Helen Marie had promised to be right back.
So when the light began to fade on that sunny June day and our 16-year-old daughter still wasn’t home, my husband, John, jumped in his truck to go look for her. Helen Marie had gone rollerblading on the bike path near our home, and John knew her route.
While it was unusual for our daughter to be late – she’d promised to help our younger son with his homework that afternoon – John was not yet imagining the worst.
Then, a few blocks from home, he came upon a public service truck blocking the road. When John said he was looking for his daughter, who’d gone rollerblading, he was asked to pull over and wait. Someone wanted to talk to him.
“Please,” my husband silently prayed, “just let her be hurt.”
A police officer approached my husband. Much later, we learned he was David Greenwell, a traffic homicide investigator with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
He carried a Polaroid picture. “Is this your daughter?”
The girl in the image was dead. John shook his head. He did not recognize Helen Marie, not like that. Greenwell radioed for the medical examiner’s van, which now carried her body.
John watched as they opened the back door, rolled out a gurney, and lifted a white sheet from her face. John had watched similar scenes play out dozens of times on TV crime shows. But it was nothing like this. Nothing like this at all.
“There was no longer any room for fooling myself. There was no room for any doubt or questions,” John recalls. “There she was. She was dead, in front of me.”
Helen Marie was almost home when a 17-year-old driver, high on marijuana, drunk on tequila and driving twice the posted speed lost control of her car and veered onto the bike path, killing her instantly.
Shock and grief blurred the minutes and hours that followed. But John remembers the white sheet, the sticks, and leaves in Helen Marie’s blonde hair, the bruises from the blunt force trauma that killed her. He remembers that he didn’t touch her and that he never again got the chance.
He remembers turning to alcohol to try to numb the bitterness and grief that seized him – and ultimately realizing that no amount of booze can take away the pain of burying a child.
“If anything,” John says, “it keeps you steeped in it,” and so he decided, much like I did, that he could either let the loss kill him or learn to live with it.
John and I chose life.
It is not always easy. Some occasions will never be joyous. Father’s Day is a reminder of what we are missing, even though we are so grateful for our surviving son, John.
Weddings are particularly painful. Helen Marie was just 16 when she died, but my husband had imagined joining her for a father-daughter dance if she decided to one day marry. (And footing the bill for the celebration.)
“All those days that would be joyful under normal circumstances are generally not for me,” John says. “It won’t be and it can’t be.”
A drunk driver stole that – and so much else – from him. From us. From all the lives she touched and would have touched in the years that stretched out before her on that sunny day in June 19 years ago.