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The Other Driver: A True Story

By October 16, 2004 No Comments

“This is your mother. I really need you to call me as soon as you get this message.”

The cell phone signal was not good at the lake. But it was good enough to tell me that my vacation was about to be over. I made the call. It was worse than I expected. My sister and her husband had died together. My mom knew few details: another car coming out of nowhere, and a tumbling, bouncing violence that no amount of seatbelts and airbags could assuage.

Because of a convolution of family scheduling needs, I drove through six states to get to the funeral. Late in the evening, my wife and I checked into a little Wisconsin lodge. She went to bed in preparation for the day ahead. I stayed up, finishing my assigned eulogy.

The next morning, we arrived early at the county church building. The parking lot was already full, and cars were lining the road. My sister was part of that small town demographic where the circle of acquaintance spreads wide. Stepping into the building, I was struck with a sight that one seldom sees–two caskets end to end. I immediately wished that we had been able to arrive in time for the visitation the night before. Now I had to process a lot of emotion in the brief span before I got up to speak.

I am a college professor of speech and theatre. I’ve been teaching a lot of years, but this was the first time I had been called upon to write a eulogy. I wrote quickly, in a state of shock which, rather than thrusting me into an emotional turmoil, took my emotion away, transplanting it with numbness and uncertainty. But many prayed, and I applied my best years of experiences at other kinds of writing. I wanted to honor my sister and brother-in-law, but mostly I wanted to please our Lord at a moment when many hearts and minds would be vulnerable to both blessings and dangers.

Under normal circumstances, I would have wanted to work without notes. On this occasion, I didn’t know what sort of pressures would arise. So I talked myself into taking my entire manuscript to the podium. It didn’t matter. Halfway through, I could no longer see the paper. I believe this is what I said.


Rissa asked if I’d say something today. I’m Rissa’s uncle Jeff. I’m Gary’s brother-in-law. I’m Debbie’s brother.

About one year ago, I received this email:

Happy Birthday, Jeff. Last year in the 40’s. Enjoy. Next year we’ll both be old people. Not really, you’re only as old as you feel. Deb.

Just a few days ago, I received this email:

Dear Jeff. Just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I hear you’ll be in California. Hope you have a great time. And happy #50. Love, Deb.

Little did I know that before I could visit my parents in California, I would see them here. For this.

Debbie was one year older than me. In some places on this planet, 51 is a long life. Not here. It’s not long enough. Neither is 57. It’s too soon. That’s how I feel today; that’s how we all feel. They were too young. It was too soon.

If Debbie were here today, she’d say, “Oh, Jeff. You don’t have to be so serious.” And Gary would flash his great big grin and say, “No, Debba. That’s what Jeff is, he’s serious. You can’t change that.” And Debbie would say, “I know, Gary, but the Lord has been so good to us all these years–how can we ever complain?”

And there it is. That’s why we all feel the way we feel. Because we want to hear those sweet voices and see those wide smiles and sit again in the presence of two people who believed with their whole hearts that every breath was a gift not to be despised and always to be cherished. Who has taught us this lesson better than these two? “Every breath is a gift not to be despised and always to be cherished.”

It almost seems weird that we would learn such optimism and hope from these two. They knew life’s most bitter lessons. They each had known the dark days of divorce, and the swamping waters that often swallow entire families in the wake of such brokenness. Together Gary and Debbie had faced years of job insecurity, and shortly after they started their own business, they learned that a tornado can easily engulf a town of a thousand. Then, in her fiftieth year of life, Deb was forced to look cancer in the face. “But Jeff,” Debbie would say, “The Lord has been so good to us all these years–how can we ever complain?”

Gary and Debbie loved the Bible, and I have an impulse to claim that they, through their trials, were living examples of these words from James: “Consider it pure joy my brother and sister whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Gary and Debbie certainly had perseverance. And they certainly had joy. But I’m not sure it was because of their trials. I don’t know what Gary was like as a boy, but I grew up with Debbie. And my recollection is that she always had joy and perseverance. She will be remembered by her seven brothers and sisters as the sweetest person we ever knew. She was a woman without guile. And it’s not clear to me that she needed trials to develop that. She was rather a miraculous gift to the rest of us, calling us to come through our own trials, because we could see her there on the other side.

When Debbie was in the fourth grade, she was what we called back then, “put back.” At the time, I’m sure it seemed like the end of the world. But for me it meant that when I started fourth grade, there she was with me. And she stayed beside me all the way through high school. Every year, after fourth grade, when all the children started a new year with the normal feelings of anxiety, I had my sister Debbie starting school with me, and I faced the trial of each new year with a sense of “at homeness” and I was stronger for it. I had my sister. I wasn’t alone. And on graduation day, they called my sister’s name and then mine. She was with me to the end.

Next year, I will become the age my sister is now. She has been put back, and I will catch up with her. And as I move through life, I will have her with me, as she is now. I will remember her as she was the last time I saw her–radiant, joyous, the sweetest person I ever knew.

You can see them, can’t you? You each have your own images. And you can hear the echoes of their gentle laughs–Debbie’s like a morning bird, Gary’s like a country road. You know that they are telling us to keep loving each other, and keep forgiving each other. It is right that these two great souls finally found each other and had more than two decades together. They were indeed, each of them, miraculous gifts calling to the rest of us to come through our own trials and meet them on the other side.

As we filed solemnly out of the church building, my twenty-something nephew from Illinois broke from the line and came to embrace me. “Thank you for what you said about my mom. Someone needed to say the way she was.” He returned to the line. I thought of him through the rest of the day. His own journey following the divorce had been a long hard road. And I thought of another long hard road–the future path of the young man, a boy really, who was driving the other car. He was not at the funeral. His journey was separate from ours. But his grief was surely just as great, if not greater. What about him?

We buried them. My brother-in-law was a veteran, so I witnessed the speech that veterans say on behalf of one another to the grieving mother as they present the folded flag. We returned for the luncheon, and then I got back on the road. I had a long evening’s drive which would put me on the California flight that my sister had referenced in her final email.

Six days later, on Father’s Day, the seven remaining siblings gathered at my parents’ Santa Ana home. Of this group, only my parents and I had been able to attend the funeral. Now we needed another memorial service of some kind. I read them the eulogy I had given as their representative. My father prayed a Father’s Day prayer that no father wishes to pray. But it’s true, we said.

The next day, we hung
out in smaller groups. We watched a movie. We said, “Try this guacamole, it’s good.” Late in the evening we verbally sorted through some of the details of the traffic accident that had taken those two lives. I was the only sibling that had been there at the site, so I told them what I had seen. I told about going to see the vehicle in storage. I wondered aloud about the nineteen year old who was driving the other car. My sister Chris said, “I’ve wondered about him, too.” “Do we know his name?” I asked. “It’s on the internet,” said Jane. “I don’t like that our legal system keeps us separate from him,” I said. “He’s a part of this with us. He has healing to do, and we are a part of that process for him.” Jane said, “Honestly, I haven’t thought about him yet.” Understandable.

Chris came over to see me the morning before I left California. She had something to say, so we took a walk up the street. “My daughter once ran her car into another car,” she said. “She caused very little damage to the other car, but the people have been very mean about it. It’s years now, but they’re still trying to sue our insurance company for the emotional trauma that my daughter’s hit on their bumper has caused their marriage. They say they can’t be intimate anymore, and it all started with that hit on their bumper. They say that’s worth at least $40,000.” My sister paused. Then she said, “That young man driving the truck that hit Debbie, that young man has a mother. I don’t want to fight them. I don’t want anyone to try and put a price on my sister’s life.”

When we got back to my parents, the phone rang. It was one of my brothers. He asked me if I was going to be around, because he wanted to talk. I said my parents and I were going to be gone for the day. (I couldn’t bear to tell him that we were going to Disneyland–that seemed so ridiculous under the circumstances. But at the moment, I needed ridiculous.) My brother said all he wanted to say was that he wondered if I had thought at all about the young man driving that truck. “He needs to hear from us,” my brother said. “He probably feels pretty messed up about this, and we shouldn’t hate him.” I said, “Remember the line in the eulogy I wrote–where I said I thought Gary and Debbie would want us to keep loving each other and keep forgiving each other?” “Yes!” he said. I confessed that I didn’t feel it was my place to tell others how to feel about that young man, but I wanted to make a gesture of some kind. Something. My brother said, “Maybe you should poll the family.” I said I didn’t think I would do that. He said, “Well, if you want to write to him, you can speak for me, too.”

All that was last week. This week, my sister Chris has gone home to Maui. My brother Jon is back in Seattle. My dad is back to work in California. My mom is in New York for a flower show. I’m back home in Iowa. I haven’t written to the young man yet. I don’t know why. But I have said prayers for him. And I have thought of him. And I have told myself that I will write soon.

The phone rings. It’s my mom, with this story. It’s hard to believe.

On her way to New York, my mom stopped by Wisconsin to touch base with my deceased sister’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Rissa. Rissa is now home alone. But today, my mom is there. They get up on this Monday morning and they say, what should we do today? “I don’t know,” says Rissa. My mom explains that some of the family in California want pictures of the crash site. “Let’s drive over to Hayward for lunch,” says my mom, “And we’ll stop and take some pictures.” They invite my sister’s best friend, Scheryl, to go along.

At the site, they get their pictures. The scars in the earth, where the vehicle bounced and rolled. The two little plastic crosses where the vehicle came to rest. Rissa doesn’t know who put them there last week, but her mom and dad were much beloved in their little town, so it could have been any number of people. Now, though, something is different. “Look,” says Rissa. “There are flowers planted next to the crosses.” And the three women notice that someone has carefully mowed the grass in this long section of the ditch.

They go to Hayward. They have lunch. Before they start out on the hour-long ride back to Siren, they stop to buy some bottles of water. It takes awhile to get the water at a convenience store. Scheryl is a little frustrated with the wait. She wants to get going.

At last, they get going, and, of course, they pass the site once again. A vehicle is stopped by the road, and someone is standing in the ditch. Who is that, the women wonder. “I’m going to find out,” says Scheryl, and she turns the car around.

Now I’m about to tell you something you should not use in court. I am not creating a legal document. I wasn’t there. I’m simply telling you a story, consolidating a couple of ways that it was reported to me, trying to recreate the story as best I can, trying to keep a memory that’s not my own, trying to make it mine, trying to give it to you.

They get back to the site, and they see that it is a young man and a young woman. By now, the young man is back in the passenger seat of the car, sitting alone. They pull up close enough to him for Scheryl to call out, “Did you know them?” He shakes his head and asks, “Did you?” Rissa speaks, “They were my parents.” He gets out of the car.

He walks over to Rissa’s window. His first words are, “I am so sorry.” They are words he repeats a dozen times during the very brief conversation. “I never saw them,” he says. “I wish I could take it back. I get up every morning and wish it could be gone. I stopped at the stop sign. I started across the highway. I was going to work for my dad, landscaping. And then I was hit, and I was spun around. And when I stopped, I looked and I saw them. Their car tumbling. And I got out and ran over to them. They were upside down and they weren’t moving at all. Someone had called 911. They got here very fast. It was only about three minutes. It seemed like forever. They ran over to me and I said, don’t worry about me–go over there. And they went and looked and then they started getting them out. And then they went back and got the body bags, and I said, no, no, no, this can’t be.” My mom tells me that Rissa is very calm. Rissa says to the young man, “I had been wanting to talk to you.”

The young man says, “I’m afraid to go into town. I’m afraid to talk to anyone. People think I’m a killer.” He looks over at the young woman with him. “My sister drives me everywhere. I haven’t driven yet.” He gestures to the ditch. “I will continue to take care of this crash site. I’ll keep it looking nice. I’ll keep it mowed. There are wood ticks out here–I want you to be able to come out here whenever you want and not have to worry.” Then he remembers something. “When I was mowing, I saw something shiny in the grass. It was a bracelet. I don’t know if it was something that you…I hung it on one of the crosses.”

My mom gets out and goes over to the cross, leaving Rissa talking to Josh, who explains that he has an appointment and needs to leave. And now there are cars slowing down along the highway. My mom finds the bracelet and brings it back and hands it to Rissa. “That’s my mom’s bracelet,” she says. Scheryl gasps and says, “I’ve got the other one at home. Debbie and I bought a matching set.” Rissa puts it on.

My mom tells me over the phone that Josh had said he is tired of people telling him it was meant to be. Why should he have to be part of such a plan, he wonders. I tell her I understand Josh’s question. I find strange solace in what Isaiah said, that even our right acts are old rags in the face of God’s glory. God’s reclaiming work in creation is ongoing, the same work on tragic days as well as good days. Beyond that I profess no special knowledge of what was meant at that particular Wisconsin intersection. Nevertheless, I’m glad, today, for the quirky detail of a sluggish convenience store stop that, at last, brought two nineteen year olds and two families face to face.

It is now July 26, 2004. The official police report has
arrived at my home. It includes an on-site interview with the other driver, designated in the report as “Unit Number 1.” There in a shaky hand are his answers to the printed questions. How fast were you traveling? “10 mph.” What indicated to you that an accident would occur? “No.” Did you do anything to avoid this accident, i.e. braking, turning, etc.? “Never saw them.” In your opinion, why did this accident occur? “I don’t know.”

Jeff Barker teaches in the Department of Theatre and Speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.