I should probably be finishing The Unified Theory of Everything, but there’s a story on my heart today, and I am going to trust that its relevance to The Unified Theory will make itself clear to all of us, eventually.
This happened during the spring of 1986, when I was already an experienced county police officer. It was during a bad seven month stretch, when I was deeply involved at the scenes of three horrific traffic crashes that killed one child and three teens, and crippled another young teen. This crash changed everything about how I did my job.
It was about nine o’clock on a weekday morning. The day shift had started two hours earlier, I had done a morning school traffic post, and kept on top of the rush-hour traffic on Route-46. Now it was time to patrol each of the county parks on my post, so I picked up a coffee at a diner, and went over to Overpeck Park to drink the coffee, catch up my patrol log, and complete the obligatory park patrol. As I sat in the big parking lot overlooking Overpeck Creek with the open coffee container on the dashboard next to the radar and my clipboard on my lap, I was dispatched to a crash in nearby South Hackensack, on Route-46 at Phillips Avenue. The coffee went in a nearby trash basket.
That stretch of Route-46 is an undivided four-lane roadway, lined with businesses; used car lots, dodgy motels, bad restaurants, and the occasional wholesale business. There was an agreement between the town and the county that the county police would take care of the highway, so, although the town police would get to the accident before me, I would be responsible for the investigation.
When I pulled up, it didn’t look too bad. A school van that had been northbound on Phillips was stopped almost clear of the intersection with moderate front-end damage and antifreeze puddling on the pavement. A Toyota Corolla that had been eastbound on 46 was stopped against the curb, just past the intersection. An ambulance was parked nearby, and the crew was around the Toyota.
I found the town cop who wasn’t directing traffic, and he gave me the motor vehicle documents he had collected from the drivers. I asked who was hurt, and he said it was a little girl.
“Anything serious?” I asked.
“No, her arm may be broken.”
I walked over to the car for a look. There was damage on the right side, but it wasn’t crushed, wasn’t intruding into the passenger compartment. Five-year old Jennifer, with long blond hair, lay across the front seats with her eyes closed. When the EMTs shifted her to get the longboard under her, she cried out in pain. I could see her mother, who had been driving, sitting in the ambulance, watching through the open side door.
I went and found the van driver. He told me he had been approaching the intersection with a green light when the car had entered the intersection from the left, not even slowing down for the red light. Several witnesses backed him up.
The ambulance left for Hackensack Medical Center. The tow trucks came, picked up the vehicles, and left. Then I started for the hospital to get the rest of what I needed for my report and to return the driver’s documents.
When I walked up to the triage desk in the emergency room, a short, stocky, blond nurse looked at me. I said, “I’m looking for the mother and child who came in on the South Hackensack rig, from a motor vehicle crash.” She directed me to a room where I would find the mother. I asked, “How’s the girl?”
She said, “Less than fifty-fifty.”
I stopped, confused. “You mean she probably won’t live?”
“She’s gone to surgery. There’s a large subdural hematoma putting pressure on the brain, and they’re going to try to stop the bleeding and relieve the pressure, but it doesn’t look good.”
I walked up the hallway, trying to get my bearings, both in the hospital and in the world. I found the mother in a closed room, and she looked at me like a caged and cornered animal. I don’t remember anything I said, but when I asked her what had happened, she said, “I don’t know. I was driving, and then there was a crash.”
A nurse came into the room, and told the mother that her ex-husband had called back, then handed her a phone. She said, “There’s been an accident and Jennifer’s been hurt; you’d better come to the hospital.”
I left the room and went in search of a telephone. I was in a predicament; fatal accidents and accidents that may become fatal are investigated very differently from other accidents, and this was now a mess. I called my lieutenant, and told him what had happened. He told me he would notify the detectives, and I told him I was going down to the tow yard to follow up.
At the yard, I told the manager that both vehicles were now impounded, and not to be released without police authorization. Then I examined the vehicles closely. I found that the passenger side window of the Toyota, where Jennifer had been sitting, had been smashed. On the inside of the door, I found a smear of dried blood. On the floor, there were several sheets of colored construction paper with child-like drawings. As I shuffled the papers and found myself looking at a crayon drawing of a stick-figure woman with the scrawled words, “I love you Mommy”, I was overwhelmed by a flood of associations.
First, I thought of my three year-old blond-haired daughter, and panicked at the ubiquitousness of danger. Then I was disoriented by deja vu; the wrecked car in the impound lot, the dried blood, the damp-eyed cop holding the child’s drawings – I had stepped out of real life, and had become a figure in a public-interest commercial about drunk driving! I was a two-dimensional cliche …
Then came a moment of real self-awareness. It wasn’t a TV commercial I was seeing, it was something from my own imagination, only it was skewed.
Cops are trained to think about bad things all the time. We are trained to always expect a deadly threat, to have a plan for whatever situation we are in, not to allow ourselves to be startled or surprised into deadly hesitation when confronted with the unthinkable. So I did that, and I was always ready, and I extended that training to other potentially overwhelming situations I expected to face. One of thoas situations was the death of an innocent child in a crash.
Only every time I had imagined this situation, I had assumed there would be a villain. I had assumed that the other car would be driven by some drunk with a suspended license, an addict with a needle still stuck in his arm, some hotshot drag racing at a hundred miles an hour, someone I could slap cuffs on and drag off to jail.
I never expected the child’s death to come from an inexplicable error, a moment of distraction, a simple human failure by her mother, her caretaker, her protector. I never expected haunted eyes, the reek of self-condemnation, a woman dying in front of me as she said a few words into a phone in a hospital.
There was no one to blame, no one to arrest, no one to hate!
It changed everything about being a cop, about how I did my job, because bad things happen even when people are doing their absolute best. Most of the people who go through red lights or don’t see signs or go a little fast are doing the best they can, and no traffic ticket is going to make their best better. I couldn’t have prevented this; so much of my job was irrelevant.
Jennifer died that afternoon.
A few days later, the detective who took over the investigation told me what was distracting Jennifer’s mom that morning. As it turned out, Jennifer wasn’t entirely well; Mom was taking her for a test that would tell them if the child had cancer. She was worried. Just before they left the house, she had received a call informing her that her grandmother had died. That’s why all she could say was “I was driving and then there was a crash.”
It was about a year later that someone who lived in the same town as Jennifer’s mother told me he had heard around town that she was drinking heavily and had failed at her first suicide attempt.
I think I see the connection now, as the boundaries that separate us fade and become blurry through empathy and compassion; that’s what love does under The Unified Theory of Everything; while still individuals, we melt into one another …