Sunday, August 24, 2008

Not Just An "Accident" (DUI Loss Entry No. 3)

I don’t remember what word the chaplain used in the Emergency Room. But it seems to me he first told me my father was crossing the street and was hit by a car. He explained how severe my dad’s injuries were, and that my dad was in emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding in his pelvis. I asked about my mom, because I hadn’t been able to reach her after I got the call that my dad was at Loyola Hospital. I was told she’d been hit, too, and died at the scene.

As I sat in the tiny room off the ER, waiting to find out if my dad would get through the surgery, along with everything else, I felt bad for the driver. I imagined how awful I would feel if I were driving and killed someone.

I’m not sure who told me the driver had been drinking. It might have been the Brookfield police chief, who came to the ER that night. Later I also learned the man had driven away from the scene, running a stop sign while doing so. And that this wasn’t the first DUI.

These are the types of things that make "accident" a hard word to hear or use for many people who've been injured by or lost loved ones to drunk drivers. The driver who hit my parents had a DUI years before that resulted in supervision. Then, two days before the crash, he was driving drunk and hit a utility pole. He damaged his own car, but didn’t seriously hurt himself or hit anyone else. When he hit my parents, he was driving his brother’s Geo Tracker. My mother was pulled under the vehicle and was dragged, my father flew into the air, hit the hood or roof, and landed at the side of the road. The crash caused multiple pelvic factures, tore his urethra, tore his diaphragm so that his other organs started poking through into his lung area, and head trauma. He suffered a mild heart attack due to the collision. One doctor called it a miracle that the heart attack didn’t damage his heart. He was eighty-eight and in amazing shape before he was hit.

At sentencing, the driver’s attorney argued it was an “accident.” He didn’t say “just an accident,” but he might as well have.
As Twyla, one of the victim advocates at Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, says, an accident is when you slip and fall on the ice. Drinking and getting into a car is a choice. This man knew what could happen, what was likely to happen. His drinking led to a collision two days before. And it's hard to be a living, breathing human being in the U.S. and not know consuming alcohol affects driving ability.

The driver was sentenced twelve years for the “accident.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How People Helped Through Hard Times ((DUI Loss Entry No. 2)

As awful as it was to lose my parents, and to watch my dad struggle to try to recover, the people around me renewed my faith in love and human beings. So many of them – friends, co-workers, strangers, professionals – went out of their way to be kind and do whatever they could to help.

A year after the crash, a dear family friend, folksinger Mark Dvorak and friends of his, the band Thursday’s Child, agreed to perform at a concert I organized to raise funds for the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM). The night was special in so many ways, including the wonderful songs, the many people who attended, St. Barbara’s Church, which donated its space, and the fact that my mom and dad had supported Mark’s musical career early on, something he always remembered and was able to talk about during the show.

The night of the concert was bitter cold and snowy, yet we had over 100 people there from all parts of the Chicago area. A man named Ryan who had witnessed the crash attended. I had seen his name on the police report but didn’t know until later that he was the one who identified the vehicle that hit my parents. He stopped that night to tell me that he’d seen my parents crossing the street just before the crash. They were arm in arm and he said they were smiling. He felt that they looked happy. He left shortly after that, and my sense is he attended and donated the suggested amount mainly so he could tell me that. It meant so much to me to know that my parents looked happy in those last moments. And that someone cared enough to seek me out and tell me.

After my dad’s death the Chicago Tribune ran an article about the volunteer work my parents did. A woman I didn’t know sent a note saying that she’d read the article and it inspired her to increase her own volunteer work. She wrote that she had not known my parents personally, but she was sure from what she read that they were wonderful people and that they had made a difference in the world. I’m tearing up as I write this. It was so kind of her to send the note, and it came at a time when I so needed to find something positive to hang onto.

Things that friends did for which I’m forever grateful: Adela called people she knew and many she didn’t know to tell them about first my mom’s and then, six weeks later, my dad’s funeral arrangements. We have a large extended family on both sides and our family has many friends, and this was invaluable. She also, on a day’s notice, baked a casserole large enough to feed 10 for family members from out of town. Mindy drove me around to run errands that just seemed overwhelming to me when my dad was in the hospital and I hated to be away from his side. Andrea sent me a list of things she might be able to help with, and that in itself was a blessing, as it lessened the amount I had to think about. I ultimately asked her to help me take down my Christmas tree, which had still been up on January 22 when the crash happened, and I didn’t take down until late March. Steve not only loaned me his car almost every weekday to drive to the hospital after work, he then took a cab or got a ride to the hospital to drive me back home, knowing how tired and stressed I felt. These are only a few of the things friends did and offered to do, and it meant the world to me.

The world is full of amazing, kind, wonderful people.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When It's Always Three A.M. (DUI Loss Entry No. 1)

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

That's how I felt after the crash that killed both my parents. The driver was drunk -- it was his third DUI.

It happened on January 22, 2007 around 7:30 p.m. in Brookfield, Illinois, in front of St. Barbara's Church, the same church where my parents got married 51 years before. My mother died in the street. My father was taken to Loyola Hospital, and for six and a half weeks he struggled to live. I worked when I could, slept in waiting rooms, got up in the middle of the night to be sure I saw him again before emergency procedures. My brothers came into town and we spent the week driving from intensive care to the funeral home to St. Barbara’s. We chose a coffin and mass cards, music and readings; we met with interns and specialists, nurses and hospital chaplains. We tried to honor my mom and be there for my dad.

Much as I appreciated everyone who cared and wanted to know how my father was doing over the next weeks, I grew to hate the phone. Every moment on the phone was a moment away from my dad. People so wanted to hear good news and the good news was, for an eighty-eight old year old man, my dad was doing amazingly well. One doctor referred to him surviving the crash and two surgeries as miraculous. But the injuries were severe, and eventually we agreed to stop treating him. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

An acquaintance who heard about my father’s death sent an e-mail saying, “At least you will be able to get on with your own life now,” and I didn’t get in touch with him again until six months later. I knew he was trying to find a bright side to an impossible situation, but I just didn’t know how to respond to anyone who didn’t understand that I would have sat at my dad’s bedside for months, years, or forever if that would have made a difference.

Most difficult for me were those who insisted everything happened just as God wanted it. The idea of a god who wanted my mom to die in the street, who wanted my dad to struggle through surgeries and pain and frustration, who wanted my nieces and nephews to lose their grandparents in such a terrible way, made me want to smash the world to pieces. I told those who said it that I knew who had been driving the car that hit my parents, and it wasn’t a god. It was a drunk driver.