A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude
Chapter 1: “Two Kids Were Hit on Ferry Road”
January 7, 2003, was an ordinary evening in our home. My son Neil and his girlfriend, Trista, were upstairs studying. My husband, Saul, and I were grilling hamburgers on the stove. When Neil wandered into the kitchen and picked a few cucumbers out of the salad bowl, I swatted his fingers and asked him whether Trista would want cheese on her burger. He shrugged.
“I dunno. Ask her.”
I stepped past him to call upstairs and do just that when he suddenly grabbed my arm. A knowing smile spread over his face.
“Wait. She’ll want cheese. Lots and lots of cheese.”
I had wondered when they would start to know these little things about each other. Trista was Neil’s first serious girlfriend. They were eight months into their young relationship. Everything was new and compelling. And Neil had learned this about Trista: that she liked a little burger with her cheese.
We all chatted over dinner about our evening plans. Saul was headed off to the Salvation Army gym for his Tuesday night volleyball game. I usually played too, but tonight I was
planning on meeting a friend at the Screening Room to see Bowling for Columbine. Neil and his older brother, Dan, played volleyball too, and tonight Saul tried to entice Neil and Trista to join him.
“C’mon Trista. It’ll be fun. You’ll get to see Neil in gym shorts,” my husband cajoled.
Trista laughed at the image, her bright peals filling our small kitchen. Neil just grinned. I loved when Trista ate with us. Our son, who could be a typically monosyllabic, morose teenager, brightened in her presence. The whole mood of the house changed with her there.
The kids considered his invitation but ultimately turned him down. They were hoping Trista’s mother, Mary, would let Neil spend the rest of the evening at the Zincks’ home, doubtful on a school night. Mary was a strict disciplinarian with rigid rules for her only daughter.
“I’m afraid of her,” Neil once told me about Mary.
I’d only met her a few times, dropping Neil off at her house or picking him up; at her semiformal, his prom. I could see what Neil meant. Mary projected a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails facade. But she was also quick with a laugh. She was the type of person who said what she meant and meant what she said. With Mary you always knew where you stood.
After dinner Trista sat on the footstool by the wood stove pulling on her boots. She stood and shrugged herself into her winter coat. Neil was making no move to get ready.
“Aren’t you walking Trista home?” I asked. He always did. But tonight they looked at each other and smiled. They were concocting a scheme to convince Mary to let Neil come over. They reasoned that she would be most amenable to the idea if Trista showed up at home alone and before curfew. I disagreed.
“You guys have it all wrong,” I told them. I held Neil’s coat out for him, reaching my arms up over his almost six-foot frame that now towered over me. “You have to walk her home, Neil, the chivalrous gentleman delivering the lady to her doorstep safe and sound. Then Mary will have to let you stay.”
The pair considered this for a moment. Then Trista winked and nodded, a twinkle in her eye. She gunned a finger in my direction.
“Better plan,” she concurred.
With that they were off into a clear, cold January night. I cleared supper dishes and rinsed them at the kitchen sink. Then I did what I often did when Neil walked Trista home. I dimmed the kitchen lights so the couple wouldn’t see me watching them walk down our street. I always gave them their privacy when they were in my home, making sure they heard me coming into a room they were in. In my presence they gazed at each other with obvious budding affection, but physical demonstrations of their tenderness were rare. This window surveillance was the only time I let myself watch them unobserved.
I tracked them as they turned left up Spofford Street, then crossed over to Plant Street, which would take them on to Ferry Road. The Zincks lived on Laurel Road, off Ferry. The whole route was less than a half mile and usually took the kids just fifteen minutes to get from one house to the other. They passed under the yellow glow of a street lamp, which outlined their silhouettes: two shadows holding hands.
I finished the dishes, wiped down the table and counters, and turned off the lights. The house was quiet. Logs shifted and crackled in the wood stove. In a sudden change of mind, I decided to forgo the movies in favor of a quiet evening alone. I fixed myself a cup of tea then settled at the computer to write.
Half an hour later the phone rang. Mary did not even wait for me to say hello.
“Where are the kids?” she breathed. I looked at my watch. Almost forty minutes had passed since Neil and Trista had set out.
“They should have gotten to your house by now,” I reported quietly, dully, the significance of my words only slowly sinking in even as I said them.
“Two kids were hit on Ferry Road.” And with that Mary hung up. She didn’t give me time to ask, “What kids? Our kids?” I stood there with the receiver in my hand, the line gone dead. I tried calling my husband at the Salvation Army. The Toastmasters met in a room down the hall from the gym. Maybe someone would pick up. But it just rang and rang. I pictured the phone ringing on the counter in the little kitchen, out of earshot of the players and the Toastmasters. I tried calling the police.
“We have no report of an accident on Ferry Road, Ma’am,” the officer told me. I fantasized that maybe there was no accident. Maybe Neil and Trista had stopped at a friend’s house, or stepped into the woods to kiss. Maybe it was a dog that was hit on Ferry Road, and Mary had just misunderstood.
Time was ticking by. I slipped my bare feet into open-backed clogs and threw on a coat. My black lab, Lucky, was pacing behind me. Perhaps she thought she was in for a bonus walk. Or more likely she sensed my anxiety and fear. I briefly considered taking her with me. I truly did not want to be alone, and canine company was better than no company at all. But I knew that if I got to Ferry Road and it was our kids, I couldn’t take Lucky with me to the hospital. Part of me wanted to take her anyway. I even reasoned that by taking her with me I would be defying the inevitable reality. It couldn’t be Neil and Trista as long as I had my dog with me. By putting her leash down and not taking her, I was giving up, resigning myself to the fact that the two kids hit on Ferry Road were our two kids. I laid Lucky’s leash on the arm of the loveseat by the front door and stepped out into the frigid January night alone.
Chapter 2: The Crash Scene
Two things became immediately clear. I should have worn socks, and I should have brought my inhaler. I am not a runner but I am an asthmatic, and those two truths now combined to make breathing very difficult. I ran along the same route Neil and Trista had just traveled. The air was dry and cold; it hurt to breathe and made my nostrils stick together each time I inhaled. My eyes stung and watered in the bitter cold so I squinted, trying to see far ahead of me, listening for sirens and scanning the landscape for flashing lights but found neither. I crossed Spofford and ran up Plant Street. I wanted to slow, to stop, to catch my breath. But I forced myself on.
Farther ahead, at the end of Plant Street, I caught a glimpse of blue flashing lights. I quickened my step, but there were no ambulances. Six cruisers with their lights flashing were arranged haphazardly along the road. Officers in uniforms talked among themselves, but nobody talked to me. I didn’t understand what they were all doing there.
I bent over, hands on my knees, my breath coming in short gulps and long painful exhalations. I knew the smooth muscles around my airways were constricting, trapping air inside my lungs, daring me to find a way to push it out. I pursed my lips and forced my breath out slowly, trying to stent my airways open. It was no use. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear myself wheezing, tinkling strains, musical, rhythmic. A little cat sigh with every breath.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“C’mon. We’ll drive you to the hospital.” It was Maureen, her son, Kaes, by her side. They lived on this street. On Ferry Road. Maureen’s daughter, Jess, was Trista’s best friend. Kaes hung out with both my boys. At first I didn’t comprehend what Maureen was saying to me. I thought she could see me struggling to breathe, thought I might need emergency attention. I waved her away.
“No . . . I’m . . . all right,” I said. Then I saw the look. The subtlest exchange between her and her son. And I knew. They weren’t talking about me at all.
“Did you see them?” I demanded of Kaes. He looked down at his shuffling feet.
“No,” he admitted.
“Then . . . you don’t . . . know . . . that it was . . . them,” I cogwheeled. “Maybe . . . it wasn’t . . . them.” I knew I sounded ridiculous. I could barely choke out a sentence, and I was denying what was clearly everyone else’s reality. I could tell from the looks on their faces, from Mary’s panicked voice on the phone, and from the cops’ stringent avoidance of me. It was them.
Maureen’s gentle, plump fingers found their way to my waist, edging me across the street.
She opened the door of her car and ushered me inside then climbed into the driver’s seat. Kaes sat silently in back. I did not fasten my seat belt. I remember feeling reckless and wild and unsafe. I was starting to let my mind grasp the fact that my child had been hit on Ferry Road. And if it had happened to him, I wanted it to be able to happen to me, too. I wanted to be there with him, vulnerable. Panic was now mixing with the cold and the exertion to make breathing a concentrated effort. Trying to prolong expiration by pursing my lips just wasn’t cutting it any more.
I gradually became aware of a sound. A low groan. An animal noise. Something wild and raw, on edge, not human. But it had a rhythm to it. I gradually became aware that its rhythm matched my own respirations. That’s when I realized that I was the sound.
Chapter 3: The Bad Mother
Maureen dropped me off at the entrance to the emergency room and went to park the car. I don’t remember seeing her again that night. I gave my name to the triage nurse who sat behind a tiny square glass window.
“My boy was hit on Ferry Road,” I told her, noticing that my breathing was starting to ease. Still tight, but I could get out a sentence in one breath now. The nurse looked awkwardly down at her feet. I was becoming familiar with that look, and I didn’t like it.
“Wait right there,” she said to the floor as she backed out of her cubicle and disappeared into the belly of the ER. I looked around the waiting room. An old man with stained pants sat in a chair framed by his walker. The heel of his foot tapped the floor at superhuman speed as he stared blankly in front of him. A child with a loud croupy cough was on the floor exploring the contents of his mother’s purse while she watched a TV set mounted on the opposite wall. Torn copies of People magazine lay randomly on chairs. I stood frozen in front of the triage booth, waiting for permission to see my son.
I don’t know what kept me cemented to the ground like that. Part of it, I’m sure, is genetic. I am my mother’s daughter. My mother was a true Southern belle, demure and deferential. I have inherited her shell of calm, and it has stood me in good stead through the years. My fellow residents, even my attendings, were always glad to see their names next to mine on the on-call roster, making assumptions about what an outward veneer of quietude said about inner confidence. Even today, many parents I have dealt with have been grateful for that composure when we have faced fear and trauma and bad news together.
Maybe the reason I just stood there was because I’m a doctor. I know the rules. I expect people to follow the rules in my ER, and here I was, in someone else’s ER, conforming to theirs.
Maybe it was just residual denial and fantasy. Maybe I was playing a game. As long as I didn’t lose my cool, as long as I kept it together, it couldn’t possibly be my child in there.
That’s when Mary blew in.
“Where’s my daughter?” she screamed. Then she flew by me, past the triage booth, out of the waiting room, and down the hall into the ER. She did not stop at the little glass window. She did not give her name to the nurse at the triage booth. She did not wait right there.
I followed her into the ER, feeling like a bad mother for following the rules.