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My life changed so dramatically on July 26, 2009, that I sometimes wonder if I'm still the same person. I used to hear stories of awful tragedies and think of all the reasons it could never happen to me. I found out that the unthinkable can happen to any of us.
On that Sunday afternoon Diane Schuler drove a minivan the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in New York and slammed headfirst into an oncoming SUV. Eight people died in the collision, including three little girls who were sitting in the minivan's backseat.
I am the mother of those beautiful girls: Emma, Alyson, and Katie, ages 8, 7, and 5.
The girls had gone off for a weekend camping trip with their aunt Diane, uncle Danny, and cousins Bryan and Erin, ages 5 and 2. They had been excited about this annual event, and they checked in with us many times over the weekend to tell us how much fun they were having. I missed them but I felt confident that they were safe, since my husband, Warren, and I had sent them away with my sister-in-law, the most responsible person I knew. Then came the conversation that I replay in my head a dozen times a day.
On the drive back home, Emma, our oldest, called us from the car and said, "Something is wrong with Aunt Diane." I heard other children crying in the background and then the phone cut out. Warren called back immediately and when he spoke to his sister, she didn't sound right. He told her not to drive -- to pull over right away. We thought she was having a stroke. He got Emma on the phone to describe exactly where they were. I stayed home and called 911; Warren raced off to try to find them.
But by then it was too late. Instead of stopping, Diane drove the wrong way down an exit ramp, continued along the highway and hit the SUV. My three kids, Diane and her daughter, Erin, 2, were all killed. The three men in the SUV also died. Only my nephew Bryan, now 7, survived the crash.
When something this terrible happens, your brain simply can't process it -- or at least mine couldn't. For weeks after the accident I'd wake up thinking it was that Sunday again and that the girls were heading home. And every day my husband or one of my friends would have to tell me the awful news all over again.
For the first month friends stayed at my house 24 hours a day -- sleeping on the couch or sitting outside our bedroom door. It wasn't just to keep me company. I was so dazed with grief that I'd wander out of my room or out of the house at all hours. I don't know what I was doing -- searching for the girls? My friends and family would gently steer me back where I belonged. They were amazing, helping with everything, including dealing with all the phone calls from Oprah and Dr. Phil and other talk shows. News helicopters were circling over my house and police had to rope off our street since so many reporters had gathered. But I didn't talk to anyone. I couldn't.
Since the accident I've spoken to other moms who've lost a child, and they usually say that they needed to stay strong for the children they still have. I didn't even have that. All I could think about was Emma, Alyson, and Katie, my three beautiful girls, and all the wonderful things they'd never do, never see.
The girls were very different, but they had an incredible bond. Emma was a good student and was into sports, everything from gymnastics to basketball. She enjoyed performing onstage, but the role she took most seriously was being a big sister. Alyson loved a good time and wanted to be sure everyone was included in it -- which they always were, since her smile and laugh were contagious. And Katie, the baby, was all about the hugs and kisses, which she gave freely and asked for often. And she idolized her older sisters. My girls were more than just siblings. They were best friends.
We're family, so we buried the girls next to Diane and Erin. But I had no idea at the funeral what we would find out later. Toxicology reports showed that Diane had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit, along with evidence she'd been smoking marijuana. Warren and I were stunned.
People always ask how I feel about Diane. You can't imagine how complex that question is. How does a person go from being like a sister to me -- adored by my girls and cherished by my husband -- to being the one who ruined our lives? How could this person I trusted completely have done something so unthinkable that I couldn't -- and still can't -- wrap my head around it? I pray every day that there is another explanation. To not have any answers is torture. I don't know how to describe that pain.
When something like this happens, you want to be able to hate someone. When I see the misery in Warren's eyes, I know what he's thinking. It was his sister who did this, his sister who destroyed our lives. I can't blame him for her actions. And since Diane's not here, I can't take out my anger, my confusion, or my heartache on her. There's no one left to hate. And anyway, we both loved her very much.
Warren and I have struggled with our grief, and the differences in how we grieve, from the first day. He copes by staying busy and trying not to think about it. I'm the opposite: I need to talk. We are different people, but we're both broken. I need someone to help me to take the pain away. But how can Warren do that for me when he is in the same place, struggling with his own pain? When I look to him for strength, all I see is heartache.
People are always quoting the statistics on how few marriages survive the death of a child. When you factor in our extraordinary circumstances, you really begin to wonder how Warren and I can hold on. But I love him very much -- that part hasn't changed. For that reason, and for the love of my daughters and the family that I cherished, I am holding on to my husband and to the idea that we can survive this. But I have to admit that it's not easy to do.
The split in our extended family makes it even harder. Warren and I have remained private until now, but Diane's husband, Danny, went public to defend her reputation and to search for another explanation for what happened to her. As I write this, I know that a television special made with his permission is about to air on HBO. I can't imagine what it will say. I hope there are answers to all our questions, but I don't know if I'll even be able to watch it. The film is called There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. The fact that they used my daughter Emma's last words as a title only makes it that much more painful.
I miss my niece, Erin. And my godson, Bryan, the only survivor -- I love him and think of him every day. I am hoping I get strong enough to have a relationship with him again. He was in the car, the last person to see and hear my girls. I have so many questions, too many for a little boy to answer. I have to be able to trust myself around him and right now I don't. I want to reach out and hug him and at the same time try to shake answers out of him, answers he doesn't have. So for now, I stay away.
After the accident, desperate for answers, I visited many priests and asked why all my girls were taken. "They needed to be together," I was told over and over again. That just made me angrier. Didn't the girls need to be together here on earth with Warren and me? For my whole life I always went to church. But after this tragedy I stopped going. How could I believe that God had been listening to my prayers?
People ask me how I can go on. I've learned that all you can do is put one foot in front of the other -- sometimes quite literally. Several days a week my running group shows up at my door before dawn to take me on a six-mile run. We have done it for years and even though I don't always want to go anymore, I join them because it's what I did before the accident. We're back by 6:15 a.m., which used to be great because then I could make breakfast for the girls and pack their lunch. Now I come back to a silent, empty house. But at least it forces me to start the day. If I didn't get up to run I would have no reason to get out of bed.
I am grateful every day for my friends and family, who have gotten me through the worst. They brought us dinner every single night for a full year. I used to love to cook, especially with the girls. I can still hear Alyson bounding into the kitchen, saying, "Yummy, Mommy! What smells so good?" The memory was so strong that after the accident I stopped cooking completely. Maybe someday I'll be able to try again.
When I was raising three kids, my house was always filled with noise and excitement. I sometimes thought all I wanted was a moment of silence. Now the silence tortures me.
Time seemed to stop for me after the girls died, but at the first anniversary I realized that other people's lives had started to go on again. I knew mine had to, as well. It's been hard. I don't like to meet new people now because there's too much to explain and somebody always starts to cry for me. And whenever I go out, I worry that people are staring. When the girls were here Warren and I had a special evening out each weekend with our friends, and to regain some slice of normalcy, we have started doing that again. But when we're at a restaurant on a Saturday night, I think people are whispering, wondering how I can be having fun, asking, "How can she be all dressed up?" as if I've forgotten the girls. They can't imagine how I feel a couple of hours later when we get back home and there's no babysitter to pay. They don't see me the days I'm in my pajamas, unable to move.
Parenting is not something you can ever let go of, even if your children are gone. Warren and I still celebrate the girls' birthdays, just as we always did. Family, friends, presents, cake -- the only things missing are Emma, Alyson, and Katie. We write messages to the guest of honor on balloons and release them into the air, hoping they get to her in heaven.
I often worry that my friends and family don't want to share their problems with me now, that they don't feel like the issues they're facing are significant compared to what I've been through. But everyone's problems are important and I want to be able to help my loved ones the way they've helped me. Who knows, maybe I already have. If I can keep getting out of bed each day after the very worst has happened, maybe that helps them realize they can, too. Maybe my story helps them appreciate what they've got.
But even for me, keeping perspective isn't easy. I still argue with Warren or get upset about some stupid little thing. I wonder if any of us can really appreciate what we have when we have it. I know I didn't. Before the accident I'd look around my house and wish we could move someplace bigger. I'd worry about money and think about all the things I wanted my girls to have. It shouldn't have taken a tragedy like this to get me to finally understand: Things don't matter. They can be replaced. But before the girls died, I didn't realize just how much I could really lose.
One thing that has helped restore my faith has been the kindness of strangers. After the accident we received thousands of letters of sympathy from people all over the country. I could imagine reading about a tragedy like this and feeling terrible. But to actually take the next step and find an address and send kind words or a gift? I think that's amazing.
The outpouring of support inspired us to set up the Hance Family Foundation to honor the memory of Emma, Alyson, and Katie. We began community programs, mostly aimed at helping young girls gain self-esteem. We have a family fun day in the spring to raise money, and this year 1,600 people of all ages participated in fun runs and hundreds more came to the local park for games and an auction. It's wonderful to hear the laughter and joy -- even though three children who would really love the day are missing. Sometimes it hurts to see other children benefiting because my children have died, but I'm proud of the foundation and what it offers.
After the accident so many people suggested that Warren and I consider having another child. They said having a baby was what the girls would want and it would give us a future. At the time it wasn't something I could really take in. Anyway, when Katie was born, I'd had my tubes tied. But after listening to my friends, I slowly began to investigate in vitro fertilization. We had just paid for three funerals and a beautiful burial plot, so I didn't know how we could afford the expensive procedure. And we'd been hit with another shock: The relatives of two of the people who died in the SUV were bringing a lawsuit against Warren. The car Diane drove was my minivan, which was registered in Warren's name. By some horrible irony, Warren could be taken to court. While everything that mattered was already gone, everything that remained could still be taken.
A friend of a friend worked for a fertility doctor in Manhattan and had heard about my situation. The doctor contacted me and offered to do the procedure. Everyone in his office was incredibly kind. I did two rounds of drug injections and egg retrieval, which gave me something hopeful to do every day. The eggs were fertilized and the resulting embryos frozen, though I didn't really plan to use them. Even though I'd gone through the process, I wasn't in a place where I could seriously think about having another child. I'd taken my friends' advice and followed through on the doctor's generous offer as if in a trance. It was just something to do, a way to keep my mind occupied.
Then a few months ago Warren and I drove back to the doctor's office. I'd had a dream that I was standing in heaven and I could see Emma, Alyson, and Katie through these big gates. God would not let me inside the gates. He said that I had been given a gift from that doctor and I had to use his gift before I could be with my babies. So, almost in a daze, I told the doctor I wanted to try to get pregnant, never expecting it to work.
I got pregnant the very first time.
I want to be excited, but I know how random life can be, and how unfair. However much we try to protect our children, the worst can happen.
At the funeral, Warren spoke, and he said, "Love your children, cherish your children, kiss your children, and don't ever forget." Every day all I want is to be reunited with my girls again in heaven. But Emma, Alyson, and Katie have other plans for me right now.
Our baby is due in the fall.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.