Sunday, December 10, 2006

Life comes at you fast

On Friday, December 1st, I discovered that line is a lot more than a commercial tag. That night, my sister called to tell me my aunt, Ann Gardiner, had been killed in an automobile accident at the ripe old age of 56.

The ice storm of 24 hours previously had left her home without power, so she and a friend were going to a local hotel for shelter. She'd always been a careful driver -- probably the most careful in the family -- and that day was no exception. She was waiting to make a right-hand turn at an intersection whose stoplights were darkened due to a power outage. Someone else across the street from her also waited, as another car approached from her left at speed for the four-lane street he was on.

For reasons that escape my understanding, the other stopped driver thought the driver on the four-lane street was going to somehow stop (as he should have), and started into the intersection. The four-lane driver swerved to avoid that car, and his Pontiac Aztec slammed full-force into the driver's door of my aunt's Dodge Neon. If my aunt had been in an SUV or the other driver in a regular-sized car, things might have ended differently. But they weren't, so it didn't.

It's frustrating that my aunt was the only person at the intersection following the Rules of the Road. She and her passenger, who survived with minor bruises, were also the only people injured (at least physically).

Even more frustrating is the sheer random nature of the event itself. Thinking about how many things had to happen just so for the situation to end the way it did makes my brain hurt. The storm, the power, the lack of traffic control.... We live in a world where the fact your phone didn't ring as you're going out the door, delaying you for a few precious seconds, decides whether you live or die. I'd have better luck filling out a lottery ticket via a blindfolded lemur on a caffeine bender smacking numbers with his tail.

But the most frustrating part of all is losing a vibrant person well before her time.

Ann was only 19 when I was born, and while she wasn't all that much older than me to begin with, the gap seemed to shrink every year. She always had a good understanding of what "people my age" went through, no matter what that age was at the time, and being my godmother, felt a special duty to share that understanding with me (a duty I welcomed gladly). My relationship with my parents was (and is) wonderful, and I'm not suggesting my relationship with Ann was better or more meaningful. It was just different, and it was an important difference that helped make me the person I am today.

She lived near St. Louis, and at least once a summer, we'd head down there for a long weekend. I remember fishing in the small lake behind her house, thinking it was the accomplishment of a lifetime landing a bluegill. I remember trips to Six Flags, when she interceded with my parents to make a ride on the Screaming Eagle as a perhaps-not-ready seven-year-old a reality. The only helicopter ride I've ever taken in my life was over downtown St. Louis, the result of her reminding us we might never get that chance again. Although I'm not sure she accompanied us on that experience -- she was all about having us try new things, but that didn't mean she had to share in our lunacy.

She reminded me a lot of my grandfather in that she didn't suffer fools gladly, but had a generous spirit that led her to help all kinds of people in a quiet way. She was a special education teacher who lived in Edwardsville, IL, for over 30 years, and the depth to which she touched others' lives was brought into sharp relief during her wake there, when friends and students and their families all came forward to share stories of her kindness and selflessness we had never heard.

She didn't live to see either of her sons marry, but shared in the joy of her nieces' and nephews' engagements and ceremonies. She'll never know the joy of being a grandmother herself, but showed abundance of love to her great-nieces and great-nephews. Some of them are old enough they'll take memories of her later into life. For those that aren't, my sibs and cousins and I will make sure they do.

The past week has burned events into my brain I'll carry with me for a long time. Going to the auto pound to remove Ann's personal effects from the car, seeing the damage first-hand and picking around the life-saving detritus left by the EMTs for things like the rosary she always kept in the glove box. Attending the wake and seeing the multiple collages of hand-prints and angels created by her preschool and kindergarten students -- simple displays of grief and thankfulness from small people who probably have an even tougher time understanding all of this than I do -- that I can't even type about without getting emotional. Singing "Lady of Knock" during her funeral in a packed church that didn't have a dry eye in the house, including the priest.

But these are only the first steps in what will no doubt be a tough journey for her siblings and sons. There will likely be prosecution of the other people involved in the accident, which will be a long and arduous process. There will be the dissolution of property and the breaking down of the welcoming home Ann always had for all of us. I, myself, will be approaching some members of the Illinois legislature I'm fortunate enough to know to seek a remedy that might spare others the pain my family currently experiences as we face a Christmas with one empty stocking.

We know, however, that Ann will be with us on this journey. Her strength will be our strength. Her laughter will be our laughter. Her compassion will be our compassion, and her resolve will be our resolve, depending on the situation.

I've disabled comments for this entry because my purpose here, beyond a personal catharsis, is not to elicit sympathy from the readership. Rather, I remind all of you that when you wake up in the morning, you have no way of knowing what the day is going to bring you. A truism, I know, but we have a tendency to forget such things as the relatively mundane events of life create their own space and momentum in our minds.

Never forget to let the people you care about know it, and never miss any opportunity to let them know. It can make all the difference in the world. It shouldn't take a sudden catastrophe like this to bring it to the front of your mind. Put it there, and keep it there.


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