When the BMW hit the ponding on the slick road, the woman panicked and slammed on the brakes. Because of the heavy rain, she had reduced her speed to 60, down from the posted 70 mph, but it was still too fast for the deteriorating conditions.
As her car began to slide towards the deep ditch running alongside the two-lane highway, she instinctively let off the brake, tightened her grip on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and yanked hard to the left – but on the slick pavement, it was an overcorrection. Losing control of the vehicle, she frantically tried to stomp on the brakes again, but this was only the second time she had driven the new car, and her foot missed the pedal and hit the gas instead. In an instant, the turbocharger unleashed 320 hp. Not prepared for the sudden burst of acceleration, the woman had no time to react as the small BMW was launched across the centerline, hurtling head-on into a Lexus sedan.
The violence of the impact created an explosion of sickening noise as glass shattered and metal ground against metal. The 1,400-pound difference in the weight of the two vehicles followed the laws of physics tearing the BMW to pieces, rupturing its gas tank, and sending parts of the wreckage airborne where it landed some 30 feet away.
When the two vehicles finally slid to a stop, there was a moment of eerie silence and then an ominous crackling sound could be heard as the woman’s car started to burn. Although the rain was still beating down, it could not dampen the flames that began to dance around the grisly wreckage.
A few seconds later, a motorist came upon the accident and pulled over. Horrified by the gruesome scene, he sprinted to the Lexus and saw that the driver had sustained a massive head wound but was, miraculously, still alive. Then he moved quickly to the crushed BMW. The roof had completely collapsed, hopelessly pinning a woman behind the steering wheel. Among her many life-threatening injuries, a length of jagged metal had pierced her left thigh severing the femoral artery, and causing her to bleed out. If the woman was not dead already, she soon would be.
With paralyzing fear overwhelming his senses, the man stared in shock not knowing what to do, but suddenly a slight movement drew his attention to the back of the vehicle. He turned and saw a little girl, maybe three-years-old, strapped in a car seat. Her face was obscured by large clots of blood, but he could see that her tiny left hand was shaking as she whimpered for her mama. Instantly his mind filled with images of his small children at home, and he knew he had to act.
With no tools available, he began to struggle with the handle on the crumpled driver’s side door in a desperate attempt to get to the child, but the flames were quickly becoming more intense, making the metal heat up until he could barely stand to touch it. There was no access through the window because, although the glass had cracked in multiple places, it remained in one piece and was being held more or less in place by a section of the pancaked roof. As he repeatedly burned his hands on the door, some part of his brain was aware that other drivers had stopped and were now running toward him.
Choking and gasping from the noxious black smoke invading his lungs, the man knew he couldn’t withstand the heat much longer. Suddenly he felt hands on him from behind as someone tried to pull him away from the car, but they didn’t realize there was a child in the backseat. The motorist struggled with all of his strength and wrenched free of their grasp.
No longer thinking rationally, he lunged at the door in a desperate last-ditch attempt to get to the girl, but the flames had now enveloped the entire side of the car causing him to reflexively cry out as the fire seared his flesh destroying layers of tissue on the palms of his hands. As his muscles jerked from the excruciating pain surging through damaged nerve fibers, he caught one last glimpse of the helpless child trapped in the device designed to save her before several large men managed to drag him away from the carnage. This time he did not resist.
Once they were a safe distance from the burning car, they released him, and his legs instantly buckled, sending him to the ground. Seconds later there was a loud swoosh as fire completely consumed the BMW. Still straining to breathe, the good Samaritan turned his back to the roaring inferno and tried to cover his ears with the backs of his injured hands in a futile attempt to block out the ghastly sound of a child’s life coming to an end. It was a sound he would not be able to forget.
Eventually, firetrucks arrived, the flames were extinguished, and then three types of hydraulic tools were employed to cut the mother and daughter free from the grotesquely charred wreckage. A veteran highway patrolman, unnerved by the trauma inflicted on the deceased, was prompted to remark to an EMT that in all his years on the force, he had never seen a car so completely destroyed.
It was long after the driver of the Lexus and the man with the burns had been rushed to medical centers, that law enforcement completed their investigation. Only then were two vehicles allowed to leave with the remains of the victims. As the sad journey began, lightning continued to streak across the sky, and the torrential rain that had now claimed two innocent lives showed no signs of letting up.
FOUR YEARS LATER
Maggie glanced up just in time to see Julian reach for the door handle with his left hand. She set the coffee pot down on the counter and moved swiftly to open the door for him.
She smiled at her friend. “You’re thirty minutes late! I was about to give up on you.”
Julian shook his head. “Not to worry. Tuesday night is a lock. I would never miss it.” Carefully, he maneuvered his electric wheelchair through the door and followed her to a table where she removed a chair so he could roll into position.
Maggie looked at him with genuine warmth. “I gotta say, Jules, I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t show up.”
There was something in the way she always called him Jules that made him feel good. Looking around, he remarked, “It’s a light crowd tonight.”
“Yep. Jerry is thinking he might start running a ‘special’ each day to see if he can get more customers on weeknights.”
“Might be a good idea.”
Once he was situated, she handed him a menu. “You look hungry tonight.”
“You’re right. I’m starving. I tell you what, I’m not even going to look at the menu. I’ll have the BREAKFAST BONANZA. Two eggs scrambled, whole wheat toast, and I’d like to substitute hash browns for bacon.”
“You do want the short stack of pancakes with that, right?”
Lowering her voice, Maggie said, “I tell you what, I’ll see if I can get Jerry to throw an extra pancake on that stack. I don’t want you wasting away to nothing.”
Julian laughed, “Are you this nice to everyone?”
“Of course not! Only to the people I like.” She winked and headed off to place his order and get coffee.
Julian watched her thinking that even though she was probably in her mid-thirties she had an older person’s soul. He believed she had a difficult life, and he suspected that she thought the same about him. No doubt that played a part in why they’d hit it off so well.
Some thirty minutes later, Julian pushed his plate away and groaned. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this full. He took a moment and looked around the dining room at the other customers. Because the restaurant was not that busy, not as many people seemed to be paying attention to him tonight. He was grateful. He grew tired of the stares and whispers that accompanied him everywhere he went. It was always the wheelchair that made people stop and stare, but it was when they noticed the Essential Tremor that their looks turned to pity, and he hated that.
“You finished, Jules?” Maggie had snuck up behind him.
“I could not possibly eat another bite.”
It made her happy to see him have an appetite. There were some nights when he barely ate a thing. Gathering up his dishes, she said, “My goodness, you really were hungry! Give me just a second, and I’ll be back with more coffee.”
Soon the caffeine was poured, and Julian was savoring the first sip when he looked up and saw the man walk through the door. He thought that perhaps he’d seen him once before at an AA meeting a month or two back, but since the accident, his once flawless memory was not always reliable.
Preferring to be alone, he hoped the man wouldn’t notice him – but no such luck. Julian knew he was not an easy person to miss.
The man spotted him immediately, smiled broadly, and walked straight to Julian’s table. “Mind if I join you?”
In the permanently damaged voice that was the result of two long difficult years of effort to regain his speech, Julian answered, “Would it make a difference if I said that I do mind?”
The man was not the least bit deterred and sat down across from him. “You should never drink alone – no matter what the beverage is.”
Maggie headed towards him with a menu, and the man waved her off. “Just coffee, please.”
Julian asked, “Do you always ignore what people say?”
“Believe it or not my entire career was spent being very attentive and listening closely to people.” He paused and then asked, “Julian, isn’t it? Julian Blackwell?”
Julian was surprised that the man knew his name. “That’s right…… Didn’t I see you once at an AA meeting?”
“Yes, I’m Ian Hathaway.”
For some reason, the last name sounded vaguely familiar, but Julian couldn’t begin to place it. Perhaps he had known someone with the name Hathaway in what he referred to as his ‘previous’ life.
There was another long pause as Ian searched for the best way to begin what was sure to be a difficult conversation. Although he had practiced this scenario many times, finding the right words was still not easy…… “Julian, I know this is going to sound strange, but after seeing you that night at the meeting, I felt like I had to get acquainted, to try to make some kind of connection.”
Ian stretched out his right hand, but since Julian’s right hand was immobile, with considerable effort, he lifted his left hand from the arm of his wheelchair, reached across the table, and awkwardly shook.
Not understanding the man’s motivation, Julian asked, “There were a lot of people at that meeting. Why did you single me out?”
It was not a question Ian wanted to answer, so he quickly changed the subject. “How is the food here?”
Not pleased by the evasion, Julian was, however, curious about this evening’s disruption, so he decided to play along. “It’s good – but it’s the service I come for.” There was another uncomfortable pause and then even though he was not that interested, Julian asked, “You mentioned your career. What did you do?”
“I was a psychotherapist.”
“But you no longer practice at all?”
Ian’s face gave no indication of how painful it was to answer that question. “That’s correct. The alcohol finished off what was left of that life.”
Julian understood all too well the damage that drinking could do.
Even though he already knew the answer, Ian innocently asked. “What about you? What line of work are you in?
“Past tense. I was in the medical field.”
“Can you narrow it down?”
Reluctantly, Julian said, “I was a surgeon.”
“Still a big field. Specifically?”
Ian couldn’t resist pointing out the coincidence. “It seems we have something in common. Quite ironic that we both dealt with the human brain, wouldn’t you say?”
“And that we both became alcoholics.”
Ian chuckled. “Not sure I would trust a brain surgeon who abuses alcohol. Maybe you should’ve seen a therapist instead.”
“Perhaps you could fit me in between AA meetings.”
“No, no. I’m no longer in a position to advise anyone else on their life.”
Julian had no desire to offend the man, so he softened his tone. “It would appear you’re making progress. You’re sober, reflective, and thoughtful. That’s more than a lot of people can say.”
“There is a chance I think too much.”
“I will admit that having your life altered forever does tend to focus your thoughts.”
Maggie scurried over with Ian’s coffee. “Sorry for the wait. You guys okay for now?”
Julian said, “We’re good. Thanks, Maggie.”
She headed off to take care of another table. Ian watched her. “It’s nice you’re on a first-name basis.”
Julian answered with genuine affection. “She is a saint.”
Ian sighed. “There certainly aren’t many of those around.”
They sat without making eye contact for a time, each of them thinking they were better off than the other one and thankful that they were not in their shoes.
Ian finally broke the silence. “Losing control of your life is a terrible thing. When I was a practicing therapist I never thought I would ever have psychological issues.”
A rueful look came over Julian’s face. “And I never thought I would have brain surgery, but now I’ve had three of them.”
“As anyone who deals with the human brain knows, it is an organ of incredible complexity – and yet after all those years of having a practice, I am constantly mystified by how my brain has handled my challenges.”
It was easy for Julian to empathize. “Each time I was performing surgery, probing brain tissue, trying to excise tumors, and all the rest, I conceitedly thought that I had a profound knowledge and skill that set me apart, that gave me an edge. But in many ways, the brain is still as mysterious to me as it was the day I entered medical school. I’m constantly astounded by the tricks it plays on me, the limitations it has imposed, and the way it has altered my consciousness.”
Ian played with the rim of his coffee cup and admitted, “I thought I could handle grief. After all, I’d been teaching coping skills to my patients for years. I had plenty of experience, but a lot of good it did me. I might as well have been a salesman or a construction worker. All of my education and training proved useless.”
He wondered what had happened to the therapist, but Julian assumed it was something that he didn’t want to talk about it, so instead of raising the subject, he agreed with him. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s hard to say which has been the greater struggle; the mental or physical challenges. I suppose they combined to send me over the edge.”
Concentrating, Julian slowly lifted his left hand. “Thankfully, I can still use this one – but, of course, I was righthanded. However, I soon discovered I could drink just as easily with either hand.” He thought back to his life before his injury. “It turned out that losing the ability to save people’s lives with a scalpel was too much to deal with. My identity was wrapped up in being a surgeon. It’s all I wanted to do my entire life, and without it, I didn’t know who I was.”
Gently, Ian asked, “At this point in your life who do you want to be?”
“I’m not sure – but I know I want to be more than I am now.”
Ian offered a professional opinion. “It seems like mentally you are in a healthier place, now.”
It was somewhat comforting to Julian to talk with someone who understood what it felt like to have your life torn apart. “I was arrogant. I often dealt with heartbreaking circumstances with my patients, and yet I foolishly believed I was personally immune to such tragedy.”
“It’s a psychological defense. We try to convince ourselves that something bad can’t happen – until it does.”
After so many years spent using his intellect and physical skills to heal those who were suffering, Julian was realistic. “Ultimately, there are no happy endings. As a surgeon, all I could do was postpone the inevitable.”
Ian had also dealt with the subject of mortality as he tried to help his patients come to terms with their fear of dying. “The most disturbing fact about life, of course, is that it ends. You just want the two most dramatic events – ‘birth’ and ‘death’ – to be separated by the longest possible span of time.”
“Unfortunately, it has been my experience that most people don’t give the great questions in life much thought. They’re too caught up in the minutia of day-to-day living to see the bigger picture. And, of course, some just choose to ignore them.”
“But as everyone eventually discovers, ignorance does not change reality.”
“Ignorance is one thing. Obviously, it can be corrected by learning, and by attaining knowledge – however, that requires an open mind.” Julian had always found this subject particularly irritating. “Willful ignorance is something else entirely. To purposely choose not to expand your thinking, not to be curious, not to try to understand, makes no sense and can have serious repercussions.”
Because of Ian’s experience, he understood why an individual would behave in a way that was detrimental to them. “I believe ignorance is used by some as a form of protection. They feel that not acknowledging an unpleasant truth will keep it from happening. But pretending is never the answer.”
“During my surgical career, I was always interested in why some patients with critical health issues refused to even contemplate the prospect of dying. They chose not to get their affairs in order or make any plans to help their families.”
“Yes, death is the perfect example. Because we cannot know with any certainty when our life will end, it’s wise for us to accept that death will occur, and, therefore, we should live each day as an entity unto itself. It does no good to either live in the past or the future. The past can make us feel despondent and the future can make us fearful. Psychologically, it’s healthier to live in the moment.”
“Understanding the words is much easier than acting on them.”
“Hence the need for my former profession.” Ian was willing to talk openly about his issues, and he could only hope it would lead Julian to do the same. “As I found out personally, the sanest thing you can do is live the life you have. To constantly wish your situation was magically different or to relentlessly regret the current state of your existence only leads to frustration, despair, and, in our case, addiction.”
Julian shrugged. “No offense, but I’m not sure you were much of a therapist. Talking to you is making me depressed.”
“Ha! That works both ways. At this point, I would not be too eager to have you crack my skull.”
“Okay, you’ve got a point. It’s still hard to believe that just a few years ago my services were in great demand…… but then I sustained my TBI.”
“I can only imagine your recovery was extremely challenging.”
“In some ways it still is. As they say, every day is an adventure.”
Maggie stopped by and refilled their coffee. “Do you gentlemen need anything?”
Julian smiled at her. “Just a few more pleasant people like you in my life.”
She made a face at Ian and said, “He’s just flattering me because I gave him an extra pancake.” She moved on to other tables, and the two men resumed their discussion.
“Some people believe there are worse things than death.” Ian was talking about a topic he was very familiar with. “Individuals trapped in great psychological pain can begin to believe that life is too difficult and not worth living. Or, like us, they form harmful habits in search of what turns out to be only temporary relief.”
“Temporary is right. Every time I sobered up, all of my problems were still there. No matter how often I drank, it didn’t help me walk or improve my speech. The tremor was as prominent as ever, and my memory remained hazy at best.”
Ian wanted to assure this man that he had experienced many of the same feelings. “The problem is that pain, whether physical or mental, clouds a person’s judgment. They’re not thinking clearly. I’m not trying to make excuses for what happened to me, but when I look back, I can see how my grief made me feel like a victim who deserved to do whatever it took to feel better. I tried to justify my destructive behavior to relieve the guilt I experienced each time I got drunk.”
“Yes, I played the victim too, but that only led me to feel sorry for myself. I just couldn’t stop thinking how unfair it was that it happened to me.”
Ian said, “Human beings have developed many ways to try to explain the unexplainable. Some call it fate, karma, God’s will, or something else. But whatever name a person gives to it, they’re all just attempts to make sense of events and situations that are too difficult for an individual to fully comprehend and accept.”
Julian took a sip of coffee and confessed, “My injury made me realize that at any moment, something can happen that has tremendous consequences. If you and I had not had our lives turned upside down, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation. We wouldn’t have become alcoholics, you would have your practice, and I would still be performing surgery.”
That prompted Ian to ask, “So what does the future hold for you? Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Julian looked away. “It’s a difficult question. Honestly, I don’t dwell on it. I just try to make it through each day.” He thought for a second and then pointed out what he considered to be an important truth. “I’m an alcoholic who has significant physical challenges, and who has lost his career. But I know I’m better off than a lot of people. I saw them every day in my office. Their lives hung in the balance. Their families were distraught – so it’s wrong to sit here and feel sorry for myself.”
Carefully maintaining a neutral tone of voice, Ian asked, “Are you comfortable telling me how the brain injury occurred?”
Julian dropped his head. “It really doesn’t matter. It was just a car accident. The kind of thing that happens all the time. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because of that, everything changed…… However, at least I survived. Others did not.”
Ian’s face showed no reaction.
Julian continued, “I’ve often thought about what had to happen with perfect precision for us to arrive at the same point in the highway at that exact moment. If I had hit one more red light or driven slightly slower or faster, I would not have been there when the other car crossed the center line. Of course, it was that kind of thinking that allowed my self-pity to overwhelm me.”
Ian was touched by his honesty. His former patients usually tried to evade whatever emotional pain was tearing their lives apart. Julian, however, seemed to have found the strength to face his.
“What about you?” Julian looked him in the eye. “What caused your life to disintegrate?”
Disintegrate was a good word for it. Because it was so painful, Ian rarely spoke about it, but it was, after all, why he was here. With no reason to wait, he said haltingly, “I lost my family. They were killed. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did – and I could’ve handled it better, but I didn’t.”
Julian could hardly believe what he was hearing. It took him a moment to truly appreciate what the individual sitting across from him had been forced to endure.
In a voice tinged with bitterness, Ian said, “My grief was overpowering, and because I couldn’t help myself, I lost the ability to help my patients. As my career spiraled downward, my dependency started.”
Maggie walked over with freshly brewed coffee, topped off their cups, and returned to the kitchen.
Silence fell over them until Ian decided it was time. Carefully, he chose his words. “Julian, I know that you come here every Tuesday evening. Or at least you have for the past eight weeks because that’s how long I’ve been following you. However, each time I started to come in to talk to you, I lost my nerve and decided I wasn’t ready – but now I am.”
Hopelessly confused, Julian wanted an answer. “Why would you follow me? I mean, I’ve been wondering this whole time what you’re doing here. I don’t understand why you’ve taken such an interest in me.”
“My courage has been in short supply the last few years, so believe me, coming in here to face you was not easy.” Ian nervously played with a spoon until he was ready and then as clearly and concisely as possible, he said, “Julian, my wife, and daughter were killed in an auto accident, and you were driving the other car.”
Slowly the blood drained from Julian’s face. Stunned to the point that he could barely breathe, his mind reeled as he thought back to that night and what little he could remember. Gasping, he searched for words…… “That can’t be. You must be mistaken.”
With his voice starting to shake, Ian explained, “Two months ago, when I heard your name, I knew it was you. On the evening of September 29th, 2015, at approximately 8:30, you were eastbound on highway 39. You were driving a silver Lexus. My wife and daughter were in a new BMW. She lost control of her car on the wet road, and you collided head-on.”
Julian was in shock. “I can’t believe it. It was your wife and daughter that were killed that night?”
Ian nodded but did not say anything. He knew it was important to give Julian time to process such disturbing information.
Now Ian’s reason for showing up at the restaurant made sense. Rubbing the arm of his wheelchair, Julian concentrated as hard as he could to recall that night. “The last thing I saw was headlights suddenly coming at me through the rain. I’m sure I tried to slam on the brakes, but that’s where everything goes blank. I was in a coma for twenty-seven days, and when I woke up in the hospital, the accident had disappeared from my memory. I’ve tried over and over again, but I just can’t remember anything else.”
Softly, Ian said, “Perhaps in some ways that’s fortunate.”
“I did eventually learn that others stopped and tried to help.”
Ian struggled to control his voice. “Yes, the first person on the scene did everything possible to save my little girl, but it was hopeless. Soon others stopped but -” Ian’s voice dropped to a whisper, “Because of the fire, no rescue was possible.”
It was difficult for Julian to truly express his feelings. “Ian, I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve been through. I am so sorry for your loss.”
“And likewise, you will never know how much I regret the physical and mental pain you’ve had to overcome. So many lives have been affected that it’s almost impossible to assess the damage that was caused in an instant.”
Julian tried to put the tragedy in perspective. “I lost my motor skills and, consequently, my career – but you lost your family. You lost everything.”
“It seemed like it, but it was still not a reason to destroy what was left of my life. It’s just that I didn’t want to go on without my wife and child. I know it might be hard for some people to understand, but even though it’s been four years, the pain is just as real now as it was the night I got the phone call.”
“Time is supposed to ease a person’s suffering, but I’m beginning to wonder just how long it takes.”
“Unfortunately, facing a brutal reality is something you and I have in common. Each of our brains was compromised, and that led to our inability to perform our jobs. No matter how we feel about each other, we are linked together.”
Julian knew he was right. One mistake had shattered both of their lives and now had brought them together. There was no going back. “Makes you wonder what the future holds for us.”
After eight weeks of waiting, Ian felt relieved that he had done what he came to do, but he thought his intrusion had lasted long enough. Standing up to leave, he said, “I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reach out to you. I guess I just wanted you to know. But don’t worry, I won’t bother you again. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak with you. It meant a lot to me.”
Before he could take a step, Julian spoke up. “Wait! Don’t go.” He hoped that finding out more information about that night would somehow help him understand it. “Please stay for just a few more minutes.”
Ian was surprised – but pleased. “All right.” He sat back down and studied the man in front of him. They’d been through the worst that life had to offer, and both survived. There was an undeniable bond over the simple fact that they had overcome hardships that had altered their lives forever.
Julian hesitated for a moment and then asked, “If it’s not too painful, could you tell me a little about your wife and daughter? I know it’s none of my business, but I’ve always wondered about them.”
Ian tried to steel himself against the emotion he knew was coming. “They were both amazing. My wife and I were married for seventeen years, and she was the love of my life. We had almost given up on having a family when she got pregnant.” Ian grimaced as he fought back tears. “Our little girl was so beautiful. She was happy, intelligent, and outgoing. For a brief time, I was the happiest person in the world.”
Having once felt the same way, Julian could appreciate the indescribable sense of loss. With regret creeping into his voice, he said, “Ever since it happened, I’ve wondered about the other people involved…… After I recovered a bit, I was shown a lot of information about the accident, but please forgive me, my memory has good days and bad, and, sadly, sitting here now, I can’t remember their names.”
Ian was not offended. He knew what trauma could do to cognitive functions. “My wife’s name was Gillian, and my little girl’s name was Kasie.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, found the photo he wanted, and slid it across the table.
Suddenly there were the faces of the two people Julian had thought so much about. The former surgeon had to blink back tears as he looked at the woman and her child. “How old was your daughter?”
“Three. She had just started preschool.”
A deep feeling of despair quickly swept over Julian as he thought about all of the unnecessary misery that had occurred because of one rainy night. “My God.”
Ian reached over and retrieved his phone. “It was just getting dark when it began to rain. My wife texted me before they started home that it looked like it was going to storm. It was about a twenty-minute drive, one we had made hundreds of times.”
Without thinking, Julian mumbled, “It all just happened too fast. There wasn’t enough time to react.”
Ian rushed to assure him that he did not hold him responsible. “Julian, please don’t think you’re to blame for anything. You are an innocent victim in this whole tragedy.”
That might be true, but it didn’t help. From the beginning, Julian had known that a mother and daughter had been killed, and it haunted him that he couldn’t avoid the collision. Even worse was the guilt he felt for being the lone survivor.
Although it was difficult, Ian shared how he’d been affected. “Grief is a strange thing. You never know when it will strike, and sometimes it takes you by complete surprise. The other day I was surfing through the cable channels and came across a kid show that my daughter dearly loved. I hadn’t heard that silly theme song in four years, and yet hearing the first few notes was all it took. I cried for the next hour.”
Julian wondered where this man had found the strength to survive the loss of his loved ones and recover from alcoholism. His own problems had been severe, but having never married, at least they did not involve others.
Above all else, Ian wanted to make one thing clear. “Julian, I did not come here tonight to complain about my life. Yours has been just as difficult. My only intention was to reach out and let you know how sorry I am that this happened to both us.”
Julian did feel better now that he knew something about the others who were involved in the accident. They were no longer anonymous victims. Gillian was a wife and mother, and she had an adorable daughter, Kasie. They seemed very real to him now, and he was grateful that Ian had found the courage to speak to him.
They sat quietly for a few moments and then Maggie stopped by with more coffee.
Ian wanted a break from all the emotions he was feeling, so he asked the waitress, “Do you know what Julian used to do for a living?”
She thought it was an odd question, but she answered it. “I have absolutely no idea. Why? Does it matter somehow?”
“Depends. Does it make a difference to you?”
“No!” She smiled at Julian. “He is a good man. He always asks how I’m doing and about my kids. He’s a nice person.”
Ian pressed her. “If you don’t mind me asking, how many children do you have?”
Maggie’s face lit up with a huge smile. “I have three! Two boys and a girl. Heather is my oldest. She’s eleven. Riley is nine, and my youngest is little Toby, he’s seven.”
“And how long have you worked here at the restaurant?”
“Six years. I work a full shift on weekdays here, and then on weekends, I work in the kitchen at a retirement center. What kind of work do you do?”
Her question tripped Ian up. “Oh – I was a psychotherapist.”
“Interesting.” That particular line of work had special meaning for Maggie.
Ian didn’t understand how she could work so much and still raise a family. “So, you work two jobs, seven days a week.”
“To be honest, I’d work three jobs if there was just more time. Speech and physical therapy for Toby are not cheap. But I’m blessed that my mom lives with us, so I have a built-in babysitter. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
From behind her, she heard Jerry say, “Order up.”
Maggie leaned in and said, “Don’t repeat this, but whenever he can, Jerry lets me work a double shift for the extra money. He’s a great boss.” She excused herself and went back to work.
Julian was amazed. “She thinks she’s blessed.”
Discreetly, Ian asked, “I wonder why her son needs therapy?”
“Why don’t you ask her? You’re pestering her about everything else.”
“I’m not pestering her, I’m showing an interest in her life. Besides, it doesn’t seem to bother her to talk about it.”
“That’s true. I’ve noticed she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. She’s probably divorced.”
Ian shook his head. “A single parent with three kids and a mother to provide for is not an easy life.”
“It’s a wonder she hasn’t started drinking like we did.”
Ian chuckled and then asked, “Does Maggie know your story?”
“She just knows I had a head injury. She doesn’t know it was a car accident.”
Ian studied the man who had entered his life. “I doubt she understands the amount of courage you have.”
“You know, courage isn’t always found in extreme circumstances like you and I experienced. People are courageous in all kinds of situations in life.” Julian nodded toward Maggie who was refilling a customer’s water glass while chatting away.
Ian agreed. “She does seem to face her daily challenges with dignity and grace.”
“I’ve come in here every Tuesday night for six months, and I’ve never once seen her in a bad mood or feeling down.” Julian’s admiration for her was clear. “There have been nights where she looked completely exhausted, but she was still upbeat and made her customers feel good. I don’t know how she does it. I can get food anywhere, Maggie is the reason I keep coming back.”
For the next ten minutes, they drank coffee and tried to make sense of what had happened in their lives until they were the only customers left.
Eventually, Maggie came back to check on them. “How are you doing?”
Julian said, “I think we’re fine, but I’m afraid we ran off all your other customers.”
Before Maggie could say anything, Ian asked her, “Do you have a minute?”
She looked around the empty restaurant. “It looks like I do.”
Hoping she would feel at ease talking to them, Ian said, “Throughout my career, it was my privilege to listen to people, so please indulge me and tell us a little bit about yourself.”
“There’s not much to tell.” Maggie had a natural modesty that was appealing. “I don’t lead a particularly interesting life. There’s nothing special about me – but I do have people I love and who love me, and that means everything.”
Having lost his family, Ian knew her wisdom was unassailable. “You are absolutely right. With that attitude, you’ll never need a therapist.”
Maggie tried to be honest. “I’ve never accomplished anything that other people would think is important. I mean being a waitress is not brain surgery, you know.”
Julian couldn’t help but smile. “That may be true – but you’re a mother and that’s the most important job there is in life. And you said that one of your children requires particular forms of therapy, which I know can be even more demanding.”
“It sure can.” Most people didn’t understand what it was like to raise a child with an intellectual challenge, but Maggie realized these two particular men would definitely know what she was talking about. “Toby was born with Down syndrome. He’s being mainstreamed in school, but his speech is such an issue that it’s causing problems. When he was young, we used sign language at home.”
Without thinking, Ian blurted, “So, you know sign language?”
Julian rolled his eyes as Maggie responded, “Of course! You do whatever it takes to communicate with someone you love. But the various therapies are expensive and that means my other two kids miss out on things which makes me feel terrible – but they never complain. They love their little brother, and they just accept that this is the way our family is.”
Delicately, Ian asked, “So you’re just living on your income? There’s no child support?”
For the first since Julian had met her, a look of weary desolation swept over Maggie’s face. “I’m not divorced.” Trying to remain calm, she softly said, “My husband is deceased. He died two years ago.”
Julian felt awful. “Oh, no, Maggie, no.”
Ian felt worse. “That was too personal. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
It had been an excruciating journey, but Maggie had now accepted the fact that she was a widow. “That’s all right. Tony was a good man, and I guess in a way that cost him his life.”
Julian didn’t want her to be uncomfortable. “You don’t have to talk about it. It’s none of our business.”
“I never get tired of talking about my husband. He was the most caring, gentle person I’ve ever met. But something happened that he just couldn’t handle.”
She looked at Ian. “You said you were a therapist, right?”
“I wish therapy would’ve worked for us, but, unfortunately, it didn’t. Tony underwent all kinds of counseling and everything else we could think of, but nothing helped. My husband suffered for two years before he couldn’t stand it anymore…… He died by suicide.” For Maggie, there was something about describing her husband’s death out loud that made it hurt even worse.
A familiar sense of sorrow slowly settled over Ian. He’d heard this story too many times. Across the table, Julian realized that he’d been wrapped up in his own issues for so long that he had somehow forgotten that there was a world of suffering all around him. He momentarily felt ashamed for being so self-absorbed.
However, for whatever reason, Maggie wanted to tell her husband’s story. With her voice quivering she began. “It was just another day, four years ago. Tony worked at a manufacturing company across town, and he was driving home in the dark after staying late. It was raining hard, and he came upon a car crash just seconds after it happened. He was the first person to stop. He checked one car, and the driver was still alive. Then he rushed over to a small sportscar which was just starting to burn, and it was obvious the driver couldn’t be saved. But when he looked into the backseat, he saw a child that was still breathing. And even though the rain was pouring down, the car burst into flames.”
In shock, Julian turned and looked at Ian, but the former therapist shook his head making it clear that he didn’t want Maggie to know that it was his wife and daughter in the accident.
“At that point, a few more cars stopped, but there was nothing anyone could do. Tony was severely burned trying to get the door open, but the car was mangled, and he couldn’t do it. He had to have multiple skin grafts on his hands, and he wasn’t able to work at the factory anymore. The physical pain he suffered and our terrible financial situation as the medical bills piled up began to affect him – but that wasn’t what tormented him the most. That’s not what made him withdraw from me and the children.”
Ian had listened as long as he could, but he couldn’t stand to hear anymore. He suddenly stood up. “Excuse me.” Quickly he walked to the men’s room.
Maggie said, “Oh, I didn’t mean to upset him.”
“Don’t worry. He has spent his entire adult life helping people deal with grief and loss. He’s used to it…… Let me ask you another question. When exactly did your husband come across the accident?”
“It was September 2015”
“Do you happen to remember the date and time of day?”
Maggie didn’t understand the point of the question, but she provided the information. “September 29th, 2015 around eight-thirty in the evening. Tony always believed it was the rain that caused the wreck.”
Because he genuinely wanted to understand what Maggie had endured, he asked her the most painful question of all. “You said your husband was tormented by something specific?”
Maggie momentarily closed her eyes and then in a voice barely loud enough to be heard, she said, “It must have been so awful, I can’t even pretend to know what it was like…… Even with the sound of the rain and the roar of the fire, Tony had to listen to the screams of the little girl as she burned to death. What he experienced that evening haunted him day and night. He couldn’t get that sound out of his brain.”
Once again, Julian’s eyes edged with tears. “Maggie, I had no idea.”
“Of course, you didn’t, Jules. How could you?”
At that moment, Ian reappeared. He walked over, sat down, and promptly let the therapist in him take over. “Maggie, how did you manage to go on after your husband’s death?”
“I admit there were times when I wanted to give up.” Nervously, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “One of the most difficult things was trying to help Toby understand that daddy was never coming back. But I had to go on. With three small children depending on me, there was no choice. No matter how broken I felt, I owed them the best possible life. They don’t have much, but, at the very least, they know they’re loved.”
She pulled out a tissue and wiped her eyes. “After you lose someone, you learn to never take the people you care about for granted. My family is everything to me – and, unfortunately, for my kids, I’m a hugger. I just can’t help it. But I don’t spend my time dwelling on all the bad things that can happen, instead, I make the effort to appreciate every second I have with them. There are some people who are living without love in their lives, and I don’t know how they do it.”
Ian repeated her. “Love. Love is what carried you through.”
“It’s still what keeps me going.” Suddenly she began to feel embarrassed for pouring out her heart. “I didn’t mean to burden you with my problems. Everyone has something they’re dealing with.”
Ian said, “That’s true, but you’re were not burdening us – I asked you to talk about your life.”
Julian was moved by her words. “Maggie, I know this wasn’t easy to talk about, but I’m glad you did.”
“Well, I better be getting back to work. I’ll bring the check.”
Julian smiled. “Separate checks, please. There is no way I’m going to pay for his coffee.”
Ian frowned. “Okay, separate checks.”
Surprised by what an unusual evening this had turned out to be, Maggie left for the cash register.
The two men looked at each other in disbelief. What were the odds that they would meet the widow of the man who had stopped to help?
Knowing he didn’t have much time, Julian spoke as fast as his damaged voice would allow. “The reason I wanted separate checks is that as Maggie was telling her story, I was thinking that I would like to leave a tip that could make a real difference in her life. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to think of anyone besides myself, let alone help someone else, and she has been so kind to me over the last six months that I would really like to do this for her.”
Ian instantly embraced the idea. “That would be great!” But then just as quickly his expression grew serious because he realized he would never be able to repay her. “Maggie’s husband died because he tried to save my daughter. How do I put a price on that?…… I think –” He stopped as she came back around the corner.
She placed the checks in front of them. “I hope you big spenders can handle this.”
A funny look came over Julian’s face. “You’re not going to believe this, Maggie, but neither one of us is carrying cash. We’re going to have to put it on cards.”
She looked at both of them. “Why am I not surprised.”
Both men had their wallets out, and they handed over their plastic.
“I’ll be right back.”
Ian and Julian waited until she disappeared again and then they began to whisper back and forth. They agreed that at this time, there was no need to tell Maggie how she was connected to them. Maybe at some point in the future, but not tonight – so, they decided to just leave the tip without explanation. Although there was no way to know for sure what her reaction would be, one thing was certain; it had been a long time since these two men had felt this good about anything.
They waited patiently until she returned a couple of minutes later. She placed the receipts on the table for them to sign. “Amazingly, both of your cards cleared. I guess you’re not the suspicious characters I took for you.”
Ian laughed and said, “Maggie, it has been a pleasure meeting you.”
“Thanks for coming in, and I hope you’ll come back.”
“You can count on it.”
Julian looked at the woman who, until this evening was just a sweet person who served him a meal, but who now seemed like so much more. “As always, Maggie, you have brightened my day. I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
“You take care of yourself, Jules. I worry about you.” She reached down and patted him on the hand, turned, and walked to the kitchen.
With the youthful eagerness of two little boys who shared a mischievous secret, the former surgeon and therapist filled out the receipts and placed them in the center of the table. A minute later they were gone.
Soon Maggie came back to the dining room, and after cleaning two booths, made it over to Julian’s table. Before she started clearing it, she picked up the receipts and placed them in her pocket. She reached for the coffee cups but suddenly froze. Something in her mind clicked, prompting her to pull out one of the receipts. She read the amount of the tip and began to tremble. She pulled out the other one, looked at it closely, and in a spontaneous response to her astonishment, burst into tears.
Startled, Jerry looked up from the grill he was cleaning and immediately ran to her. “Maggie? Maggie, what’s wrong?”
The waitress collapsed into a chair and held out the receipts. Jerry bent down, looked at them, and broke into the biggest grin of his life. “Oh, my God!!”
Maggie looked up and sobbed, “Jerry, this can’t be happening. This is not real.”
Her boss looked at the receipts again knowing in his heart that after everything she’d been through, no one deserved this more than the hardworking mother of three.
Julian’s meal totaled, $9.78, and Ian’s was a grand total of $1.39.
Out of respect for her late husband’s efforts in what proved to be an impossible situation, and because of their admiration for the way that Maggie, after enduring so much heartbreak, was doing everything she possibly could to provide for her family, Julian and Ian, two men who’d lost so much, had each left a tip of $10,000.00.