When you deposit your only child at college for the first time and drive away, there’s this little voice of fear in your head: “Please don’t let anything happen to my boy.”
That’s what I was hearing this past August, anyway. Our little boy had grown into a man, and my wife, Lisa, and I were leaving him on the far side of the Adirondack Mountains.
“Please don’t make the same mistakes I did, son ... and for god’s sake, please don’t conjure up some new ones of your own.”
When my brother-in-law Bryan pulled out of his driveway in Omaha last Saturday evening with his son Trevor riding shotgun, I don’t suppose he heard any of those little voices.
Why would he? They were driving to a friend’s house for a school choir event, for crying out loud.
And what would the voices possibly have said? “Some guy with three prior DWI convictions is drunk again, and he’s going to arrive at 144th and Harrison at the same time you are, but in a much bigger vehicle and going a lot faster?”
The little voices never give that level of detail, except in movies and books.
Those crashes? They happen all the time in real life.
How many had we written up in my quarter-century in The Daily Gazette newsroom? Hundreds, easily. Many of them alcohol-related.
I’d fully appreciated the terrible pain of all those people in the newspaper pages who’d lost their loved ones, and yet it was all abstract. Now it was our turn.
As Bryan drove through the same intersection he’d crossed a thousand times before, the other guy blew the red light and broadsided him, killing Trevor and critically injuring Bryan. Then he got out and ran away from the mess he’d made, as bystanders ran toward it.
I drove Lisa to the airport long before dawn Sunday. When I got home, grizzled old newsman that I am, I called the Omaha Police Department to see if they’d found the man who’d killed my nephew.
It was only 5 a.m. there. A sergeant with a kind voice called back. They did catch the guy. He’s charged with drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident and two counts of vehicular assault.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, I said, but one of the counts should be vehicular homicide — the boy died.
Well, he said, it will be up to the county attorney to upgrade the charges.
I marveled at the compassion in his tone. Does he just have a kind heart? Or does he also know the pain and grief and anger behind each word in every four-paragraph newspaper blurb on a fatal car crash, far better than I had until the night before?
I thanked him for the Omaha PD’s quick work catching the driver, and for calling me.
What I didn’t tell him is that Trevor may have been declared dead at the hospital but he died at the scene. He wasn’t assaulted, he was killed.
The paramedics put Trevor on life support, labeled him “critical” and took him to the hospital because that’s what paramedics do, and sometimes they can save a life by doing it.
But the impact had severed Trevor’s brain stem, and he was so, so dead, after just 14 and a half years with us.
That’s the least bad part of all this: Maybe Trevor saw the other vehicle’s headlights approaching, maybe he had some momentary sensation of impact, but he couldn’t have suffered for more than an instant.
Trevor’s few intact organs were harvested for donation and he was declared dead at 3 a.m. Sunday.
Lisa got to Omaha by late morning and texted me a few times through the day. When she finally called around 6 p.m., she was still the rock that she needed to be, all business with steady voice as she paced around doing things for her family.
Bryan’s out of the ICU. He’ll need a steel plate implanted in his chest before he can go home. But he’s going to make it. It’s snowing hard. The funeral will be next weekend. If Bryan is able. Everybody’s here now. Bryan knows Trevor’s gone. He blames himself.
As she rattles off updates for five minutes, I marvel from half a continent away at the strength of this woman who’s been awake for 36 hours and wonder when she finally will crack. I get the answer only a moment later.
The background noise I’m hearing is Lisa emptying a hospital bag of the clothes Trevor had been wearing. Lisa had taken the bag away from her sister because no mother should have to wash the blood and gasoline off her dead child’s clothing.
It’s something no aunt should ever have to do, either.
And yet another one will, somewhere, soon enough.
All of the pain of Trevor’s senseless death, all the words that have been written about it, all that has been spoken about it — all of this will amount to nothing. Unless one person who’s had one too many remembers any of it, and decides to turn the keys over to a sober friend instead of turning them in the ignition.