I went to another burial today. Seems like all my social outings lately are all death-related. Somebody needs to invite me to a party of a different sort. I need to remember what it feels like to laugh with abandon. I think I’ve forgotten.
I did not know the young man being buried but I know his grandparents. When I was the Oregon Bureau Reporter for the Tri-City Herald, I rented office space from the young man’s grandfather, an insurance agent here in town. It was a good office staffed with cheery and affable people. They always made my day better just by being in it. The young man’s grandfather is a particularly light-hearted fellow. He has the greatest laugh, a laugh that always reminded me a little of Dick Van Dyke.
He is a kind man. I like that in any person. Kindness. I wish kindness was as highly valued in our society as is athletic skills or porn. I can’t tell you why it isn’t. Maybe you have some ideas?
I used to think a person was either born kind or they weren’t. Now I believe it’s a skill that can be taught and learned. Some people might come by it naturally but anybody can learn to be more kind.
It was hard to watch my friends bury their grandson. Maybe it’s because I have a grandson now, and two more on the way. I can’t, and more importantly never want to, imagine burying any of them. Grandparents aren’t supposed to outlive their grandchildren.
I doubt my friend, the insurance agent, thought he would ever live long enough to bury a grandchild. This one in particular. This young man was set to take over his grandfather’s business as of Jan. 1st. He’s been working alongside his granddaddy, learning the family business. His grandfather was looking forward to retirement because he needs to retire. He’s been dealing with cancer this past year.
But there he sat, comforting his wife, as they both swiped the tears away. My heart ached for them. I hated seeing that Tar Heel blue casket draped in white roses. Hated knowing that a young man’s life ended at age 22 in a bad accident that police suspect was the result of intoxication on behalf of the driver of the truck.
A young girl died in that accident, too. She and my friend’s grandson were flung from the vehicle as it crashed. Another young man walked away from the accident. In fact, he left the scene completely. Police suspect that several hours passed between when the accident occurred and the young man returned. Investigators are still sorting it all out.
Years ago, when I was a young mother, my husband’s best friend, Steve Mulkey, was struck by a drunk driver in Spokane, Washington. Steve was the father to two young boys. He was a writer, a thinker, a basketball player and my husband’s closest friend. He looked so much like Bill Walton people would stop him in the store aisles and ask for his autograph. He loved his wife Bev like the romantic he was. He was wholly devoted to her. She buried her husband on their 7th wedding anniversary. It was a terrible funeral. One of the worst I’ve ever attended, simply because everyone there loved Steve and his dying seemed so entirely wrong.
The fellow who crashed into Steve had been drinking all night long. He’d left a tavern and drove to a 7-Eleven where he purchased more beer, even though he was clearly intoxicated. I am not sure how much of that beer he’d drank before broadsiding Steve on Steve’s 30th birthday.
I just remember the phone call that came to the house telling Tim that Steve was dead. And how my husband took off out the door. Tim doesn’t do grief well. He went somewhere private, to sit by a lake or shout from a mountain. I have never asked where he went in that moment. I only know that he has never had a friend as close as Steve since. Sometimes it’s easier not to let people into your life. That way it doesn’t hurt so much when you lose them.
Or so they say. I don’t really know myself. I’m not very good at shutting people out of my life.
Steve’s wife sued 7-Eleven for selling that drunk driver more beer. It wasn’t the money she was after. It was accountability.
Accountability, like kindness, is a skill that has to be taught and learned.
We don’t seem to be doing a very good job at teaching it or learning it. In 2013, over 10,000 people in the US died as a result of drunk driving. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow morning and every single person in Hermiston-proper were dead. That’s some idea of what it means to kill 10,000 people.
Everybody knows that drinking and driving kills. Still, nobody ever thinks it is ever going to happen to them.
There’s a term used in the courts for drunk driving deaths.
They call it wrongful death.
That’s exactly what it felt like standing there on that hillside, watching as those grandparents put their grandson to rest.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).