When I was a young girl, I read avidly, and always read Ann Landers's column in the newspaper. It was interesting to read about society's drama and issues, and see what Ann was going to pull out of her hat to help them out with. Sometime in 1996, the year I graduated high school, I came across a particular column that struck me very deeply, so much so that I cut it out of the paper and put it into this big, green photo album that I kept things that I liked in.
That day's column was a request for a reprint of a piece Ann had run before, called "Dead at 17" by John Berrio. Maybe you've seen it, maybe not, but here it is:
Agony claws my mind. I am a statistic. When I first got here, I felt very much alone. I was overwhelmed by grief, and I expected to find sympathy.
I found no sympathy. I saw only thousands of others whose bodies were as badly mangled as mine. I was given a number and placed in a category. The category was called "Traffic Fatalities."
The day I died was an ordinary school day. How I wish I had taken the bus! But I was too cool for the bus. I remember how I wheedled the car out of mom. "Special favor," I pleaded. "All the kids drive." When the 2:50 p.m. bell rang, I threw my books in the locker... free until tomorrow morning! I ran to the parking lot, excited at the thought of driving a car and being my own boss.
It doesn't matter how the accident happened. I was goofing off - going too fast, taking crazy chances. But I was enjoying my freedom and having fun. The last thing I remember was passing a lady who seemed to be going awfully slow. I heard a crash and felt a terrific jolt. Glass and steel flew everywhere. My whole body seemed to be turning inside out. I heard myself scream.
Suddenly, I awakened. It was very quiet. A police officer was standing over me. I saw a doctor. My body was mangled. I was saturated with blood. Pieces of jagged glass were sticking out all over. Strange that I couldn't feel anything.
Hey, don't pull that sheet over my head. I can't be dead. I'm only 17. I've got a date tonight. I'm supposed to have a wonderful life ahead of me. I haven't lived yet. I can't be dead.
Later, I was placed in a drawer. My folks came to identify me. Why did they have to see me like this? Why did I have to look at Mom's eyes when she faced the most terrible ordeal of her life? Dad suddenly looked very old. He told the man in charge, "Yes, he's our son."
The funeral was weird. I saw all of my relatives and friends walk toward the casket. They looked at me with the saddest eyes I've ever seen. Some of my buddies were crying. A few of the girls touched my hand and sobbed as they walked by.
Please, somebody - wake me up! Get me out of here. I can't bear to see mom and dad in such pain. My grandparents are so weak from grief they can barely walk.
My brother and sister are like zombies. They move like robots. In a daze. Everybody. No one can believe this. I can't believe it, either.
Please, don't bury me! I'm not dead! I have a lot of living to do! I want to laugh and run again. I want to sing and dance. Please don't put me in the ground! I promise if you give me one more chance, God, I'll be the most careful driver in the whole world. All I want is one more chance. Please, God, I'm only 17.
In 1996, I had had my driver's license for a year. I was 17 years old. That column hit me like a sledgehammer to my soul and psyche. It made me cry. It shook me up, made me realize that I was not invincible and I did not want to die.
Reading it from the voice and perspective of someone my age helped me understand that I had only just begun to experience life and had so much more ahead of me. It made me see that death is final, drove it home to me more than the death of my grandfather, an old man who had lived long enough to see the stages of his life play out.
I kept it as a reminder to myself that life is frail and not to be treated lightly. I kept it as a reminder to be safe not only when driving but in everything I did. This is not to say that I didn't make stupid judgment calls and mistakes, because I definitely did, but fortunately, nothing truly bad resulted.
Over the years, the album page that I placed the column in has remained with me (not the whole album, though) through multiple moves, including to another state. The edges of the page are yellow and old. I will keep it for my boys to read when they begin driving, and I hope it affects them as deeply as it did me. I want it to hit them deep in their souls, slap them upside their heads and penetrate the recesses of their brains, make them realize that they are not invincible, nor indestructible, make them second-guess making a stupid choice. I want it to help them see that they have their whole lives ahead of them, that they've only just begun to live, that their parents do not want to bury them. That we can't bury them.
It would break me.
It would break me.
I want it to help them understand that they only have one chance. Not only while driving but in life.