Sometimes it takes only a split second to change a life forever. Whether it’s because you faltered in a crucial moment, or a situation was thrust upon you that you couldn’t control, accidents can deeply affect each person involved. Mary talks about coping with the aftermath from such an experience, and the questions it raises regarding blame.
It was a Thursday afternoon in February of 2013 at 2.53pm. I had just started college a month before in a city in Texas one hour from my hometown. I was just beginning to get to know people and that day was the first one that I started casually talking to other students as I walked. It was a really good week.
My mom asked me to pick something up for her. As I was leaving the store, I wanted to go left but it was hard to see so I was very cautious. I looked left—it was clear. I looked right—it was clear. Left again, right again—waiting. As I went to turn out, looking left the whole time, I glanced right and when I looked back to the left again, he was there. Out of nowhere there was a speed bike. I froze.
I didn’t realize how fast he was going until I saw his tires start wiggling and I thought, “Oh shit, he’s having to break and is losing control”. He was facing me when his body separated from the bike and I realized he wasn’t touching the ground. I remember thinking, “Hit the gas”. I don’t think I got to hit gas. I just let off the break and rolled forward. Then he hit. His head first, then his body slammed into the bed of my truck. If I hadn’t let off the break, he would have hit my door.
He didn’t have a helmet or any motorcycle gear on. The investigator later estimated that he was going between 70 and 80 miles per hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone. It was in rush-hour traffic, in the busiest part of town, at one of the biggest intersections in the city.
I was in a shock state after it happened that allowed me to be calm initially. Then it hit me. I remember just screaming and then kind of calming down and pulling off the road and screaming again. By the time I’d gotten across the road and out of the truck, there were already four or five people standing around him. He was faced away from me. I never saw his face but he had a blood trail coming out of the front of his head. I knew there was nothing I could do. I don’t even know CPR, and I really didn’t want to know what was on the other side. I remember saying, “God, just let him live. Please let him live”. I didn’t really know what I expected out of that. I knew that even if he did make it, he wouldn’t be alright.
After the wreck, I started having flashbacks. I developed a clench reflex in which my mind would play through the wreck and stop at the impact. When the impact happened I would clench my body really quickly then keep doing whatever I was doing. It would happen in some form every day. A certain image from the wreck would pass through my mind and cause the clench as well. Just remembering those few seconds would cause it.
My mind would also play out wrecks without me being able to stop it. If there was someone walking on the side of the road it would flash as if, say, I drove off the road and hit them. It would be an impact like my wreck but would adjust to fit whatever situation I was in at the time.
Some days it would hit me, one detail. A detail like the man dressed as the Statue of Liberty that I saw moments before it happened. It’s not a bad memory necessarily—
it was more that he had no idea what was about to happen. I saw in magnified detail how ignorantly happy he was to be out there in some ridiculous get-up, smiling and waving. For some reason, lying in bed one night, this particular aspect hit me and I cried and cried. There are little details like that.
One afternoon, a few weeks after the wreck, I had to leave school. I drove down the highway a good thirty or forty-five minutes before I headed back home. I was really down. I was anxious and restless. I didn’t know what to feel or what to think. I asked a friend of mine if he knew a good counselor to go to for this. It was getting bad enough that it was difficult to drive at times. He recommended someone to help me get through a lot of the wreck flashbacks.
The counselor told me, “It’s okay to feel the way you are. It’s okay; this is normal and it isn’t something you should try and stop.” I was kind of angry because it shouldn’t have happened. It’s not really one emotion or the other—it’s just that I wish it had never happened. I’m sad that it happened. I didn’t want this for him. I didn’t want this for me. I didn’t go out with the intention to kill someone that day, and I didn’t kill him but he still died on the side of my truck. What happened is not my responsibility. It’s not my fault, but I still played a major part in it. Everyone, all the witnesses and the detective, pretty much unanimously agreed that there was nothing I could have done. I don’t feel guilty, but I don’t know what emotion would describe what I do feel. It’s a kind of guilt without guilt. I played a major part in this guy’s death and yet there was nothing I could do about it.
A friend told me that the real victim is me because it was his choice that put me where I am now. I feel bad for saying that and it doesn’t feel right, but it’s kind of true. What should I feel? What can I allow myself to feel? Because I don’t want to let my mind feel the wrong thing.
Up until now, I didn’t know if they were going to charge me with involuntary manslaughter or try to sue me. Something that ran through my mind afterwards was the thought that they might charge me for involuntary manslaughter and send me to jail for something I had no control over. What if, because of him, the rest of my life is ruined at eighteen?
I still don’t know what’s going to happen. The court ruled that I could not be charged for involuntary manslaughter, but the family has now decided to sue me. This lawsuit—
well, it is kind of another animal in itself: you’ve got a family who wants over a million dollars in damages, and all I have is a piece of shit truck in my name. I’m in college, I don’t have my own money—literally only 200 dollars in a savings account. What they are after is insurance money, but hell, if the jury rules in their favor, the insurance only gives 250,000 of the million they could win.
The trial could go on for two years or more. It brings up a whole new set of emotions, a new set of triggers. Now I’m going to have to give depositions. I’m going to have to talk about it. I’m going to have to go over every single detail again. There will be many things that will cause flashbacks or reflexes or memories.
I think if I could know that I was not required to think about it again I could let it go and put it to rest. But I have to be able to remember. I don’t want to ruin the memories because I am going to have to testify with them later. There is not a single day that has gone by since that wreck that I have not thought about it. Any chance of complete healing would be when everything is said and done and I can finally lay it down to rest. Then I will really let myself work through it.