Is this how the dead get our attention?

shrine 2013While visiting my friend Sara, I picked up a novel in her bathroom and read the first chapter, in which a 10-year-old girl dies when she runs in front of a car. The next morning, I opened another book on Sara’s kitchen table. It was a memoir by a man who accidentally killed a teenaged girl on a bicycle when she veered in front of his car. He was 17.

At this point, I remembered that I also killed someone when I was 17. I was driving th­e family Chrysler to a movie with my brother sitting next me and my mother in the back seat. I was going the speed limit, which was 45, when there was a clunk, and a blur of tawny brown, as a man bounced off my right front fender and disappeared into the darkness. I hadn’t seen him until the moment of impact.

My  mother told me to pull into the driveway of a house across the street. We all jumped out of the car and ran back down the road, looking frantically for the man. A police car arrived, summoned by the homeowners. A policeman came up to us and said they had found the man. We went into the house.

My father, working late at the office as usual, was called. He showed up right away. It seemed we were there a long time. A policeman interviewed us. He said the man had died instantly, without suffering. He said there were no tire marks next to the road, meaning it wasn’t my fault, that the man had wandered into the road. The man was identified, but I already knew who it was—I had known from the moment I hit him.

Overlook Road is a long, winding country road that passes many housing developments as it makes its way through the diminishing farmland and out to a state highway. No one walked along Overlook except an old man I often saw shuffling down different stretches of the road. He wore a tan coat and shoes without shoelaces. He scared and repelled me, I suppose because he was a symbol of  old age, dementia, and decline, subjects a young person prefers to avoid.

It turned out his family lived in one of the housing developments, and they just couldn’t keep him inside. It was my bad luck that he chose to wobble into the road as I was driving past.

Finally, the police let us go home. In the morning, my pediatrician, who had heard the news on the radio, called to see if I was all right. My reaction was anger. Why should I not be all right? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Of course I was fine. A man had died, but it wasn’t my fault.

I was in my 20s I realized that something disturbing had happened to me. I felt guilty because I so disliked the old man, some part of me wanted him to die. Sobbing on a friend’s shoulder gave me relief.

For years, when I visited my parents, I would drive down that section of road and not even think of the old man. About a year ago, I found myself compelled, whenever I drove past, to try to recall which of the houses we had gone to and exactly where the man had gone down. Then I began wanting to avoid the road. I felt a momentary glimmer of pain whenever I drove along that stretch.

I told Sara about the two books, which she hadn’t even read,  and about the old man. As a physical therapist, she has worked with many Alzheimer’s patients, who often have the compulsion to wander. “He may have been grateful to you,” she said. “Life is difficult and painful for many people with Alzheimer’s.”

At home, I lit a candle on my ancestor shrine for the old man and welcomed him. Now he can be my ally.

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13 Responses to Is this how the dead get our attention?

  1. carolebugge66 says:

    That’s a very touching and well told story, Violet. Could it be a short play someday, I wonder?

  2. visnow77 says:

    Carole, that’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to add it to my ever-lengthening list of projects. I hear STS is going to do Play Fair again this summer…a deadline always helps! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Wow, a profound life event that will always reverberate… and evocative of so many things it could fuel a novel. Youth, denial, guilt, afterlife…
    Thanks for the courage to share it.

  4. sara says:

    Synchronicity everywhere you look. Yikes. You, wandering the woods as herbalist and nature buff, wandering into cemeteries searching for your Civil War ancestors, being the wandering sage on stage in Hedgerow Specimen..And then , in your youth connecting fatally with a demented man wandering the highways perhaps searching for comprehension. Where is it going ?
    PS. Why does your friend have so many books on death around ?

  5. visnow77 says:

    That’s a question only you can answer–

  6. sara says:

    Can’t sleep, woke up saying , ‘stop the press” . You know the feeling when you have pushed the send button and realize you shouldn’t have. I did not at all take your experience lightly and in my work in long term care hospitals i did cogitate quite a bit on “problem wandering behavior” – thats what we called it. I even coauthored a lame research paper on it with a PhD nurse I worked with. I think it got published in some nursing journal. It seemed to me that the wandering of people with dementia was a metaphor for our human attempt to escape suffering and to find meaning. It was a sad and uncomfortable urge they had no ability to interrupt even when fatigued or in physical pain and it caused no end of problems for the caretakers. We tried to watch the walking pattern – where they went, etc. and tried to guide them with a “path” we made of yellow traffic tape on the floor of the hospital which went in a loop and led them to resting places so they would not push on the alarmed doors or get into a bed where someone else was lying or start an altercation for reasons we could not figure out or if someone was in their way. Most of them seemed very uncomfortable to me, filled with anxiety, and confusion and no way to escape the compulsion to walk because of the dementia The path did not work at all. Their journey could only be interrupted by tying them down in wheelchairs or sedating them. I was concerned about their falling when so fatigued and oblivious to their surroundings- plus I was just interested and on some level horrified by their pain and confusion. It seemed to me that because our brains did work, we should be able to figure out a way to help them to escape the dilemma they were trapped in. I truly meant it when I when I said to you that the man in your neighborhood who wandered on the highway may have thanked you for letting him escape.

  7. visnow77 says:

    Thank you, Sara. That’s a beautiful piece of writing.

  8. Jean says:

    Violet, this is a very poignant piece. A ‘sweep’ of the heart and soul revealed honestly and with great empathy. I always gain from your portrayals, your insight and the expression of your ‘individuality’ and look forward to more of your writing..

  9. Barbara Carter says:

    I always worried how that event would affect you.

    • visnow77 says:

      Of course you did. But at the time, it really didn’t affect me that much. Or ever, really, except in this intermittent way. And now it’s kind of amazing.

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