The Accident No One Talked About

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Modern Love

I found the driver’s name from a police report that had been filed in Florida 17 years before. The report was torn and creased and incorrect.

It said, “A boy was crossing the street on his bicycle.” But there had been two boys in the road that day and no bike.

It said, “The boy was hit and his body was thrown 19 yards.” But he wasn’t thrown; he was dragged that far, caught in the dangling chains of the landscaping trailer hitched to the truck.

It said someone fled the scene, but that someone was my older brother, Alex, and he didn’t flee. He dropped the bucket of fish he and Jonathan had caught and rushed over to his friend, but the boy was already dead.

Alex had just turned 15. This is the day we never spoke about.

We were born one year and three months apart but looked like twins with our rosebud lips and Irish blue eyes.

Before the accident, we were inseparable. We had our own rooms but often shared my bed when we were little. When we got too big for that, Alex started sleeping on my bedroom floor. In the dark, we’d joke about all of the things we could buy if someday we won the lottery (a house made of pizza for him and an island full of monkeys for me).

Alex told me ghost stories until I was too scared to fall asleep. He would reach up from the floor to hold my hand, letting go somewhere between midnight and morning.

After the accident, Alex never slept in my room again.

On the way to the funeral, our parents told him that what had happened was God’s will, that this was part of a much bigger plan. On the way home, as Alex slept, they told me that maybe it was better if we didn’t bring it up again.

So when I heard Alex crying in his room at night, I stayed where I was, wrapped in my comforter, and I didn’t bring it up.

When Alex was 19, he dropped out of college — even though he had always been the smart one, the honor roll son — and I didn’t bring it up. At 23, when he was first arrested on charges of driving under the influence, and at 24, when he went to jail for reckless driving, and at 25, 26 and 27, when he was getting high in the morning and drunk at night, I never brought it up.

Instead, my parents posted his bail, I paid off his credit cards, and if he needed a ride or rent money, one of us came through. When none of that worked to change him, I took a different tack.

I started yelling at him to grow up, take responsibility, stop drinking, start working and go back to school. Then I would soften and say how much I loved him and how proud of him I was when he got a job waiting tables, and, yes, I would help pay for culinary school and, yes, he and his new girlfriend could stay with me whenever they visited New York City and, no, there was nothing I wanted more than to see him happy again.

When none of that worked, I still didn’t bring it up.

Until one night, when we were 30 and 31, and I offhandedly (and uncomfortably) asked over dinner if he ever thought about the day Jonathan died.

“Oh, now you want to talk about that?” he shot back with a laugh. And in that moment, I felt his fury over our silence. “You don’t need to worry about it now.”

We had been communicating before we could even speak, but this conversation we didn’t have words for.

“Do you remember,” I asked him, “when you were 7 and you got that awful haircut and then I begged Mom for a matching mullet?” He smiled but said nothing. “And how much you liked swing dancing when we were kids so I let you practice all those dips and throws on me even though I knew I would end up on the ground?”

“I did that for you,” he said. “You liked swing, not me.”

The point I wanted to make, but didn’t know how, was that I missed sharing a life with him.

Later we both went home and let the silence continue to grow.

I was desperate to reconnect and convinced that the only way to do so was to get as close as I could to the moment when his life split into a before and an after. I needed to talk to someone who knew what Alex knew, who had seen what Alex had seen.

I searched the online archives of our hometown newspaper and scrolled for hours until I found Jonathan’s name in a write-up about the accident. After a dozen phone calls, I tracked down the police report. They couldn’t mail me a copy but said I was welcome to come to the station and see it for myself.

So not long after, I flew to Florida and did just that.

Sitting on a swivel chair in the police station’s cramped archives office, I ran my finger over my brother’s sloppy teenage script, his signature underneath his witness statement.

As I read, I could almost hear his voice: “Traffic was speeding up, there wasn’t enough time. I reached the sidewalk first and when I turned around, Jonathan was still in the middle of the road. I saw him get hit. When the ambulance came, I had to go across the street and tell his mother.”

I wrote down the driver’s name and later found his phone number listed online. By the time I was back in New York, I had thought of a hundred reasons not to call but I had to: He knew what Alex had been through. On the sixth ring, he picked up. “Yeah, hello?”

“Please don’t hang up,” I said.

I told him my name and explained that I wanted to know about an accident he was involved in back in 1999; two boys were crossing the street and I was the sister of the boy who lived.

“That choice was the hardest I ever made in my life,” he said.

He told me that by the time he saw both boys in the road he was already too close. If he swerved onto the sidewalk, he would hit Alex; if he didn’t, he would hit Jonathan.

“All I know is there were two boys in front of me,” he said. “I had to decide in that very moment, and it was so fast. I chose not to hit your brother that day. What kind of a choice is that?”

I pinched the place between my forefinger and thumb, a trick I’d picked up in college to keep from crying.

I said there were questions I wanted to ask but it was all right if he didn’t remember every detail; it was a long time ago.

“Not for me,” he said.

For three hours, he spoke about his pain, his frustrations with his family when they didn’t understand. About his lost jobs and addictions. About how he had never married or had children. Talking to him felt like the closest I could come to holding Alex’s hand again.

I told him I wanted to find a way to take away my brother’s pain.

“You can’t,” he said. “But if you want to lessen it, you’ve got to listen.”

“What if he won’t talk to me?”

“Ask again,” he said. “He’ll come around, and once those words start coming, you’ll realize that asking was the easy part. Listening is the hard part and that’s what you have to do.”

I hung up the phone but didn’t stop there. I tracked down the witnesses who testified in court, the on-scene paramedic, the emergency room doctor, and the nurse who sat with Jonathan’s mother at the hospital. And the more I heard, the more Alex’s story became defanged.

A year after that first phone call, I met with my brother and told him about the people I had spoken to and what they had said, and his instinct was to confirm and correct each detail. That was my opening, and his. Later I was able to ask what no one in our family ever had: “Could you just start at the beginning and tell me everything?”

And he did.

When I see Alex today, at 33, I no longer see someone who is stuck in one memory. I see a father to two beautiful little boys and a committed partner to the woman he will one day marry. I see a man who works harder than anyone I know, waking up to go into the restaurant on holidays and weekends, because he no longer needs or wants the kind of help I offered before I learned that asking and listening are the most valuable of all.