It’s been 16 weeks to the day since my son was hit by an SUV while riding his bike to class on his first day as a Penn State freshman. In that time, a college semester has started and ended. Late summer has worked its way through autumn and into the first real snow of winter. A political shouting match reached a crescendo and dealt the nation a split verdict with one candidate the winner of the popular vote, and the other, winner of the electoral vote. But my attention has largely been on my son, my family, and getting my feet back under me. I’ve written about first hearing the news of the accident and then about the impact it’s had on my psyche. I withdrew from my community of friends, in part because I was overwhelmed by your outpouring of kindness. But I haven’t cleaned up the aftermath from the accident, and I suppose it’s time.
I’ve been putting this update off for a while. In part, we were desperate for some much needed normalcy in our lives. So many doctors, so many Altoona runs, so many check ups and exams and paperwork. Watching DangerBoy graduate from slings and braces to wheelchairs
to walker to boot (apparently 22 year-olds have no time or patience for walkers. If you need one, I’ve got a beaut. Wheelchair, too). The incredible thing about a 22 year old’s physical recovery is that it is just so damn fast. At 22, the brain is still growing, so if there’s a trauma to the brain during this time, the brain’s like, “No problem; let’s just reroute this sucker!” and finds a new path to get the job done. When you’re 22 and relatively fresh out of the Army, your body is in peak condition; this is helpful when it tangles with an SUV, because everything is held tight together. By the grace of God, there was not one single internal injury in that kid. Many bones fractured but at 22, fractures heal quickly and, smart or not, you can even push this body to run two legs of a 50-mile relay race a mere eight weeks after being hit. The physicians consider him a poster boy for recovery. I consider him a lunatic. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
About a month into this nightmare, I received several Facebook messages from an unknown person. If you know me at all, you know that I don’t respond to anonymous messaging on any social media platforms, least of all Facebook. At some point, however, I realized it might be someone who was reaching out about DangerBoy, so I went back and opened the first message. I read how relieved she was to find my blog for updates on my son; she’d been calling the police department and the hospital to get his status. Well that’s a bit stalkerish, I thought, but it was when she identified herself as the girlfriend of the driver who hit my son that I dropped my phone as though I’d been electrocuted. What. the. hell?? Calling the hospital? Following my blog? Stalking me on Facebook?? I most certainly did not want to talk to her. I did not want to hear her side of the story. I was barely staying above the emotional waterline. I simply was not ready to deal with this. With her. I locked down Facebook. I disabled open Twitter DMs. I threw away her messages. I tried to erase her intrusion on our trauma.
For a long time, I didn’t know much about the accident itself. I never saw it, and neither did TheCop, who was also very careful to steer clear of the investigation. I didn’t know the facts and didn’t want to make assumptions; instead I focused on DangerBoy’s progress. I kept my emotions about the accident firmly locked up and shoved to the back of my mind, determined to wait until I could read a dispassionate analysis of what happened. Our minds want to make sense of things, but I think my heart was just waiting to assign blame. After reading the report I will tell you that there was no clarity of vision, no great understanding. At best what I got was a confirmation that my son did nothing wrong; he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and in life’s version of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Auto-Bike, SUV beats bicycle. But due to the severity of my son’s injuries and the revelation that the driver did not have a license to drive, local police handed the case over to state police, who did their own investigation and came to the same conclusion: to file felony charges against the driver.
That means jail time.
Last month, a court date was assigned in front of a judge to hear preliminary arguments on the case. My son was subpoenaed for his testimony, and I left a conference early so that I could be there in the courtroom with him. I’d hoped I might find the closure I sought, but reality was anticlimactic. The driver waived his right to a trial and, short of the lawyers agreeing on how long his sentence would be and where he would serve his time, we were done. There was nothing left but to head back to work. As we made our way across the courthouse lawn, I heard someone calling out, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” I turned around to see a woman at the top of the courthouse steps. I froze. I knew instinctively who it was. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I wasn’t sure I could speak. Slowly I shook my head and called out, “No, thank you.” “Please? Just for a moment?” No,” I said again. “I’m sorry, no.” I turned around and continued to walk away from her.
In retrospect, I am not proud of myself for that. I wish I had been a better human; a more compassionate human. Someone who had worked through enough to realize that she, too, needed healing. She, too, was concerned and was trying to reach out. It’s easy to be indignant at an injustice, to claim the moral high ground; it’s less easy when you remember we are all fighting our own battles, and that there were consequences for everyone. I truly believe the accident report when the driver says he never saw my son on his bike. It’s like the awareness test video many of us has seen, where you watch and count the number of passes a basketball team makes. It’s no coincidence this video is part of a series in the UK to promote cyclist awareness by motorists. Change blindness — where only a small fraction of the information going into your brain enters your consciousness — and inattention blindness — in which concentration on one thing can lead to other events going unnoticed — are all too real. Think about how many times this has happened to you, and then replay the scene again. At the intersection, trying to turn left, and waiting for a break in the traffic. Car… car… truck… space. Okay, go. WAIT! Where the hell did the bike come from? Yeah, I can see it. This is something that could have happened to any of us. The difference is, he didn’t have a valid license and should not have been behind the wheel of anybody’s car.
Still, accidents happen. I get that. I can even move past it. Where I’m stuck now is the aftermath. DangerBoy left the Army to go to school at Penn State. To study architecture; the one subject he felt worth the effort of school again. The wait from April to August was practically excruciating. He kept busy, but it was a nervous busy. Did he make the right decision? Would school be worth leaving what he had accomplished in the military? He’d earned a spot as a Ranger. He’d proven himself capable. But life as a Ranger meant a very different life from the life of an architect. There were advantages and disadvantages to both choices, with no clear winner. No one could make that choice but him, and he chose to make a go at school. Less than one class in, and now that path was gone. In the hospital for the first two weeks of classes meant he was behind. Going back with a splinted wrist meant sketching was almost impossible; it took him days to complete an assignment that took other students hours. Getting between classes in a wheelchair with only one hand to wheel yourself around was daunting. While he did go back and make a go of it, it only took half a day to discover it was just too much. He withdrew, knowing that the architecture program did not allow students to start mid-semester. A withdrawal meant giving up architecture for another year. If not for ever.
When one door closes, it’s hard to wait for it to open again. So the paperwork is in to return to the Army. Due to the extent of his injuries, it will take a year before they consider his application. So now we all wait, unsure of anything any more. What happens if, God forbid, they don’t give him the green light? Another door closed, hopes crushed. What then? I want him to do something with his life about which he feels passionate. I thought that might have been architecture. I know that’s how he felt about the military. What happens if both of his passions are gone? This then, this is where my anger lies. Not in the memory of his broken body in an ICU; not because I feel someone should be behind bars paying for this injustice; but in the stubborn belief that my son’s choice of what to do with his life should have been his decision to make, not the consequence of a stranger’s actions.
So yes, I am angry. I’m angry we won’t get to see what might have been. I’m angry that choice was taken from my son. I’m angry that he is, once again, waiting to start his life again. I know I should be thankful that my son is in one piece (as opposed to the many pieces he used to be in), and I am. But it’s hard to watch him, knowing that every day he isn’t able to move forward in his life is yet another day of living with his frustration. And this is why I can’t acknowledge the poor woman’s concern for my son; why I can’t yet find the words to be kind. It seems we are all powerless to do anything except ride this situation out. Both of us have loved ones facing different types of prisons, biding their time. I’m not demanding a pound of flesh from the world, but I am disheartened. Perhaps I’m heartbroken. Perhaps I’m trying to adjust to the realization that sometimes things just happen. Sometimes, life hands you a series of unfortunate events. It’s up to us to move past it and make our course our own again. Clearly, my son is trying to move on, for better or worse.
I still have a ways to go.