Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Living with the Unforgiveable

I live in Cloverdale, out in the country on the eastern side of Alexander Valley, looking over the vineyards. My friends, Zen community, and errands take me each week to Guerneville, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa. But Calistoga is my second home.

Calistoga is the place I first moved to when I left San Francisco eight years ago, and it is where I have worked as a reporter for a small town newspaper during all that time. It is a little bit like being in Mayberry. The police chief, the fire chief, the city manager, planning commissioners and councilmembers all say hi to me when they see me on the street. I can't go to Cal Mart, the grocery store, without running into at least five people who want to stop and chat. I know the people at the post office by name, and can call either the high school or elementary school and say, "It's Michelle," and they know exactly who I am, just by my voice.

So when something rocks that community, even though it is technically not my hometown, it hits me hard.

Last week, a 52-year-old woman from Calistoga was driving in St. Helena, getting ready to make a turn onto Highway 29. But when she made that turn, she didn't look both ways. She struck an 82-year-old woman in the crosswalk. The older woman did not survive the accident. And now, this mother, this wife, this community member, is trying to live with the unforgiveable: she took someone's life.

The driver was not drunk. It was not dark. The pedestrian did not suddenly dash out into traffic. It was simply one moment, one horrendous lapse in attention, that changed both of their lives forever.

Of course, I grieve for the poor woman who died. Such a tragic, unnecessary accident. And I feel for her family. Their world has been ripped apart.

But I am haunted by the fate of the other woman, the driver. She must feel as if she is in a living hell. I imagine that she plays the scene over and over in her mind, thinking of all the "if only" and "I should have" and "how" scenarios. She is not someone I know, but I am friends with people who do know her. And one of them said to me tonight that he is afraid she will never recover, because she just can't forgive herself.

It could so easily have been me, or you, behind that wheel. How many times have I driven on auto-pilot? How often have I been distracted, leaning over to change a CD, or trying to fish my BlueTooth ear piece out of my pocket? How ridiculously fragile a human life is, when confronted with a moving automobile.

I have my own "unforgiveable" moments, things in my past that I seem to never get beyond, scenes that play over and over in my mind, always wishing that things had turned out differently, or I had responded with greater love, or a stronger sense of self preservation, or ... or anything but the way it actually happened. Those scars run so deep.

And yet, I am almost ashamed to think of them tonight - they seem so trivial compared to the anguish that this woman must be going through. How exactly does one recover from something like this? Where will she find her strength?

I can come up with "Zen" answers: be in the present moment. Do the next right thing. Sit. Love yourself so you can love the world. But would I have the courage, if I were in her shoes, to follow that advice?

What would you do?


  1. this too is interconnection, the connection being compassion —— from Latin: "to suffer with."


  2. I don't really know what I would do. I'd like to think that I'd be able to feel all that I was feeling and practice forgiveness for myself. I'd like to think that I'd read your blog and know that I was not alone. I'd like to think that my heart would heal with time and that I'd keep on loving the whole world, including myself.

  3. Michelle,

    I have had the same thoughts regarding this tragic accident. I was out of town when it happened, but that is my most typical route when I leave home to go to work. Like you, I sincerely hope that the driver can recover. Maybe, it would be some small consolation if she knew how much more present many of us will attempt to be, and how we pray that the end result will not be two lives lost.

  4. I am really struggling with something that I did badly, unintentionally, that caused harm and loss months ago . . . oddly, the day that it came up was Feb 10, the day you posted this. So that coincidence helps me really open up to the compassion you express here. Living with something done badly and not able to be fixed is really hard. I am thankful that I am not the woman who hit the other woman with her car, or one of the people responsible for the decisions that resulted in the BP oil spill. And it is compassionate to not just hide from that very uncomfortable feeling in identifying with someone else who did cause harm (comfortably turning off from that would be the much easier thing) . . . because empathy can be such a lifeline to the person who did do harm.