When I saw the news last week right before Thanksgiving that six children were killed and many other seriously injured in a bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I immediately thought back to the mother I met a number of years ago who lost her daughter in a similar accident.
I’m struck by the pain that such an accident causes. Here one minute, gone the next. Life and death are always like that. We’re guaranteed nothing, forget about the next breath or even the next day. However, death seems all-the-more unpredictable and cruel when it comes to children. You want to raise your fist and cry out: “Pick on someone your own size.”
If only life worked that way.
In any event, here’ s the blog I wrote on the mother earlier this year:
A tear trickled down her cheek. She wiped it from her face and quickly turned her head to look out a nearby window. She stopped talking and we took a short break. A few minutes passed and we started up again.
She told me how the day started like any other. They had breakfast and chit-chatted over the upcoming weekend. They were planning to take a drive to a nearby stable. Her 10-year-old daughter wanted to start to take horseback riding lessons. She wanted to ride like the equestrian riders that she saw on TV.
Of course, they were late getting out the door. She said they always seemed to be late. Her husband had left her five years earlier and it was just the two of them. They raced out the door and the woman dropped her daughter off at the bus stop. Before splitting up, the woman leaned over the car-seat to say goodbye and gave her daughter a quick peck on the cheek.
Through thick tears now, the woman told me that when she drove off she looked in the rear view mirror to see her daughter smiling and waving. She would never see her daughter alive again.
“If time were on a film loop, I would take it back to that very moment and stop it. Never let it go forward again,” she said.
When the mother got to her office, she learned that a dump truck driver running late to a job site ran a stop sign, hit the daughter’s school bus, instantly killing the girl and injuring several other students.
The woman was in her 60s now, the accident had happened nearly two decades earlier in the late 1970s, but it could have just as easily taken place the previous day. She told me how she thought of her daughter every day. Even then . . .years later. And how her daughter, if she had lived, would be in her 30s and possibly with her own children.
I interviewed the woman a number of years ago for a story on bus safety. I interviewed lots of people over the years, but the woman’s story for a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons has stayed with me through the years. I’ve never been able to get the woman’s loss, her pain, her story out of my mind.
I picture her and I instantly feel her suffering.
I thought of the woman again the other day listening to a scene from the Broadway musical Hamilton that my own daughter turned me onto over the Christmas holiday. In the scene, Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza suffer “through the unimaginable” when their 19-year-old son was shot in a duel and died the following day in their arms.
The words cause the hair on the back of my neck to rise and flutter. When I think of that kind of unimaginable pain, it’s unfathomable to me. I force myself to face it, but it’s so severe, so burdensome that I have to stop.
We have faced our share of challenges, but nothing in the same stratosphere. My heartaches for all those parents past and present who’ve had to go through this type of pain. I calm myself by remembering the way the woman handled her loss.
She lobbied for measures to improve bus safety and became a counselor helping other parents, who had experienced similar loss, to grieve and pick up the pieces to their lives. She had spoken frequently in special meetings with members of Congress and to state lawmakers. Thanks to her work, a number of bus improvements had been made. When I talked to her, she was lobbying for mandatory seat belts – something still sadly needed in Pennsylvania.
I remember asking why it was important to her to talk publicly about her loss. She said that she found solace telling others about her daughter. She said too that she thought it would have been what her daughter wanted.
The woman suffered much, but she used her experience to fight and to try to improve society. In short, she carried herself with grace and peace. I guess that’s all we can ever ask for, God’s grace and peace to handle whatever life brings our way.