Alcohol and other drugs play no part in this column, for once. Maybe that's why this tragedy is even tougher to understand.
A week ago, a dear family friend died in a car accident. He was 20 years old, a presence in our world since his days in kindergarten with my boys, as good a young man as can be — from a family down the street that makes ours a tightknit neighborhood, a place to grow up and grow old. Except that he barely came of age and didn't grow old, because the car he was riding in hit a patch of ice and spun into the path of a truck. He and two other classmates at Carleton College were killed instantly. Two students survived with serious injuries. They all were wearing seat belts.
Life and death are separated by seconds and inches. A minute earlier and their car might have slipped into a ditch. A few inches one way or the other and maybe they'd have missed the slick spot altogether. It's moot. Because the "what if" scenarios shatter against the harsh reality that James Adams is dead.
The police say that "speed, alcohol or drugs" were not a factor, which makes this all the more senseless. Not that any tragedy makes sense or grief is easier to bear when substances tear out the heart. But when we know death and destruction under the influence, we understand how that happens, point to our kids and say, "See what happens when you drink and drive?" And then we urge them not to do it. We try to make it a teachable moment for those who matter the most to us.
On the Sunday after the accident, I visited James' parents and two elder siblings. They weren't in shock or in mourning. Theirs was unmitigated grief, pouring out like a broken water main. At their house, we parents stood by to help. But what was there to do except witness their tears? "This is every parent's nightmare," a father whispered. "No, it's every parent's fear, but it is the Adamses' nightmare," a mother firmly replied.
Now I can't expunge that stark truth from my head. At night, I wake up. Next to the bed is my fear of the nightmare, death stalking life separated only by seconds and inches. In the dark of my thoughts, I see the effervescent sparkle in James' eyes. In my ear, I hear his confident voice, his bold laugh frosted with whimsy that hinted he never was quite so serious as he sometimes came across. I see his mother and father, sister and brother, and next to them I see my own kids, Henry, Thomas and Nancy, their mom and me. It's a crazy-quilt patchwork of feelings and thoughts I've struggled to untangle to find sense in it all, a hidden meaning exposed. But there is no sliver of insight or bold, broad lesson in his death, which steals everything and teaches nothing.
It does give me another chance, though, because my fear is not a nightmare. At this moment, my sons are flying back to Minnesota to attend James' funeral. My daughter, who passed her road test and earned her driver's license at almost the exact moment James died, will be at the airport to meet them. And when they get home tonight, I'm going to hug them all harder than ever — because I can.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoirs. His book "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery" was published last year. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.