A mother’s undying devotion


2013 photo by Terry Byrne

For two years, someone has kept fresh flowers and memories alive on a patch of median on busy Pickett Road in Fairfax, Va. Until this weekend, I had no clue on Earth who.

As I motored northbound, I spied her with a jug of nutrient-laced water and fresh white roses and carnations. I did a U-turn, hoping to find a place to park so maybe we could chat.

Wasn’t sure what I planned to say. Certainly not “Happy Mother’s Day” … but I needed to tell her that, even without knowing a single detail of her story, I had reflected almost daily on that makeshift memorial she lovingly tended … and on life’s tenuous tether … and on a mother’s unmatched devotion. For I had no doubt it was a mother placing the blossoms there, fresh ones every few days, as she projected to the world her indefatigable love for her child while embracing passersby with a radiant hope for safety along a surprisingly hazardous stretch of suburban road.


Managed to snap this quick photo of the mysterious flower-and-water bearer — didn’t care about holding up traffic. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

Sure enough, her son Marvin had been driving southbound in a black 1997 Ford Explorer, possibly too fast, at 1:30 a.m. May 23, 2011 — nearly two years to the day — when he hit the curb, then a tree, causing the SUV to flip, ejecting him. His younger brother was in the car and sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Marvin, 24, was pronounced dead at the scene.

I know that spot in the road, where surveyors seemingly skewed the lanes just enough so that the curb jumps out at you. Coming home at night, given my failing eyesight, I sometimes have to swerve to miss that curb, even while going the posted 30-mph speed limit. It’s a speed trap, too — goes from 35 mph to 30 mph. Most cars travel 45 mph to 50 mph.

Marvin and his brother were nearly home. Just a quarter-mile more, and it would have been their turn at Mathy Drive, into the apartments on Persimmon. Instead, a miscalculation, and the light that brightened her life for two dozen years, her firstborn, burned out in a flash.


The May 2011 accident scene. Photo by Jummy Olabanji, WJLA

It’s not exactly legal to garden on public property; then there’s Marvin’s dad, patiently waiting in the car across the street, idling illegally in a towable space. But no one disturbs the peaceful scene. This part of Fairfax doesn’t see many traffic fatalities, and maybe local cops remember that awful night, when they had to close down that section of Pickett Road until 7:35 a.m. Perhaps they just agree to look the other way. Word has it Fairfax City was facing a lawsuit over the accident, as the trees were planted in the median in violation of VDOT and NHTC regulations.

Before Marvin died, the most recent traffic fatality in Fairfax had been Dec. 8, 2009, on Blake Lane (US 9), at two minutes after midnight, involving a driver and a pedestrian. There is no makeshift memorial marking that spot.

How did I gather facts beyond what I witnessed and documented? Google. She didn’t tell me. I had to dig. Along with news stories I pulled up about the crash were racist comments, blind and false claims about the Jimenez Centellas family being illegals. Trolls attacking them mercilessly, thoughtlessly.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped.

This makeshift memorial has made me wonder for years. Today, I stopped cold. Notice the beautiful dove drawn in the center, and the Christmas ornament still hanging on the side. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)

I wonder how many motorists zoom by thoughtlessly, oblivious to this reminder of this family’s ever-fresh wound.

One thing for sure: There’s nothing more American than building makeshift memorials. From the Vietnam Memorial (The Wall on the Mall), which pretty much institutionalized the practice of propping up teddy bears and pinning notes, to the more recent Boston Marathon attack, which turned busy city streets into a battlefield, cascading tragedies have breathed new life into local Hallmark and Party City economies.

What might be considered litter or vandalism elsewhere is allowed on America’s forlorn streets. Maybe even expected. Evidence of pilgrims claiming sacred ground, marking territory, conquering grief.

The couple were polite and trusting when I approached them in the parking lot. They lowered their windows, smiled, answered my few questions, accepted my condolences. Perhaps they first thought I was issuing a warning about trespassing.

Or maybe they felt, having lost their beloved child in the blink of an eye in a place they thought he was safe, that they had nothing left to lose.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound.

This nailed-in cross marks the spot where the SUV struck. The tree still displays its open wound. (2013 photo by Terry Byrne)


Living in an age of telepathy

The age of communicating via telepathy is upon us, and its name is Twitter.

Journalism's good ol' days. Except it wasn't too good for women, or non-smokers.

Journalism’s good ol’ days. Except it wasn’t too good for women, or non-smokers.

Long ago and far away, news was dictated by “the public’s need to know.” Journalists had to sift through the facts surrounding an incident or figure, decide what was relevant or newsworthy while taking a step back to filter out (or let their editors filter out) biases so that the public could form its own opinions. In this one-way show ’n’ tell, people extracted news and views on a daily — maybe twice-daily — cycle, giving time for dust to settle and for story tellers to fit the right frame to the story. It was a way of telegraphing the news — send it out there, as if on the wires, to get a point across that hits close to one’s intended target.

The age of Twitter power: Use it wisely.

The age of Twitter power: Use it wisely.

A week ago, I experienced something entirely new. As the apprehension of the Boston Marathon suspects unfolded — and I mean “apprehension” in every sense of the word — I couldn’t sleep, feeling an untapped energy I couldn’t put my finger on. Part of that was no doubt the jangly communication device I keep in my pocket that I can’t keep my fingers from tapping. Images of those ordinary college kids on a video loop that had replayed on the airwaves were also coursing through my brain, so I checked my Twitter feed once more before bed, and discovered there was trouble afoot at MIT. Turned on CNN — not much to go on there, as the anchors somersaulted over themselves to make sure no one would infer that the chaos unfolding in Cambridge or Watertown had anything whatsoever to do with the story at the top of everyone’s minds. Our “need to know” was trumping everything else in our lives, it seemed. How? Why? Who? These questions haunt us each time something bad happens.

On display on Twitter, though, was more than a need to know. It seems fueled by “a need to tell.” Twitter empowers every single human on the planet who has a data plan and even the weakest signal to feed the need-to-know machine. It’s so instantaneous and so exponentially more than two-way communication — try a billion-way — that the news feed, a feeding frenzy, becomes a blur. You’re not even sure at times whether your thoughts are your own or someone else’s. Retweeting, favoriting, hat-tipping, direct-messaging, sending modified tweets, partial retweets, subtweets, little ehs, uhs and half-thoughts that spend little time churning in your brain before they’re out there, disseminating.

In psychological terms, “telepathy” is defined as the communication between people of thoughts, feelings, desires, etc., involving mechanisms that cannot be understood in terms of known scientific laws — also called “thought transference.” OK, that’s definitely happening. Does anyone really KNOW how Twitter even works? How we are connected to other beings we’ve never encountered and maybe whose real names we don’t know? We are followed and followed-back at lightning speed. We blink, we process, we share.

All the news that was fit to know — during the three hours that it took the established (establishment) news organizations to verify a single fact — was out there for anyone to see on Twitter late last Thursday night into the wheeeeee Friday hours. We had raw video from folks holed up in Watertown, Mass., their laptops held up to windows framing the story as it unfolded. We had nearly live audio of gunbattles, play-by-plays from people peering out bathroom windows on the second floor. It was incredible, as if we had an aerial view of the universe, like God, if I may, honing in on this one distress signal. And yet I was safe in a spare bedroom of my house, curled up with pillows, gnawing on raw veggies. 

Sunil Tripathi, in his Brown University hoodie, gets a group hug in the family kitchen.

Sunil Tripathi, in his Brown University hoodie, gets a group hug in the family kitchen.

And that was about the time I saw a tweet that the young suspect seen in the video was almost surely a college student from Brown University who had been struggling with depression and missing since mid-March: Sunil Tripathi — one of those odd names that Americans have a hard time placing, pronouncing or spelling, thereby rousing instant suspicion. Even friends of his were tweeting and retweeting their theories and shock. “Oh, God, no, unbelievable, that’s Sunil.” And, without thinking, I shared it. Because it was “new” — thus, “news.”

Eventually, Tripathi’s name bubbled up to Twitter’s top-trending-hashtags list.

The need to show and tell and know. It was out of control, yet honing in like radar, connecting every synapse in our collective brains, with retweets revictimizing one young philosophy major caught in the cross hairs of supposition.

Today, of course, we know better. Today, Sunil’s body was identified after being pulled out of a river near his Rhode Island campus. Whether he was already dead at the time the innuendos swirled around the ether, I’m unsure.

But as if by telepathy, I feel connected now to his grieving family. On the Facebook page they used to reach out for tips and support while missing him (and, of course, they will  miss him eternally), they wrote:

“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”

That’s 203 characters. Too long for a tweet. They wrote much more, all of it excellent context, but that was the part that resonated most with me. That’s the part I’m sharing on my slice of the social-media pie. Lending my hand, the only way I can, to type more words.

And now, when people say:  “My thoughts and prayers are with you” — I’m thinking, yeah. I believe that. Here’s hoping the Tripathi family can also sense mine.

A bad week in April

TitanicLifeRaftOur family’s favorite tragedy has always been the sinking of the Titanic — maybe because it never touched our lives yet summed up the immensity of human ambition and error, hope and calamity. There’s something haunting about the fantastical image of rich men at the helm of society clutching the rails or smoking cigars and clinking glasses while draining the ship’s bourbon and going down with the ship, honorably, as the band played on. While not a realistic image, it’s a stirring one that levels the injustices of a stratified society where third-class “second-class” citizens, mostly immigrants, stowed in the hull like cargo were, the fable goes, trapped by locked gates and an every-man-for-himself attitude. Doesn’t quite jibe with the “women and children first” directive of every ship’s captain.

Yet the romanticizing of tragedy, the “what would you do?” unknowns of facing a similar life-or-death situation, imagining that feeling of powerlessness while still summoning the will to live and a balance of compassion for your fellow humans who happen to be in the same boat as you … namely, Mothership Earth … heady, heady stuff.

We all know how the story ends, for any one of us: We die. And we won’t be here 100 years from now to read what history might say about us or our era. And yet, while here, we wake every day with some unseen directive, striving to make our mark on the callous measure of time, balancing some level of compassion for our fellow passengers.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Tax Day, the day we are reminded there is no free ride, when we all pay our share in return for what we expect to be a civilized society with a reasonable safety net. The Titanic’s doom wasn’t the first disaster to occur in the third week in April, but certainly one of the most notable. And although April 15 didn’t become the nation’s iconic tax-filing deadline until 1955, bad stuff, terroristic stuff, has increasingly been happening during the week bracketed by Tax Day through April 20, which is that ubiquitous “4/20” date that somehow celebrates the stoning of America, a holiday for hedonist potheads.

After a week like this past week, in which the Boston Marathon bombing and cascading events held us all hostage to the news from April 15 through April 19 — also the day Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, my employer, died — a journalist such as myself, OK, myself, is forced to take stock.

Consider the havoc and gloom:

  • April 15, 1865: President Lincoln dies after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the night before
  • April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech massacre
  • April 17, 2013: West, Texas, fertilizer plant fire and explosion, leveling town
  • April 18, 1983: U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut
  • April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing of federal building
  • April 19, 1993: Deadly finale to Waco, Texas, siege (Branch Davidian fire)
  • April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
  • April 20, 2010: Start of the BP oil spill caused by explosion that terrorized the Gulf region

Just a random collection of dates and news events, perhaps. One could compile a list of good and bad milestones, no doubt, for any week of the year, And yet these were all stories with “legs,” as we say in the biz … stories that stretch across time and grow exponentially in significance. Like the Boston Marathon attack, which I’ll propose tackily and tactlessly, forgive me, is a story with legs about heroic athletic achievement by runners and everyday heroes, as much as traumatic amputations, shattered lives and a severed sense of security. So many of us have “running a marathon” on our bucket lists, yet no one imagines any fatal risk involved. Like the Titanic, this tragedy is also a tale of immigrants. Unlike the hundreds who perished in the frigid Atlantic in 1912, these were two wayward immigrants, neither one a life preserver but hell-bent destroyers who exacted revenge on their adopted country, one cowering cowardly in a dry-docked boat in Watertown, ironic twist. A “fluid” situation, the newscasters said all week, that in the end wasn’t. But not since 9/11 have we, as a nation, felt more vulnerable. And mortal.

Here I add one more tragedy to the bulleted April list, because personal tragedy, we know, is universal: My daughter was raped April 18, 2009. My beautiful, powerful daughter. The attack thrust her and our family into a period of gloom and loss of security from which we are still fighting to recover, which makes this past week all the more horrible to review.

As they say, it’s not what happens in our lives but how we react to what happens that matters. Our response. Our emergency response. Our resilience. Except, of course, from death, which is the only thing from which resistance is futile.

So, while we can, let’s postpone the inevitable. Let us live. Let us imagine better tomorrows. Here, in the third week of April, amid the rekindling of spring, the promised resurrection of slumbering crocuses and cicadas, we are reminded that, among all of the germs out there, the germ of hope and endurance can truly reign supreme. It’s what motivates most immigrants to this country, where many of us live only by accident of birth, and what makes each of us free to be our own ambassadors of peace. From hell on Earth to hell-on-wheels.

conflagration-jim-finch“Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

Just as easily it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found.

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

Go on and make a joyful sound!

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive

And the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

But you’ll never know.”

— The immortal words of Jackson Browne, from “For a Dancer,” which is quite possibly my favorite song of all time. He wrote it for a friend who died in a fire, a friend who had been sitting in a sauna in a house that burned down and was unaware what was happening — out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.

Just a little blog post to accompany your lighting-up 4/20 celebrations. And now, I’m gonna catch up on some rejuvenating sleep.