We pulled up to the accident as 911 was being called, as people were stepping out of cars.
I could see two teenagers near the ditch and my brother-in-law’s parents next to their wrecked truck. I parked in the grass and rushed over.
Are you okay? Is everyone okay?
Fine. Everyone was fine.
She tried to get on the exit ramp, they said. We were just sitting here and there was nothing we could do but let her hit us.
The two teenagers, a boy and a girl, were pacing the gravel edge of the ramp as cars tried to maneuver around the accident. The girl was yelling things back at the car, at the woman she had been riding with.
Can you handle them? Pam asked. You’re a teacher, can you make her calm down?
It looked like the girl was throwing a fit. I really didn’t want to get involved in that part; I had just stopped to make sure they were okay, to see if they needed a ride to the birthday party we were both on our way to.
I took a deep breath and walked over.
Hey guys, you want to come and stand out of the way of cars with me? I know you’re upset, but let’s not get near the traffic. You can sit in my air-conditioned car if you want.
We crossed the ramp together, and I opened the trunk of my SUV for shade and a place to sit. They were too upset to stop moving, to stop calling parents and siblings for rides.
It seemed to be taking the police forever to arrive.Maybe you could call too, Pam said.
I called 911, giving them directions and answering questions.
Is it on the county road or the exit ramp?
Can you see the mile marker?
Is anyone hurt?
As I spoke to the operator, the driver of the other car–the one that had held the teenagers–climbed back in her car, buckled her seat belt, and put the car in gear.
She was leaving the scene, and she was leaving the kids.
I think she’s drunk, I whispered into the phone. She’s trying to leave.
Another passerby had stopped as I was on the phone, a retired sheriff. He had unintentionally blocked her car when he pulled up, but she didn’t seem concerned about what was in her way. She was going to leave. He reached into her car, threw it in park, and ripped the keys out of the ignition.
What I did is illegal, I can’t take her keys, but I did it anyway, he told us as we stood there shocked and reframing the story we just got pulled into.
I went back over to the kids; my girls were hanging out the backseat, bored and only mildly interested in the drama unfolding. Chris sat slumped in the front seat, never turning around, never moving to get out or join the conversation.
Is she drunk, I asked the kids.
Yes, they said. She was drinking before we got in the car.
Then the girl started crying.
It’s okay, I said.
You’re safe now.
We won’t leave until someone is here for you.
It all just became too heavy, too real, too close.
Neither car had much damage. The lady wasn’t going fast as she tried to get on the exit ramp during rush hour on a Friday afternoon. But she would have gained speed. She would have gone faster as she traveled up the exit ramp to face 70 mile-an-hour traffic head on. Semis and work trucks, minivans and buses.
What at first felt like a silly fender bender became more serious when we realized what could have happened.
You were stopped at just the right time.
The police showed up. The passerby handed off the keys and drove away. Reports were started. Kids were assured none of this was their fault. An open container was found in her car, and she was read her rights.
I prayed the kids’ parents would arrive before they cuffed her, but it happened too fast and they got to witness their great aunt be led to a police cruiser. She could barely walk.
Hey, I said, as the drama started to wind down. I know you don’t know me and you’ll probably roll your eyes, but I have to say this: you don’t ever have to get in the car with an adult you think has been drinking. You get to say no. You call someone–I’ll give you my number and you can call me–but you don’t ever get in the car with someone who’s been drinking, okay?
The girl nodded through tears.
The boy listened as he looked at the ground.
My kids peeked over the backseat of the car and observed.
My husband sat in the front seat and stared out the window.
There was a time I would have felt smug and satisfied by this ending. Drinking and driving is a dumb, selfish choice and you get what you deserve when you decide to do it.
But that was my surface level view. That was my safe, tidy, that-doesn’t-happen-here mentality. I still know drinking and driving is dumb and selfish; I still think consequences are warranted. But there is no smugness or satisfaction anymore.
Mostly, there’s just heartache.
She was going to jail and would probably be there for a while. This wasn’t her first time. This wasn’t her first bad choice.
Addiction is a horrible disease.
It made an aunt try to drive two kids onto the interstate heading the wrong way. It broke my marriage and my heart and my family, affects we’re still feeling and dealing with years later. It’s taken away kids I went to high school with and innocent drivers heading home from work.
It is never just the drinking though. It is what’s under the drinking: the wounds and trauma, the abuse and fear, the mental health issues and the broken people who bring more broken people into the world without trying to heal themselves first. It’s about family legacy and generational sin; it’s about co-dependency and enabling, hiding and checking out.
It’s about a million other things rooted in sin and the fall and the devil too.
The kids’ parents arrived. There was sobbing and death-grip hugs that required eyes to be diverted. Their mom hugged me, hiccuped into my arm as I reassured her they are okay, they are okay, they are okay.
It could have been worse, she said. And I could feel the shame and guilt and fear wrapped up in the implication.
I knew she was asking why she let this happen, why she didn’t think about it, what could she have stopped, why she didn’t see it.
Because those were my questions, things still rolling around in my head and, when I think too much about it, rolling around in my belly and my bones and my speech too. I wanted to tell her we are not in control of other people’s choices and trusting people isn’t wrong. But she learned and I learned and we do things differently now.
The cars were driveable.
My brother-in-law’s parents arrived at the party an hour late, with a busted headlight and crunched bumper. The other family refused to drive the lady’s car home, letting it be towed and handled later. I felt a glimmer of hope that getting the full weight of her consequences would push her to seek the help she needs when she gets out of jail. The boy let me know her mom would handle all of this, telling me in his own words she was enabling the aunt to survive in this living death.
We all have our own demons; sometimes they lead to addiction and sometimes they lead us to help others become addicted.
I prayed detox in jail went okay. For addicts, going cold turkey could be enough to send you to the hospital. I prayed anyone giving her the space and excuse and allowance to continue to live like this would stop. I prayed that when she came home, she woke up.
When I turned the car off in my sister’s driveway, the girls ran inside to change into bathing suits. There was a sprinkler and trampoline calling their names and their cousins were waiting for them.
Are you okay, I asked as we sat in the car, listening to the pop and hiss of the cooling engine.
I’m just sad, Chris said. It’s just sad.
We didn’t say what it meant for him or me. We didn’t say what could have happened if she had not been stopped at the entrance to the ramp. We didn’t say what timing and a perfectly-placed truck meant for the kids in that car or the ones in ours. How there was a chance we would have met her on the interstate that afternoon.
We didn’t say much. We just sat in the heaviness, the what ifs, the grace and favor we were covered in yet again for reasons I don’t understand and we don’t deserve.
I’m just sad, Chris said. It’s just sad.
I hope you’re not reading this story and looking for a hero. There is no hero here. No one to save the day or make the right call or keep everybody safe. And if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I would have stopped if I had known what I was walking into. So don’t find any noble action in any part of this retelling.
Addiction doesn’t allow much room for heroes; it makes sure to bruise, scar, or destroy every single thing it comes in contact with.
All we can do is what Chris Graham did as we exited the car and walked into the birthday party that night: be honest about the hurt, acknowledge there is a better way, and ask for help.
Be honest about the hurt.
Acknowledge there is a better way.
Ask for help.
We do it for ourselves, for the bystanders in our lives, and for the people we will meet on the road ahead.