When I was three years old, my daddy died. That’s quite a sad thing to happen, losing one’s father at such a young age, particularly when he was so young himself. Worse, he died suddenly, violently. His car was hit by a train, at a crossing that had a red light, but no warning arm to descend protectively across the track. He likely didn’t see the flashing red light. He assuredly didn’t see the train.
Terrible, you’re thinking, and so unfair. True, true.
Tragically, he wasn’t alone. His car carried a passenger. The passenger was killed in the accident as well. Two people, both fully alive, both suddenly dead. Daddy Joe’s passenger was only slightly younger than he, taken too soon right along with him.
His passenger was a woman.
Does this give you pause?
The woman was traveling to see her fiancé, that’s what her brother said. Catching a ride with my dad to see the fiancé. She and my dad knew one another from the lease shop, the brother said. She sold my dad oil leases. Nothing more to it, the brother said, just a business trip.
The brother was required to explain the situation, you see, because my dad was out of town—the train tracks he did not successfully cross were in Colorado Springs, and he lived in Denver.
Are you still with me?
So my dad was traveling out of town on a Friday night—did I mention that? The accident occurred late on a Friday evening, about 11:00 pm. His wife was back in Denver. With his two little girls. And another baby on the way.
What are you feeling now?
Still think it was tragic?
My dad’s still dead, still too young, still taken from his adoring family.
My mother did not know the woman in the car. She did not know the woman would be traveling with my dad. Only after the accident, did she learn of the woman in the car with her husband.
A beautiful young woman and a very handsome young man. Dead.
But . . . what if he was doing something he shouldn’t have been?
The facts unfurl, and what you felt at the beginning of my story (sorrow, regret, sympathy) morphs into something else: suspicion, justification, dismissal. Maybe even betrayal: I wasted my emotion on THAT?
You see, if we can successfully justify someone else’s death, even if we have to worm around to do it—ha! he was cheating on her!—we jump on it like a duck on a June bug. He deserved to die, we say, though we probably don’t use such straightforward words.
The point is, we ourselves aren’t doing the same bad thing he was, so we don’t deserve to die. Ergo, we will, in fact, not die.
Witness the triumph of the human brain . . . and fear.
If we remain interested in stories involving the violent death of strangers, it is usually only to tease out the facts we can then use to separate the death from ourselves—he was on drugs, he was drinking and driving, he had a psychotic episode, he was in a gang, he was committing a crime, he was up to no good, he lived in the wrong neighborhood, he wasn’t like us. Satisfied, we turn away.
The death we’ve just experienced is no longer tragic.
We’ve successfully separated from it.