On this day 38 years ago, I killed somebody. I killed somebody. At some point on this date every year, I say those words to myself. I force myself to say them. I have to try on those words, have to try to absorb the gravity of what those words mean. I have not told many people this, And to be honest, I have not done a lot of crying about it. I remained numb and somewhat disconnected about this terrible memory for a very long time.
But today I woke up, already a little off. And it took me several hours to orient to the date and to that memory. And as always, I ran through the memory frame by frame. I can still remember the details perfectly, that’s what trauma is like. It gets frozen in your nervous system, I believe in the right hemisphere of the brain… that memory sits frozen. It doesn’t metabolize and digest like ordinary experience. That’s why people have flashbacks, nightmares. It’s why I can review the memory with almost perfect recall, in all of my senses. Because it’s still in there.
I was 22 years old. Barely out of college. It was the most frigid of winter afternoons. Gray, a numbing cold, the sun dangerously low in the sky. I was driving home with two friends from a late Sunday brunch, the day before New Year’s Eve. I lived in Boston. I had not been drinking.
For just a flash, I was completely blinded by the setting sun as I drove down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, a central and populated city street. In that instant of not seeing, I felt something hit my car, saw a flash of a black coat come onto the hood in front of me. I screeched to a stop, I remember the police later measuring the skid marks. My friends did not see anything, had no idea that something had occurred that could never be undone. But I knew.
Getting out of the car, into the below zero temps, I only saw the rumpled black coat, not who was underneath. There were people immediately. And for some reason, one of the things that I remember most, was two boys I knew from my college in Connecticut, where we’d just graduated months before, who emerged from a bar across the street. Of almost everything that happened, that serendipitous appearance always stands out.. divine timing, something. It was so strange to see them standing there with me. For them to have heard the screeching of tires and come out. Tommy and I forget the other one’s name but can see their handsome boyish faces. Their moving my car out of the traffic.
I fell apart. My system not really able to comprehend anything that was happening. I never saw her. The lady that walked into my car whom I hit and killed…was 91 I was later told. She had no family. I remember knowing then and since that it was a kind of suicide. That she chose that moment to walk into the street, that there was a kind of destiny at play.
She chose me. I always felt that. She chose me, in that moment, I was enacting something with her. Like a horrible pre-destined soul contract. And I felt too that she had protected me.. I never saw her face, never saw any part of her that identified her as a person, only that black coat. I was always grateful for that. Because I was already painfully close to death and dying.
This was 10 months before my Dad died. And just weeks prior to his needing a tracheotomy to deal with the lack of oxygen he was getting. A tube permanently inserted into his throat to help him breathe, but utterly changing his presence, rendering his speech and ability to talk, horrific. Sometimes my friends wonder why I am so squeamish. Watching my strong powerful father become physically changed over 10 years, is one reason.
The ambulance came. The paramedics came. They wanted to take me to the hospital. I refused. They wanted me to put on my coat, I wouldn’t. They wanted to examine me, I couldn’t sit still. I don’t remember how we got to the police station. Everyone was very kind. I was a young girl, I was not drunk. I wept the whole time. Not just for what had happened, but for another death that was approaching. None of this was conscious at the time, but the body knows.
The body knows, ‘The body keeps the score’ as the trauma experts say.
I remember calling my house, but my mother was at a neighborhood holiday party. Which left my poor dying father to come and get me in the below zero night. Just writing that breaks my heart. My father who I could always count on to be stronger, to show up, to do the right thing, to protect me. He was not an easy man, but he was fierce, powerful, wise. And dead at 52 after a 10 year battle with cancer. Battle being the operative word.. They never predicted he would live that long, he willed it through sheer grit. It was not pretty.
So my daddy came and fetched me, saved me, again. Back at the house, my mother or somebody called my college roommate Barb. I don’t know why. It wasn’t the most obvious choice. And yet Barb and I had been roommates freshman year, and both had fathers battling cancer. Hers lived…is still living I believe. Mine died the year after we graduated. I always wondered if the school knew we had that in common and placed us in that teensy dorm room based on that sad shared experience. So Barb came over that night. Did something interesting with booze and mixers. I can see the den in my parents’ house. The best room in the house. All old pine beams and bottle green walls. The chair my Dad always sat in.The round English pine table where we ate dinner. The shelves of books and records…the stereo that my Dad played and to which he ‘conducted’ the symphony many nights during my childhood. My father loved classical music, knew every piece of music, every composer, every conductor. Loved it with a passion that defined him.
My favorite story about my birth had to do with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It had a little magic in it.
I was the first child and only daughter of my parents.
They had seasons tickets to the BSO. And sat I believe, in the front row or thereabouts. At the time, Harry Ellis Dickson was the Conductor. And when my mother became pregnant with me and they continued to go each week (month? ) she of course became bigger as I grew inside of her.
One night my father took his sister to the symphony, my mom having still been in the hospital after giving birth to me. As the story goes, the maestro came down from the podium and gave my father a cigar. I just love that story, have always loved it, it felt like a family fairy tale and it makes my heart happy to write it here. And I cry a bit for my parents. For the beautiful parts of their life together, for the glamour and the elegance of them, for their youth. For the memory. They were a beautiful couple.. my father almost 6 feet 4 inches. My tiny mother all of 5 feet 1 inch. Whenever I watch the show Mad Men, am reminded of that glamorous era that my parents inhabited.
This mix of memories, stirring the pot deeply tonite. Sobbing, I call my mother because I need her to remember with me. She hears me crying and starts to cry. We go over the details of that night, and how my dad made me go see the young Rabbi of our Temple the next day. My father, not religious at that point, but soulful. Knowing that I had taken a life albeit unintentionally and that this would require soul-talk from somebody he thought was qualified for the job. Who unfortunately wasn’t. It wasn’t comforting, there was no symbolic or bigger perspective offered. I left his office feeling numb and somewhat guilty. Less than a year later, that Rabbi again.. making my 13 year old brother Sam feel guilty for wanting to go trick or treating 2 days after our dad died. That Rabbi whom I knew was physically attracted to me, and for which I blamed myself.
There was no funeral for the woman I killed. I am not sure if anyone ever told me her name, they must have but I have no memory of it. A few weeks later there was a hearing to see if there was justification for a criminal complaint against me. There was not. My parents hired a fancy Boston lawyer of course. I remember his name. I can see his red hair, his preppy tie. Can see the conference table in his office. Can remember the run down city office where the court official heard the case. Can remember the two college boys testifying of screeching tires that afternoon. And then it was over.
I had started therapy that year, my dad was dying. And try as that therapist might, I could not feel much about this death that I had caused. Part of it was because I never saw anyone, there was never a person to make it real. Just a black coat. And also because I was already in the ashes. It was just a matter of time before my dad would be gone. It was slow and agonizing, it was ugly and pitiful. Every day the ups and downs, the rallying, the predictions. I was so young. We were all so damn young. My dad only 52 at his death. My mom 46. Sam only 13, Adam and I in our very early 20s.
I could not afford to feel much. I judged myself for it.
And as I write, olive pit between my teeth, and sipping a little tequila, I’m not sure how to wrap this up. Why I have written this. Sometimes the writing is just about the metabolizing. An attempt to move it out and through. To neutralize it a bit. To feel more so we can move forward. To remember in a more conscious way. Yes to all of that.
But having studied trauma and worked with seriously traumatized patients over the years, I know very well all the ways in which such events color our world- how we feel, if we feel, what we repeat, what we recreate, how we think of ourselves and whether we trust Life.
This memory has always been a puzzle to me. I am not sure how it has changed me.
I have seen a lot. I have lost a lot, I have been a willing participant in the grittiness of the lives and traumas of others. I am the Water Bearer always. I am not afraid of any of this. I believe this experience, this moment of bearing responsibility for taking someone’s life, regardless of innocence around intent or the impossibility of preventing it, was another Initiation that I signed up for from On-High. Those initiations that crack us open, that in some ways make us better able to find compassion and forgiveness and see the humanity in each other.
I also came to see it through the lens of a Sacred Contract. The soul of that woman and mine agreed to come down and have that experience. The plan for how she would exit her body, and I’m still not sure what I was supposed to learn. It was a kind of foreshadowing of my father’s death. Sometimes there is no perfect lesson all wrapped up with a bow.
But every year on December 30th, I remember that I took a life. And I also remember that I was lucky. I had not been drinking, I was presumed innocent, I was treated kindly and respectfully. I was and am privileged for sure and this colored every moment of that trauma. So there is that.
Trauma is a big deal. We all have had traumas. We may think of trauma as what specialists sometimes call “Big T” traumas- things like murder, rape. But more likely most of us have suffered “Little t” traumas- losses, suffering, humiliation, rejection, and the like. And it all counts. All changes who we are. If we are lucky it changes us for the better, but often we are not lucky.
We have to go looking for the ‘better’.
It took me 38 years to fully metabolize this memory, this trauma. My body, my brain were not ready to feel it until today when it came rumbling up and reached a crescendo that became a story that wanted to be told. I hope it served you in some way. I feel something has broken loose and shifted inside of me. I realize now this was a story about two deaths, of course.
And if you know that you too have undigested trauma, and understand that letting it stay stuck in your body, your heart, your identity does not serve you, let’s talk. I can help, if you’re ready. If you’re not I can listen.
With all love to you,