Is this how the dead get our attention?
While visiting my friend Sara, I picked up a novel called Carry the One in her bathroom and read the first chapter, in which a 10-year-old girl dies when she runs in front of a car. The next morning, I opened another book, Half a Life, on Sara’s kitchen table. It was a memoir by a man who accidentally killed a teenaged girl on a bicycle when she veered in front of his car. He was 17.
At this point, I remembered that I also killed someone when I was 17. I was driving the family Chrysler to a movie with my brother sitting next me and my mother in the back seat. I was going the speed limit, which was 45, when there was a clunk, and a blur of tawny brown, as a man bounced off my right front fender and disappeared into the darkness. I hadn't seen him until the moment of impact.
My mother told me to pull into the driveway of a house across the street. We all jumped out of the car and ran back down the road, looking frantically for the man. A police car arrived, summoned by the homeowners. A policeman came up to us and said they had found the man. We went into the house.
My father, working late at the office as usual, was called. He showed up right away. It seemed we were there a long time. A policeman interviewed us. He said the man had died instantly, without suffering. He said there were no tire marks next to the road, meaning it wasn't my fault, that the man had wandered into the road. The man was identified, but I already knew who it was—I had known from the moment I hit him.
Overlook Road is a long, winding country road that passes many housing developments as it makes its way through the diminishing farmland and out to a state highway. No one walked along Overlook except an old man I often saw shuffling down different stretches of the road. He wore a tan coat and shoes without shoelaces. He scared and repelled me, I suppose because he was a symbol of old age, dementia, and decline, subjects a young person prefers to avoid.
It turned out his family lived in one of the housing developments, and they just couldn't keep him inside. It was my bad luck that he chose to wobble into the road as I was driving past.
Finally, the police let us go home. In the morning, my pediatrician, who had heard the news on the radio, called to see if I was all right. My reaction was anger. Why should I not be all right? I hadn't done anything wrong. Of course I was fine. A man had died, but it wasn’t my fault.
I was in my 20s I realized that something disturbing had happened to me. I felt guilty because I so disliked the old man, some part of me wanted him to die. Sobbing on a friend’s shoulder gave me relief.
For years, when I visited my parents, I would drive down that section of road and not even think of the old man. About a year ago, I found myself compelled, whenever I drove past, to try to recall which of the houses we had gone to and exactly where the man had gone down. Then I began wanting to avoid the road. I felt a momentary glimmer of pain whenever I drove along that stretch.
I told Sara about the two books, which she hadn’t even read, and about the old man. As a physical therapist, she has worked with many Alzheimer’s patients, who often have the compulsion to wander. “He may have been grateful to you,” she said. “Life is difficult and painful for many people with Alzheimer’s.”
At home, I lit a candle on my ancestor shrine for the old man and welcomed him. Now he can be my ally.
[See Violet's Facebook page, "News of My Ancestors," about her book-in-progress.]
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