Meredith Carroll: The ostriches of Aspen
Darnell Langley tenderly refers to her daughter Mackenzie as an old soul.
“When she was in preschool,” Darnell said, “the other children in her class wouldn’t nap until Mackenzie covered them up with blankets.”
Now a senior at Aspen High School, Mackenzie celebrated her 18th birthday last week, although the feeling among those closest to her is that the amount of wisdom she’s acquired in the past 20 months makes her seem more like she’s 28. Since being partially ejected from an SUV in a rollover accident in June 2014, Mackenzie has been relegated to a wheelchair due to injuries including multiple skull and spinal fractures, facial and lower-body paralysis, and hearing and vision loss.
It’s not just Mackenzie who’s weathered a lifetime of distress since the accident, either, as the collateral damage has devastated her entire family physically, financially and emotionally.
“Every facet has been brutal,” said Bob Langley, Mackenzie’s dad. “Our lives have turned to s—. We do the best we can. I look for joy, something to laugh about every day. But this thing has been overwhelming.”
Less marred, at least in the view of the Langleys, is the girl who was driving the car in which Mackenzie was a passenger on the night of the accident. She appeared in court in January in an unrelated case where she pleaded guilty to possession of a forged document, which she used to try to buy wine at a local liquor store. She received a one-year deferred sentence and has been ordered to serve 12 hours of community service.
To the Langleys, hearing of the girl’s most recent transgression exacerbated their family’s psychological strife. Despite the compassion the Langelys said they had tried to show the girl and her parents, Ron and Karen Schaftel, who refused multiple requests for comment, their feeling is that an appropriate and sustained demonstration of contrition has not been returned.
“Forgiveness is a good thing,” Darnell said. “It relieves you from carrying around the burden of what’s been done. But (we feel) as if there are no consequences in the Schaftels’ home. (We think) there’s no parenting going on.”
The Langleys reached the end of their forgiveness rope when they say the Schaftels attempted to deflect blame from the accident away from their daughter. They also asked Bob to advocate to the district attorney for leniency on her behalf.
“In hindsight, I should not have been so accommodating and forgiving of (the girl),” Bob said. “I’m not heavy-handed, but I gave her a get-out-of-jail-free card, and look what she keeps doing.”
Stories of the girl continuing to party have been a topic of conversation among many in the community, including as soon as a couple of weeks after the accident. Meanwhile, Mackenzie lived in a Front Range hospital for 14 months, enduring 11 surgeries. When she finally returned to Aspen, a few of her friends invited her to accompany them to a homecoming party in the fall. She accepted, but then they ditched her there — and then went on to leave her behind completely in the ensuing months.
For her part, Darnell doesn’t harbor ill will against the friends who’ve iced out Mackenzie.
“They’re 17 and doing what 17-year-olds do,” she said. “They’re very self-centered and don’t know how to handle the situation.”
At the same time, Darnell struggles with understanding how some of these girls’ parents, many of whom she’s known since their kids were in diapers, are aware that their kids’ reckless behaviors persist and seem to continue turning a blind eye anyway. From seeing Snapchat photos taken by some of Mackenzie’s classmates of bottles of tequila and cases of beer at a Cinco de Mayo party last year to other tales of wild behavior — often under the roofs of their family homes — it’s tough for the Langleys to digest how it is that no meaningful transformations have been made in the wake of what happened to their daughter.
“Too many of them haven’t changed,” Darnell said. “It hasn’t made a bit of difference in their lives. There are parents more concerned with their kids having a good time their senior year than establishing boundaries.”
Certainly the Schaftels can’t undo what’s been done to the Langleys. And even if rumors of their daughter carousing have been greatly exaggerated, the perception held by some who know or know of the family is still that their contrition is intangible. Of course, only the Schaftels know what goes on in the privacy of their home, although gestures can be made outside of it that might make it seem as if penitence — or at least penance — is on the table. At a minimum, having her take the bus, which stops directly in front of the Schaftels’ house, instead of allowing her to drive a Range Rover to school, would signal to many that a considerable attempt is being made to keep others out of harm’s way.*
More thoughtful these days is Mackenzie, who is less about putting a blanket over the situation than putting the entire ordeal to bed. A perennial straight-A student, she’s looking forward to graduating in June, heading off to college and then continuing on to a life of service to help others as she’s been helped. A civil suit filed in May by the Langleys against the Schaftels reached a confidential resolution in Pitkin County court last week. There was a point in the hearing before the settlement was finalized when the judge asked the Langleys to confirm they were satisfied with the decision.
“No,” Bob told the judge. A recess was called for the Langley family to confer privately.
“I don’t want this to continue,” Mackenzie told her parents. “I want it to be over. I’m going to be productive. I don’t need this money to get through my life. I’m going to get through my life on my own.”
* Editor’s note: The girl who was driving the Range Rover in the accident that paralyzed Mackenzie Langley was ticketed for careless driving causing injury and violating curfew. She was not charged with any kind of alcohol involvement and did not lose her driver’s license as a result of the accident. More at MeredithCarroll.com.