Ruth and I have three kids. The oldest, Alex, drove from Dallas to Phoenix yesterday for work, in the new SUV his employer had just bought for him. Our eighteen year old daughter Valerie tiptoed into the house at 2:19 this morning. And our afterthought, who at four years old has aptly renamed himself "Sonic" after the speedy energetic cartoon hedgehog, and requires that we still keep foam taped around the corners of the pointy furniture, is fortunately still asleep so I can begin to write this.
Some situations, like a thousand miles drive in one day, inherently raise enough red flags that we'll caution them of all the potential perils we can anticipate; if you're sleepy, stop and rest, don't follow too close, don't dawdle in El Paso, don't text while driving, sun glare could be an issue toward sunset, use your cruise control, etc. One's daughter being a passenger in a teenage boy's car on a Saturday night can make it hard to get to sleep. Make sure you driver looks both ways before crossing 287 even though the light is green, watch our for drunks on the road, don't hurry to get anywhere, and on and on. I try to limit my words of caution, hoping they exercise their own good judgement and also thinking that if I say too much they'll tune me out. But they still even need to be reminded to brush their teeth, so I persist. Both of them obliged me by dutifully accepting the cautions, today. Today, I didn't get the "yes dad, OK dad, enough dad". For once they understood my concern; the reality of the dangers had just hit too close to home.
When Valerie was in second grade she quickly became best friends with a new girl at her school. It seemed they recognized a kinship in one another. At that age they looked alike and acted alike. And although in Ruth's family the kids weren't allowed to andar de casera, Valerie soon had playdates at Chloe's house and before long, after getting to know the parents, we were even comfortable with her going there for sleepovers. I looked forward to picking up Valerie at Chloe's house just for the few minutes of conversation with the parents, with whom I also felt a kinship. Happy, rational, and considerate parents raise happy, rational, considerate children. Chloe and Valerie would always take advantage of our free association conversations to have another twenty minutes or more of play together.
It was easy to allow a sleepover there. Steve and Sharon were balanced, experienced, tuned-in people. They retired rather young, I presume for having done everything right, and weighed their choices of the best places in the country to raise a family. Once deciding on Boulder, they researched schools and bought a house in the neighborhood of the highest rated elementary school. Our kids went there because the school was not far from the apartments we happened to live in at the time Alex started kindergarten; although Steve and I were close in age, I was barely embarking on a career after years of aimlessness while he was enjoying stay at home parenting. A few years later Alex started going with Valerie to their house to play a fantasy game the girls had invented with Chloe's older brother Alex, who was the same age as our Alex and a gentle and sweet soul that Ruth imagined one day as a suitable boyfriend for Valerie. The game somehow incorporated every game piece from every game they ever owned, every figurine, toy vehicle, block, Lego, etc. that the four kids had accumulated since their infancy. It was such a beautiful innocence contrasted to the hardened early teens I see at the alternative school where I work, some of whom may have already wrestled with drug addiction, experience unspoken abuses, given birth, been abandoned, etc.
Valerie and Chloe continued on to the same middle school, but logistics and interests would take them to high schools that were in opposite directions, and the bonds weakened. They continued to stay aware of each others' lives to some extent through occasional texts and Facebook postings, but the magical childhood was over. I missed the easy engaging friendship with the parents. Ruth and I often mention that we should give them a call but between work, extra work, house and yard work, and chasing "Sonic" around it always becomes something that doesn't get followed through on. Ruth has run into them a couple of times and it's the same with them; they've wanted to reach out to us too.
Three days ago Sharon did call us; their Alex had been killed in an auto accident. He was texting, drifted into the oncoming lane, over-corrected and flipped the car. We are deeply anguished, for Alex's loss of himself, for his family's loss, for the loss of a sweet child that we knew. I feel a certain survivor's guilt knowing that it could have just as easily been our Alex, who I'm sure has answered an inane text while behind the wheel and just happened to have the good fortune of not having compounding circumstances leading to catastrophe. A photo of their Alex's iphone with his last brief text, unfinished in mid-word appeared in the newspaper, on television, and in social media. Steve and Sharon, caring people that they are, wanted to increase awareness of the danger of texting and driving. They let the image be seen, hoping to save the lives of others and the grief and pain that they will feel forever.
A life may already have been saved; I may not have been compelled to call our Alex with words of caution, risking him feel like I treat him as I might his four year old brother. There are high risk activities such as drinking and driving or street racing that are dangerous, and seem dangerous that responsible kids won't do. The other day I heard that one quarter of either auto accidents or auto fatalities (I don't recall which) are now attributed to cell phone distraction. Part of the problem is that while driving at excessive speeds and drinking and driving clearly are dangerous, driving and using a cell phone doesn't seem that dangerous. Driving a car can seem fairly easy once one gets the hang of it; basically, you sit there with your hand on the wheel barely moving it. Talking on a cell phone or texting are simple activities. Kids and adults do it all day long; cell phone seems an extension of a young person's hand these days. But combined, these two simple activities become a danger greater than drinking and driving or street racing, because unlike those activities which are clearly dangerous, there is an illusion of the absence of danger, which makes it even more dangerous. My son could be at a friend's house, offer to buy some soft drinks, and on the quick trip to the 7-11 receive a text while the phone is on the seat next to him asking him to pick up some chips too, glance at it briefly while covering 60 or 70 feet not looking at the road, and even more distance while answering, "sure, no problem". Nothing happens, but it's Russian roulette. Alex may accept my words of caution before a long trip, but I can't warn him every time I think he may make a quick trip to the store. It's also difficult to convince him child not to play Russian roulette with a gun he perceives as unloaded, as not even a gun, reinforced by the fact that every time he's pulled the trigger nothing has happened. I want my 22 year old to learn from his own experiences, but I want him to learn and live. I may have modeled undistracted driving to him, but I probably modeled distracted driving as well. Reminding him not to text and drive, (and I don't really know if it's something he's done or would do or does) probably has the same impact of all the times I said,"you might want a jacket." The texting-while-driving gun shouldn't have to kill a childhood friend for one to not pull the trigger.
Our mirror family, as Alex referred to our friends as, is suffering immensely at the loss of a precious member. We are suffering with them, for them. We all also recognize that the loss of their son, their brother, is the loss of our son, our daughter's brother, and for our son, himself. We harbor the guilt of survivors. We know that the happiest people we knew, the best parents we know, the parents any couple could look to as a model to be, the family that my son saw as our mirror family, that will now always carry an emptiness that can never be filled and broken hearts that will never mend, could easily have been us, could easily still be us.
6 days ago