I learned about Mary though a function designed to teach young people to drive safely. I’ve seen better programs, but this one came free, and for us, it came with a live presentation by a vehicular murderer.
She looked younger than her thirty-some-odd years. Plain and dull as the prison uniform turns all women, it still didn’t take much of an imagination to see that she could be pretty with clean clothes,a little makeup, and a quick style. It was strange indeed to see her invited to speak to our young and lonely (if you catch my drift) crowd.
She began, “I’ve been told I have the Iowa girl look to me. My hometown was famous for turning out soccer moms. I was on my way to becoming one myself. I had the education, the clothes, the good job, and a fiancee.”
I was struck by her confidence and a quirky style, so different from the attitudes I was used to working with (or working around). Clearly, prison was not in her plans when she was younger. I could see pieces of myself in her.
Moving on, she had effectively built some suspense. How does a future soccer mom of America come to be donned in the green and gold uniform? Although she claimed to have a good childhood, she shared that at age 11 her parents divorced. Both step parents told her she was just baggage and treated her that way. She raided the parents’ liquor cabinets for solace. In her twenty’s she tried drugs, but that didn’t last long. In response to one question, she explained that she loved a good bottle of wine, that was all.
In her 20’s she decided to prove her family wrong by making something of herself. Out of spite, she admits. “In my 30’s I had it all under control–except for one thing, I drank.” Even that was OK, for awhile. Then, she told us, she started to black out at nights. (Someone standing next to me guffawed so only I could hear, “that’s just an excuse.”) “I started to have a morning after routine,” she continued and acknowledged that some in the audience nodded in understanding.
“My morning routine,” she described to us,”started with grabbing my cell-phone. Who did I call? Who did I text? My god, what did I say?” After that she would look for her car keys, “O, wow! I couldn’t remember driving home. I would go check the car for damage and worry about getting a DUI. ‘I’ve got to stop this,’ I would tell myself.” She might promise to stop, but three weeks later she’d be at the bottle again. Shortly before her accident, she spent more on wine than anything else on her budget besides her mortgage.
Then she was waking up in the hospital, “O, my god. O, my god. O, my god. Where am I? What happened? What happened? What happened?” Her mind racing, she noticed a policeman pacing at the foot of her cot. Two scenes emerged from the dark: a shattered window and the car hood flying up; then sitting up in the ambulance. She is pushed down: “You’ll stay down or we’ll strap you down.” (My husband worked several years with the ambulance service, so I can clearly hear the very unsympathetic voice. No one likes a drunk.)
In the morning she was escorted to the police car in her hospital gown–her clothes having been cut from her the night before–and high heels. Still thinking that the worst that could happen was a DUI, the cop asked, “Do you know why you’re being arrested? Do you remember the accident?” She has never remembered more than the two memories already mentioned. He continued, “One of your victims died last night. Two more are in the hospital.” Being her first offense, she continued to think she’d get off easy.
Three days later, home on bond, her dad started to Google and that was when she beagan to know Mary. In answer to one of the question, she said that she was first able to say Mary’s name three months after the accident. Now she says Mary’s name as often as the word “and.” She learned that Mary was driving home from an NBA game. Having just graduated from college, she was leaving in a few months to teach English in the Middle East. Beautiful, accomplished, and dearly loved by her family. Her dreams and theirs were crushed at once in a combined impact of 150 mph.
The one who caused it all was now in front of me. I thought that I should hate her. One of our female offenders admitted that she came to the function with the intention of hating our speaker. She had lost her brother to a drunk driving accident a few years before. Instead, we listened. While we can not judge the sincerity of people’s hearts, her remorse seemed palpable.
As reality sunk in for her, she started to wonder how she would survive prison. She wondered how she could live with the guilt. Having put her family through so much pain already, she planned to wait until after the holidays to take her own life. Around that time someone pointed out that if she had been successful before, she could become successful again. Besides, she could perhaps help prevent something like this by speaking out about her experience. Agreeing, she admitted to her crime and accepted her 15 year sentence (since the family thinks she intentionally got in her car to kill someone that night, it is unlikely she’ll receive an early parole). Now she’s looking at getting out of prison around the age of 50 to begin a new career and a new life. In preparation for this she’s taking correspondence courses to become a drug and alcohol counselor.
It’s probably how I’d respond too, from the suicidal thoughts to making the most of the prison programs. Not for a moment diminishing the horror and awfulness of losing Mary, I wished for the family’s sake that they understood the driver didn’t intend to kill their daughter. She didn’t excuse herself, and neither did I. When she clearly admitted her responsibility: “I drank, I put the keys in my car, I drove, and I killed Mary,” my boss, standing next to me, mumbled, “I’m glad she said that. These guys need to hear that.” As much as my heart was moved by the story, I knew I wouldn’t argue for a lesser sentence.
I don’t drink and drive, but I know you don’t have to be drunk to turn a car into a deadly weapon. That could’ve been me up there, I kept telling myself. My hands were almost shaking when I got in my car to drive home a couple hours later. Would I have to courage to do the time? My husband understood when I said that in her shoes I’d have trouble not taking my life. Not more than ten days back to work and I was repeating my mantra, “But for the grace of God, go I.”
Then the audience had time to ask questions, offender to offender. Still relatively inexperienced, I learned a lot about the questions gnawing at my students’ hearts. One asked, “How do you deal with your sentence, especially knowing you probably won’t get parole?” Everyone has a different way of handling their time, I knew that much. She handles her time one day at a time. In fact she had a hard time remembering key dates about her prison stay, she was so focused on her present day.
Then another asked, “How do you handle the anniversary date of your crime?” Letting out a sigh, she said that she spent her first anniversary crying in her bunk all day. Looking back, she realized that holding a self-pity party wasn’t going to work. She dedicated her second anniversary date to serving the women in her cell block which she believed was not just cathartic, but most honorable to Mary. I was going to remember that, I thought, not thinking I could pass on that lesson sooner than later.