A year and a half ago, our car was rear-ended as I drove my two children to the pediatrician. I learned later that the woman who plowed into us was driving 60 m . p . h . on a surface street. She never braked. We are still living with the results. I wrote her a letter that I never mailed:
A split second, that’s all it took. In that fleeting instant when you failed to look, you could have killed my children. What were you doing that could possibly have been worth jeopardizing my children’s lives--putting on makeup, adjusting the radio?
Because of your negligence, your excessive speed, our lives were altered. My daughter, Phoebe, was horribly injured, and you never even got out of your car. You never said you were sorry. What kind of a person are you?
The officer said you were sobbing uncontrollably. He seemed sympathetic toward you because of that. I wish I’d had the luxury of sobbing, or more accurately, screaming at the time. But my precious daughter was screaming, trapped in the car, and I needed to hold myself together in order to free her.
My son was a day short of 8 months when you hit us. Though he was not injured, the impact was so severe it cracked his car seat. You could have killed him, but you never said you were sorry.
In the emergency room the orthopedist told us that both the fibula and tibia at Phoebe’s right ankle had been broken through the growth plate. Shattered was the word he used. He likened it to taking an egg and smashing it into hundreds of pieces. But her age, he said, was in her favor--children’s bones heal quickly--and for that reason they would attempt to set her leg rather than operate.
Do you have any idea what it’s like to watch your 3-year-old daughter have her broken ankle set twice (the first time the doctors could not realign the bones properly) without anesthetic--screaming and growling, the noises unrecognizable as human, or as coming from your beloved child?
Her father and I had to endure this helplessly; I bending over her face to try to comfort her in a nightmare that she couldn’t totally comprehend; her father helping to hold her down while the doctors set her leg. Some residue of that horror will always remain. Even if I exorcise it mentally, a portion of the agony is lodged in my body. It can never be removed.
Her leg finally set, we were told that Phoebe would have to remain prone for six weeks to give each shattered bone the best chance to fuse back into one. And that she would have to be monitored with semiannual, then annual, X-ray examinations for the next 10 years. Although the prognosis now looks good, she still may need corrective surgery. We live with that uncertainty every day.
The drive home from the hospital terrified me. Sitting next to Phoebe in the back seat, holding up her leg in its cast, I knew we would be killed in another car accident before we reached the safety of our home. That night, I told my husband I would never drive again.
For three days Phoebe relived the trauma in her sleep. From her screams and what she said, we knew she was reliving moments at the crash site or in the hospital. When my husband tried to comfort her, she did not recognize him. She thought he was the paramedic or the doctor--he looks nothing like either one of them--and screamed hysterically.
The night these episodes started was my mother’s birthday and the whole family gathered round. My mother seemed to age five years as she watched Phoebe suffer so. My sister cried.
All of this--a family’s agony--resulted from your one second of carelessness and you never even apologized. You didn’t even get out of your car.
How could you just sit there and watch me try to force open the damaged back car door, then climb in the front and over the seat to reach my trapped, screaming child. How could you sit there and not try to help? Cowardly. That’s what I thought at the scene. You’re either a coward or a monster.
And it doesn’t matter which, really, because the damage has been done, my family traumatized. I wonder, have you agonized over this crash anywhere near the number of times I have? Have you wished that you could redo that moment before the collision? Do you have any trouble driving?
I have realized what my parameters are. Driving anywhere within 10 minutes of my home is relatively comfortable.
Anything beyond that is threatening. Whenever I drive outside the confines of my “safe parameters” and I fight with emotions ranging from tension to terror, I feel great rage toward you.
I keep driving because I do not want to be limited by this forever, but right now only those narrowly defined boundaries feel safe. I resent you for that. When I drive now, it is without the comfortable assurance that when I stop, the driver behind me will too.
Phoebe has started asking me if we have brake lights on our car and if people will see them when we stop.
Recently she told me that she knew an accident like that would never happen again. Do you know why? She said that she knew you were not in our world anymore and you could not hit us again. She has dealt with her fear by removing you from this planet. Does that give you any indication of the extent of her psychological injuries?
Nothing will undo the damage you’ve caused and unless you have suffered remorse because of all this (which I will never know, not knowing what is in your heart), you will not have paid for this in any way.
You are under-insured and according to the lawyers we’ve talked to, you’re going to get away with that as well, because it’s not worth their while to take this case--you have too few assets.
So, the members of my family have suffered tremendously and you . . . have not?
Nothing I write, nothing I could do, no lawyer’s actions, legal judgments, nothing, could ever compare with the damage you inflicted in that split second when you failed to look.
And knowing that, knowing that you will never suffer from this accident as we have suffered, is very difficult to accept.
Nothing will ever remove the images of my Phoebe’s agony at the scene, in the hospital, and at home in the first five days following the accident.
There is no way that you could ever suffer enough to compensate for one of those moments of agony my daughter endured. No way. Ever.