My kids and I recently witnessed a death. They don't know it. That is because I lied to them.
We were leaving a warehouse-type store after picking up my eldest daughter's glasses, miniature plastic sculptures that have changed her life. For the first time in a long time, she could see clearly beyond a few feet in front of her. As we walked to the parking lot, she repeatedly lifted them up to see the difference. Blurry. Clear. Blurry. Clear. She was delighted.
When we watched death, they were firmly affixed to her face and she saw it all. Clear.
Just moments before the death, we had to pick up a dozen scattered blackberries. My son had dropped them as we were loading groceries into the trunk. It took us about 15 seconds.
Secure in the car, blackberries safe and vision clear, we turned left onto the main road. There, about 15 seconds in front of us, a car was speeding to change lanes. You know the sort of driver. They weave in and out of lanes like they are chauffeuring a woman in labor, only to end up a car or two ahead at the stop light.
Only this car never made it to the light. Instead, as it moved to the left, it hit the car there. It was going so fast that it ricocheted off that car, sped across the lane, and hit the street light. With the eyes of my children firmly fixed upon the action, the lamp fell onto the front of the car like an anvil to a see-saw. The sheer force of it, paired with the speed of the car, caused the car to flip high into the air and land, still moving, on its back. While continuing forward, it bounced, flipped again and landed right side up and then continued another 100 feet or so before finally coming to an abrupt stop. In the end, there were about two inches of space between the flattened roof and the top of the door. My guess is that death occurred the moment the car landed on its roof.
My prayer is that it happened long before then. When the image comes to haunt me, I imagine the driver dying suddenly of a heart attack, without pain and absent of awareness, before the accident even happened. I cannot bear the thought of the driver's pain.
More selfishly, I cannot bear the thought of my children knowing they watched a person die.
When it was all over, just seconds after it had begun, I pulled into the nearest parking lot and absent-midedly uttered a string of obscenities while trying to dial 911. "I'm sorry for using those words," I muttered to the kids.
"It's okay, Mamma," my son replied, "Your intentions are good."
My call to 911 failed. Cell reception fears not death.
My youngest daughter, thoroughly confused, asked what happened. Thankfully, she'd been counting the individual rolls of toilet paper in the mammoth family-size container we'd just purchased and had missed the entire scene.
I sighed, relieved that at least she'd been spared the horror.
As we watched people emerge from the nearby shops and run to the scene, cell phones in hand, and heard the sirens rushing towards us, my eldest, with her new vision, spoke quietly, "I saw the whole thing. It was so clear, Mamma. I wish I wasn't wearing my glasses."
Normally, I would have wanted to jump out and run to the car, not knowing what to do, but wanting to be there anyway. Not this time. This time, rather selfishly, I was thinking more about what my kids had just seen than what the driver had just experienced. That reality would hit me later and much harder. Just then, though, I wanted to erase the vision from the hearts.
"Mamma," my youngest asked, now staring at the obliterated car, "Do you think the person is alive?"
I had lied to my children only once before that moment. It was about Santa Claus. We've always been honest about things like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We've tried to answer their difficult questions as carefully and honestly as possible -- about everything from sex to our childhoods to our parenting mistakes to whether or not we thought that particular outfit worked.
That day, though, the day we watched death, I consciously chose to blatantly lie. "Yes, sweetie. Yes, I think I saw an arm moving. Yes, I think the driver is alive." It is a lie I will hold onto until they are adults and they have children and they know what it is like to care more about them seeing something so heinous than about the victim of the accident or the victim's family or the person they hit or all the other witnesses.
It is perhaps callous and self-centered to feel this way, to care slightly more about what my children saw than about the people involved. Perhaps. But if I didn't feel this way, would I have managed to instinctively stop my car when I saw that care veer into the left lane? Would I have known not to go any further to protect my own?
Would I have made the call to choose this as my moment to protect my children with a lie?