Here is an appreciation I wrote after the tragic death of my friend and colleague, Grace Richardson, in 1999.
It is a sunny day in August, a Monday morning, at some nondescript crossroads in some undistinguished town in Wisconsin, USA, North America, Planet Earth, Milky Way galaxy.
Many years ago someone surveyed this area, and laid out the roads, and paved them, and on some distant day long ago some construction crew parked their truck nearby, probably sipped some cold beverages and spent an hour or so installing the stop sign. Perhaps they threw down their empty drink cups, which were blown over by the wind, and chased down the road like tumbleweeds. Perhaps they are still there.
How many vehicles have passed by this spot? How many days did we all live our lives, in far flung corners of the globe, completely unaware of the existence of this little place in the universe? Why should we ever care about it?
On this particular day, some young guy drinks too much, then hops in his van, then approaches this intersection, then drives through the stop sign, then causes a chain reaction collision that instantly kills one Grace E. Richardson.
The clock on her Hyundai may have read 10:44 at the moment of fatal impact. At 10:44.01, the world continued revolving on its axis. Ocean waves still lapped, breezes still blew. Nearby, cows still chewed their cud. Far away, unaware, we still poured out our cereal or read our e-mails.
But nothing would ever be the same.
One life, one precious life whose wick had burned strong for 50 years, was lost. And how many lives were altered, all in that one instant? The injured. The families. The witnesses. The reckless driver. And wave upon wave of us, friends and acquaintances, faceless actors in the Greek Chorus of Grace Richardson’s life, who cannot forget, and who have now planted flags of lament on the date August 2, 1999 and at the miserable imagined crossroads of Highway 50 and Back Road in some town called Lyons which we have never seen, and which we hope we never will see. It was a collision of fates of many, many people, a bond we now all share, a bond we would give anything to lose.
Words cannot adequately convey what we feel. Emotions well up inside and almost make it to the point of locution — but they become lodged, a lump in the throat. There is simply unbearable sadness in this accident, incomprehensible bad luck and injustice. Why her? Why that moment and that place? Why that driver and that type of vehicle? Why that stop sign? These thoughts chase each other round and round in our heads, like those empty soda cups abandoned long ago by the side of the road.
The author John Irving once wrote that an unhappy ending should not undermine a rich and energetic life. And it is true. This was a good person, a caring and decent and talented human being. A beacon of quiet strength and endearing quirkiness. Someone who loved food and art and family, someone who was good with her hands, and thus maybe someone who was just a little bit better than most of us. For 50 years she lived and breathed and made her marks on the world, a tiny little spec of identity among 5 billion other people but a towering landmark on the horizon of the small space she occupied.
For those of us who did not have reason to think of Grace too often — occasional phone calls or meetings or dinners — so much has changed. We now think about Grace every day. Suddenly she has become a mirror in which we can ponder our own decency, our own creativity, our own mortality, our own fate, our own legacy. Thus even in our anger and disillusionment — even as we contemplate every meaning of that awful stop sign — we are pulled back into thoughtful self-reflection and warm memories of a life that was, and lives that are.
As it is said: “To love is to have lived; to have been loved is to live on forever.”