“Be safe.” Those were my final words to my youngest child, Matthew, as I hugged and kissed him good-bye when he left to begin the trek back to Duke for his senior year. That phrase was part of our ritual as we said good-bye at the start of each and every semester. It felt bittersweet as Matthew headed out; it was the last year that we would have a child in college. Hotel and restaurant reservations for graduation had been made—I made a mental note that when Matthew graduated in May , I was going to walk over to Dr. Brodhead’s office and drop off a note of thanks. I was also going to write to the governor of North Carolina acknowledging our family’s fond appreciation of what had become our home away from home.
When Matthew called some 13 hours later to tell us that he had arrived safely in Durham, I was relieved and could finally relax. I said in passing to my husband and other son that the next time that Matt would be driving back to our home in Massachusetts it would be after graduation and he would be stuck driving with me. Little did I ever imagine the tragedy that our family would face just three and a half weeks later, a tragedy that would totally upend our lives. The past 11 months have been a horrific nightmare for my family. I had never imagined how Matthew would actually be returning to Massachusetts for the last time.
Around 7:15 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 15, I heard the doorbell. I looked out the window and saw a police car in front of our house. Quickly, I threw on some clothes (including a Duke T-shirt) and, with my heart racing, ran downstairs. It was the police who had the unfortunate responsibility to notify me that my son, Matthew, was “killed in a horrific car crash” a few hours earlier. I was in a state of shock and disbelief—this could not be true. My Matthew, dead…. No, this had to be an awful mistake. He was only 21 years old, a college senior with a life full of promise and great expectation. I called the Durham Police Department and spoke with the investigating officer and asked if he was certain that the victim was “my Matthew.” He politely said that he was positive that it was “my Matthew.” He also shared with me that Matthew was the passenger in the car, that he did have his seatbelt on (he was always good about that), who the driver was, that the driver had already been cited for driving under the influence with additional charges pending, and that the person who killed my son would be walking out of the Emergency Room shortly, ready for his mother to drive him home. My son was at the Medical Examiner’s office in Chapel Hill.
Still numb and in shock, I began the grueling task of telling this awful news to my husband, daughter, son, father, other family members and his friends. Several hours later, we were at the airport meeting our two surviving children. How could this be? By mid-afternoon, our family was selecting a burial plot in a cemetery in our town. None of us had ever even stepped foot in the cemetery before that day. We had to arrange to have clothes sent from Durham.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, our family followed the hearse to the airport to pick up Matthew. This made sense as we have always eagerly picked up our children at the airport. This time, however, we had to go to the U.S. Airways cargo area to meet Matthew. We were not prepared to pick up Matthew in the manner that we did. No parent or sibling should meet their child/sibling in a large, white, corrugated box with their name written across the top in magic marker. He was brought to us on a fork lift. It is a sight that is permanently carved in my memory.
Our family somehow made it through the visitation and funeral, but little did we know that the most difficult part was still ahead of us. In fact, we are still struggling with our horrendous loss. It has not gotten any easier. There are days when it still does not seem real. Losing our Matthew is concrete proof that life is so very, very unfair. I have not had a day without a good cry. The facts of the crash speak for themselves: The car was being driven at 70 mph in a 35 mph zone, and the driver’s blood alcohol level was approximately three times the legal limit. The person who killed our son has yet to speak with us or offer an apology. Based on our talking with scores of college students, it is commonplace to get in a car and not ask the driver if they are OK to drive—people just trust that it is safe for them to drive. What happened to the designated driver?
There are so many things that just don’t make sense. Why our son? Yes, he did drink, but he would never drive when drinking. Our children were given “emergency credit cards” and we never questioned a charge for a taxi. When our children were still at home, we had a “secret word” for them to let us know if they were ever in an unsafe situation. We had agreed that they would call us, tell us that their asthma had flared and ask to get picked up. (Our children do not have asthma.) Over the years, there have been dozens of conversations and admonishments about the hazards of alcohol. We went to great lengths to ensure that our children were safe. The loss of Matthew has turned our lives upside down; it has been a living hell. Holidays and birthdays are grueling—no gifts, no celebrations. We do what we need to do to get through the day.
I am confident that Matthew thought that he was invincible and that he did not think that his life was at risk. One of the most difficult aspects has been witnessing the suffering that Matthew’s sister and brother have endured. They have done nothing to deserve this much pain; it is an agony that will be with us for the rest of our lives. It is just not fair. Matthew loved his brother and sister immensely. I honestly believe that if Matthew had any clue as to the magnitude of the impact that his death would have on his siblings, he never would have consumed even one beer. He would not have wanted to cause them this much intense pain.
As you start a new academic year, I wish you much success and happiness but I beg you to please take a few minutes to pause and think about how your death would impact your family and friends. Please don’t drink to excess. Please don’t drink and drive. Life is so very fragile. Don’t take your ordinary blessings for granted. You have earned the gift of attending a wonderful, distinguished institution; I want you to graduate, not come home in a white box on a forklift. Please be safe. Thank you from the bottom of my broken heart.
Linda Oliver Grape
Duke parent ’08, ’12
Wake Forest parent ’07