In the early 1970’s my boyfriend, soon to be husband and later my ex, and I were coming home from a “dance” at about 2am. Now, where I’m from, there aren’t any nightclubs or discos. If you wanted to go hear music and dance, you went to one of a myriad of VFW or Legion Halls or one of the many “dance halls” owned by the local Catholic churches for their church picnics, which invariably had a “dance”. And these roads are all unlit and two lane. My boyfriend was driving. As we began to crest a hill, right in the middle of the road was an accident that had not been moved out of the way. They had no lights on. We hit the accident which propelled one of the cars into one of the drivers who had been standing in front of it. He was seriously injured and since this was pre-seat belts, I hit the windshield and was also taken to the hospital. Luckily for me, I escaped with just a bad gash on the forehead. Later, the guy who was seriously injured was given a DUI and fined by a judge. 6 months later my boyfriend finds out he is being sued by the DUI guy and who was his attorney? The judge who gave him the DUI. He had some brain damage and was suing for future lost wages. He wanted $75,000. I remember thinking, that’s what he thinks he’ll earn in a life time, $75,000? It’s likely the attorney felt that was all he could get. I really don’t remember what the insurance company paid him but it wasn’t $75,000. We were very lucky in that there were no fatalities.
First Lady Laura Bush and writer Darin Strauss weren’t so fortunate. Read more… I believe that during the many campaigns that Laura Bush has gone through, the accident she was involved in which killed a boy from her school was repeatedly brought up. In her memoir she talks about how it still affects her life. The guilt she feels. But she doesn’t go into the depth of those feelings. In Darin Strauss’ book, “Half a Life”, he does. The opening line of the book: ” Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” He was an 18 year old senior, accepted to college, and he and his friends were going somewhere to do something. He was not drunk. He was not on drugs. He as not fiddling with the radio. But as he says, it doesn’t matter where they were going because of what happened along the way. He saw the girls on their bikes. It was a four lane road and he was in the left lane and the girl and her friend were on the shoulder on the right. Within seconds one of the girls has veered across two lanes directly in front of his car. And she’s killed. Her name was Celine Zilke and she was 16 and she went to the same school. Strauss went to Celine’s funeral, where he received a hug — “a clenching of her body, a steeling herself for something personally odious” — from Celine’s mother. “ ‘I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault. . . . But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now.’ Her voice went dim. ‘Because you are living it for two people.’ Her face was a picture of the misery that had worn out the voice. ‘Can you promise me? Promise.’ ” They said they would never blame him but went on to sue anyway. The suit was settled for the minimum the insurance company would pay out.
The book really is a muddle. That’s because that’s the way he feels. Muddled. Is he supposed to feel this way or that way? What is he to say or not say? Should he write what he thinks we want him to write and say or should he tell the unvarnished truth, which may not be pretty? Will he always be the kid who “killed” Celine Zilke? Yes, yes he will. About halfway through the book he says: “We’d had the accident at the age when your identity is pretty much up for grabs. Before it, I hadn’t been so introspective; I’d had nothing to introspect about.” Notice the use of the pronoun “we”? Should he tell new girlfriends? He did tell some. Most mothered him. He says he hated their reactions: “They patted, deferred, nuzzled. They forgave…ah, he’s like this because of THAT.” He finds that his life really becomes defined by what Mrs Zilke had asked of him. Before, he had been an indifferent student but once he got to college, he tried to be “two”. He thought of Celine daily. Toward the end of the memoir his wife asks him if he still thinks daily of Celine. He balks and says, “Hard to believe that it’s down to once a week now…It sounds sh*tty coming out of my mouth.” Then he reads an article in the Sept. 2009 New York Times about Complicated Grief Therapy. It’s basically where the therapist forces the patient to relive the details of the death, making them repeat minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of the analyst. Then the patient listens to it every day for months, for years. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up or put away,” the article said. Darin doesn’t do this. But what Darin did do is write this book. To him, this is his tape recorder. In the end he realizes, “what I hated in myself, for more than half my life now, was feeling lucky for being alive. For not being blamed…the accident has formed me…but I now can so no to the blistering hurt…I can say to myself..it’s all right to smile at the faces you love.”