At 9:30 Wednesday morning Farmington was the scene of a horrific accident. It took place near the busiest intersection in town, where routes 2/27 connect with route 4, near the university and the local McDonalds. A number of people were injured and one person killed, a 12 year old girl named Tess Meisel. Early on the only news available was that the van was associated with a YMCA camp. The picture in the news story showed the back part completely crushed, and the girl was sitting in the back seat.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a statistic. Another highway fatality, one of about 35,000 we’re likely to have in the US this year. Many will be children, far too many will be teens, and it’s easy to simply chalk it up to life’s risks. Yet like so many of us in Farmington who never knew the girl and communicated and shared links on facebook to discuss the day’s big accident, I found it devastating. Sometimes you have to think about the faces and emotions behind a statistic.
My son Ryan is 8, and he participated in the UMF Summer Daze camp this year. They often took vans to various field trips, some as far away as the coast. It did cross my mind that there’s always the risk of an accident, but the vans always returned safe and sound, if not always on time. I immediately thought of what the parents of this young girl must be experiencing. They send their daughter to camp in Maine for amazing experiences, not expecting fate to launch such a vicious blow.
They might think they did the wrong thing sending her to camp — if only she’d stayed home in Connecticut she’d be fine. But the thing about this kind of accident is that it is literally out of the blue. There is nothing the van driver could have done to avoid it, you don’t expect a truck to roll over on a busy street! Such events can happen anywhere, any time. There’s no way to know in advance what the right move would be.
The story linked above about the girl shows that she was an intelligent and impressive young woman. She had won an award for environmental innovation by inventing a reusable pizza box and tray. Given what my last blog entry was about, the pizza connection made me feel a bit closer to this stranger. I know very little about her or her family, but can imagine how horrible life has suddenly become for them as they try to adjust to a world that will always have an empty spot. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it; they have to live it.
Yet, that is life. Every day is full of risk. In the Spring Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I will teach our ‘Children and War’ class, with stories of child soldiers forced to fight, often being drugged up with cocaine. We’ll talk about lives and families torn apart by conflict, realizing that children suffer and die in much of the world. As horrible as this one accident is, things like this happen. Every day brings risk.
That isn’t what I bring away from this, though. Instead I look over into the other room where my five year old son is watching “Ben 10,” or upstairs where my eight year old is working with legos. It’s easy to take them for granted and to think of childhood as primarily preparation for the future, giving children the tools to succeed. That is part of it. What they experience now will hopefully give them the strength to say no to drugs, to treat women with respect and have a strong sense of values. Now is when they develop their work ethic and core beliefs about reality. But that’s only a part of childhood; success and accomplishments are only a part of living. We plan, compete, measure our accomplishments and seek to improve. Each success is quickly past and a new challenge arises.
Live life focused on seeking success and when it’s over it can seem pointless. Our accomplishments are transient and likely to be forgotten within a generation. To see life purely in terms of what one accomplishes would be to see the loss of a 12 year old girl as a waste; the accident denied her potential for success and eliminated all that she might have achieved. Perhaps her pizza box will catch on, otherwise, so much potential was obliterated.
No. That’s not the way to look at life. None of us are here for an eternity. For even the famous less than one tenth of 1 % of ones’ dance on this planet gets remembered or recorded. To measure life in that way is to deny the true essence of living. Whether you live to 12 or 120, each moment is at any given point in time all that exists. Now lasts forever. What matters are connections with others, interactions with family and friends. Laughter matters, a sense of joy matters, the light she brought into the lives of family, friends and acquaintances matters. Those things are just as consequential if one’s life lasts 12 years or100.
Those moments are true reality, they are where the human soul resides. They can’t be measured in days or money because time and wealth are transient and ultimately dissipate. No one gets out of here alive. You can’t take it with you. The joy one brings into the world simply by being has power and meaning on its own. Her 12 years could well have been more consequential and powerful than many peoples’ entire lives. Not a wasted life, just shorter one.
For me this also means vowing not to let a day go by without thinking about my children not in terms of who they might become or what they might do, but for the spark of light and life they bring to each day: for the way in which their laughter and sense of play brings joy, contentment and exuberance to all of us. To cherish the moments today, NOW, when we are connecting is the meaning of life, not plans or accomplishments. Cherish life in the present. If the future brings tragedy, those moments and memories will be the essence of what that life meant, and it can be powerful, good and change who we are. That is as real for a 12 year lifespan as for a 95 year life. That is as real for widow who loses her life partner as it is for the parent who lose their little girl.
And maybe as we connect to that part of life, those moments and memories can transcend time. Time with my five year old is unique; he will never be five again, these moments are valuable in and of themselves. To cherish life is to realize no matter what the future brings, now has meaning.
Tonight a family in Connecticut is likely grasping for meaning, staring into a void that feels like it will never go away. Life goes on; time doesn’t heel all wounds but it can hide them. Yet ultimately it does disservice to the life of anyone if their death brings long term pain and saddness to others. It may take awhile, but hopefully the family of Tess Meisel will see that remembering the moments of living and how they enriched their experience not only dignifies her life but overshadows the fact she left early. For now, many of us in Farmington are sending prayers, positive energy and shedding tears for a family whose little girl we did not know, but whose life ended tragically in our town.