I don’t know how Loretta’s story begins, but I do know how it ends. I have had to retell the events numerous times, but it never gets any easier. Most stories people love sharing over and over again, but this is one story that hurts with each retelling. I wonder how her story began: I had such a pivotal role in how it ended.
My brother Matt inserted himself back into our lives: He was living in the spare room on the couch bed. My parents and I moved to Phoenix from Scottsdale when dad was appointed Sr. Pastor at First United Methodist of Glendale. My older siblings are adopted and living away from home. Being the baby, I was still in the nest. We had seen neither hide nor hair of Matt for several months. His absence was nothing new. Since he was a teenager he had been in and out of our lives and in and out of jail. A warrant was out for his arrest as he had violated probation. His most recent crime: he stole money from my parents. As a family, we don’t discuss his crimes much. In fact, we do not discuss anything of a troublesome or uncomfortable nature much.
Neither my parents nor I went to the grocery store yet that week: With Matt living with us, our cabinets grew bare much more quickly. Due to Matt’s complaining, I was instructed to drive us to a fast food restaurant. (Matt could not drive because he does not have a car and even if he did, his license was suspended for drinking and driving.) Matt wanted Wendy’s for dinner and I reluctantly agreed. The restaurant was located next to my previous employer, AMEC Mid-city Animal Hospital. I quit my job as a Veterinary Assistant because my coworkers were unpleasant, my checks bounced, and I wasn’t paid overtime. Nevertheless, it was a short drive away – just at Glendale and about 17th Dr. and we lived at 7th Ave. and Northern.
Phoenix in March feels chilly and the sun sets quickly. I donned a long-sleeved shirt of my favorite color, sea foam green; jeans; a neon pink belt; a somewhat short-in-the arms grey hooded jacket; and my favorite green and pink Converse sneakers. Matt, as usual, dressed like a thug in pants two sizes too large. Ever since Jr. High he wore baggy clothes and listened to rap. Looking at us no one would suspect that we were related: Because we share no blood, we share no similar physical features. He is African-American and I am Irish-American. We are as different as night and day. People typically suspect we are only friends since we are so close in age – only 18 months apart. I would say not friends, only family.
Matt and I climbed into my white 1996 Jeep Cherokee, my dream car, lovingly called Jeepy. I methodically strapped myself in and pulled the knob to turn on the lights. Matt did not strap himself in but tuned the radio to play his favorite rap station. I grimaced.
“Do we have to listen to that?” I whined. “It’s my car.”
He only grinned in return, dismissing my complaint.
We cruised to Wendy’s, mildly chatting about nothing in particular. My mind wandered away from the jarring, repetitive music to my boyfriend at the time, Josh. He was the ultimate rebel without a clue. I was young and smitten – I can’t deny that I didn’t doodle my name with his last name in my notebooks – very high school for a 20 year old. I thought about buying Josh a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and chili fries. I would surprise him by dropping it off at his house. He did not make very much money and sometimes skipped meals. What a pleasant treat I could bring him!
Rather than spend time eating at Wendy’s and conversing with each other (something I am sure neither of us wanted to do – especially since I had ulterior motives), we decided to get our dinner, stop by Seven Eleven to get drinks (Big Gulps for 99 cents!), swing by Josh’s house to drop off a hamburger, and then go home. Estimated time of the trip: No more than half an hour.
I placed our order and pulled up to the window.
“Dinner’s on me,” Matt said, whipping a 20 dollar bill from his pocket and waving it in the air as if it were a fan.
“You mean dinner’s on Dad,” I replied, snatching the bill from him and handing it to the cashier. “It’s not like you have a job to pay for it.”
“Either do you,” he retorted.
This was typical of Matt – to get money from Mom and Dad. At least this time he honestly obtained the money, albeit by complaining. The cashier took the bill and produced my change. A minute later he handed me a large bag of food and a Frosty. Immediately the jeep filled with the aroma of Wendy’s. My stomach rumbled in anticipation. Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers are my favorite!
I pulled away from the Wendy’s and turned left onto Glendale Ave. I had made this turn numerous times before leaving AMEC Mid-City Animal Hospital. Depending on the time of day, this could be a tricky endeavor: a Fry’s Grocery store was just west of Wendy’s and AMEC. People in the area typically walked to the store and Glendale Ave. was busy during the day. In the evenings the street was poorly lit, just two lights at the crosswalks at 17th Dr. and 19th Ave. I glanced at Matt to say something when he screamed.
“There’s a person!”
I instinctually slammed on the brakes, swinging my eyes to the road in front of me. I did not really believe him. How could there be someone there? As the youngest of four, I was used to being teased. Perhaps Matt was trying to pull a nasty joke on me since I had made that comment at the drive through. I assumed that this would be only a close call, if anything. I would slow down for nothing, and then we would laugh. My laughter would be forced, his would be condescending.
Carrying a single brown Fry’s grocery bag, Loretta was jaywalking across Glendale Ave. even though there were crosswalks at 17th Dr. and 19th Ave, mere yards away. She was a smaller, older woman with short-cropped grey hair and glasses. Her windbreaker was red and she was wearing jeans. We made eye contact before impact. She didn’t look terrified, only shocked. Her face has haunted me since that day.
I wasn’t going very fast, but no matter how fast a vehicle is going, a person is no match. Loretta smacked against the jeep with a sickening thwunk – like a linebacker sacking a quarterback. She bounced away from the jeep as we came to a screeching halt. I don’t remember pulling over to the right side of the road but I do remember throwing the car into park. I turned to Matt. I don’t recall what his face looked like. I felt like I was watching us from afar, as if we were suddenly in a movie. We were staring at each other in shock, not registering what had happened.
“I hit someone!” I exclaimed. Perhaps it was more of a question. I was in total disbelief. I turned on the hazard lights. It was the first time I turned those lights on. I was mildly surprised I knew where the button was – on the center of the steering column. It can’t be that bad, I thought to myself. Please let her be okay. Probably just a broken leg…
We leapt from the jeep and I ran over to Loretta. Blood gushed from her head and she was twitching unnaturally, almost like a zombie. I felt like a zombie – I couldn’t believe my eyes and I felt like I was moving unnaturally slow.
“I’m going to get help!” I finally yelped at her. My phone appeared in my clutched hand. I forgot I grabbed it as I dashed out of the jeep. I dialed 911 but the call would not go through. I started shaking and crying. I tried again. No luck. I tried again. Still no luck.
“It won’t go through!” I wailed, almost hysterical. My mind was racing with questions: Why wouldn’t my phone work? Aren’t all phones supposed to be capable of dialing 911? What should I do? Should I run over to Wendy’s and use their phone? She’ll be ok, right? You weren’t going that fast. This can’t be happening.
I couldn’t decide what I should do. Leaving didn’t feel right but not calling 911 didn’t feel right either. I stood there, distraught and helpless. Frozen.
“Oh, shit.” said Matt, his hands on his head. I could dimly perceive his agitation. “Shit. Shit. Shit!”
A crowd had gathered. To this day I wonder why crowds always gather when there’s a disaster. They only stare and gawk, getting in the way of the ambulance. I can’t look at accidents without getting emotional when I think about the people involved. A man on crutches with a cell was nearby. Why is a man wandering about this time of night on crutches? I thought, looking at him from what felt like miles away.
“She came out of nowhere,” he informed me, his cell phone pressed to his ear. I vaguely heard him speaking to the 911 operator, giving our location. After he hung up he said to me, “They’re coming.” But he would not make eye contact with me. Why wouldn’t he look at me if it wasn’t my fault? I began to feel a cold numbness and a hole where my stomach used to be. My sides ached. I felt gutted.
“I gotta go,” Matt said. “I gotta go before the cops get here.”
He disappeared, evaporated into the crowd of bystander. I couldn’t tell which way he went. I was all alone. My shaking turned to involuntary shuddering. I wasn’t surprised he had run. Then it hit me: I wasn’t surprised he had run. Even though everything else was crazy and confusing and surreal, that wasn’t. A warrant was out for his arrest: Once the cops arrived and questioned us, he might get arrested.
I felt detached. I felt horrified. I felt like I was living in a nightmare that would never end, the image or Loretta’s face replaying over and over in my mind on an endless reel. I had never seen so much human blood before. Sure, I had seen animal blood working at AMERC Mid-City Animal Hospital, but this was different. I had never caused anyone such pain and suffering before. Although I felt my body shuddering, it was only distantly. Not until the next day would I feel aches and pains from the shaking, as if I had whiplash. I felt like everything was out of control. I felt culpable, responsible, guilty, and blameworthy. Thoughts of hamburgers and happy boyfriends were gone from my mind, just as the groceries were gone from Loretta’s arms. Just as Matt was gone from me when I needed someone. Just as the blood was gushing from Loretta’s head. I covered my tear-sodden face with my hands. I felt like I was dying.
The ambulance and fire truck arrived, lights flashing and sirens blaring. The PMTs set to work on Loretta in such a methodical way that you could tell they had done this numerous times. I could never get used to seeing so much blood. A fireman approached me, trying to calm me down. He took my cell phone from me to call my mom, but he had difficulty finding her in my phone. I took the phone back, scrolled through the numbers until I reached mom’s number, hit the call button, and handed the phone back to him. Strange, that I could find mom’s number but I couldn’t find it in me to speak to her. How do you tell your mom, “I think I just killed someone?” The fireman also told me that he would get the Grief Advocates out to speak to me since I was so distraught. When my mom answered the phone he stepped away from me. At that point I was approached again, this time by a middle-aged woman.
The first thing I noticed was the blood on her hands. Despite the blood she appeared calm; her eyes looked kind behind her thick glasses. She had long brown hair that was graying at the temples. She introduced herself as Jacqueline Young, an off-duty nurse dining at Wendy’s that night. She asked me my name and if I needed her to call anyone for me. I struggled to explain that the fireman was calling my mom. Jacqueline then took my hands in hers. I was touching Loretta’s blood.
“The woman’s wounds are very serious, and she is very old,” she said. “She probably won’t make it through the night.”
Although I had felt detached from the situation, floating above as if I was watching a horror movie, I came crashing back to the scene: The white ambulance and red fire truck with their flashing lights; the calm, methodical PMTs and firefighters; the gawking onlookers; and me, hearing that I was the reason for Loretta’s impending death. Me, the cause of Loretta’s death. I sobbed and shook even harder. No one ever expects to hear those words, to realize that they are the cause of someone’s death. Everyone wants to feel unique and special, but not because of something like this. I felt as if a part of me were dying with Loretta.
The Grief Advocates arrived and escorted me into their van. My parents and Josh arrived and sat in the van with me. The advocates gave me a stuffed animal bear, which I still have, in a box in my closet. Typically the advocates give bears to little kids when CPS takes them away from their (abusive and/or neglectful) parents. I wondered why they would want to give me a bear – to commemorate the night I killed someone? But why do I still have that bear?!
The first person I had to tell the story to was the detective, who spoke to me in the van. It wasn’t easy and I cried the whole time. I felt vulnerable, guilty, and scared. “Will I go to jail?” I asked, my voice quavering. My eyes were puffy and swollen. I felt like a small child, begging for forgiveness.
“No,” the detective tried to reassure me. “There were two crosswalks she could have used and she was wearing dark clothes on a dark street. I am 99.9% sure you won’t get cited.”
Perhaps I wanted to get blamed – I already felt guilty enough. If only I hadn’t glanced at Matt… If only I hadn’t been so smitten with Josh to take him dinner and drive down the road… If only…
That night a news team also arrived to hear my story. I refused to speak to them for fear they would sensationalize my story. From the Grief Advocate’s van I watched them film my jeep, the camera lens gaping at the bashed in hood. Because I hadn’t turned the jeep off when I got out, it was visibly shuddering, light grey smoking tainting the air with a burned rubber odor. Aside from the gawking news crew, the jeep was alone on the road. Some fluid or other seeped from the underside of the jeep. I know that when human characteristics are assigned to animals, it is called anthropomorphism. I wonder what it’s called when human characteristics are assigned to a vehicle? I felt connected to the jeep; I felt like we were going through the same thing. He looked so pathetic and alone, shuddering just like me. Fluid seeping from him just as tears flowed from my eyes.
I vaguely remember mom driving me home. Josh sat next to me, his arm around my shoulders. My parents allowed him to spend the night that night. My boyfriends were never allowed to spend the night before – in any other situation I would have been ecstatic. Dad arranged for a tow truck to bring Jeepy to our house. He arrived late. Josh and mom were asleep but not dad, Matt or me. I forced myself to watch the jeep get unloaded – perhaps I was trying to see if what had happened was really real. A tomato had splattered across the hood. Dad mistook it for blood.
“You might not want to see this,” he said.
Once the tow truck driver was gone, Matt pulled the Wendy’s bag from the car and ate the food even though it was cold. Somehow it seemed wrong. Looking back, it reminds me of the death-eaters my friend learned about in history. If I recall, I think the Irish left food on the caskets of the departed. Starving people would eat the food, which was considered taboo.
I barely slept a wink all night. In the morning I crawled into the shower. I’ve always found something cathartic about the shower. Once clean, I feel like I can face any day. The hot water pounded my shoulders, bringing me to the present. I felt comforted. The world didn’t feel quite so impossible. Yet as soon as I emerged from the bathroom wearing my lion bathrobe and a towel on my head, I saw my dad. He had just been phoned: Loretta had passed away in the night. Jacqueline had been right after all. No miracle happened – yes, a tiny part of me hoped everything would be all right in the morning but it wasn’t. I sank to my knees and started softly crying just a few tears when dad told me. I felt defeated. I didn’t sob like I had the night before. Sometimes grief takes you to a place so painful that you can’t even cry. Your tears dry up. I’ll bet even a part of your soul dries up. I was in that place. That was four years ago as of yesterday.
Loretta’s story had ended so suddenly and for such a stupid reason. My life continues on. She had been heading home with groceries – probably to cook dinner. Was she eating alone? Was she a good person, or a rotten person? How old exactly was she? Did she live a good life? Did she feel a lot of pain before she died? Sometimes I feel like she had it easier by dying whereas I have to live with the pain of what happened to us. I’ll never know for certain. I’ve tried to find more information on her, like where she was interred or buried so that I could pay my respects, but I have been unable. It is too difficult for me to visit the scene of the accident; otherwise I would pay my respects there. The only thing I found on Loretta was a short obituary: “Loretta Newson, of Phoenix, AZ, passed away. No formal services are planned. Contributions to: Alzheimer’s Association.”