Monday, November 27, 2006

THE FACE IN THE NEWSPAPER: A short true story


There are certain places where you just feel good. Where the governing spirit is goodwill, where laughter is abundant and easy, where workers like their jobs, employers like their staff, and anyone fortunate enough to enter their orbit has no choice but to inhale good fellowship, and exhale whatever stress you may have carried to their doorstep.

There aren't a lot of them, but they're out there. The kindergarten class where every piece of art work, every level of ability, every personality is celebrated, the home where all the kids want to hang out because they feel welcomed, listened to, comfortable enough to go into the fridge and help themselves. I can't say what magic formula creates these little zones of affirmation and contentment, but you know it when you enter one.

Oddly enough, my accountant's office, the place we visit once a year, carrying a battered and miserable shoe box crammed with miscellaneous receipts, the W-2 forms that have been misplaced at least 3 times in preparation for the visit, and profuse apologies for the confused state of my finances and my life.

In my back pocket, reserved for later, is the chagrined promise that next year I will keep better records and schedule my appointment before April 14th. My accountant, "Tim," sees through my good intentions, but he humors me. He is an exceedingly patient man.

And even though he pretty much works around the clock as tax time rolls around, he schedule an extra long appointments with all his clients. An appointment with time enough to discuss the kids and the writing, to philosophize a bit over the state of the community and the state of the world, all sandwiched between the usual fare of deductions, exemptions, and tax tables. There's also time for his pretty wife, who exudes her own joie de vivre, to poke her head into the office and say she's heading over to the coffee shop. Would anybody like a cup?

Everything in his office, from the tasteful decor to the photographs of his fine children, his golden retriever, and the little league team he sponsors, seems to attest to a life that's rich in love, community and professional success.

Tim greets me every year as I slide into the chair clutching my miserable Shoe box like a favorite cousin who he hasn't seen since the last family wedding. The smile is that wide. It doesn't fade--even after I dump the contents of the miserable shoe box on his desk.

"Okay, let's start sorting," he says amiably, too kind to mention the obvious--that it would have been nice if I started signing before I left home. Or maybe back in January.

Tim's life was a happy story that turned abruptly dark last week.

On Wednesday, I gasped when I opened the newspaper and saw his photo under the headline, "Motorist killed in collision." I'm not sure whether I reeled more on seeing his face beneath those incongruous and incomprehensible words--or on learning that he was not the the victim in the accident. Tim had been cited with Driving while intoxicated and vehicular homicide.

I do not know the victim, but from the paper I've learned he was a relatively young man, an itinerant carpenter, a good son, and a single father who was raising am adolescent boy. He died in the middle of a cold highway on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon--probably on his way home from work.

I was reluctant to write about this because it involves the immense sorrow of two very real families. But it haunted me; it seemed to demand something from me. In the end, I felt compelled to write about it because it's so easy to make Tim's fatal error in judgment--especially at this time of year. That fatal error is not making prior transportation arrangements before you drink. As we all know, once you've imbibed, it's often too late for prudence and planning.

Could I have made a similar error at certain times in my life? Yes.

This case remains untried. Right now I'm still hoping that the paper got it wrong, that Tim is not responsible for a man's death. What I do know is that if he's guilty, this good man will serve prison time. But I also know that no matter how long Tim is sentenced to serve, it will not come close to being his greatest punishment.

Nothing will erase the memory of what happened on that road. Nothing can alter its finality.


rdl said...

Awful, so sad. I've got the goosebumps.

Gary Boyd said...

A terrible tale...I could almost hate you for making me care about him first. Great writing. You've done it again and I'll keep coming back...Thanks

Anonymous said...

Wow, such descriptions of the good and joyful, then the shock and sorrow! A powerful message, Patry, that we all need to be reminded of, even when you did not want to be the messenger.

gerry rosser said...

There were so many times I could have been Tim (and, of course, we all have times we could be the unfortunate decedent). I mended my excessive drinking ways many years ago, but still, at times, a shudder passes through me when I think about it.

Zhoen said...

Being good and having good judgement are not always held in the same life. And dark secrets can lie in beneficial people. We are none of us all one or the other.

Kerstin said...

What a sad tale, and it just shows that behind every story in the papers there are real people, with real families, and friends, whose lives are changed by one momentous error of judgement. An error that by the sounds of the other comments and your own, could have been made my many of us, including myself.

You did the right thing writing about this, if your stark reminder encourages just one of your readers to think twice about drink driving then you may have just saved a life.

I have goosebumps, too.

Left-handed Trees... said...

Wow, Patry...I cannot even imagine. This is a true story that happens all too often and I am so sorry for the grief of both of these families now.

NoVA Dad said...

I thought I would have something new to contribute here, but I can only echo what everyone else here has said. My heart certainly goes out to not only the family of the victim, but to Tim's family who will be bearing a large part of this burden for quite some time.

- Matt

Shannon Hopkins said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this, as hard as it must have been.

My heart goes out to all the families involved, and to you for being affected by what has happened with this family friend.

Sometimes it's too easy to forget that our actions send ripples that go out — and out and out...thanks so much for the awakening reminder.

Darlene said...

Death and taxes....that is all I can say...this made me sad (but well written) ;)

xxx darlene

Patry Francis said...

Thank you all for these deeply empathetic comments. As Matt says, I would like to add more, but you have said it all.

Dave said...

Why "should" serve prison time? Such punishment does nothing to heal or amke amends for the life that was lost or the family torn asunder. Cases like this, where the apparent perpetrator is so obviously not a criminal, constitute the strongest argument for restorative rather than punitive justice, IMO. Thanks for a great post.
- Dave Bonta (not sure if Blogger is sharing my identity today)

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Patry Francis said...

I hear what you're saying, Dave; but I think that society has to make a strong statement against drunken driving when it results in the loss of a life. Had I myself been the driver, I wouldn't feel differently.
(At least, I hope I wouldn't.)

I recently read about the development of a technology that can sense the presence of excessive alcohol in the driver when he/she touches the steering wheel, and immediately shuts the car down. If it became standard operating equipment in all vehicles, it might prevent these tragedies from ever occurring.

Anonymous said...

Oh, geez, I'm so very sorry this happened.

On a terribly trivial note, comparatively, I really like the photo. You've got something cool going on with the splash-of-red thing. In fact, you've done three in a row.

Hmmm. :)

Laini Taylor said...

What a terrible story, and what a shock. So so sad for everyone involved. Having even a thin thread of connection to an accident like that makes them seem so much more real, and possible, and frightening.

Anonymous said...

How very sad and tragic.

Anonymous said...

Deaths are never easy, and one as senseless as this. It is a dark tale. I covered a murder trial in New Jersey last month, and I was also pretty shaken up.

Pat Paulk said...

The tragedy, as you say, is for both, and one that should never have happened.

JP (mom) said...

What a tragic story for all involved. As others commented, thanks for writing this piece ... it is a powerful reminder of what can go terribly wrong if you mix drinking and driving. well stated, JP

The Curmudgeon said...

I think Gary said it best: "I could almost hate you for making me care about him first."

It won't help the victim's family, but I hope there are mitigating circumstances for "Tim."

Anonymous said...

What a terrible and sad story. I feel for both families.


Dave said...

I think that society has to make a strong statement against drunken driving when it results in the loss of a life.
Indeed. And this can be done, with heavy restitution in the form of years of civil service, weregild, etc. I just don't see the utility of putting someone in prison - to me, that simply compounds the crime (and at taxpayers' expense). The focus of justice should be on restoring harmony, not on exacting vengeance.

Patry Francis said...

Yours is probably the higher road, Dave. My reservations:

1. Stronger penalties have resulted in a reduction of deaths.

2. The family of the victim needs the community to stand up and say that the person who took their loved one's life did something egregious, and it not be tolerated. A prison sentence is not so much vengence as an acknowledgment that their loved one's life mattered, and that the loss of it represents a gross injustice. Community service has the feel of a slap on the wrist.

At the same time, the recent case (in New York, I think) where a drunk driver who killed a three year old was tried and convicted of murder horrified me.

What I would really like to see is the development and use of the technology now in the works that would detect the presence of excessive alcohol through the skin when the driver touched the steering wheel and shut the car down. I think it should become standard operating equipment in all vehicles.

paris parfait said...

This is such a tragic story - everyone's worst nightmare come to life - for both families. Thanks for sharing this story; a poignant reminder that everything can change in an instant, if we're not careful.

Anonymous said...

What a tremendous tragedy - for both families.

I think I can see valid points in both your and Dave's comments. But unfortunately there aren't any easy answers.

Thank you for sharing this tragic cautionary tale and reminding us how easily life can take such a terrible turn so quickly.

Patry Francis said...

Tinker, you said it: No easy answers but more than enough sorrow to go around.

I'm reminded of a line from THE NIGHT GARDENER, a thoughtful suspense novel I recently read. In it, a detective says (something like) "No crime is ever truly solved. That would imply the victim could be returned to his family and his life."

Seems to apply here as well. It's all about prevention.

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