standard unearned sorrow

"A wrecked monochrome" (Hajnal Németh, photo by Lucy Hogg)

This is from an installation currently being shown at the Venice Biennale, called “Crash – Passive Interview,” by the Hungarian artist Hajnal Németh. According to her description of the installation, her work suggests “the possibility of determinacy with regard to human destiny.” Or, as Blake Gopnik said in his piece on the exhibit:

What is the classic tragedy of the modern age in the West? It isn’t really war or family strife or political turmoil – or the wrath of the gods. (Although there’s still plenty of all those to go around.) Statistically speaking, the West’s most standard unearned sorrow must come when loved ones die in cars.

And there lies my greatest fear. I do not fear losing my loved ones to bombs or knives or nukes or plague, but instead that they will be crushed in a head-on.

It’s one of those things I inherited from my mother, who never liked (and avoided if she could) allowing her two children to be in the same car. One of the few compliments she had for my father was that he was a  “good driver,” and she would go on to say how defensive he was. One had to be defensive.

Mr. Greenwood wasn’t defensive enough, I suppose, when he drove around that curve on his way to drop off his two boys at school. He didn’t see the drunk driver who early in the morning slammed head on into his car. He died, as did the littlest, leaving only Christopher, at age six, as the sole survivor. It was a tragedy and a miracle, and the whole town awaited even the slightest news of his journey in and finally out of coma. I lived with him, his grieving mother Pamela, and his baby sister Jennifer for a summer when I was fourteen or fifteen, caring for them all, helping Christopher with his therapy, and, in an incredible moment, watching him walk again after emerging from a coma which lasted several months and from which no one expected him to survive. I learned how strange grief is, in the moldy food I cleaned from the back of their fridge, in the way Pamela forged on raising her two children with such a brave face, her mask falling only briefly, and in private, in so many subtle ways. I wonder often what happened to them.

Colby, my friend from Michigan who I loved so much from our times in high school, died soon after she started college. I never knew the details of the crash, but I seem to recall that she was a passenger in a car full of friends.

Everyone, it seems, knows someone who died or lost someone to a car crash, and how many times we growl when traffic is snarled, inconvenienced by yet another accident, its gravity only apparent by the glass shattered on the ground, the number of ambulances, the state of the car as it is towed away.

I look at driving with uncommon respect and caution. I am all too aware of how easy it is to be distracted, to not have a quick enough reaction to the child who slips out between two cars in search of a ball like the garter snakes that used to wait on the side of the road on a hot summer day, darting out unexpectedly, only to be run over by my bike tires. It is dark, and rainy, and I can’t see them, but they think I can and they hurry to cross before me. I drive with fear because so many times I was driven by those who I know now might well have killed me with their inattention, their irresponsibility, the turn of head to smile or to reach for the radio dial to turn up the music.

I know that in the near future the human element will be removed from driving. Indeed, even know the stats may well show that auto deaths are on the decline, but I don’t care. My children can fly in a million planes and explore and travel to places others might consider dangerous. They can take all kinds of risks, but I worry most about them when they get in a car and I hear it drive off. It just takes a moment, just a moment, and all the world can change.

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4 thoughts on “standard unearned sorrow

    1. Oh thanks so much!

      As for the fear…inevitable I guess. I never seemed to fear much at all until I became a mother and, while it by no means paralyzes me, suddenly that need to protect your kids comes out something fierce!

  1. I share this fear too. As my oldest reminds me that in 1 year he can drive, I just cringe, for i know what a mixed blessing it will be to me.
    What great writing too!

    1. Actually I was in no hurry to see my son get his license, but soon realized that it’s better for him to learn so that he can drive rather than always be a passenger. I trust his driving better than that of some of his friends!
      Thanks for your comment and your visit!

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