“467 traffic fatalities on Tennessee roadways this year. Please don’t be next.”
The electric sign warned from above the interstate. The message itself was strong enough to swerve me into the next lane, nearby ditch, or one of the 18-wheelers that imprisoned me from each side. What rattled my cage the most was the way the number had changed since my last trip through.
I would assume that the Department of Safety monitors them and is responsible for updating the messages on the sign. The latest numbers.
In one week, the number had grown from 442 to 467. That’s 25 people. Driving down the road one minute. No longer with us the next.
Almost 500 people, and it was only June. And this was just in the state of Tennessee.
As if it were all about the numbers. I knew better.
For as long as I can remember, I have been aware of them. Or at least the one that mattered to me. My father was one of these statistics. November 15, 1967. That’s the day that our family changed forever.
Some twenty years later, I started my career as a 9-1-1 Operator and Police Dispatcher for Nashville, TN, and spoke to many of those people left behind by these statistics.
The mother who called to report her two teen-aged sons missing, on Thanksgiving night. I knew where they were. Both of them, victims of a two-car accident, while racing each other.
The sister from out of town who sought a police report, even months after her brother died in a single-car accident on the side of the interstate. She still needed answers as to whether or not he was still alive when the rescue personnel reached him.
The Police Lieutenant, and father, who was the first on the scene of his son’s accident. He held him in his arms while he died. The same night he graduated from high school.
The family who was hit by the drunk driver with no headlights. The father was killed, instantly. The mother, cast into premature labor a month before her second child was due. And her toddler son who was strapped in his car seat in the back, who welcomed his baby brother into the world on the same night he lost his father.
The couple in their 70′s who were on vacation, driving together with the vehicle on cruise control when the wife, the driver, had some sort of medical incident. Her husband grabbed the wheel, but could not reach the petal to stop the car. After almost fifty years of marriage, they died there, together.
The mother who continues to take a day off to celebrate her son’s birthday, even twenty years after his death. He was 24. As she puts it, ‘Forever 24.’
The daughter who spent her birthday eating dinner with her mother, but couldn’t reach her by phone a few hours later. She knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Her mother actually died of a heart attack, which caused the single car accident where they finally found her.
The couple whose oldest daughter felt responsible for the accident where she lost her sister and her best friend. Grief mixed with guilt is a battle that lasts forever. I can see it in their eyes.
I know too much for these numbers to simply serve as statistics.
I hate the numbers. but I adore the people. I have listened to their stories, and heard the tremor in their voices when I ask.
But, always, I will ask.
And, after a lifetime of trying to make sense of it all, I know this much for sure:
It all points to Heaven.
The truth is that those left behind are some of the strongest people that I know. It’s as if they march to the drumbeat of Heaven.
As much as their paths have been marked by grief, it has also been marked by the deep embrace of God. It’s as as if they have a secret, too personal to put into words.
But when they do, I take note, and promise to remember.
Because sometimes, that’s the only thing we can do.
Because their stories matter. And so do the people left behind.
For the people tied to those numbers, life is never the same. And neither is eternity.
That’s worth remembering.