It was early Saturday evening when I first caught a moment of the accident flashing across the television screen at my mom‘s home, where I’d stopped by to help her move some furniture.
I recall hearing something about a teenager losing control of a sports utility vehicle and slamming into pedestrians near an elementary school in Pasadena. I can‘t remember now if I even thought anything past ”What a bummer.“ As eyewitnesses described the carnage, I hurried to finish helping Mom and get up to the gym.
A former crime reporter who covered southeast Los Angeles County for years, I had long since chosen to zone out the nightly body counts that pass for lead stories in the L.A. broadcast market these days. Having grown tired of covering human suffering firsthand, I grew tired of hearing relentlessly about it secondhand as well. I figured I just didn’t care anymore, that it didn‘t matter anyway. Perhaps that was a mistake.
Stuck in Monday-morning traffic on the Foothill Freeway, I heard my pager buzz. The message on the small quartz display screen hardly seemed ominous. ”Call Ross at Casa Colina.“
Ah, a buddy of mine was ringing me up. Unusually early, but whatever. A few minutes later, my pager buzzed again. ”Ross is waiting for your call.“
Hmmmmm. Wonder what’s up?
I was pulling into work when I got his third page, noting that he would ”stay at his desk“ until I called. Now alarm bells started going off in my head as I looked for a phone. Three consecutive pages in less than a half-hour from an old friend I have lately been talking to every few months suddenly had bad news written all over it.
As I dialed the number, I tried to restrain the thought that one among our circle of friends was either dead or dying. Maybe he just wanted me to tune in to a particularly wicked Howard Stern or Mark & Brian riff that was in progress. Maybe he‘d just won the lottery and we were all going to Hawaii. Maybe anything but that call none of us want to get.
Three words were all it took.
”Have you heard?“ he asked.
No, but I was about to. His tone was unmistakable. It reeked of death. ”You haven’t heard about Sarah and Howard?“
I paused. Sarah and Howard Karesh? On the short list I had quickly compiled in the back of my mind of friends I should be worried about, they had not made the cut. Two people I had known since our days at Emerson Junior High School in Pomona in the 1970s, they were busy living the quintessential suburban life, raising two kids in a big old Victorian in Pasadena. While I still have a few friends living — and even dancing — on the proverbial edge, Howard and Sarah were nowhere near it. They had grown up and settled down.
”Sarah‘s dead. So is Madison. They were run over by that kid in the SUV. Howard was hit too,“ Ross said. ”It’s been all over the news. It‘s in the paper.“
I wasn’t sure what to say. It just didn‘t seem to register for a few moments. I think I may have mumbled one of those standard default phrases you go to when your mind blanks and the autopilot kicks in, like ”Oh no, you’re kidding“ — as if he possibly could have been.
But then what do you say when death comes roaring out of safe abstraction to claim the lives of a friend‘s wife and their 4-year-old daughter as they walked to a fair at the Chandler School one perfect Saturday afternoon? What do you say as you’re forced to ponder your friend lying on the ground, injured himself, his family snatched from him without warning or reason in but a few horrific seconds?
What is there to say? To do? To even think? I hung up the phone and searched around the office for a copy of Sunday‘s Los Angeles Times, as if seeing it in print might somehow burn some clarity through the gauze of numb disbelief that had settled across my mind and soul.
There it was on the front page of the Metro section. I re-read the second paragraph several times: ”The victims were identified as . . .“
The story was a typical newspaper account of a human tragedy that managed to resonate above the base-line level of chaos for a few moments, if only perhaps because of the seeming senselessness of it. In a culture that demands a motive, reason or cause for everything — one that seeks to install a black box into every aspect of our lives so that in our death the living may be graced with exactly how and why we died — this tragedy could not be so easily accounted for.
The Times story offered a cursory view of the facts: direction and description of the vehicle, some eyewitness accounts, the perfunctory quote of ”nothing bad has ever happened [here]“ and a map detailing the accident location.
I’ve written a thousand stories and news briefs just like it.
But now it was my friends and their family appearing in that crucial line that tells everyone else who has been ushered off the planet this time around.
I spent the rest of the day at work talking with old friends on the phone, listening to them cast about as I was, somewhat calm but bewildered by our friends‘ hard fate, uncertain what it all really meant. Uncertain what we should do, perhaps even how we should act. No one I spoke with cried; there were just a lot of long silences.
I know the tears are sure to come later, but a sense of meaning — some clarity of reason — probably never will. And that’s what I think is so unnerving for us.
As it stands now, there is no clear villain to hate or focus rage upon: no gutless gangsters, no repeat drunken drivers, not even a public-safety hazard that should have been fixed years ago. Just some kid behind the wheel of a high-speed tank that his parents probably bought him. Yet the most vindictive thought I could muster was aimed at his parents: I couldn‘t ride my bike safely when I was 16, what the hell made you think your teen would navigate a massive vehicle like a Ford Bronco in a responsible manner? Or that he had the capacity to drive it safely at all?
As the day wore down, I found myself replaying snapshots of Howard: the buddy I joined a high school punk rock band with, manned the university barricades against nukes together, got ripped and ripped-off together in Tijuana nightclubs . . . the guy I watched eventually morph into a happy dad grounded in a stable domestic life with his family.
And it seemed that having his life literally crushed without warning brought the possibility of such a fate much closer to my own doorstep.
Before I left for home, my boss sat me down and related a brush with death she had experienced. ”What I would encourage you to do is ask yourself each and every day, ’What did I do to celebrate my life today?‘“ she said. ”Don’t let a day go by without doing that.“
I drove home and tried to concentrate on her advice. I recalled Brandon Lee, the day before he was accidentally killed on a movie set, musing about how we should appreciate each sunset we see because we never know which one will be the last we get to enjoy.
Sitting on the steps in my back yard, I watched my dogs rolling gleefully in the fresh-cut grass. Snorting, flipping and stretching in the growing shadows of sunset. They almost seemed to be laughing, lost in a perfect contentment of the moment.
Maybe they‘ve figured it out.
Maybe they understand, instinctively, that there really is no why and there often is no warning. When death comes, it just comes.
In the meantime, we should just celebrate our lives a little each day and relish every sunset we can.