possible things that they could have done differently that would have kept them off that section of road at that instant. But it wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do that caused the accident. It was the fault of an allegedly drunken man who apparently had no legal right to be there. He should not have been on that road at that instant.
In a sense, connecting this tragedy to a hotly debated political issue numbs my emotions, which I don’t want. I want to grieve for my friends, their families, their friends and the great expanse of time that will be lost for all of us in recovering from this accident that was really no accident at all, but rather a very poorly calculated risk taken. But the anger comes to the surface, and my mind cures the unknowable into concrete.
This man should not have been where he was. He is no hero.