On Thursday morning, Sept. 15, 2011, I began my day with my daily prayers of thanks; my mantra was “thank you God for smiling down upon my children and keeping them happy, healthy, safe and successful in their eyes.” Little did I know what horrific news would come my way in the next 30 minutes—my youngest child, my son, Matthew, a wonderful 21 year old Duke senior, was dead.
As I write this, I realize that approximately half of the current student body was not at Duke when our family’s devastating tragedy occurred almost two years ago. Let me briefly share with you some of the facts about the accident as best as we have been able to reconstruct. By all accounts, Matthew had been at a popular Durham bar and visited with many people at the bar over the course of that evening; he talked with friends—for some, it was the first time that semester that he had encountered them. He played beer pong, danced a bit and had some one-on-one conversations with people in a quiet area. He was reported to be happy and in a really good mood. We still don’t know how he returned to the home that he shared with another person as none of the taxi logs in Durham have record of providing transportation to his address. The dozens of people that I have spoken to, who were at the bar that evening, all responded that my son and the driver of the car did not spend any time together at the bar. Apparently, after returning to their new home, they left in his roommate’s car. Upon returning from wherever they had been, the car, driven by his roommate, struck a series of four trees on Academy Road and then rolled over twice landing in a deep, swampy ravine. The investigating officer described it to me as a “horrific accident.” The black box in the car recorded the speed at impact was 70 miles per hour in an area with a clearly posted speed limit of 35. Both the driver and my son had to be extricated from the vehicle; the driver was released from the emergency room with minor injuries after a few hours and my son was pronounced dead at the scene. Both were wearing seat belts. The driver’s blood alcohol concentration was 0.28; more than three times the legal limit.
The driver eventually was expelled from the University; he finally pleaded guilty to charges of death by motor vehicle and was sentenced to five months in jail followed by five years of supervised probation. He is not allowed to consume alcohol for five years, must complete 300 hours of community service and is responsible for payment of restitution. He has also lost his driver’s license in North Carolina for the rest of his life.
While you may think that sounds like a harsh sentence, the impact of my son’s death on the driver will never begin to come remotely close to the devastation my family feels each and every waking hour. Our world has been turned upside down and inside out. We struggle to make sense of a world that is so very unfair. Much less the consequences of senseless death on my family, think of the consequences for my dead son. He has been deprived of so very much. I assure you with confidence that Matthew never gave any thought to having a pre-mature death certainly not at 21. Just a month prior to his death, he commented that he hoped he had the same genes as his octogenarian grandfather. I can also guarantee that he would never have wanted to invoke such excruciating emotional pain on his parents, older sister and brother, other family members and his dear friends.
Please don’t read this commentary and say, “this would never happen to me,” because it could happen to anyone at the University. Matthew would have said exactly the same thing. I’d like you to take a few minutes to pause and think about how your death would impact your family and friends:
Can you imagine your family making your funeral arrangements? Can you imagine your family going to the cargo area at the airport to meet you arriving in a white cardboard box with your name written on it with a marker? Can you imagine your family traveling to Durham to walk into what had been your room, pack your belongings, make shipping arrangements and leave Durham in your vehicle?
Can you imagine your family going to the bookstore to return your unused books? Can you imagine your family attending your high school class’s five year reunion to dedicate a bench in your memory? Can you imagine how your family would get through your birthday, the holidays and other special events?
Can you imagine your family going to the site where their loved one died? Can you imagine your family facing the person who killed their beloved son and brother?
I thank you from the bottom of my broken heart for taking a few minutes to consider the consequences of your death, because it could happen to you—please be safe. As you begin this academic year, I wish you much happiness and great success. My morning mantra has forever changed.
Linda Oliver Grape
Duke parent ’08, ’12
Wake Forest parent ‘07