Sunday, November 13, 2005

Baseballs and Dr. Pepper

I visited a grave yesterday. The sky was clear, blue, untroubled. The wind sent the last remaining leaves scurrying to and fro, forming little eddies around memorials large and small.

I had never met the young man buried there. He died a year ago, and his death, like most involving teenagers, had a profound effect on many in our community. He was the older brother of my middle child's close friend, and he died in a manner so sadly common today, one more blip on the DUI statistics chart.

As we drove through the cemetery, quietly searching for the tombstone, I could not but think about his parents. Good people, easy to talk to, folks I know only enough to share a few words with. Twelve months is scarcely time enough to let the pain slide into only profound sadness. I have many times this past year felt an emptiness in myself, inadequate to the simple task of expressing condolences. Not knowing the young man, I cannot feel his loss; I can't not feel for his family. But how does one tell the most casual of acquaintances that you grieve for them?

We had arrived after the office closed and had no map to guide our way. And yet my daughter somehow spied the marker, one among thousands. The gravesite was bedecked with flowers from those who had come to remember this young man, by all accounts a great kid. There must have been some who knew him well, leaving a few baseballs and bottles of Dr. Pepper at the base of the stone. When my only son asked what those mementos meant, I had no ready answer. They were an expression of love and regret, of the sorrow that only is felt in missing a friend who can never return, that touched me in a way the flowers did not. I could only hold his little 11 year old body close and pray that he would have the chance to grow old enough to understand.

About 18 hours before we took that quiet trip, I cared for a young man who drove his car into an immobile object at about 90 mph. ETOH level was a good 300, no seatbelt, fixed and dilated on arrival. The head CT showed enough swelling that the brain had a uniform flatness, with no discernible contours. After the tornado of activity in the trauma room subsided, it was clear to all, with the simplest of tests confirming it, that he was brain dead. Yet there was no one to call, no family known, no donor card signed. Nada. Zilch.

The next day, I stood in the wind hugging my kids in the cold bright daylight. I could not help wondering who will leave this new statistic flowers, hockey pucks, or bottles of pop in remembrance? And what other set of parents will awaken each day now so much older, with someone missing in their lives?

Buckle up. Teach your kids to buckle up. And take the time to remind them that drunk driving death statistics are made up of real people, including teenagers. If they don't quite get it, or just aren't listening, your friendly neighborhood ED is a good place for them to volunteer on a Friday night.