By Carole R. Harris
What was your most devastating day or moment in your life? I mean, really life altering, unearthly painful? Did you have to really think about it or is it right there in your every moment? Did you have the opportunity to thank those hearts and souls who helped you navigate those moments?
My most devastating moment was handed to me in an instant, all wrapped up in a tragic accident involving five of my close family members, killing three of them and saving two. And, in turn, there’s all of the moments since that have been impacted by that one moment. One moment defines your life, world, every choice, every word you choose. That moment taught me true gratefulness, grace, true pain, suffering. How one moment can give you so many good and awful things, but would take days to explain.
But that’s why I write this. I owe “Thanks” to so many people from that moment, before that moment, since that moment. And I have the weight of not sharing my gratitude with those who have made appearances on this journey. I fear that they may think I have been ungrateful by not letting them know how they impacted my life, my family, my extended family, and so many more. I never personally thanked so many for somehow handling their moment of a devastation that I still feel, know, and live.
Seventeen years ago, June 12, 1999, my father and mother, my youngest sister and my two eldest children set out from Michigan on that fateful Saturday morning bound for New Jersey. My eldest sister’s 40th birthday was June 13th that year. Halfway through Pennsylvania the van rolled. No logical explanation. Just rolled and killed 3 innocent people. Three of the most kind, giving, loving, and genuine people you would ever meet. My mother Carole, my youngest sister Hilda, and my son Cristoffer all gone in what I was told was an instant. My daughter, who survived, said it was longer than an instant. My father also survived, but he was unconscientious during the rolls, my daughter was awake.
I could begin with the chaplain at the hospital and the coroner who had the unfortunate job of talking to me extensively while my husband attempted to calm our daughter down upstairs. I could tell you that most challenging part was that they wouldn’t let me see our son, how we were hundreds of miles away and they couldn’t show me his broken body. I could share the pain of when we were back in Michigan and finally allowed to see him 20 minutes before visitation, how I saw the punctures in his young skin, his misshapen 10-year old body they attempted to put back together, and the skin color they attempted to replicate that barely matched his beautiful beige-tan glow that once greeted us.
Where Do I Start with My Appreciation?
But I want to share my appreciation for all of the people who I never thanked or who I may not have thanked enough. Here I begin, and there are many:
Thank you to the police officer who had to witness the rolls, the dust, and the horror he must have seen in his rear-view mirror as he was exiting the ramp way ahead of them. I think he may have been a Pennsylvania State Trooper or a local officer. He acted quickly. Before 9/11, he was a true first responder. He turned around to orchestrate the emergency logistics of that accident. I can only imagine him trying to keep his composure so he could call for additional help. He probably called for the helicopter that took my father. He probably called for fire, more police, anyone in earshot who could help. Thank you so much for enduring that and even having to relive it when you had to file your report. Thank you, Officer, for being there for my family. Thank you.
Thank you to the nurse, who must have been an angel, who to her misfortune was behind the van before, during, and after it rolled. She stopped. She didn’t have to. She could have continued and said a quick prayer for the whom-evers. But she stopped. She was first to witness the devastation up close, personally changing her life, I would imagine. She gently guided my screaming 11-year old daughter out of the back of the van.
The nurse then went to my father, made him wait when he wanted to get to his loved ones. He was a mess inside, at least that’s based on what they had to repair for hours into the night and the next few days, months, and years. That nurse was truly a gift. And I never thanked her. Sorry isn’t good enough. Thank you, angel, nurse, whomever you were. The nightmares you must have endured; you know who you are. If I could, I would not be able to thank and hug you enough. Every time I think of my daughter and father there in the wreckage, I thank you in my heart and soul.
And on to the others. I don’t even know how many emergency personnel were there, but I wish I could thank them for their answering the call. Thank you for getting care for the surviving two and for cleaning up the remnants of a moment that changed many lives. Thank you.
It Should Have Been a Regular Evening for You
Thank you to the many bystanders who may have attempted to help. Thank you to the many drivers and families who slowly detoured by the accident on PA I-80 that Saturday evening. They may have given their prayers, their gasps, their aches, and for a moment feel what I feel every day. Thank you for your kindness and just sending the thoughts to our family, without even knowing us. Thank you.
Thank you to the hospital staff and medical personnel. You probably got the call and immediately thought that things were not going to be the same in your evening. You waited for the helicopter and the ambulance, and you may not have even known that you’d have what was left of a wonderful trip with the grandparents, a family on their way to a special occasion. They were taken to you at Penn-State Geisinger. It’s amazing how I can still spell that. After 17 years, I don’t even know if it’s still the same, if the staffing is the same, if the name or corporation is still the same. But that moment in my life, I was thankful. Thank you to the teams at that wonderful hospital in the middle of a nowhere we didn’t know. Thank you.
They Never Told You This When You Have Kids
Our daughter went through the few tests the pediatric team could do with her suddenly grown-up, hysterical swirling of emotions and devastation. She had more pain, guilt, anguish in her heart at 11-years old than most feel in a lifetime. She was never going to be the same innocent, joyful to the core, girl. Penn State Giesinger took her in with open arms, gave her a huge room, toys, someone to sit with her. The nurses even tried to have another child patient sit with her, which did help, for a moment. Then you, gracious hospital staff, had to call us and you had to accept our calls. Thank you for that, in so many ways.
The nurses had to sedate her, which really didn’t do much to help. They worked with us to jointly to up the sedation, which still didn’t work. Thank you nurses and floor staff, for watching her, for honoring my wishes of giving her as many toys, stuffed animals you could possibly give. You even gave her four Dalmatian pound puppies. You just don’t know how that impacted us, both good and bad. We have 4 children; you gave 4 puppies. Our children are mixed; you gave her black and white puppies each with a collar that, since their births, represented their favorite color. Thank you for your intuition, your grace, your communication with parents 20 hours away from getting to her. Thank you to the nurses and staff for your genuine care.
And thank you to the intensive care nurses, doctors, and staff taking precious care of my father. Thank you for allowing us to bring the other children in, for allowing our grief to be at my father’s sedated beside. Thank you for understanding that this wasn’t just a man, but what was left of our parents. Thank you.
Clergy, Coroners, and Too Many Questions
Thank you to the chaplains at the hospital. The clergy of the hospital, both the night of and the one who painfully greeted us when we finally arrived the next day. You were the calm in the storm. It was a blessing to have you there. The night of the accident I spoke to one who was very on top of everything and so comforting, if only through the phone. They looked after our daughter, they listened as she tried to compose herself and wanted so bad to see her brother. Then when I came in, you took me to a safe space so I could handle things the way my parents would have wanted.
I left our screaming daughter upstairs in the hospital rooms with my husband and our other two children, as I went with the clergy to learn everything I could about what happened. In truth, there was very little they wanted to tell me, but I learn so much more than the others did, imbedded in my heart and memory for life. Yet you sat there and gave me truthful, honest answers to pleading questions:
Where is my son? You can’t see him, he’s a town away in the funeral home waiting for you to decide.
Why can’t we see him, or my mother, or my sister? They are not the same, they are not here anymore.
Tell me why? Do you really need to know now, because it won’t change anything.
I need to know; I need to know what happened, if my mother was responsible, was it her health? My mother loved my children more than life, she would never let anything happen. You need to talk to the coroner.
Get the coroner, please. Here’s the items we could recover, but someone will have to go out to the site to get the rest.
She was amazing and yet I hated this everything, the conversation, the moment, the answers.
Thank you, clergy, for more than I can ever thank you for. So sorry you had to be on that weekend and give me those and the rest of the answers, the ones I dare not share because of the pain it will bring others. Thank you for taking care of my father, my daughter, my family. Thank you.
Thank you to the coroner. Thank you for explaining everything to me; teaching me things I should not have ever had to learn. Thank you for telling me about the lack of human evidence, in detail, to prove the reasoning of the accident. Thank you for telling me the how and what happens when the loved ones pass away hundreds of miles away. You explained gently the whats, wheres, hows, whys, and so many questions I didn’t know I know how to ask. Thank you for your patience. Although you didn’t want to tell my 31-year old self, you obliged with kindness. Thank you for everything. And thank you for guiding me to getting the final autopsy report. Thank you.
So Many Earthly Angels in Unexpected Places
My next thanks goes to the staff at the hotel on the campus of the hospital. What a blessing that was, to have only to walk down a simple hill to try to eat, to try to rest, to begin the phone calls, the process. Thank you for the balloons for our other two children, for the warm food, and the understanding that we were navigating this part blind and numb. Your simple help for strangers was a gift. I don’t know, nor do I question how we ended up there, at a place that had what we needed at that moment, but thank you for your hospitality.
Thank you to the airline staff of what was then USAir. Another sister worked for the main airline and my husband worked for one of the commuter companies for USAir. Regardless of the connection, they treated us with kit-gloves and with urgency. We couldn’t fly until the next morning, the 13th, because our daughter said we could not drive and in our grief we honored that wish. The airline angels got us on the plane in Michigan to Pittsburgh, shuffling us while our internal beings were on autopilot. We got to Pittsburgh and they took us across the tarmac to the gate. They gave us privacy and personal attention. My sister and husband did their part to help this process, but the real people behind it, every person from gate to gate, from reservations to baggage, helped us to and from Wilkes Barre, providing guidance as we navigated to and from Bloomsburg and Danville. Thank you for that gift of helping us as best you could. Thank you!
Thank you to the Lansing Township officer. I had talked to my husband a few minutes before we were informed our lives were crushed, all while sitting in my sister Hilda’s work chair. Coincidentally, we worked at the same place. The phone line he usually called suddently lit up again. I picked it up, “…accident… Cristoffer…killed…(screams and cries).” My husband had been home, the other two children asleep. A knock at the door that now leaves us scared of every knock, even though I wasn’t home when this one happened. That officer had to tell a happy father of four that one of his precious gifts had been suddenly snatch from him in a terrible way. That young officer had to break it to him that his life, our lives, would never be the same. Thank you, sir, for attempting to comfort him. Thank you for letting us know and probably changing your life forever. Thank you.
Thank you to my wonderful co-worker and friend whom I threw my keys that night just after I received that fateful call. You know who you are and the other co-workers who picked up the slack, those who provided the wonderful attempt at bringing food to the other children as we were distraught in our front yard. Thank you for driving me home to be with my husband who was a mere ball of grief. Thank you for sitting with the other kids while we collected what composure we could to begin a very long night of phone calls and days of arrangements. Thank you to the other one who came to drive you back to your car. You both know who you are and I remember. Thank you so much for everything!
To the neighbors who suddenly had the screams of parents’ pain and having to overhear the loud calls to the hospital and to the many family members we were left with telling, I Thank you for sharing your dining table so we could gather our thoughts and not be in the house that was, for that moment, no longer the home we had built as a family of six. Thank you for allowing our tears to flow into your lives for that night.
Thank you to the priest who just the year before helped my parents celebrate 40 years of marriage. Thank you for helping to tell the community of this great loss and to help us with plans we never expected, or wanted, to make. And to all of the lay persons and funeral contributors. Thank you.
Thank you to all of the families, friends, co-workers, school and church connections, and the community, far too many to name personally. Those of you who knew and know us, those who knew my parents, who knew Hilda, who knew Cristoffer, we thank you. So many connections between our three loved ones that came to light with each conversation. That connection became very apparent in the many stories others shared. And those who never knew any of them or our family, we thank you for being what community should be, for being the unconditional love and support we should have for each other. Thank you.
The community outpouring during that dark time in our lives was appreciated far beyond the words “Thank you” can relay. The community was not just the local people who had experienced us up close and personally. We learned, during that time, that community was tangible, real, and made our world so much closer. The community that came to us physically or through support came from near and far, locally to internationally, every age, every background, every color, and every religion. Community moving us through those days was what community should be. We needed you more than we could possibly give in to. We may not have asked, but you came through. The love, support, outreach, gifts, donations, the remembrances, awards, hugs, and so much more giving of yourselves are forever appreciated. You know who each of you are and how you helped. I am sorry if I didn’t thank you properly, if I missed an opportunity to repay what you gifted us, or if you needed me and I didn’t realize. I genuinely Thank You for everything and for being present for us.
To our newer connections, those we have met and brought into our small world since the accident. The friends, families, co-workers, school and church connections, and community, we thank you in many of the same ways as those we knew at that time seventeen years ago. Since then, we have been privileged to get to know the love, care, support, outreach, gifts, hugs, and understanding from you who never knew those who passed away during that tragic moment. You have accepted us as whole, learning that we truly were not whole. We became different people from before and you came to know us when we were that new person. You didn’t run or hide from us after learning our dynamic. Many people over the years have been unable to look us in the eye knowing our truth, even those who knew us before. Thank you for your love and acceptance of this new us. Thank you so very much!
Thank you to Ele’s Place for grieving children. You provided a place for both the children and for us to have a safe space for understanding that there are many steps in this process. We came to know that not everyone goes through grief the same ways, the same succession, or with the same outcomes. You gave our children opportunity to have that place to share and not worry about the pain it might cause us, the parents. There are so many lifetime and intangible benefits we received. Thank you!
Family: Every Branch Must Move with the Storm
Thank you to my extended family. Thank you to our aunts, uncles, and especially my cousins, too many to name, who were there every step of the way, before and after the accident. I haven’t nearly thanked you enough for all of the being there and support. Your love, care, hugs, extra eyes, gifts – tangible and intangible, and just being there every moment, for every event – birth, death, wedding, and get-together, you provided so much unconditional love. We thank you! We are truly blessed with having each of you in our lives and our family forest. Thank you and so much love to you!
To my close family - brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and their extended families, we thank you from a place deep within our hearts and our souls. We each had our jobs navigating the logistics of recovery and each of you amazed me differently. There was everything from newspapers to hide from the children to the funeral logistics to making sure the children ate and so many more moments. Thank you each for your contribution. We cannot continue to make it through this journey without the love, care, growth, learning, pain, arguing, forgiveness, joy, and so much more. We have become the strong family our parents wanted us to be. I believe they would have had their moments of pride and moments of disappointment along this journey, but that’s what family should be. Thank you for supporting my family over the years, both before and after the accident. We may not have done things the perfect way, but we stand here today, still trudging along and navigating this adventure that we have been gifted. I may not thank you enough for you-know-what you have done and helped with, but we thank you and I do remember everything that you have given to me and to my family, tangible and intangible. Thank you and so much love to each of you!
A Moment of Appreciation Lasts for a Lifetime
So getting back to the reason for this Moment of Thanks. Every year I say to myself that I really need to thank all of those who touched our lives before and after June 12, 1999, from Pennsylvania to Michigan, and all of the people in-between, known and not known. It weighs heavily on me that I never got the chance to meet the first-responders to thank them, that I never wrote my gratitude to the hospital staff and the others surrounding Penn State Geisinger. I never formally thanked every person who was with us during that time, who stayed with us over the years, and who fell in and out of our lives for whatever reason. I cannot fully express all of the gratitude I do have for each person and their role in helping us, those whom we relied on to either crumble or to stand tall, based on what we knew to be their resolve. Believe it or not, we needed both the tall-standing and the ones who fell apart around us. Humanity is a very strange beast and the more human, kind, giving, real, genuine, joyful, sorrowful you are, the more faith I have in human nature and in our communities.
In this moment, I ask that you thank those who have been there for you, whether you know their names and faces or just their roles and impact. If you cannot thank them personally, please share gratitude with a stranger, giving of yourself to someone who doesn’t ask but may just need support. They may need something as simple as a smile to help them get through their next moments. And in that moment, reflect to yourself what kind of lifetime impact are you sharing with that living heart and soul. Will you make it a positive or negative moment? One moment can truly change a life, a heart, and a soul. And if you’re lucky, it will also change yours for the better.
Thank you for allowing me to finally share my appreciation for every moment invested in being a part of our journeys and our lives. Please understand if I forgot someone or I did not mention you personally. Through the journey, there are many hearts and souls that come in and out of our moments.
Moments of Gratitude to all, near and far!
Carole R. Harris is a Co-Active and Career Coach. You may email her at
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 517-974-5522.
For more information, go to www.harrisconsociates.com/home-page/
Her online store is https://squareup.com/market/harris-consociates-llc.
Photo: A dragonfly
This article was printed in the June 26, 2016 - July 9, 2016 edition.