A couple of weeks ago there was a fatal car wreck in a nearby town.
As a news story, it was pretty standard stuff. Time, location, number of cars involved. Get the identities of both drivers, throw in whatever police narrative is available and you’re done. Someone will follow up with the conditions of survivors in coming days, but by and large, that story is off your plate. On to the next crash or fire or council meeting.
I didn’t move on from this one so seamlessly, however. It stuck with me. In fact, it refused to go away.
Maybe it’s the fast access to personal information on social media — a quick check of the deceased woman’s Facebook page revealed that just a day or two before the crash that killed her, she had dropped her son off for a week at camp.
It was the first time the boy was to be away for an extended time and before the wrong-place-wrong-time crash silenced her forever, the young mother brooded on Facebook about missing her son.
It was thoughts of the boy, reveling in his first camp experience, that haunted me. Before that night was over, grim-faced cops and red-eyed camp counselors would have had to pull the boy aside and deliver the terrible news — your mother isn’t coming back. Yes, we know she told you that everything was going to be fine. We know she kissed your cheek and promised she’d see you soon, but she’s gone, son. Gone forever.
As is so often the case when people die in unexpected ways, it’s not the dead that haunt you, it’s thoughts of those who are left behind. The sad and bewildered children forced to learn all at once that life can be unspeakably cruel. The thunderstruck fathers and mothers gone mad with grief, the stuff of parental nightmares having come straight for their hearts.
I kept thinking of that boy, away at camp for the first time ever. I imagined his face red from the sun; his towel still soggy with lake water when the dreaded news was delivered.
Once you start imagining those little details you’re sunk, and that’s why a busy day on the police beat is preferable to a slow one — it’s hard to indulge in the gloom, after all, when you’re forced to flit from one story to the next with no pause in between.
Not long after the crash that killed the young mother, a 5-year-old in Scarborough reached into her father’s backpack, got her hands around a .45-caliber handgun and accidentally shot herself in the head.
Unfortunately, that was a slow day on the beat. There was time to indulge.
When I came to work for the paper in the ’90s, I had a weird thirst for crime. Home invasions, gangstas shooting at one another, the nebulous drug networks and all the intrigue that comes with them.
I’m still compelled by all that seedy drama for the most part. It’s the random tragedies, like a crappy lottery from hell, that will ruin your day. The crashes, the drownings, the fluke mishaps that strike like lightning out of sunny skies.
These aren’t people who deliberately set out to be horrible to one another, they are victims of conspiring circumstance.
If the young mother from the wreck had been driving 5 mph faster or 5 mph slower, she might have missed the other car altogether, living through the near-miss and learning from it. She would have picked her kid up from camp a few days later and life would have been marvelous again.
If the guy with the handgun had bought a ten-dollar holster at Walmart, his daughter’s curious fingers might never have found the trigger.
It’s those little details that get to you.
Empathy is like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s used. That ability to shake off the news gets harder, not easier, the longer you do it.