As he stepped up to the podium, he felt slightly dizzy, but his determination buoyed him. He looked out into the auditorium, thankful that the lights focused upon him and the remainder of the stage area prohibited him, at least for the most part, from clearly observing the faces of the young men and women gathered there. He was only able to recognize those seated in the front-most four or five rows. When he caught a glimpse of his son’s best friend, seated in the middle of the third row surrounded by the rest of his boy’s buddies, he quickly closed his eyes and began breathing deeply. One hand on either side of the podium to steady himself, he cleared his throat, opened his eyes, and began speaking into the microphone.
“Good morning,” he said, his voice slightly shaky. “I never, ever thought I would find myself standing here addressing you on an occasion like this. It simply never entered my mind. But when Officer Vasquez came to my house to invite me, I immediately accepted the invitation.”
“Why?” he continued. “Because I don’t want any other parent to experience what I have. I wouldn’t wish what has happened to my family on anyone else and if I can spare one family from suffering the way my family has, . . . ” His voice cracked and broke off. He took a couple more deep breaths, just as the psychologist with whom he had met earlier that morning, had instructed. The auditorium was eerily silent as the normally rambunctious audience patiently waited for him to continue speaking.
“When I was approached about speaking to you this morning, I knew that it would be difficult.” He cleared his throat. “I tried to prepare myself, but I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared to see the car again. When Officer Vasquez and I met the first time, he asked for my permission to display the vehicle in the courtyard here on campus so that all of you could see it close up and appreciate the extent of the damage.”
“That car is so hard to look at,” he continued, his voice breaking again as he fought to keep from breaking down completely. “I want you to imagine what your parents would feel like if they had to look at a vehicle in similar condition, knowing that’s where you took your last breath.” He stopped and removed a folded white handkerchief from his back pocket. As he dabbed the tears streaming down his cheeks, images began to flash on the screen behind him. Several photos of a nearly unrecognizable sport utility vehicle, snapped from a variety of different angles as the car sat on display in the high school’s courtyard that morning, flashed onto the screen sequentially before fading into the final photo which continued to be projected.
The final image was a picture taken earlier in the day of the speaker standing next to the driver’s side of the vehicle holding an 8 x 10 photo in each hand. In his right hand, he clutched a studio portrait of a handsome young man in a tuxedo, smiling broadly. The photo in his left hand was of a beautiful young woman in a full-length gown wearing a crown and holding a bouquet of red roses. The speaker was on her left with his arm around her shoulder and they were both beaming as they posed for the camera on a football field.
“Most of you here knew my twins, Christopher and Crystal. They were 17 years old when they both died this past December in that S.U.V. out there in the courtyard. The car was broadsided by another S.U.V. driven by a 21-year-old young man who was drunk. They were on their way home from a Christmas party, and proceeded into the intersection because the light was green. But the other driver didn’t even slow down when he entered that intersection. He was so drunk that he never noticed the light in his direction was red. His blood-alcohol level was .24 — three times the legal limit. My kids never had a chance.”
He paused for a moment and turned to consider the image on the screen behind him. Without turning back to the audience, he explained. “They both died at the accident scene — inside that vehicle. The firefighters had to use the ‘jaws of life’ to free them from the wreckage. But by the time they cut through the roof and pulled their bodies out of the S.U.V., it was too late. They were both already dead.”
He turned back to the audience and walked to the foot of the stage, as close as possible to the first-row audience members. Willing himself to share the feelings he had never voiced aloud before, he continued. “So when I look at that car, I look at the place where my two children — my only children — literally took their last breaths.”
The photo gave way to a series of newspaper headlines projected on the screen behind him, the last of which read, “Jones, 22, Sentenced to Life Without Parole.”
“There are a number of victims in this story. They include another young man who used very poor judgment and will pay for his short-sightedness for the rest of his life. His life, for all intents and purposes, also ended the night my children’s lives ended. Because now he sits in a four by nine foot cell in a maximum security prison and wishes that he had made a different choice. He wishes that he had chosen not to drive that night.”
“You do not want to be like that young man and you do not want to put your parents through the hell that his parents are now living out.”
Feeling his knees begin to tremble, he sat in the chair at the edge of the stage that had provided for him by the event organizers in case he felt the need to sit down. “The emotions that I experience every day are feelings that no parent should ever have to feel. I think about my children every moment of every day. They were going to graduate this past June year and they both had so many dreams, such big plans. They were both going on to college. I worked hard and saved money my entire adult life so that my kids could go to college. The bank account is still there, but my children will never benefit from it now. What’s left of that vehicle represents what’s left of my dreams for my children . . . what’s left of my life. It’s crushed and demolished just like that car, because my children were my life. Just as you are the light of your parents’ lives.”
“When my twins were little, they loved to play ‘hide and seek.’ They thought it was so much fun to hide from me. They would both jump up into my lap and beg me to play with them. ‘Daddy! Daddy! We want to hide from you!’ they’d say. Sometimes I was tired because I had worked all day, but they didn’t understand that, of course. They just wanted me to play with them, so no matter how tired I was, I would go into the hallway and cover my eyes like this.” He demonstrated for the teen-aged audience by closing his eyes and placing his hands over his face, the fingertips of each hand resting gently upon his eyelids. “Then they would hide and it was my job to find them. Of course, since there were two of them, they conspired.” He smiled at the memory. “And I, of course, always let them think that I didn’t know where they were hiding. I always let them win.” He brought his hands down, resting one on each leg as he remained seated.
“Since the night they both died, I have a recurring nightmare in which we’re playing ‘hide and seek’ just like we used to. I’m in the hallway and I have my hands over my eyes. I hear them whispering just like they used to and then scamper away into one of the other rooms in our house. Except in my nightmare, unlike when they were little kids playing the game with me, I don’t know where they are. I can’t hear them and even though I look and look, I can never find them. I wake up in a cold sweat with my hands over my face like this,” he said as he put his hands back over his eyes, “and then I remember why I can’t find them.”
He looked out at the sea of young faces, as he willed them to understand his message. “You don’t want your parents to ever have a nightmare like that. And you don’t want any other parents to experience what I am experiencing every day because you chose to drink and drive.”
He stood up and walked back to the podium. As he did so, Officer Vasquez, who had been seated in the front row, stepped onto the stage next to the speaker and addressed the audience.
“That concludes our presentation. But before you go, I want you to understand how strongly those of us involved with Every 15 Minutes program feel about it. The program has received some negative press recently. Some folks have said that the presentation is too intense, too emotional. We’ve been accused of taking the dramatic approach too far — especially by using the Grim Reaper character, staging a traffic collision, and simulating the deaths of some of your classmates in order to illustrate the point that drinking and driving are a deadly combination.”
But you know what? I’ll gladly take the heat from those critics if the events we have staged here on your campus for the past couple of days have convinced just one of you not to get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. Just one. Thank you for your attention and you are all dismissed now to continue on to your next class.”
At that precise moment, the bell rang. There was no applause. Rather, the majority of the assembled students who had been so attentive, listening silently and respectfully, jumped from their seats and, one by one, rushed out of the auditorium, laughing and calling to their friends as they burst into the hallway and the sound of locker doors slamming resumed. A few moved slowly, wiping tears from their eyes as they worked their way out into the crowded hallway. Fewer still lingered, silently heading down the aisles in the direction of the stage to greet the father of their departed friends.
After the last one of the students who had stayed behind to talk quietly and, in her case, tearfully, with the speaker made her way out of the auditorium on her way to her next scheduled class, Officer Vasquez turned to the speaker and thanked him for his participation in the program.
“I know how difficult it was for you to come here today and speak to these kids,” he said solemnly. “I appreciate it greatly, as does every other person associated with the program.”
“Do you think I did any good, though?” the speaker inquired wearily.
“Only time will tell,” the Officer replied as he shook the speaker’s hand before patting him comfortingly on the shoulder. “Only time will tell.”
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