Grieving and groping for meaning after a fatal collision.
Photo by Karel Triska/Shutterstock
By Shane Snowdon
On December 15, 1997, I was driving from San Francisco south to Santa Cruz on California’s fabled coastal Highway 1, enjoying what I considered the world’s greatest commute. I’d just spent a blissful pre-Christmas weekend in the city with my partner and seven-year-old stepson, and I was heading down to the tiny cabin I rented for my weekday job at the University of California Santa Cruz.
I had jumped at the job two years earlier, at 39, even though it was ninety miles from home. I loved the idea of helping students struggling to enter and finish college, a struggle I remembered well. And the Santa Cruz campus was reaching out to the children of California farmworkers, whose battle for economic justice I’d proudly supported from age nine, when I’d heard César Chávez talk on TV about their grape boycott and immediately stopped eating my favorite fruit. I also loved the idea of earning a university pension, since I’d taken previous jobs to save lives, not money.
All my life, I’d longed to be a rescuer. As a little girl, I’d gotten to sleep by imagining myself gallantly saving people from burning buildings and sinking ships. At 19, I’d taken the name of the mysterious hero who materializes to rescue a farming community in the novel Shane. And in the years since, I’d thrown myself into what I only half-jokingly called my “save the world” work, leading organizations devoted to battered women, ex-prisoners, people with cancer, environmental protection.
So my Santa Cruz job was a dream come true. And my two-hour commute—down on Monday, back on Friday—was an additional pleasure. I treasured every mile of it: the sheer oceanside cliffs, the old farmtowns, the lush fields, the pristine beaches, the famous seals of Año Nuevo State Park.
At 5:30 on that dry, clear December night, I’d been on the road for ninety minutes, and I was in the rural part of my drive. The last town was well behind me, the two-lane highway was bordered by artichoke fields, and other cars were few and far between.
I was driving the speed limit, I wasn’t drunk or high, and I wasn’t listening to my radio or CDs. My clunky cellphone was stashed in my backpack—coverage was spotty on Highway 1. Night had just fallen and there were no streetlights, so my eyes were on the road.
I had rounded a curve to the right and was driving straight ahead, lights on, when I suddenly heard and felt—a heavy thud. An earthquake? No. Something large was rising toward me over my hood. A deer? No. A man was staring at me through my windshield—a young man, with a baseball cap and long, dark hair. He shattered the glass, then flew over my roof.
I pounded my brakes and skidded to a stop. A man? What had he been doing in the road? How had I hit him? Where was he? How was he?
I pounded my brakes and skidded to a stop. A man? What had he been doing in the road? How had I hit him? Where was he? How was he? I buried my head in my hands and began to cry—then stopped myself. I had to get calm. I had to stay. I had to find him right away. I threw open my door and ran up the road.
I could see the highway under the rising moon, but I couldn’t see a dark shape anywhere. Where was he? I pushed into the artichoke field by the shoulder, parting the stocky three-foot plants, peering between them. But he wasn’t there, either. Where was he? Could he possibly have walked away?
I stood absolutely still, listening. I heard nothing, no sounds at all. I shouted into the night, my voice as loud and steady as I could make it. “Hello? Can you hear me? Where are you? Are you okay?”
Nothing. No sounds at all. Wherever he was, he wasn’t okay. Oh, no. Oh, no. My eyes were filling with tears. I was starting to shake. I had to get help.
I ran back to my car and pulled out my phone. Only one signal bar was visible, and it was flickering. I called 911 for the CHP, the California Highway Patrol. I pounded the three numbers again and again, only to hear the beep of a dropped call. Finally, I heard a woman’s voice.
“I’m on Highway 1, near Año Nuevo. I hit a man—I think he’s hurt, really hurt.” Then I heard the beep.
I called back, over and over. Finally, finally, I heard the woman’s voice again.
“Did you hear me? From Highway 1, Año Nuevo?”
“Yes,” she said. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know exactly, but I’m a little north of Año Nuevo. If they start there, they’ll find me. Us. I hit a man. He’s really hurt.”
“Is there anything nearby?”
“No, just fields.”
“Is anyone with you?”
“No, it’s just me. And the man I hit.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. But he’s here. And he’s really hurt.”
“We don’t have a unit near you. I’ll call police and fire, but it will be awhile.”
“We really need someone. He might be dying!” I was shouting, breathing hard. “We really, really need someone.”
She took my number, and I was giving her my name when we got cut off. I called her back, but kept getting the dropped-call beep. I should stay off the phone, I thought, so she can reach me. And, I realized, I should get out of the middle of the road. I maneuvered my car to the shoulder, the front tires grinding against the smashed bumper, bits of the shattered windshield falling into my lap. Then I ran back up the road, clutching my phone.
I looked again for a dark shape, but saw nothing. I stood listening again, still and silent. But I heard nothing at all.
Yet I didn’t feel alone. I couldn’t see him, I couldn’t hear him, but I felt him nearby. “Please live, please live, please live,” I said to him. Then I envisioned a young man with long, dark hair, paralyzed in a hospital bed, a breathing tube in his neck. “Please be all right,” I whispered. “Please be all right.”
I kept feeling him near me in the deep quiet. But I began to feel him not below me, lying on pavement or ground, but above me, floating between me and the moon. He’s dead, I thought. He’s dead.
By now, a few drivers had sped by. I was wondering if I should stop someone when a car pulled over. A middle-aged man stepped out and asked if something was wrong.
“I hit someone, but I can’t find him. I don’t know where he is.”
The man looked around, then back at me. “I don’t see anyone,” he said, and got back in his car, slamming the door. I know I sound crazy, I thought. I wish I were imagining this. But I really hit someone.
Long moments passed, then another car stopped. Two young women who looked like they could be students of mine came over. “I had an accident,” I said, this time pointing to my car down the road. “I hit someone. He’s really hurt, and he’s somewhere near here. But I can’t find him in this light.”
One of them ducked into their car, retrieved a flashlight, and motioned to her friend to walk up the shoulder with her. “He might be in the plants,” I shouted after them, and they started aiming their flashlight into the artichokes. I kept looking for him where they’d stopped.
Then I heard a shout. They were running back to me. “We found him! He’s in the field.”
“How is he? Is he—”
“You can see.”
We ran back up the shoulder together as they swung their flashlight over the field. Then, well beyond where I’d looked earlier, I saw a slightly arched body lying face-down in the plants. A crumpled bicycle lay a few feet away.
The man in the field was wearing a blue windbreaker and gray jeans. I saw no injuries, no blood. But he was utterly motionless, utterly soundless. He looked lifelike, but he was not alive. Definitely not alive.
The two women started to cry. I said, “You can go—the CHP is coming,” and touched one of them lightly on the arm. She pulled away from me. They walked back to their car, got in, and pushed down the door locks, waiting for the police.
I walked toward the man lying in the field and stopped a few feet away. I wasn’t sure how close his killer was allowed to get. I looked at him intently and clasped my hands tightly, but no words came. For eight years, I’d attended chapel services daily at my proudly Protestant school. But we’d never said any prayers for the dead.
I slowly turned, walked back to my car, climbed in. My head bowed, I rocked back and forth, sobbing. “Oh, no, oh, no,” I moaned. “He’s dead. He’s dead.”
I saw the ambulance’s revolving red light, but no running, no stretcher, no urgency. He is dead, I thought.
The CHP, an ambulance, the county police, and a fire truck arrived soon after. A policeman knocked on my window, asked for my license and registration, told me to tell him what had happened. As I answered, I felt him growing impatient and noticed he wasn’t taking any notes. After hearing the basics, he opened my door, told me to get out, looked around my front seat.
“Walk a few feet, then come on back.” He watched me, then bent over to smell my breath.
“You have anything to drink today? I don’t smell anything.”
I told him I didn’t drink or do drugs, wondering if he’d believe me. But he seemed satisfied, and asked if I’d eaten anything in the last few hours. I mentioned the Big Mac I’d had for lunch. “Well,” he said, “the onions in a Big Mac can show up just like a drink on a Breathalyzer.”
I was stricken. “Really?”
He rolled his eyes. “Of course not. I’m joking.”
Joking? He left to join what looked to be a dozen uniformed people nearby, setting up floodlights, peering at skid marks, drawing out measuring tapes, spray-painting the road, talking in small groups.
I looked up the road toward the man in the field. I saw the ambulance’s revolving red light, but no running, no stretcher, no urgency. He is dead, I thought.
I started toward the uniformed groups, looking for the policeman who’d just talked with me, realizing I’d been too nervous to ask him what the EMTs had found out. But another officer shouted at me to get in my car.
I sat and watched all the activity, trying to hear what was being said, understand what was going on. Whenever people passed my car, I willed them to stop and talk to me, but no one did. What did that mean?
The ambulance I’d seen up the road pulled into the floodlit area. Two EMTs got out and chatted with the police. Then, one of them—a woman, tall, blonde, fortyish—strode over to my car, put her hand on my door, leaned in.
“It’s not your fault, you know. Remember that. It’s not your fault.”
“Is he dead?”
“Yes—but it was an accident. An accident.”
She turned and headed back to her ambulance. I started to cry again, grateful for her kindness, but not sure I deserved it. Could I believe her? I desperately wanted to. But did she really know what had happened?
Did I? I closed my eyes and made myself think about the moment of impact and the minutes before. I remembered driving in my lane, being undistracted, looking straight ahead, sensing nothing unusual until the awful thud. But had I glanced away from the road, strayed deep into thought, gotten sleepy, even blacked out?
I forced myself back to the moment of impact again and again, interrogating myself as fiercely as I could. But my memories of it remained the same. Although I felt ready to accept blame for the terrible crash up the road, I realized it might be what the EMT had called it. An accident.
But, I realized, the police and courts might not agree. Well, I said to myself, I’ll accept any punishment I receive for this, even if I’m not at fault. It will be penance for everything I really have done wrong, all the regrets of a 41-year lifetime.
A new policeman came over. “We’ve got all your information. We’ll contact you for a statement. His brother’s coming—you need to get out of here. Is there someone who can pick you up?”
I used his phone to call the man who rented me my cabin and lived next door. “I had an accident just north of Año Nuevo—I hit a bicyclist—he’s dead.”
“How in the world did that happen?”
“I don’t know—it just—I just—”
“So you need a ride home?” His voice was cool.
How could I ask for a ride? How could I ask for anything? “Well, if—if—”
“My wife’ll come get you.”
She pulled up twenty minutes later, right behind the coroner’s van. I walked over to her car, then called out to the officers gathering around the van. “Is it okay for me to leave?”
No one turned, so I got into her front seat. I was afraid to look at her, but, when I did, I saw she was crying and opening her arms to me. As we drove home, I kept repeating, “I can’t believe it—I can’t believe I killed someone.”
“I’m so sorry,” she kept murmuring.
When we got to my cabin, she asked if I’d be okay. I decided to say yes. Somehow, it was nine o’clock, and I knew she needed to be at work early in the morning. I dreaded the night ahead, and every night to come, but I knew I had to start facing Life After.
In the days after, I talked at length with the police and my insurance company. I answered their questions as fully as I could, unsure what the legal and financial consequences might be but feeling ready to accept them. When all the interviews were over, I phoned my insurance company’s investigator, who’d seemed sympathetic, to ask if she knew anything about the man I’d hit. She shared what she’d learned from the police.
His name was Roberto González. He was 18, from Mexico. Several months before the crash, he’d crossed the border to join his older brother, who had immigrated earlier and found farmwork in California’s Central Valley.
I hung up and started crying. His name was Roberto. And he was a farmworker—I’d thought so.
The brother told the police through an interpreter that he, Roberto, and their fellow crewmembers finished up in the artichoke fields a little before dark. Then, everyone except Roberto jumped on the old bikes stockpiled on the farm for carless workers. Roberto said he’d join them after a bathroom break, and they told him to meet them down Highway 1, at a farmhouse near Año Nuevo.
The brother guessed that, when done, Roberto had grabbed a bike and sped down the farm road to the highway, anxious to catch up with the others. The brother also guessed that Roberto hadn’t stopped to check for traffic before starting across Highway 1: it probably looked rural and lightly traveled to him, not like a roadway with traffic doing sixty miles an hour.
But that’s how fast I was driving as I came around the curve to Roberto’s right. The old bike he was riding had no lights or reflectors, and I hit him broadside. He landed in a field well behind the point of impact, and even farther behind where I screeched to a stop. Helmetless, he died almost immediately, the coroner determined, from massive internal injuries.
I hung up and started crying. His name was Roberto. And he was a farmworker—I’d thought so. Remembering his windbreaker and jeans, I’d realized he wasn’t a hardcore cyclist in spandex, or a T-shirted Santa Cruz student on a long ride up from campus. I’d wondered if he was one of the homeless men who pedal slowly along Highway 1 with all their possessions, but his bike had been bare, and he’d looked clean-shaven in my windshield.
I had tried for years to support the families of farmworkers, and now I knew I had devastated a farmworker family. And now I knew that Roberto had been only 18 when he died. I cried and cried.
A month after the crash, the insurance investigator called to tell me that the police had closed my case and declared me officially not at fault. “And there’s no way there’s going to be a civil suit,” she assured me. “You were in your lane going straight, you weren’t speeding, you stopped right away, you weren’t under the influence, you have a good driving record.”
“Well, if everything’s over,” I asked, “could you or the police tell me how to reach Roberto’s brother? Or his name, or where he works? I know some Spanish, so I could talk with him, if he wants. And I could offer to help with the funeral expenses and—”
She cut me off, the warmth in her voice gone. “No, no, no. You’re absolutely not going to contact him. I shouldn’t have told you about him.”
“But it seems like it’s all over legally—”
“Let sleeping dogs lie. You’re not at fault.”
“But if I’m not at fault—”
“Let me be clear. You absolutely must not contact him. You never know how words will be used. Don’t even think of saying something. We could both get in trouble, and I’m not interested in losing my job.”
“Tell me you will not contact him.”
I agreed, taken aback by her sudden anger. And scared, for both of us.
“Great,” she said, warm again. “And, hey, I see your car’s ready.”
This was not good news. I hated the thought of being reunited with my car. I delayed my trip to the body shop as long as I could.
When I finally made my way there, the cashier detected my nervousness. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’d never know it hit a deer. They can do a lot of damage, but it’s good as new now.”
“Oh, no,” I blurted, “it wasn’t a deer.”
She noticed the tears in my eyes. “Oh, I see,” she mumbled. We finished the paperwork in silence. She hesitated before handing me the key, and I hesitated before taking it and walking to my car.
I opened the driver’s door slowly, and sank into the seat reluctantly. Deathmobile, I thought. Deathmobile.
That word came to me every time I got into the car, which I kept until it fell apart years later—I didn’t want to burden an innocent buyer with it. In fact, I began thinking of all cars as deathmobiles, though I kept this thought to myself.
In the first few months after the crash, I was awash in pain and grief. Time alone or unfilled was torment, so I went back to my job, commuting on an inland route. But nothing I did felt worthwhile in the wake of Roberto’s death. In fact, all the “save the world” work I’d ever done seemed meaningless.
Before the crash, I’d been known for my high energy and fierce concentration, my frequent jokes and avid conversation. Now even minor activities exhausted me. And I couldn’t focus, as my mind turned and returned to the crash or to—nothing at all. I didn’t smile or laugh, because I didn’t feel stirrings of amusement or happiness. When I wasn’t at work, I seldom spoke.
My partner and my closest friends urged me to talk about the crash as often and as much as I needed. But I just kept asking, “How could this have happened? How can I go on? What should I do?” They offered answers, but I was beyond reach. I could only repeat my questions.
Worried about wearing out my loved ones, I asked myself if I’d ever known anyone who’d been a driver in a fatal collision, someone I could call. But I couldn’t think of a soul.
What about books? Had anyone ever written a memoir about a crash like mine? Library catalogs showed nothing, and the Internet, then in its early years, returned no results.
Then I had an idea. Years before, I’d read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Now I wanted to reread it, though I wasn’t sure why. I found the book on my shelves and finished it in one sitting.
Fussell movingly describes the loss of innocence among World War I’s first wave of Allied soldiers, who marched off to war amid rhetoric about nobility and invincibility. Many imagined they wouldn’t have to fire a shot, yet found themselves becoming killers amid chaos, terror, and blood.
I didn’t for a second equate my experience on Highway 1 with the Great War. But I found myself resonating with the soldiers’ shock and disillusionment. Ever since childhood, I’d wanted to save lives, yet I had become a killer.
The book made me feel less alone. But soon, I started bleeding, in a mammoth, continuous menstrual flow. Anemic after a few weeks, I went to see a gynecologist. She took my history and suggested an antidepressant when I told her about the crash. “No, thanks,” I said. “It isn’t really something I want a prescription for.” I wanted her to fix my bleeding, not my suffering.
Four months after the crash, my bleeding finally over, I felt I had to do something to regain life force, to rejoin the world. I was neglecting my family, my job, my friends. I didn’t want to put the crash behind me—that felt disrespectful. So did the idea of healing—I hadn’t been the person hit. But I did want somehow to move into the crash, explore its meaning.
I realized I should try therapy. But this felt daunting—“taking a life” was not a condition that appeared in psychotherapist listings. My partner saw that I was overwhelmed by the challenge of finding a match and made a suggestion. My repeated questions had reminded her of a teacher she’d gotten to know while training to become a career counselor: David Lerner.
A career counselor? Work issues were far from my mind. And I was unimpressed by the couple of details she’d mentioned about David over the years: his grand passion for hamburgers and his mixed experience with hair transplants. But I made an appointment with him.
David’s home, where he saw clients, was in a suburban condo complex that looked like a converted motel. His downstairs office smelled of mold and featured a green shag rug, tilted lampshades, and heaped piles of dusty books and magazines. And David himself? His comb-over and baggy khakis brought Woody Allen to mind.
I lowered myself carefully onto his worn plaid couch, having decided against the beanbag chair next to it. Opposite me, he smiled warmly and asked how I was doing. There was something about him—I started to cry. And cry. And cry some more.
Tears had never come easily to me, especially with men. But in my first meetings with David, all I did was cry and repeat the same questions: “How could this have happened? How can I go on? What should I do?”
“I don’t know,” he always answered, quietly, patiently. “But I really want to talk about all of this with you.”
No, you don’t, I thought. I was trapped in pain and grief, and I was afraid I’d trap him in tedium. I decided to tell him at our next meeting that it would be our last.
But as soon as we sat down, he pulled out a paperback he said he’d just bought: The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. “I have no idea what this title means, but I saw it and thought of you.”
Like him, I’d never heard of the book or its author. But I surprised myself by saying that I knew what the title meant, at least to me. “I don’t want to escape the crash, David. I want to go into it, not around it. I don’t know if that’s wise, but it’s right for me.”
I kept on crying with him, but I also started talking more, feeling as if we had all the time in the world. “I can’t believe the crash was just an accident. I know what I remember, and I know what the police report says, but I must’ve done something to cause it. It couldn’t have just happened.”
“Well,” David said gently, “it sounds like Roberto just happened to bike across your path.”
“Things don’t just ‘happen.’ How do I know I didn’t check my mirror right then?”
“You don’t know. But what if you did? Are you going to stop checking your mirror?”
I didn’t know how someone determined to save the world could have found herself killing someone. I didn’t know how I could go on, or what I should do.
We had this exchange several times before I realized that sometimes things just happen—that, despite what I’d believed all my life, not everything can be explained, much less controlled.
“But,” I said to David, “this means that anything can happen.”
“Yes,” he said softly. “You’re someone who really knows that.”
I did know it. And I didn’t like it. “So anything can happen,” I said grimly. “You just never know.”
“Yes,” he said again, tears in his eyes. “Anything can happen. You just never know.”
When he repeated my words, they felt different to me. They felt comforting. Sheepishly, I asked him to write them down—and I looked at the stained, torn scrap of paper many times before our next meeting. “You know,” I told him then, “I think these are words to live by. At least, I’m going to try to live by them.”
I didn’t know why death had come to Roberto at the start of adulthood, rather than to me in middle age, and I didn’t know what I could do to balance the loss of his life. I didn’t know how someone determined to save the world could have found herself killing someone. I didn’t know how I could go on, or what I should do. But I was willing to wait, with David, for answers to come. Or not.
After several months of conversation with David, I noticed that I was smiling, even laughing, from time to time. I was able to concentrate on what most needed my attention. I was doing more and more, with less and less fatigue. I was even driving more. In my first road trip since the crash, I managed a week-long visit to a retreat center that involved eight hours of driving, much of it coastal. And there I welcomed solitude for the first time since the crash.
I came home eager to tell David about my retreat. But it was several weeks before he responded to my voicemail about meeting times, and his return message said he couldn’t schedule any appointments: he’d learned he had an aggressive cancer, and he was starting a long-shot treatment during which he’d be unreachable. It was the last time I heard his voice. Soon after, his girlfriend wrote to say he had died, at 46.
David and I hadn’t had all the time in the world. But his sudden, heartbreaking death didn’t keep me from hearing his words, feeling his presence, and wanting, at last, to heal. I decided to read that Pema Chödrön book whose title we’d pondered together—and soon I found myself studying Buddhism avidly.
I discovered many wonderful teachers, but I was most drawn to the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose talks and books made a point of offering “loving kindness” to people who had caused injury or death, including veterans of the war that had devastated his homeland. I carefully saved up vacation days to attend his retreats, where he listened raptly and responded tenderly to distraught Vietnam vets and former prisoners. Ohhhh, I thought, feeling my heart open to them and to myself—this is what he means by loving kindness.
So I phoned one of his students, a ritual creator, when I wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of my crash by building a small altar at the scene. She helped me decide what to put on it, what to say over it. Then she asked if I did loving kindness meditation around the crash.
“Of course,” I said. “I never meditate without offering Roberto loving kindness. It’s very important to me.”
“But do you offer yourself loving kindness?”
“I don’t deserve—I mean, I don’t need it,” I started to protest. Then I stopped, startled by what I’d said.
A few days later, I drove from San Francisco down Highway 1 for the first time since the crash. I parked across from the farm road, took a deep breath, and walked slowly up the highway to where I remembered Roberto lying among the artichokes. I knelt where the shoulder met the field. Then, my hands trembling, I carefully laid out an altar for the 18-year-old I had met there but had never known. I softly read the poems I’d chosen for him. And I silently offered loving kindness to us both.
After creating the roadside altar, I began talking more often about the crash, remembering an exchange I’d had with David. “I can’t just bring it up whenever I feel like it,” I’d told him. “Are you sure?” he’d replied. And so I started mentioning the crash to people when the time felt right—and they responded with compassion that touched and amazed me.
My father surprised me most of all. I had learned over a lifetime not to expect sympathy from him for my woes. So I hadn’t mentioned the crash to him when, six years later, he called to tell me that his church book club had just discussed a short story by Andre Dubus.
“I thought of you because it’s about a father and daughter. He covers up for her after she kills someone in a car accident and leaves the scene. Pretty interesting.”
I was stunned. Had I told him about my crash? No, definitely not. Should I mention it? Was I old enough and sturdy enough to handle his reaction? Was fate nudging me to take a chance? I decided to tell him.
When I finished, I heard him crying. I had never known him even to tear up over someone else’s pain.
“I can’t believe you went through that, honey,” he said hoarsely. “You should have told me.”
Aha, I thought, bracing myself. Now we’ll discuss my failure to inform him about an experience he’ll end up minimizing.
But no. “Are you okay now? That must’ve been horrible. I feel bad for you.”
I’d never heard those five words from him. And he never said them again: he lived for only a year more. But they stayed with me that whole year, softening my heart and bringing us closer.
As I studied Buddhism and talked more openly about the crash, my waking hours became more peaceful. Although I shuddered and teared up whenever I encountered a collision onscreen or in real life, my crash no longer dominated my days. But my nights were another story. I fell asleep easily, but I often woke up suddenly, shivering and anxious. I never remembered my nightmares in detail, but they always brought the same message: We’re not done yet.
I didn’t know what to do about my haunting dreams, or whether I should do anything about them. Maybe, I thought, I should go on losing sleep—Roberto had lost his life. Then I remembered an article I’d read years before, about a self-exploratory process called holotropic breath work. “Alternative healing” had always made me nervous, but I decided to make an appointment with a breath-work practitioner who, reassuringly, was also a nurse.
She greeted me warmly, then unrolled a foam pad and told me to lie down. After covering me with blankets, she demonstrated what she wanted me to do: breathe faster and faster, deeper and deeper, without ever holding my breath. Then she gave me headphones, explaining that I’d be hearing dramatic music from the CD player she put next to me. I closed my eyes and began breathing as she’d shown me.
With classical music in my ears, I felt at first like I was just meditating. But then I heard the low, resonant chants of Tibetan monks. As I quickened my breathing, their rumbling voices began to feel ominous, even frightening.
I’ve come to appreciate my shudders and tears: they remind me to stop and offer a blessing for drivers, bicyclists, passengers, pedestrians, responders.
My body tensed, I wanted to tear off the headphones—and then I found myself floating at twilight above a highway winding through farm fields. On one side, the fields gave way to ocean. On the other, they were divided by a small road that joined the highway in a T. As I watched, a car appeared on the highway and a bicyclist on the side road. They were converging on the T. Neither one was slowing. They met.
Suddenly I was much higher, in a night sky, among stars. Someone was with me, but we didn’t look at each other or speak. We floated for a long time together, gazing down at the green-blue earth far below, our meeting-place now too distant to be visible. Then I felt him start to move away. “Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you for coming.”
I never had another nightmare about the crash.
The breath work didn’t keep me from shuddering when I heard sirens, from crying when I saw a car crash, from thinking about Roberto when driving, daydreaming, drifting to sleep. But I’ve come to appreciate my shudders and tears: they remind me to stop and offer a blessing for drivers, bicyclists, passengers, pedestrians, responders. Besides, I never want to push Roberto away: he is always welcome in my mind and heart. Every day I whisper to his mother: “Your son is real to me—I think of the baby you held in your arms, the boy who ran home to you after soccer, the father he never got to be.” And every day I tell Roberto, “I will never forget you, as long as I live.”
Shane Snowdon, who holds a master’s degree from Starr King School for the Ministry, was a special student at Harvard Divinity School from 2014 to 2016. A longtime public health advocate, she is writing a book about fatal auto crashes. In this piece, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.