JULIA’S 17-YEAR OLD BROTHER’S COLLEGE ESSAY
We’re down by two with five seconds left. My teammate in-bounds the ball to me, I check the clock, take two dribbles, then shoot the three. The ball is in the air as the buzzer sounds. Swish! I score and we win the biggest game of the season. My teammates descend in jubilation. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine life could get any better.
After the celebration, we head to the locker room. My coach beamed about our performance, his excitement for the future palpable. I went to change, and checked my phone. 5 missed calls from my mom. 5 missed calls from my dad. A text from my dad: “EMERGENCY CALL ASAP”.
Both my parents were unable to attend this game because my mom was down the shore with my Grandmom, and my dad was out to dinner for his birthday. When I called back, my dad, in a wobbly voice said, “Julia (my sister) was hit by a car. We don’t know if she’s going to make it.” She was in one hospital being airlifted to another.
What I would learn later is that my 20-yr-old sister was walking across her college campus to meet my cousin when she was mowed down by an impaired driver.
I dropped my phone in complete shock. I couldn’t comprehend it. I had just gone from an all time high to an all time low in minutes. After I got my emotions under control, I picked up the phone and finished the conversation. I called my mom immediately. She just told me not to worry and that everything would be alright. That did not make me feel any better though, because my mom always looks at the positive side of any situation no matter how bad the circumstances. I had so many emotions coming so fast that I thought I might pass out. I couldn’t stop crying.
That night, and the ensuing days were the hardest of my life. I couldn’t sleep from stress and worry. It was difficult to eat. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
When I got to visit my sister, I felt a small sense of relief. She was in critical condition, but I could see that she was safe. After I saw her that day, I was able to sleep and eat a little better.
I hoped after that, things would get better. They only got worse. It was extremely hard to focus at school knowing my sister was enduring painful surgeries daily to repair her. My grades started dropping as did my basketball season. The smallest tasks took extreme effort.
I realized I had two options: I could continue to let the situation with my sister get the best of me, or I could persevere through and turn it into a positive.
To do this, I turned to my faith. I started going to church more. I prayed constantly. Slowly but surely, everything started to turn around. My grades started to pick up again, and I started to play better in basketball. My faith in God made me stronger. The expression, “Everything happens for a reason”, that my mother always begged me to embrace, kind of released me. Everyday life would still be challenging every once in a while but every time that would happen, I would go to church and pray, and that would make me feel better again.
This not only made my life better but it turned me into a kinder person. I suddenly found myself helping people who I would usually never help before. This experience affected me in many ways, first bad, but then, in the end, good.
My sister survived. She is only a portion of herself. But, 8 months later, she is slowly getting better everyday. I don’t know if she’ll ever return to who she was. I am just grateful she is here.
My sister Julia’s accident was a life changing experience for me. I’m naturally an introvert. My own thoughts are home base. Expressing my feelings is uncomfortable. I’m smart and I’m athletic, but much to my Social Worker mother’s dismay, I don’t have what she calls an “emotional vocabulary”. Perhaps that’s owing to my parents’ contentious divorce. My first thought is always what’s best for others.
Julia’s life-threatening accident this year made m e learn what true stamina is and that what’s inside you is sometimes bigger than you are. It drew me out of my shell to connect with people on another level which I believe will help me for the rest of my life.
After seeing the perseverance she and I were both capable of, plus the connection with God and with others this experience fostered, I can truly say I am better person. For this I am grateful to God… and to my sister. Thank you, Julia.
Bo is right. Julia is still only a portion of herself. But the best portion. After 5 months of 3 day/wk Physical Therapy (where they work on her lower body), Occupational Therapy (where they work on her upper body) and Speech Therapy (where they work on her memory), she has moved up to 4 days of PT because walking is so difficult. After a number of non-invasive attempts, her foot still turns in and her ankle rolls. We’re looking at surgery sooner than later.
She extends her left arm behind her when she walks, for balance I assume. Coordination, range and strength on her left side is about 60%. Things like scratching her back, shaving, or tossing a horse shoe are difficult.
My friend Summer recently asked me, “How are you really… no lollipops and rainbows!’
NO LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS
When you focus intensely on climbing a mountain, all you see is the summit. Not the terrain beyond it. A visual pinnacle for me was imagining Julia dance at her cousin Greg’s wedding in July. I dreamed of this when she lay unconscious at Jeff hospital, while staff were unsure she would wake up or ever walk. (Even though I was sure of both.)
As the wedding approached, I heard the phone ring. After 10 minutes, Julia mosies in, “Gregory asked me to read at his wedding!”
“What did you say?”
“What did I say? I said, ‘I’ll try not to sing it… I’ll try not to rap it… I’ll try not to be dancing when I do it!'”
Above: My sister Susan, her son Gregory and Julia. The pinnacle of my dreams
This wedding followed 2 other boisterous family occasions this summer: One grandmother’s 80th birthday, one grandmother’s 90th, both combined with her 21st.
Mid-August, when the fanfare died down, her brother, she and I had a quiet visit with my mom down the shore. It was then that the terrain behind the mountain, that I’d not allowed myself to see before, came into view.
Walking the 2 blocks to church was difficult. Conscious was I of the people behind us on the sidewalk. I beckoned them to pass us. Walking up to Communion, people nervously moved out of Julia’s way.
Moving through a restaurant is challenging. At breakfast after Mass, I ran into a school mate I often see in the summer. He didn’t recognize Julia. He doesn’t know about the accident. I reintroduced them. He was confused. I was uncomfortable. The waitresses moved uneasily around her. I excused us, politely.
It was a beautiful weekend but Bo went to the beach alone. I’ve been to the beach once this summer – in May. It was disastrous. Julia can not walk on the uneven surface of sand, I discovered. By the end of August, now that her brain and bladder are communicating better, she gets up through the night to use the bathroom. This means removing her intricately strapped sleeping cast and lacing up her sneakers. Just to walk across the hall. Nothing comes easily.
Without frustration, Julia struggles mightily with memory. This affects every facet of daily life. She’s best talking about the big questions of life: Literature, Philosophy, History, Natural Science, Politics, Religion… On these topics, her cognitions are as sharp as ever. Small talk is not in her wheel house. She can discuss Quantum Physics but not answer her therapist on Monday morning when she asks, “What did you do this weekend?” She barely vaguely knows. She guesses.
She’s as interested in others as she’s always been and has many questions she wants you to answer. When she asks you about your life, when she reaches her hand out to you, when she hugs you, she means it.
Her love of film and Netflixing has not returned, unfortunately. She can not sustain the plot lines. 5 minutes into any show, she loses interest and asks me if I want to play Backgammon. She reminds me, if I hesitate one second, that it’s my turn. She has laser focus with cards, dice, scrabble, etc. She beats me at every game. If I took her to AC, I could pay for her therapy.
Everyone asks her when she’s going back to school. She’s been talking this summer about auditing classes at St. Joes this semester. I say, Let’s aim for next. This week she started a class at her boarding school Westtown with her teacher Kevin who has become a family friend. The class is World Religions. Baby steps! In Kevin’s words, after her 1st class on Tuesday: “She’s a rock star… Inquisitive, attentive, engaged, and humble.” Thank you, Kevin.
LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS
The most important thing is this: Despite what I’ve written, a more joyful, peaceful kid you will never meet. That’s the God’s honest truth. Don’t ask me how. She smiles and laughs constantly. 5 times a day she reaches for my hand and tells me how happy she is and how grateful she is to be with me. She says, “Even though I wish I was in school, I feel like being around you I learn even more. How lucky am I?”
She responds to everything that’s suggested, no matter how unsavory, “That’s a good idea.” When I sing the Mary Poppins song, Everyday’s a Holiday With Julia (Mary), I mean it.
Playing a game the other day, where she had to name a “glowing moment”, she thought and said, “I guess I’d have to say, when I made the decision to go to St. Joes. You know, because it worked out so well.” I just looked at her, realizing she was serious. This is “choosing ones attitude in any situation.”
The man who drove unsafely down City Line Avenue on December 13th, blew a red light and hit my daughter, was sentenced earlier this summer. He was charged with 6 counts, 3 of which he pleaded guilty to and struck a deal, avoiding trial. His sentence would be a minimum of 3 days; a maximum of 6 months incarcerated.
The first time I broached the subject of the driver with Julia was after his arraignment back in February. I had to explain why I was not with her that morning..
I will never forget her response.
“You’re not going to break my heart are you?”
Do you mean that the driver might get in trouble?
I understand, Honey. But he did break the law.
“But it’s not even like I’m that hurt.”
I just looked at her. Bed-ridden and unable to walk. Unhealed hole in her throat from a tracheotomy. Feeding tube protruding from her stomach. Angry scars all over her head jutting through her crew cut. It’s not even like I’m that hurt.
THE DRIVER IS SENTENCED
“The victim was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Giddings stayed on the scene, but was arrested for suspicion of DUI. Police also found what appeared to be marijuana in the vehicle.
He has been charged with Aggravated Assault while DUI, Simple Assault and related offenses.”
I was alone in the court-house the day of sentencing. I’d wanted Julia to attend. I thought it would be good for her, the perpetrator, the judge and all involved to hear from her directly. She was at her dad’s that week who disagreed. She prepared a Victim’s Impact Statement instead.
I encouraged her to be as blunt and honest as possible, considering only her feelings, not his. There is a time for forgiveness, I said, but first there is a time for people to embrace truthfully the effect of their actions.
She prepared the following statement:
“I was a sophomore in college when you hit me. Learning is my greatest passion. Now it is one of the things I have the hardest time with. That is tragic to me. This is something invaluable that you took from me when you hit me.”
We gathered at 8:30 AM, to a full court room. As the hours wore on, without the judge, who turns out was at Fox Chase with his own wife, the court room slowly cleared until it was just the driver, his wife and me. 4 hours later, the judge finally arrived. By that time, the driver, his wife and I had exchanged many words. “We pray for your daughter everyday.”
When I took the stand, I read Julia’s statement. I explained, unvarnished, what the last 6 months had been like. I said, we are people of faith. “We do not wish more bad to come from an already bad situation. I said Malchijah is not the first person to try to beat a light, myself included. Malchijah is not the 1st person to drive when they shouldn’t have, myself included. Take a father away from his newborn does not serve Julia or change anything, except for the worse. Rather than languish in a cell for weeks, I have other ideas.”
If you keep reading, it will sound like I asked for clemency. This would be wrong. I’m no saint. I leave that to my 3 sisters, my mom and my daughter. How I got tossed into this mix is anyone’s guess. When it comes to behavior and behavior change, I am a realist. What I asked for was Restorative Justice.
5 years ago, needing CEU (Contin Ed) credits to keep my license current, I found a convenient 3-day conference in Harrisburg called “Restorative Practices.” The headline said it was about an alternative way to treat adolescent offenders (bullies to murderers) that was more effective than traditional punishment.
The focus was on decision-making and amends. In the research, they found that punishment was doing nothing for the victim. Or the community they’ve injured. Certainly not rehabilitating the perpetrator. Punishing people satisfies our own blood lust. There’s a place for that. But it makes the perpetrator more punishing toward others. More loss. Whose gain?
Our correctional facilities aren’t correcting. That’s why there is so much recidivism.
The Restorative Practice approach is about approaching punishment in a more productive way.
4 Questions are asked to people who offend:
- What were you thinking when you did it?
- What are you thinking now?
- Who are the people injured by your actions?
- How can you make amends?
Beyond those principles, there was instruction on a new model of decision-making. At the end of the first day, the instructor asked the 30 students if someone was willing to volunteer a dilemma they were struggling with. Personally or professionally. That way we could do the practical lab work of the theory we were learning.
I raised my hand.
Julia, at the time, had just arrived at the high school she’d dreamed of for years. A “prestigious school”, quoting former Vice President, and alumni, Joe Biden, in an Oprah interview. One that her father and 4 siblings attended. That all 3 of her mother’s brothers attended, along with her mother. Where 2 uncles met their wives. Where her father met his. Where the headmaster married her parents.
She had high hopes. Not only because, after years of all-girls private school, was co-ed. But because she saw herself coming into her own there. At Orientation, she joined every club possible. Even one she was supposed to be gay or lesbian to attend. Julia didn’t realize this until the 2nd meeting! I still laugh at that story. Her innocence reminds me of my mother’s. Like I said, between 2 saints, a sinner like me got sandwiched.
It turned out to not be a fit for Julia. Homogeneous, compared to her multi-cultural interests, she found herself lost in cafeteria conversations about make-up and boys. Being the only Freshman on the Varsity basketball team was lonely. The fact that she started made it worse on her.
She didn’t have the chameleon-like ways of both her parents. She wasn’t cut out for twisting herself into a pretzel for others like we did. Her joie de vivre was slipping away. What do I do?
Should a parent push a kid to hang in there, make the best of it, as we have all have to in life, eventually? Or, encourage her to forge a path she is more aligned with?
If I don’t insist on her hanging in there, will it teach her to bail the next time things get tough? Or is this her Robert Frost moment; where the hardest choice is the road less traveled?
Julia went on to transfer to Westtown boarding school and we both consider it among the best decisions of her life.
How is this relevant, you ask.
After the 1st day of this 3 day conference, I took her out of school to attend the next 2 days with me, to her dad’s disapproval. She says she got more out of it than 6 months in school. 5 years later, as she lay in a hospital bed while we discussed our approach toward the driver who incapacitated her, the lessons of that conference came rushing back. (Again, my mother’s expression: The twisted finger of God…)
The maximum 6 mos. The easy lay-up was push for that and maybe get 3, being the only one in the court house for 5 hrs I’m the point guard. Our families have to trust my court vision. I don’t intend to let them, or Julia, down.
Malchijah spent some time incarcerated but not 6 months. Instead, he and his family are compelled to read this entire blog. He is to write a thoughtful response to it, to you and to I, in this very blog. He is to demonstrate that he appreciates the full impact of his actions not only on her, but on our entire community. He is, after that, to meet Julia, myself, her dad, and any of our family members who are interested in hearing his apology. He is to tell us his ideas of how to make amends.
I understand if this isn’t satisfactory to interested, loving, supportive parties. I respect that. In the end, I need as much of my energy on a daily basis to get this girl better. I’ve no disposable energy for anger and resentment. Forgiveness is 4 times as powerful and healing as vengeance.
Thank you for understanding.
Julia, you recently wrote on Caring Bridge that you are grateful. What are you grateful for?
“Well, I’m only half-blind. (pauses) I could be totally blind. How lucky am I that it’s my left side that’s hurt and not my right..?
If you think about it, that could have been anyone who happened to be crossing the street that night. I have such a strong support system. I’m just glad it was me.”
Some people will think that kind of attitude is unseemly. Or a put-on. Summer would call it lollipops and rainbows. If I print that, people will think we’re religious nuts.
(Laughs) “I guess there are worse things than being known as a religious nut.”
What do you think the purpose of your accident was?
“Dan’s sister said it was for connectivity and healing, didn’t she?”
She did. What are your personal goals?
“I just want my memory back so I can learn. I don’t mind if I walk this way forever. I just want my memory back. (pause) You said we’re going to write about this and speak about it to help others, right?”
Yes. We already have.
“You’re right, we already have. Let’s keep going.”