© Dan Schuler
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A Cross by the Road
By Dan Schuler
The tender stems of the gladiolas whisper against one another as I place them in the hole at the base of the wooden cross. Red clay clings to the trowel as I fill the open wound in the ground with loose dirt and several handfuls of potting soil and then tamp it in place with my bare hands. The dirt collects in the hollows beneath my chewed and broken fingernails.
The warm air, displaced by the passing Buick, carries the acrid scent of exhaust. Noxious fumes overpower the subtle fragrance of the honeysuckle growing among the magnolias and loblolly pines at my beck. As the breeze lifts the hair from my shoulders it chills the perspiration gathered at the nape of my neck.
The cross is three feet tall and coated in wind-worn white paint. The paint is beginning to flake in places and I will need to give it a fresh coat next year when I return to this desolate stretch of highway four miles north of Fairhope, Alabama. Since the death of my sister three years ago today, it has become an annual pilgrimage.
“Hannah Lynn Watkins” is inscribed along the cross-member in matte black enamel. I had considered using a gloss or satin finish, but this memorial is for me, not the random motorists that pass it on their way to somewhere else. For them, it is just another grassy verge, carpeted with dandelions and colored by spiderwort and black-eyed Susans. To me, this is hallowed ground, the place where my younger sibling spent her final moments on this earth.
I’ll never forget the events of that day. It was the day my life came crashing to a halt along with the ice blue Ford Taurus in which we’d been traveling. Three people occupied that vehicle before I lost control of it, wrenching the steering wheel to the right in an effort to avoid the oncoming pickup truck. Two left the scene in ambulances bound for South Baldwin Regional Medical Center. One never did.
Of course, the drunk driver survived, suffering only minor cuts and abrasions. Since then, I have learned that this is not uncommon. The alcohol deadens the reflexes, so the inebriated never tense up, but simply roll with the awesome forces at work in a motor vehicle collision.
I reach up, and without consciously willing them to do so, my fingers trace the scar just below my hairline where my head collided with the dashboard. Hannah had been riding in the rear behind the driver’s seat. As I swerved to avoid the impending head-on collision, the rear wheels slipped on the wet asphalt bringing the left rear of the vehicle into the path of the onrushing Dodge Ram.
The impact threw me forward, my scalp shattering the windshield as my ribs impacted the steering wheel. My boyfriend at the time, Jeremy Stills, riding beside me, tried to brace himself by placing his hands flat against the dash. He would end up undergoing emergency surgery to repair the compound fracture in his right forearm and a torn rotator cuff. We were the lucky ones.
The bumper of the Dodge crushed the Ford’s rear door, pushing sheet metal, plastic and structural stainless steel into the passenger compartment with roughly the impact of an eighteen-millimeter shell. The frame twisted and the roofline collapsed, trapping Hannah facedown, her legs in the foot well, her torso pinned to the rear seat. The weight of the encroaching roof snapped three ribs on her right side and one arced upwards severing her left ventricle. She hemorrhaged internally and her pulse had nearly stilled by the time the paramedics reached the scene. After they cut her free of the wreckage, she was wheeled away on a gurney, her body covered by a white, cotton sheet. And just like that, Hannah was gone.
I am still here, forced to live on, to remember that day for the rest of my life. I pray that Hannah has found peace, even as I am aware that I never will. She was taken from us too soon.
The day of the accident, she had come to me as I sat on the porch swing behind our house, listening to Creed on my Ipod and sipping a bottle of Diet Coke. I could tell by her expression that she had something on her mind, but wasn’t sure what to say. I let her stew there on the porch steps for a few minutes, picking at blades of grass and watching the gauzy clouds drift by overhead. I turned off my music.
“What’s up, sis? Bored?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, as though she spent most of her free time lying in that very spot. In truth, the child was allergic to nearly everything that grew beneath the hot, summer sun, and stayed indoors if at all possible.
“You can’t fool me, Hannah. Something’s bothering you, so spill it.”
She took a deep breath, held it a moment, and then looking resigned to some terrible fate, blurted, “How do you know if a boy likes you?” There was a pleading quality to her voice that told me she would have rather had this discussion with one of her girlfriends, but being that none of them were older than thirteen, my experience had been the deciding factor. I never got a chance to tell her so, but I found it flattering that she would come to me with what she clearly perceived as a very sensitive topic.
“Who’s the boy?” I asked, since we had to start somewhere.
“Kyle Delchamps. He’s only like the cutest boy in the whole seventh grade.” She blushed, and then dropped her eyes to her tennis shoes.
“Have you talked to him?”
“Well, yeah!” She rolled her eyes as if to say she couldn’t believe I could be so dense. But then the truth came out. “Well, I talked to Molly, who talked to Rachel who is really good friends with Kyle’s sister Lori.”
“Oh, honey,” I said, “that’s no way to talk to boys.” I couldn’t quite keep the patronizing tone out of my voice, and Hannah turned on me with both barrels blazing.
“Well, just so you know, Lori told Rachel who told Molly who told me that Kyle likes me.”
She crossed her skinny arms across her flat chest and smirked. I waited for her to stick out her tongue, but it didn’t happen.
“Then I guess you’ve got it all figured out, little sis. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the ass when you go back inside.” I replaced my ear buds, but she looked so vulnerable and distressed that I gave in. “Something else?”
“Whenever I see him at school he always makes fun of me and steals my books. But then yesterday, during recess, he got Billy Hobart to ask me if I would go to the movies with him tonight. So does he like me or not? Boys are so confusing!”
I almost laughed. She looked so cute sitting there with this big dopey smile on her face, wanting so much to believe that her knight in shining armor had just crested the horizon.
“Kyle sounds like a jerk,” I said, then before she could protest I added, “but I know his older brother Brad, and if they’re anything alike, then he really is cute. Are his buddies around when he treats you shitty at school?”
She thought about it. “Yeah, so?”
“It means he likes you. He just doesn’t want his friends busting his balls about it, so he’s trying to play it cool.”
That day-dreamy look returned to Hannah’s eyes and I could almost see the home movie of their first kiss playing behind her eyes. Then she mumbled something I couldn’t quite catch.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Mom said I could go, but only if you could pick me up. She and Dad are going to some play with the Wilsons.”
My bullshit meter was pinging loudly at the back of my skull. Had Hannah set up this whole “sister moment” just to con me into a ride? I didn’t believe it. She wasn’t that slick.
Our chat had the desired effect. She went to the movies with Kyle Delchamps that evening and I went out with Jeremy to celebrate my recent acceptance to Emory University. I would be entering the pre-med program there in the fall.
Of course, that never happened. After the accident, there was no more talk of my leaving home in the fall. There were too many responsibilities at home, too many obligations. Everything was put on hold in the aftermath of Hannah’s death.
Tears fall, lifting little puffs of dust as they strike the dry, parched earth at the foot of the cross. The dust is carried away on the breeze, and I find myself wishing that I too could be spirited away so easily, lifted out of this nightmare where everything has gone so terribly wrong.
My parents’ marriage didn’t survive the accident and its aftermath. The driver was charged with driving under the influence and second-degree vehicular manslaughter for causing Hannah’s death while driving intoxicated. My father sought revenge, asking for the fullest punishment that could be levied by the courts. I think he would have pushed for the death penalty if it had been available to him. I understood his grief. I recognized his need to vent his anger and frustration, but I also believed that Hannah’s death was the result of a terrible mistake, not malice or even indifference.
My mother took the polar opposite position as my father. The accused was only seventeen years old at the time of the accident. In mom’s mind, inexperience played as much a role in the accident that took Hannah’s life as poor judgment or excessive speed. She had lost a daughter as a result of the accident, but saw little point in destroying another life just on the verge of adulthood. My mother chose to forgive rather than to punish.
In the end, the judge chose a middle ground. He sentenced the driver to a term not to exceed one year in prison, followed by nine years probation and four hundred hours of community service speaking to high school students about the realities of underage drinking and driving while intoxicated.
My father was inconsolable following the ruling and he blamed my mother for not endorsing a stiffer penalty. He filed for divorce and left the state a few weeks later, setting up a new business somewhere in Michigan. We’ve had no contact with him since.
My mother had lost everything. Both of her daughters were taken from her and her husband abandoned her, all in the span of less than eight months. I only got to see her a handful of times before she succumbed to cancer less than two years after the night that Hannah was killed. She resisted her doctor’s efforts at treatment. I don’t think she had the strength left to fight it.
I know my father believes that I wasn’t punished enough for causing the accident that destroyed our family, but he doesn’t see how I spend my days or the loneliness and guilt that fill my nights. He’s never watched me speak to the high school students, baring my soul, begging them not to make the same mistakes I’ve made. In all the times I’ve told my story, I’ve never been able to keep from crying. The hardest part is looking out at all those young faces and seeing their doubts and their indifference, knowing that many of them will be victims too. But I feel the need to keep trying. The four hundred hours have come and gone, but I continue to relate my story.
I still see my parole officer once a month and go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings whenever I feel that life has grown too hard to manage without a drink. I attend often.
I’ve learned to forgive myself for what I’ve done as my mother did before me. The night Hannah died has never left me nor has the knowledge that I was drunk behind the wheel when it happened. I lost my best friend that night, and I believe that somewhere in the cosmos one of the brightest stars burned out.
Shadows are beginning to pool around me as the sun’s rays are swallowed beyond the horizon. I stand and stare down at the cross, whispering a little prayer for all those drivers on the road this evening.
“Good night, sis. I love you,” I say, as I turn and begin the long walk home in the gathering darkness.