Several days ago my husband and I were hit by a drunk driver.
We were coming home on a bridge from an evening concert when Eric looked up just in time to see a pair of dark headlights coming at us head-on. The driver was traveling the wrong direction, hurtling against three lanes of on-coming traffic at 50 mph with no headlights at 11:30 at night. Eric swerved to the right and instead of colliding with us, the car clipped the side of our car, shearing off the rear door handle and kept on going. It was as if they hadn’t even seen us. Didn’t even realize they had somehow gotten on the bridge heading the wrong way. We were traveling 40 mph, they were traveling 50 – a fraction of a second had been the only thing that stood between us and serious hospitalization, but more likely, death.
We pulled over, shaken but somehow completely unhurt, and I dialed 911 – there was no doubt in my mind that car was going to hit someone else, and I knew we needed to get police on the scene as quickly as possible. While I was on the phone with the dispatcher she told me there was another call coming in – it seemed that the car had indeed struck another car after ours. We were told we could go home if our car was drivable and submit a police report in the morning. It was after midnight when we pulled into the driveway, still dumbstruck over the close call. Asa had just woken up and was crying in his crib. I thanked the babysitter and went in to hold him against me. He buried his head against my chest and fell back asleep. I bent to breathe in the smell of him. A fraction of a second nearly robbed my 11 month-old son of his mother. His father. I was angry, humbled, relieved; I was in shock.
The next day we found out the person who hit us was dead.
The passengers of the other car involved in the fatal crash were like us, somehow miraculously unhurt.
There were hours of police reports and insurance calls. In front of me, the phone to my ear, I read off the driver’s name. Their driver’s license number. They had recently had a birthday, their twenty-seventh. I learned about their final hours, the hours that had preceded the crash, from the officer who came to take our statement.
“Obliterated,” he’d said. They’d been at a bar with friends, and in just a few hours, it seemed, had managed to get “blind drunk.” The driver’s parents were helpful. My heart cramped for them. I’ve gone about my life because I can’t just stop, these past few weeks, and in my private time I’ve been grappling with a snake’s nest of displaced anger, sorrow, and confusion.
Brene Brown, an author and thinker I respect a great deal, talks about empathy and compassion. She argues that it can help us get through the muck and mire of life to understand (or in the very least tell ourselves) that other people are doing their best. They’re doing the best they can.
I’ve been sitting with that. The driver who hit us, and another car, who killed themselves (completely unintentionally, I now know): Were they really doing the best they can? Or were they just surfing through life on the surface, not thinking about things like consequences and the good fortune we all have to be alive, not thinking about other people with babies who depend on them, other people who want to think and breathe and live more deeply, who want to survive so they can offer something to the world?
See, I told you: anger. Someone lost their life, what right do I have to judge? I almost lost mine. That gives me the right, the Grudge-Keeper in me says. My child almost lost parents he hadn’t even built a memory of yet.
Does the soul choose the moment? Is this person’s death, like some might say, part of God’s plan? Part of me wonders if we were protected. Part of me reminds myself that I am not special. There are mechanical physics and gravity and time to contend with. No one is special. There is only the science of luck.
I don’t know where this leaves things or why I had to share it. I suppose that at the heart of this is the importance of being awake. It feels right in my tribute, to them, these past two weeks, to re-commit myself to being awake.
To share this moment from my corner of the world to remind you to be awake too.
Was the driver truly “awake” to their life? Were they doing the best they knew how?
Know more, I wish I could say to them.
Or, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you lost your life.
I know we all do stupid things.
I know we all make mistakes.
I try to tell them these things now, wherever they might be, whether they are in a place of knowing now, or just energy, or whether they are just a piece of the earth’s story now, a ghost. But the reality of it all is that the earth just ticks on and on. We move through our days, each approaching the end of our own stories. They may leave us full of pity or sorrow, of triumph or a sense of completion. But each story, no matter how it was lived, or how it ends, is equally meaningful.