Forgiveness and The Boy

In 1981 I was hit by a drunk driver. A few weeks before the accident, my wife told me that she felt unsafe in our automobile, one of the first “X cars” produced by General Motors. The car had been a disaster from the beginning when we picked it up new from the dealer and couldn’t get it started. Workers on the lot pushed it into a service bay and two hours later emerged to say that the fuel line had never been connected to the motor at the factory – a sure sign that we had acquired a lemon. The car performed up to my expectations, which weren’t very high. Two years later my wife had had enough, and said that she felt that as our family was growing, we needed a safer automobile. That meant Volvo.

I took delivery of our new burgundy 240 on a Saturday morning and spent the next seven hours trying to install a radio, a task made difficult by my complete lack of electrical ability and Volvo’s proprietary mounting and electrical system. Saturday evening, when the radio was finally working, Jane told me that we were at the end of our supply of diapers, there was no cash in the house, and that as a result, she would plan to spend Sunday morning at home close to the bathroom for our not-yet-toilet-trained daughter (it’s hard to believe there was a time before ATM machines!).

Sunday morning I took off for church at my customary hour of 5:30 am, and spent the morning trying to focus on the service while I was secretly itching to get back in my new car. When the last hand was shaken and the doors and lights secured, I got in the car and headed for home. The drive home took me down Route 25 on the north shore of Long Island, a speedy four lane road with contours up, down, and around. I passed John Smith’s famous bull, a familiar landmark for those who have traveled along the north shore. But just as I was passing Raneri’s Restaurant, home of my favorite spinach salad, a large Buick appeared over the top of a rise swerving at high speed in my lane. A quick glance to my right just seconds before showed a car transporting a young family – father at the wheel, children in the back, and a mother in the passenger side of the front with an infant in her lap. Can’t swerve, slam on the brakes, brace, impact.

When I returned (and I have never really been able to describe where I went), there was a man pressing rhythmically on my chest. He was shouting something, but only a few words registered, “Navy medic,”  “breathe!” I wondered how this man had come to be in the passenger side of my car and then I realized I wasn’t in a car – just a twisted frame of metal. Blood in my eyes, glass in my mouth. The air was painted in pain – searing, down to the core of my being pain. The noise was deafening – people shouting, a coursing rhythmic pounding in my head, my new friend yelling at me to stay with him.

I was trapped in the car for two hours. When fire and police and ambulance arrived, they were yelling somewhere outside a small world I had entered; a world marked by little more than a desire to crawl to the side of the road and seek quiet. Someone threw something heavy and scratchy over me as a metal wrenching, tearing noise began to trump all other sound. The Jaws of Life, they later told me. It didn’t work – there was too much metal to move.

My Navy medic (if you ever read this, bless you for your kindness and attention – you left before I had a chance to thank you or get your name) told me they would have to wait for an acetylene torch so they could cut the car apart. He stayed with me underneath the asbestos blanket, talking continually in what I assumed were reassuring tones. “Nice car,” he said. “There’s only 16 miles on the odometer. Just get it?” I nodded, I think. At one point I managed to croak, “There’s glass in my mouth – can I spit it out?” “Hey,” he said, “it’s your car!”

Eventually, they cut off the roof of the car and the door frame, placed a neck brace on me and eased me out, strapping me to a body board. Ambulance, sirens, fast corners, waiting gurney at the ER.

A nurse started cutting my clothing off (“Hey, these are new pants!”). pulling fabric gently away from open lacerations. They pulled off my shoes; striped off my socks, only to find glass in the toes. In the toes!

Needles, then a welcome and gentle fog descends and while I’m aware that they are moving my body around, it’s almost as though they are manipulating someone in another room. Suturing starts – head, hands, leg. My wife is admitted to the room, shrouded in near-death worry. She apologizes for taking so long – traffic is backed up for miles because of the accident. She looks me over, top to bottom, sees that my right foot dangles at an unlikely angle at the end of my leg.

The next few hours pass in a fog. There’s talk of consults and morphine and fluids, but it’s happening somewhere else. When I emerged from the first hospitalization many days later, I had been permanently altered. While I hadn’t look exactly like James Bond before, I looked and felt like Dr. Frankenstein’s patchwork man after.

The next two years were marked by surgeries, more pain, an inability to walk, and anger. Orthopedic surgeons kept cutting away pieces of crushed bone, hoping it would grow back healthy. It never did. Lots of anger. Incalculable, pan-atmospheric anger. My body had been permanently changed, its agility and integrity stolen from me. I couldn’t chase my children around the yard, go for relaxing walks, move with confidence and ease.

I was to discover later that the drunk that hit me was a 16 year old boy out for a joy ride. His parents had gone away for the weekend, leaving him in the house alone and on Sunday morning, he got up, invaded the liquor cabinet, and took to the road.

Naturally, lawyers got involved. Lots of lawyers: my lawyers, my insurance company’s lawyers, the boy’s lawyers, his insurance company’s lawyers. They were all very clear what they wanted. My insurance company’s lawyers wanted to recapture the cost of a brand new vehicle and my medical expenses, his lawyers wanted to demonstrate that poor little snookems didn’t really do anything wrong and that somehow, in one of the great mysteries of the cosmos, it just had to be my fault. My lawyers wanted a third of the settlement. I told them what I wanted. I wanted him ruined. I wanted his life destroyed. I wanted any possibility of future success or happiness surgically removed from his life, just as the capacity of my body to move comfortably through the world had been taken from me. I wanted his name to be a pariah the length and breadth of the land.

I never actually saw the boy until the first deposition was taken almost two years after the accident. I spent those two years seething, looking for revenge, retribution. Roiling with ever-present rage, my personality and my behavior changed.

Sitting at a table surrounded by lawyers at the first deposition, I waited with cold and calculating anticipation for the destroyer of lives to arrive with his retinue. The son of a bitch was about to get his, just as he gave me mine.

Then he walked in and I looked at him, an “I’ve got you in my sights” look. And it hit me: he was just a little boy — just a stupid little boy that did something that lots of other stupid little boys do.

My anger, my desire for retribution, my resentment – these had not hurt him at all, but they had changed me, made me something less, something other than what I had been before, and what I longed to be. It wasn’t just that my body had been changed — my spirit had been diminished as well. And I, I who had been in the professional forgiveness business for more than a decade, realized – forgiveness isn’t something we do for other people. It’s something we do for ourselves. Forgiveness is not absolution – it is the intentional decision not to carry something around anymore; to be free and unhindered by the actions of others. And yes, I am different today, three decades later — my body is different, my gratitude for each breath greater, my heart and mind free of weight.