Death is not a fun or festive topic to bring up at the holidays, but death—and sometimes tragedy—does not elude us regardless of the season.
Two years ago I drove my RV to Newtown, Connecticut to make and deliver homemade pies to the grieving community after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-six people in the school, most of them around the tender age of six, were killed by a lone—and lonely—mentally ill gunman.
The story rocked the nation—distressed by the senseless loss of innocence. It was so blatantly wrong. So deeply troubling. It was impossible for me to sit with the sadness, the outrage and the overwhelming compassion, so much so that I got up from my desk, loaded up my pie-making supplies in the RV, and headed 1,000 miles east from Iowa to Newtown. I spent a full week away—several days in Flanders, New Jersey, where my friend Janice had organized what ended up being 60 volunteers in her neighborhood, and then several days in Newtown, where we handed out apple pie to a community hungry for comfort and support. Our gesture was in the form of food, food made with heart containing the intangible ingredient of love. It felt good to help. To not just read about it and sit alone with feelings of frustration, but to get involved, to actually do something.
It’s exactly two years later and I just moved from Iowa to Redondo Beach, California, so I could be nearer to my parents. (It is also very nice to be nearer to the beach.) I just settled into an apartment about 15 minutes away from theirs.
On Wednesday night, December 17, I spent the evening with my parents at their place. (I never turn down my mom’s cooking so I’m eating there nearly every night.) I was driving home after dinner around 10PM and my route along Pacific Coast Highway was blocked off by police cars, their emergency lights flashing red and blue in the darkness. I followed the other cars around that section of the three-block detour, but managed to catch a glimpse of the police scene. It appeared to be a car accident. Three cars were wedged together, their metal hoods buckled, in the middle of the highway. A team was surrounding it, measuring and documenting. I noted the Channel 5 news truck parked to the side. I continued on to my place, turned on the lights in my living room, and called my mom to let her know I made it home safely (a courtesy ingrained from the time I got my drivers license.) “Turn on the news to Channel 5, mom,” I told her. “There was an accident on PCH and it must have been bad.”
She called back a few minutes later. It was worse than bad. A 56-year-old woman, apparently intoxicated, ran a red light, drove around some stopped cars, and mowed down 12 people in a crosswalk who were just leaving a Christmas concert at St. James Catholic Church. The woman kept driving and only stopped when she plowed head-on into another car. All 12, plus the drunk driver and the driver of the car she hit, were injured. Or dead.
My heart crumpled into what felt like a wad of wrapping paper as I heard the news. Those poor people. Families coming out of a church Christmas concert. The definition of innocence—and the instant loss of it. It felt like Newtown all over again. Only this time a car was the weapon. Two of the people killed were grandmothers. One was a 36-year-old mother. The next day that mother’s six-year-old boy died from his injuries. He never had a chance. The child had been pinned under the tires of one of the cars. Some of the others injured are still in the hospital, several in serious condition.
Mine wasn’t the only heart to break over this story. The tragedy made international news, news that I was following closely, refreshing my news app every hour to see if anything more was known, anything that would help make sense of this otherwise mind-bending senselessness. Just how drunk was this woman? Did she have a driving record? How could this have happened? More importantly, how does a community recover? And what could I do to help? Make pie?
I was back at my parents for dinner last night, a Sunday. The topic of the tragedy came up again, what the media is calling the “Christmas concert crash.” I hadn’t told my mom how deeply I was still feeling for these Redondo Beach residents and their loss, and how I was wondering why it was still bothering me so much. Was it because it was in my own new neighborhood? Or because I came upon the site just two hours after it happened? Were the departed souls still at the scene and I was feeling their presence? Was it the knowledge from my own tragic losses of my late husband 5 years ago and my daughter-like dog, Daisy, only 5 weeks ago?
I wish I didn’t know what grief feels like, but I do. Which is why when grief strikes others in that sudden and unexpected way, my compassion escalates, soars. I have to be mindful not to take on others’ pain as if it were my own.
My mom goes to church at St. James, where the tragedy happened. She had been to noon mass yesterday and gave us the recap over dinner last night. “Father Francis’s eyes were very red. He looked so tired,” she started off. “He must be under so much stress. His sermon was very good. He talked about what happened. There had been a thousand people at the Christmas concert that night.”
I put my fork down, swallowed my bite of ravioli, and told her, “I noticed on my way over here that the shrine of flowers is gone. I thought that was very strange that they would remove it.” I was referring to the sidewalk in front of the church where mourners had left bouquets of flowers and teddy bears and candles. Collections of mementos like these serve as a public sympathy card and the bigger the pile of flowers and bears—the more signatures squeezed onto the card, so to speak—the more people care. (Newtown had so many flowers and teddy bears they had to hire moving trucks and warehouse space.)
“No, it’s still there. They had to move it,” my mom said. “It got so big it was blocking the sidewalk and people were having to stand in the street. With all the traffic it was too dangerous. They moved all the flowers to the church steps so people would also have a place to sit. The priest talked about it. He told a story about a florist who delivered a professional flower arrangement someone had sent. She wasn’t sure where to leave it as she had never been asked to deliver flowers to a street before. She was really choked up by it and Father Francis had to console her. He was already consoling all his parishioners, and he was grieving himself, but he gave the florist a hug.” My mom smiled warmly as she retold the story.
“I keep thinking about the woman driver,” I said. “I can’t believe she pleaded not-guilty.” The arraignment had been on Friday. “Why couldn’t she have said ‘Yes, I caused this. I am so very, very sorry. I accept the consequences of my actions.’ Why couldn’t she just be honest?”
Why can’t people admit fault? Why was her lawyer telling her not to speak? Instead he spoke for her, shooting poison arrows at empty excuses like, ‘Her brakes might have failed’ and ‘Her prescription medication might have been off.” Why do we have a legal system that doesn’t allow for integrity? If she could have simply said, “I’m sorry,” wouldn’t that help everyone in the aftermath? Wouldn’t that allow the families of the victims to move forward in their grieving process instead of being dragged down with legal battles? Wouldn’t the driver then be able to also move forward with her own life, a life that no matter how she pleads is forever changed. Whether in prison or free, she will carry the burden of ending four lives and altering the lives of countless others in that irreversible act, that one disastrous moment. At least one can hope she is cognizant enough to recognize how far-reaching and fatal the situation.
As if reading my ongoing thoughts, my mom continued, “Father Francis also preached about forgiveness. He even mentioned the driver by name: Margo.”
Forgiveness. Yes. Bad things happen. This Christmas carol crash happened. Sandy Hook happened. Marcus’s ill-formed heart causing a ruptured aorta happened. Daisy’s coyote attack happened. But the priest is right. The only path to compassion, the only real way to heal, is to forgive. And to accept that death, no matter how untimely or how tragic, will always, always, always be a part of life.
I’m going to drive over to St. James Church this afternoon (before I go over to my parents for dinner.) I’m bringing flowers and candles. My offerings may be less impactful or nourishing than the 250 apple pies we delivered to Newtown, but nothing could be greater or more well meaning than the prayer of love and forgiveness in my heart.
NOTE: St. James Church has set up a victims fund for the families. Click here to help: https://donations.la-archdiocese.org/sjvf/