Her Name Is Heather - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Her Name Is Heather.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
I think we all know that sometimes … accidents happen. You mistakenly send a text about someone to that someone. You open your car door and hit the garage wall that has ALWAYS BEEN THERE. You call someone the wrong name, you knock over a display at the grocery store because you have horrible spatial reasoning. You miss the very last step on a staircase you go down so regularly your body really oughta have it memorized by now.
One time, I fully deleted an episode script the week before it was supposed to come out and Jordan had to LIVE CHAT with Google — didn’t even know it was possible — and they did some kind of magic that retrieved it, and the day was saved!
Things just happen, and maybe it’s annoying or somewhat inconvenient, but we forgive and forget and we move on with our days and our lives. Or, we try to.
But some accidents have bigger consequences, even though they happen just as quickly. Missing your bus stop. Forgetting that it’s April 18 and your taxes were due three days ago. A day is mundane – utterly forgettable in every way – until it isn’t.
Until it’s the worst day of your life.
Today’s episode is about one of those mistakes, one of those days that changes everything, including how you feel about yourself as what you thought of as a “good person.”
And today’s guest is named Melissa.
Melissa: I'm a rule follower. I love rules as long as I can achieve them. I thrive under rules and following the law and registering to vote and donating blood and volunteer work and all of the things that, you know, make you feel like you're contributing something to society and not harming anybody as much as possible, and feeling so badly if you even hurt someone's feelings and find out about it.
Melissa isn’t just a rule follower. She’s a rule follower who also cares about being a good person, about being liked and approved of.
Melissa: When I was younger, it was really debilitating, worrying what other people thought of me, worrying if they perceived me as a nice person or a good person, to the point where if I thought someone didn't like me, I didn't comprehend that it could be, or understand that it could be a problem in them or that just not every person likes every person. I thought I had to do something to convince them that I was worthy of them liking me. I exhausted so much energy trying to win over people that I either just wasn't their cup of tea or it was something going on with them and there was nothing I was going to be able to do to convince them to like me. But, you know, you spend so much energy worrying about what other people think of you and how they're judging you and it's consuming.
And to get a sense of her story, we have to start with the most mundane details of her daily life.
Nora McInerny: So tell me what you do for work and what your average sort of morning is like getting ready for your work day.
Melissa: So I work for a pharmaceutical distribution company. I sometimes process orders. Sometimes I work in their DEA section. It's in the distribution warehouse, so sometimes I'm processing orders for pharmacies and hospitals and sometimes I'm processing returns from hospitals. Just ... we kind of all work together to get what needs to be done during the day. I've worked there for 14 years, so...
Nora McInerny: Wow.
Nora McInerny: Wow.
Fourteen years is so impressive. This is the longest job I’ve ever held, and I had to make it up myself. So, Melissa’s days for the past 14 years have had a predictable rhythm to them.
Melissa: start at 6 a.m. and I work until supposedly 2:30, but sometimes it's just until you get done, so sometimes that's 5:30, but usually 2:30, 3:30, something like that. And so I get up in the morning, usually sometime around 4 to 4:30. I can basically wear pajamas to work. I don't deal with any customers in-person, so there's not a lot of ... prep work needed to go to work. I basically just take a shower if I need to and change my clothes and feed the dog, and if I didn't pack any lunch, then I might pack some lunch. My husband has been working from home since COVID. So all the, like, pre-work stuff that I would do for him, like packing his lunch, I don't have to do any of that stuff anymore, so it's pretty basic. I don't have to get up too early, usually just maybe an hour to an hour and 15 minutes before I'm going to leave. Take the dog out. That kind of thing.
It's dark when Melissa drives to work, even in the summer. In winter, it’s like driving in the middle of the night. She takes the same road every day, knows the stop lights and the turns by heart.
Have you ever had the experience where you drive a route that’s so familiar that you get to your destination and you can’t even remember any part of the drive? Like, you know you got to work, but you couldn’t for the life of you recall any part of the experience other than getting in and out of the car?
That’s how familiar this route is to Melissa. The same thing every single day, hardly another car or person around at this hour. But Melissa is still never complacent. She prides herself on being attentive and aware of her surroundings, even when she could probably let some stuff slide.
Like on this day, which starts like any other.
Melissa: It's just like any other ordinary day. I got up and got ready and left. And I live off of a fairly busy road that leads to a very busy highway, and probably the only thing that keeps people from treating that road like a freeway is that there are a few red light cameras on the road, and I will just never forget because I was approaching one of them and the light turned yellow. The car before me went through, and I thought, “Well, I could definitely make that yellow light.” And then I thought, “Just stop.” Like, almost congratulated myself on being so responsible and making such a good choice and not comprehending what that probably set in motion just a few minutes down the road, the fact that I stopped. So I stopped at that light feeling pretty great about myself because I had done the responsible thing. And that light turned green. The next light was green, so I went through that light, and then I got on the freeway on-ramp. And you know, it's very dark and it was winter. So it was very, very dark and freezing cold outside. And, you know, you get on the freeway and you're starting to accelerate because, you know, it's a freeway. And it's a three-lane on-ramp, and there's a car that's next to me on my right. And it's a bigger car. I don't know exactly what kind, but it was slightly ahead of me. There's a sidewalk that ends as you're getting onto the on ramp, and so I couldn't see what was obviously on the other side of that car. And then just maybe a fraction of a second, maybe as the impact happened, I'm not sure I saw something.
The car turning alongside Melissa kept going, so it wasn’t that car that hit hers. It was something else. Her windshield is shattered, and she’s stunned. There’s been an accident, obviously … but how? What? Was that … a person?
Melissa: And you know, it's like, so strange how time works, because it completely slowed down, and I had a million thoughts of like ... you know it was a person, but you can't comprehend that it was a person. Like you're thinking, “How could this be?” Like, I remember thinking, “Did I run a red light?” Like I couldn't comprehend how someone could be where they were. You're just trying to make sense of what happened and you're doing that as this is happening. And I just knew. And so I slammed on my brakes and I pulled over. And I'm screaming because my windshield is shattered and I don't know why, I just assumed it was a man, I guess just because of the hour and it was freezing cold outside and the person was alone, I just- I thought it was a man. But it was a woman, and the woman was carrying a sweatshirt with her, and so when the impact happened, the sweatshirt must have went up in the air and then it came back down and landed on the hood of the car. And so when I'm looking out the windshield, I’m seeing this sweatshirt on the hood of my car, and I'm- I'm not quite understanding what it is, because the glass is shattered. And so I'm thinking it's like a torso on my car. I'm thinking that I have the person on my car, and I'm scrambling for my cell phone at this point so I can call 911.
On the other side of the road, another driver has stopped.
Melissa: And I saw him put his hands over his head and then on top of his head. But I just knew the horror of what he was feeling at that moment, like what he must have seen when the impact happened. So I'm in the car, screaming, talking to 911...
[911 CALL AUDIO RECORDING]
Dispatcher: 911 emergency, what are you reporting?
Melissa, screaming: Hi. I just hit somebody on the freeway, please help me! He was crossing onto the on-ramp!
Dispatcher: Okay, ma’am, I can hardly understand what you’re saying. Where did this happen?
Melissa, screaming: There was a man crossing onto the on-ramp and I was getting on to go to work and I hit him with my car!
Dispatcher: Okay, where did this happen?
Melissa: And then I see the lights behind me, and there was a highway patrolman just happened to be maybe a minute behind me on the road. So he came upon the scene pretty quickly and also called for help and started trying to administer first aid. And that's when I realized someone was out in the road behind me. When I looked in the rearview mirror I saw people starting to gather around something in the road. And I realized that the sweatshirt was just a sweatshirt and that the person was still on the road, in the road behind me. And at that moment, I just hated myself so much that I had left someone in the road by themself. I was so disgusted that I had let a person ... just, no one should die in the road by themselves ... that's just so undignified. And the fact that I mean, I'm not an EMT, I have a CPR certification, there was probably absolutely nothing that I could do for her, but ... if she was conscious for even a second, and I left her out there by herself, I just carry that with me.
[911 CALL AUDIO]
Melissa: Okay, okay.
Dispatcher: We have medical already started and on the way.
Melissa: Okay. Okay, I see a policeman.
Dispatcher: You see the officer there?
Dispatcher: Okay. You want me to wait until they make contact with you?
Melissa calls her husband, who drives the five minutes on this same road to be there by her side. But nobody can keep Melissa company inside of her own head.
Melissa: All I just kept thinking was, “This is not my life, this is not my life, this did not happen.” I was so just ... in shock. You know, the officer sat with me and was trying to ask me questions about what had happened, and I think trying to, like, bring me a little bit out of my shock by asking me, like, just questions about my life and my day. And I was having a hard time remembering what I had done the day before. You know, you just can't think about anything else, all I'm thinking is ... I left this poor woman to die in the road by herself. She's gone, and it's because I was in her path at that exact moment. And if I wouldn't have been there, if I would have left for work one minute earlier or one minute later, if I wouldn't have stopped at that stupid light, she would still be here and...
There is so much to put after that “and.”
And this person would have lived her life. And Melissa would have lived hers. She would have gone to work, left at 3:00, gone back to her puppy, made dinner, listened to a podcast … played on her phone a little too late into the night. She would have had a blessedly boring day. Instead, a woman is dead, and Melissa is standing on the side of the road in the cold, giving a statement to officers. And they tell her…
Melissa: That I could go home. And I didn't understand. I think I've watched too many TV shows. I'm thinking, “Don't I need to go in somewhere to talk to someone or further questioning or what?” This seems not to make sense to me, that I'm just going to go home and seemingly go on with my day. I could have done anything at that point. I could have gone to the store. I could have done anything I wanted. And this poor woman is gone, and I'm just going to go home. I could not reconcile those things.
Just go home. No paperwork to file. No processes to go through. No deep investigations, no real vetting or rules she has to follow. An accident happened. A woman is dead. The woman will be taken to the morgue. And Melissa is just supposed to go home.
Nora McInerny: What was it like to get back in that car and drive on that same road? Like, I am fully with you in this, Melissa, like I have goosebumps, it just feels like, shouldn't there be something else? I don't- a ceremony?
Melissa: Yeah, yeah.
Nora McInerny: Like something? This just does not compute.
Melissa: Maybe that's exactly what I- when you said the word ceremony, that's exactly ... it felt like it should be a bigger moment than it was. Not that they were treating it lightly, they were not, but I felt it deserved something bigger than what happened. I couldn't understand just being able to go home. It just didn't make sense to me. But, you know, what was I supposed to do? I- I don't know, in thinking about it, what the alternative would have been, but it just didn't seem normal to me that I could just leave. And I think that that's the part that stuck in my head was the fact that I did and, in fact, I was listening to a podcast on my way to work, and it was a podcast about grieving. And I have never been able to go back and finish that episode. So I did not. It just seemed like there are things from that morning that I will never forget because I think the light was just burned into my mind, because I actually kind of was proud of myself for making the responsible choice and, like, thinking, “Pat yourself on the back. That was really super responsible of you.”
Nora McInerny: I fully know that feeling too where it's like, “Yeah, look at me.” And it's like, sometimes like, we have those cameras here too in Phoenix, and I’m like, “I hope you guys got that photo and everyone's talking about what a good person I am for not going.”
Melissa: Yeah I know, “You're not going to get me today.” Yeah. Exactly
Nora McInerny: Nope, not me! No, no, no. Maybe the guy next to me would have gone, not me.
She stopped at the yellow. She paid attention. And still, the worst possible thing happened. And she’s supposed to just go home.
Melissa: So we go home, and immediately he wants me to try and take a nap. OK, that's not happening. I'm like, I can't even hardly sit down, like I just keep moving around the house. I can't sit down. And he's immediately thinking the remedy for that is for me to try and lay down and take a nap. And I can't do that. And I called my sister, who is the other half of me, she is the best friend I could ever ask for, and she immediately said she was coming over. She understood what I was going through as best she could having not lived through something like that herself. And so she got my brother, and they came over, and my husband ... he's- he's so trying, and he just- he tells me, “I think you should just sit down and try and distract yourself or take your mind off of it.” I really think he was coming from a place of that he was afraid I was literally going to go off the deep end. I'm sure he was quite concerned that I was going to go run out in front of a bus or something at that point, and he was just trying to find a way to diffuse how I was feeling. So he put on a documentary about Venus flytraps or something? He wanted me to sit down and watch this documentary about Venus flytraps, and I'm looking at the TV thinking, “This can't be real. Are you serious right now? What is happening?” And this poor guy is just trying so hard to ease my suffering. But this is not going to do it, and so I am trying to tell him in the kindest way possible, or maybe not the kindest way possible. I'm trying to get my point across in some way that I could express at that moment that this is not for me right now. And my sister and brother arrive, and my husband goes out to talk to them for a moment before they come in. And he had told them basically, you know, of course, she's going to want to talk about it, but try to distract her, you know, maybe just don't talk about it a lot, you know? He's just, I think, so worried, but it's 100 percent not the right thing for me in that moment. But he's 100 percent trying, you know?
Nora McInerny: Yeah. Yeah. And again, he's never done this. He's just-
Melissa: No, no.
Nora McInerny: And also, what do we know about things? It's like, don't talk about it. It's going to make her, you know, sad or something.
Nora McInerny: Yeah, we're just all a bunch of idiots doing our best. It's so disturbing.
Melissa has to call her boss, too. Someone has to let work know that she won’t be in. So she dials the number and tells her supervisor she can’t come into work today. She tells her supervisor exactly why and prepares for the worst. The last time she had to call into work for a death was 14 years earlier, when her mother was on hospice care and actively dying. Her supervisor had said, “Well, if that’s where you feel you need to be.” And that was it. That person isn’t her supervisor anymore.
Melissa: I called and I'm sure I must have sounded like a mess. I tried to tell him kind of and briefly what had happened and that I wouldn't be in. And you could just, even though it wasn't face to face, I could hear the empathy on the other side of the phone. I felt like his heart dropped and he said to me, “Just take as much time as you need to. Don't worry about work, this doesn't matter.” And he also told me that it wasn't my fault, and he didn't know at that time if it was my fault or not. But the level of empathy that I felt from him. If he had been callous about it or it had been, I don't know, I felt like it would have just really sent me down a spiral. But he was very kind.
We’ll be right back.
Melissa is at home, trying to stop replaying the morning. But she can’t. Because this isn’t just the worst day of Melissa’s life … it was the LAST day of another human being’s.
After the accident, Melissa is worried about what people will think of her. And she’s not the only one worried about that. Her husband is, too.
Melissa: I think he was also scared that people might judge me for what happened, and he was trying to protect me — maybe not my family, but other people — because then I realized later that he had actually told a few people about what happened but asked them not to contact me about it, because I think he was scared that they were going to upset me. But on the other end of it, because I didn't realize that, I was hurt, because people weren't saying anything to me. And someone in his family that I love dearly, like maybe a day after the accident, texted me about something completely unrelated to the accident, something light and silly and I thought, why? I don't remember exactly what they said, but they had said something, “Blah, blah, blah, so we've been really busy.” And this was not my finest moment, but I texted back, “Well, I killed a woman yesterday with my car, so I've been pretty busy too.” I couldn't believe they had texted me flippantly about something that to me at the time seemed dumb when I was going through this thing without first saying, “I'm so sorry for what happened.” If I would have just stuffed it and not talked about it, it would have been bubbling inside of me and come out in really ugly ways.
Nora McInerny: Yeah. It always does. It always does.
Melissa has never been in this situation, and of course, neither has her husband. He thinks at first maybe they should just kind of ignore it. Not talk about it. He loves Melissa so much, and he doesn’t want her to suffer, and he wants to help. So he calls their therapist a few days later and asks if they could get an emergency appointment on a weekend.
Melissa: But she was willing to come in and she didn't know what had happened, but she knew I was in a really bad place from what he had told her. So I told him that I wanted to go in and talk to her alone initially. So I went in and talked to her. I told her what had happened and my husband's response to it and his thoughts on it and ideas and what he'd been trying to implement. And she was, in the most compassionate and humorous way possible, horrified by his methods and said, “Send him in here. I'm going to have a chat with him. This is the exact opposite of what you need to be doing. In situations like this, you need to get it out, you need to spend as much time as you can talking about it and processing it, because if you don't, it will leak out, and it will be a disaster, so you need to discuss this.”
So she had him come in and spoke to him for maybe 15 minutes, and I don't know exactly what she said to him, but he was different when he came out. Whatever she said helped him to understand that me talking about it was the thing. It wasn't the thing to avoid, it was the thing to do. It was the only thing that was going to help me move out of the state that I was in. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, I couldn't think about anything else, it was- it was just … it was everything in my life at that time. And the only way that I was going to move through that was to talk about it more. And I have her, and I have another therapist who's wonderful, and I have a psychiatrist as well, who I’ve been working with. And I've needed every one of them. And I'm not embarrassed about that. I think the more help you can get, the better you're going to fare in the long run, not that you're going to fare well out of it, but you need to be able to talk about it. You need people to listen to you without trying to fix it.
There's no resources for this circumstance. There's nothing out there. There's a couple of books. My daughter found an online support group for me, the only one of its kind, the only one I've ever found. It's wonderful. They are people who have accidentally killed or hurt someone in mostly car accidents, but other ways as well. It has worldwide reach, but yet they have once a month meetings and you will maybe only find 30 people on the meetings, even though thousands of people are impacted by this kind of situation every year. People just don't talk about it for a lot of reasons. They just don't want to be judged. I mean, they know people will have opinions. And it's more than embarrassing. To say it's embarrassing, is horrifying. No one discusses it. You know, there's support groups for everything. But for this, not a lot. And I felt very alone, you know? When you have a parent die, you feel alone because that was your parent and you had that special bond with them. But at least you've heard that other people have experienced that kind of loss. But this is different, because you're going through your own sadness. You're struggling with the fact that you may or may not feel partially or fully responsible for what happened.
She needs to talk about it, but not everyone knows how to do that. When Melissa goes back to work, only a few very close colleagues know the full story, but all of her co-workers know that she’s been out because something happened. And naturally, they’re curious.
Melissa: And I think they must have thought that maybe a family member had died or something like that. And there was one person who I actually really like, and he kept kind of asking me if I was OK, and I could tell that he kind of wanted to know what had happened, and I finally told him one day. I said, “Look, I'm going to tell you what happened, but when I do, I think you might be sorry that you asked me what happened, because it's going to be a really awkward thing when I tell you.” And so I told him, and his response to me was, “Well, yeah, you've been giving off this really negative vibe, so I knew there was something going on.”.
Nora McInerny: The vibes were bad. The vibes were bad, OK!
Melissa: The vibes were bad! I felt like the Grim Reaper. I had killed a woman on the road. Of course, my vibes were- sorry, I was a little negative? When I came back, they came up to me and said, “OK, so you're good, right? You're good? Are you OK? You're good?” But it wasn't like, “Are you OK?” It was like "you're good" came out with, like, an implied, you need to confirm this for me, like there was no other way to go with it. You're good, right? You're- you're good?
Nora McInerny: You're good.
Melissa: Um, no, no I'm not good. But if I tell you that. I mean, I did say that, I actually did for probably the first time in my life, say to people, “I'm not good,” but I didn't make them dwell in it with me. But I had to be honest. It was too big of a thing not to be honest about. Like, I'm not going to say I'm fine. A woman is gone. I felt like it was just even disrespectful to her memory to say that I was fine. I'm not fine. I'm grieving a woman who is gone because of circumstances that brought us together at that moment. You know, another person that I work with said, “Well, this is what I would do if I were you. I would pray and ask God to forgive you, and then I would just move on.” And I found so many things wrong with that. Like, I … like I said, I am a person of faith, and this one has really thrown me for a loop. And more than me asking for God to forgive me, which people may have felt like was appropriate. I felt like I was asking God, “Why would you allow this to happen? Why would you have allowed her to be in this spot at this time? Am I not supposed to be bringing good to people's lives, good and not harm? Isn't that what God wants us to do, to bring good to people's lives, to bless them, to be an encouragement to them, to bring them more joy, more compassion, more empathy?” But for whatever reason, we were on this path together, and I will never understand that in this life. I will never understand this. It doesn’t line up with how I thought I was supposed to live my life. And it doesn't fit into my “only help people” motto or like, life plan of like, just being a blessing. Being a good person. Because good people make good choices.
And even people who make good choices -- who stop at the yellow light and obey the speed limit and keep their car a no-phone zone -- they still end up in situations like this. Situations where words are hard to find.
Melissa: All I was looking for from anybody really was, “I don't know what to say,” because I didn't expect anybody to know what to say, so, “I don't know what to say, but I'm here for you if you want to talk about it.” But people want to hear you say you're OK and ... I'm not OK. I especially wasn't OK then. And you feel like you need to take care of people and tell them you're OK when you're not OK, because it's not worth it to tell them you're not OK. Because they've got to fix it or you're going to do something rash just because you're not OK. But ... I am not OK, and I'm not going to be OK for a long time, and I've kind of stopped talking to people about it because I think they're tired of hearing about it. Maybe that's too harsh. That's not what I mean, but…
Nora McInerny: I think that's OK to say.
It’s okay to say, because it’s true. We struggle with relating to people with losses that fit into neat categories: with a dead partner, or parent, or child, or uncle or friend. But a dead stranger who died because of you? There aren’t a lot of people who will be prepared to handle this, to relate to this, to hold this kind of grief. Because it is grief.
But a lot of people don’t realize that. They don’t get it. Melissa is grieving this woman. Because she mattered. And because her life was lost. And if you’re thinking … oh my GOSH, enough about Melissa! What about this dead woman? Well, that’s exactly how Melissa felt, too. It’s how she feels today, talking to me.
Because this woman’s death at a freeway entrance didn’t make the news, which is surprising. This kind of thing would usually make the local news, right? But there’s a reason why it wasn’t a headline, and that reason really, really bothers Melissa.
Melissa: When I was still at the accident scene, the police told me that they thought that she was possibly at the time homeless, because she did not have any ID on her and based upon her physical condition, and also she was not wearing any shoes, and this was winter. And also, and this is going to sound unbelievable, there was a large camp where a lot of people that were experiencing homelessness were living right next to the freeway. So they suspected possibly that was where she was going at the time. Also she was carrying some things with her that gave them the idea that possibly she was carrying some of her possessions with her. So that was all I knew.
That was all she knew, but it wasn’t enough. When the police get back in touch with Melissa a few days later, they tell her that the woman didn’t have an ID, but they were able to identify her through her fingerprints.
Her name was Heather.
Melissa: She is- was in her early 50s, just less than 10 years older than me, and I was very concerned. I did not want her there, in the coroner's office if there was anything I could do about it. I- I wasn't sure where her family was, you know, everyone has family, but you're not sure, they could be in another state or she could have not spoken to them for quite some time. And I was concerned that they were just going to hold on to her, and then I believe after a certain amount of time, of holding on to remains, if they can't find someone, then they kind of do a burial from the coroner's office, they do something for them. But I didn't want that for her because I felt ... a connection to her that I just couldn't let that be. So I had told them, “If you cannot find family, please tell me, and after the required waiting period, I will do whatever I can to make sure that she's laid to rest properly. I'm not going to let her just be forgotten.” I can't let her be forgotten. And I was so scared that she was just going to be cast aside and I was going to be the only one that remembered because I was the last one to … well, it's so gruesome, but, have an interaction with her. They did find family eventually. But I would not have let her be forgotten. That's just not OK to me.
It's Heather’s circumstances that make it hard for some people to understand why Melissa is grieving, why she’s so upset. Heather was a stranger. And she, ya know…
Melissa: People actually made comments like, “You did her a favor,” if you can believe that. Or, “She was living probably in such a bad circumstance anyway, she's better off.” Somehow, I felt like people thought not that she deserved it more, but that ... as if we all don't make a million bad life choices that could lead us at any moment to a bad end. And if we're all honest, we've all done things that could have led us to a very bad end. As if … they forget that because she died in that circumstance, that somehow it was more OK. That it was less sad. I mean, to say that I did her a favor? I lost my mom 13 years ago to cancer. We were all there when she died. It was a horrible thing, but she was surrounded by all of her family, everyone telling her how much they loved her, what she meant to them. Dying alone in a road? No one deserves that. And I am quite surprised that some people think that that's OK. Or not OK, but ... less not OK because of her circumstance.
Maybe this is just how people are attempting to comfort Melissa. And maybe they really think Heather’s life was less important because of her circumstances. Maybe it’s a little of both … but neither are true.
It wasn’t a favor. It wasn’t “less not OK.” It was an accident. A horrible accident. And Heather was a person who mattered.
And Melissa needed to know more about her.
Melissa: I had to know. There were some people that advised that I not try to find out any more about her. But I did want to know more about her. We were on a journey together now, and I wanted to know what had brought her to where she was that day. I'm not on a lot of social media, but at one point she was on social media and had an open account, and so my sister was able to find out some information about her. And she hadn't always been experiencing homelessness. She had struggled with some mental illnesses and been kind of in and out of certain psychiatric facilities that are a couple of hours away, and that was where she mostly lived. And so I was ... not sure how she made it up to where we lived, and to be honest, I still don't think anybody knows. Even her family, from what I've read in the police statements, isn't sure how she ended up getting up here. It didn't really make sense to them, because she had primarily been located a few hours away from where we were. So something brought her up here. And I- I wanted to piece it together. I didn't want her to be forgotten. I wanted her to know that someone cared about her and the fact that she wasn't here anymore. And that that is upsetting to someone. And I don't know ... it's complicated, right? There's probably a million reasons why.
Nora McInerny: There's a million reasons why. I think they all matter. And because a very natural need for us as people is to know that we matter. And to see any life being treated as though it is disposable, as if it is expendable, as if it is somehow valued less, it devalues everybody. Like that is what you're- you know, this- this sort of like radical level of empathy you're feeling sounds like to me, which is like, we all need to matter. We all need to matter.
Melissa: Exactly. That is exactly how I feel about it. I don't think that any of us were created with any more value than anyone else, and we all have different journeys that we're on in this life trying to figure it out. There were lots of times where if I had made maybe a slightly different choice, I would have been on a really, really bad path and lots of times that I went down really bad paths. And so I have no judgment. Just sadness.
Melissa: This country is not perfect, obviously, but we do live in a place where if you can pull yourself up, it is at least feasible or possible in some circumstances to do that. People can be very cold about this woman's circumstances, but for me, it's even sadder, because she did not have the opportunity to turn her life into a more comfortable ... You know, people would have felt a lot more empathy if I had said, “This was a woman walking home from her overnight job at the gas station. She had three young kids she was trying to feed. She was tired and didn't realize what she was doing. She wasn't thinking straight. Tried to cross the road and made a terrible error in judgment.” People would have felt so terribly for that woman, if that had been her story, that she had been someone who had been more like them or that they could more relate to. But because this woman was going through some very deep struggles, to me, that makes me just have more heartbreak and sympathy for her. But other people seem to be able to make that mean that she was less than. And I don't agree with that. That is not right to me.
Nora McInerny: Melissa, I'm really hearing that if the accident happened and it was me crossing the street, it would have been more than just like the strange little write ups that you saw, right, in the paper? It would have been, you know, like “mother,” like you can be identified and you are so much identified by your relationship to other people. And if, due to circumstances out of your immediate control, your relationships with people are broken or strained or dissolved, then what happens? And what I'm hearing is like, you sort of trying to tether this, trying to make sure that this person is not lost just because she was lost.
Melissa: That's exactly how I feel.
We’re going to take a quick break.
When we speak, it’s been four months since the accident. Four months since Heather died after being hit by Melissa’s car.
Melissa: You know, it's only been four months, but people … they've moved on, and I'm still in it. And I just, I'm afraid that if I tell people that I'm still in it, they're going to worry about me, and then that creates more stress for me. But I carry it with me. I don't know if you've ever felt this way or if people can understand what I'm saying, but I almost feel like I am more a friend to myself now because I am in this with me, and I am the only person that understands what happened that day. So I talk to myself more. Not in a weird way, I hope, but like, I'm not going to forget her. And yet, it's hard because, you know, people felt very bad for me and I appreciated that they cared about me. But I wanted them to feel bad for her. Not that I wanted them to blame me for what happened, but I didn't want them to lose sight of who the real victim in this was.
So much of our thinking exists in a binary: There’s a good person or a bad person. There’s a perpetrator and a victim. And really, it’s a circle and a spectrum and one big overlapping venn diagram where more than one thing can be true about all of us.
What I mean is that when Melissa says “remember who the ‘real’ victim is” … well, it’s both of them.
And even if Melissa didn’t mean to kill Heather, she did. Heather’s death was Melissa’s fault. In her email to us, that’s what she said: that it was her fault, and that distinction was important for her. It was important for her to own that, and for other people to acknowledge that.
Melissa: And that was hard for people. One of my best friends since sixth grade, when I spoke to her after the accident, it was, I think the next day, and I said that I killed her and she told me, “I don't like you saying that, you shouldn't say that, that's not accurate.” And I said no, I cast no judgment on myself when I say that, that's just the fact. I was driving the car. She ran in front of my car. My car hit her. I killed her with my car. If I wouldn't have been there, she would still be alive. So I'm not saying that it was my fault ... but I did kill her. So I am OK with saying that, and I don't think that I ever in my life would have imagined that I would be OK with saying that until this happened. But it is just the reality of what happened.
Melissa used to worry about if people would like her, would think she was good and worthy and okay. But now, she’s asking the people around her to see and accept even the hardest thing about her: that she killed a person. And she’s trying really hard to release that need to exist in a binary that says good people only do good things and accidents happen, sure, but let’s keep our accidents small and inconsequential.
Melissa: I used to worry so much about what other people thought of me, it was crippling. And it had to change, because I know It is such a gray area, that there are people in my life who, and I don't think they would necessarily express this out loud to me, although some people have kind of expressed this out loud to me. So I may not have been obviously or grossly negligent, but they might wonder if I was an eensy bit negligent. As if they had been driving, they would have somehow been able to avoid the accident, as if they would have been able to do some amazing “Fast and the Furious” move with the car, where they would have seen her a fraction of a fraction of a second before I saw her and then somehow been able to get this very, you know, heavy piece of machinery that I'm driving, to stop in a nanosecond. And I just, I know that there are people that I care about and people that care about me, who do think that maybe if they had been the ones driving, this wouldn't have happened. And I just have to live with that. I have to live with the fact there's nothing I'm going to be able to say to people, no amount of, like, police reports or witness statements or my own retelling. You know, even after I had told someone who is a very good friend of my husband's about the accident — or actually I hadn't told him, my husband had told him — he was trying to comfort me about it. And then he kept referring to it as a mistake. He kept saying, “Well, you just made a mistake.” And I wasn't really comfortable with that, because I thought it made me sound maybe a little more negligent than I wanted to take in. But, you know, that's what people are going to do. They're going to hear what they want to out of what you say. And I can't do anything about that. I think for me, the thing that I have more realized and try to work into my everyday interactions with people is, well, first of all, to stop labeling people as good people or bad people. I mean, some people obviously make very horrible choices in their life, intentionally and that's kind of a different person, but we're all just people, flawed and very human, and I don’t know. Some people still think I'm a great person and some people have said they don't know how they would live with themselves if they were me. So … how do you reconcile those things?
I feel sad for myself. I used to hold myself to such a high standard of being, and any time I made a bad decision or mistake, I was so hard on myself. And now, I realize there's a lot more gray, and maybe that's just the only way I can survive this, because if I still viewed everything black and white, I wouldn't emotionally survive this. If I … you know, it's easy to judge people when it's something you think you will never do in your life, or something that will never happen to you. It's easy to label people, and I try not to do that. I don't think that I was a judgmental person towards other people before this happened, mostly just towards myself. I think that I've tried to be a compassionate person and empathetic person in my life towards other people, but I didn't give myself very much slack ever in my life for choices that I made or things that have happened. And I've carried those on my back like a burden. And so this one I have to treat a little differently, or I won't, I won't emotionally survive it. The weight of knowing that you took someone's life, albeit accidentally, is the worst thing. What's worse? Every- so many things in your life, you make a mistake, you can fix it. You can try and make amends to someone or, you know, replace what was broken or mend a broken relationship, but this? All I kept thinking was, “What do I do? I can’t fix it.” There's no book. There's no program to work. There's no video to watch to give me a solution for this. There's ... it's too big, there's nothing I can do, and I've never been in a situation in my life before that I felt like I couldn't fix.
Nora McInerny: Melissa, it's perfect. You did such a good job today. It's not supposed to make sense. You're not supposed to have a sentence to wrap it up with. You're not supposed- you know, it's … this is life as it unfolds. And we are just capturing a moment in your story that will continue going.
Our stories are made of moments.
Our stories are made of the inconsequential and the indelible. And Melissa and Heather’s stories are forever intertwined. One fraction of a second bonded them together forever.
Melissa will carry this with her forever, she’ll carry Heather with her forever.
And maybe someday she will be able to drive again without her heart racing. Maybe someday she won’t think about it every day, won’t replay it in her mind, won’t wonder what Heather was doing, what could have been done differently, what their lives would be like had Melissa run that yellow or Heather not crossed that street. Where Heather could have taken her life if she’d had more time, or if the time she had had been kinder to her while she was alive.
But when we speak, it’s only been four months, and she isn’t there yet.
Melissa: But you find yourself dissecting every moment, you know? Like, if only I was the person who liked to get to work 30 minutes early, then I would have been nowhere near the road. If I would have … you know. You think there has to be an answer, right? There has to be something you can point to and say, “This was the reason,” because I don't want to get back in a car again if I don't know there was something I can control about what happened so that that will never happen again. It is very scary to think that some things are just out of your control. You know, if people go through a stop sign or you go through a light or something, you can pinpoint the point at which a choice was made that caused an accident. But with this, it's very- you keep trying to find the thing. Because it's very scary to think that something completely random can just happen. I'm not sure what state of mind she was in when the accident happened, I'm not sure if she was under the influence of anything or anything that they didn't ... I thought for some reason in my mind they would do, like, an autopsy and a toxicology report. I thought everybody got that in these cases. Again, I've watched too many shows. I thought they would be able to tell me, like if she had something in her system that kind of like, altered her ability to think clearly in that moment or anything like that. But I will just never have those answers. But I suspect that because it was a multiple-lane road, and I was in the middle lane, and there was a car slightly ahead of me that she only saw the headlights of the car that was next to me and thought that if she just hurried, she could get out in front of that car and clear that car, which she did, not realizing that there was another car kind of hidden from her view, slightly behind her. Like, so I'm just thinking it was something along those lines, that's the best I can piece together.
People have said, “Maybe it was a suicide attempt,” but then why would she have cleared the first car? If she had wanted to die that day, she would have just stepped out in front of the car that was next to me. I mean, that's a- again, I felt like, well, that's something you say to make me feel better about the situation. And also, I don't think it was a suicide attempt, because they found her stuff scattered in the road. And one of the things that they found besides a hospital ID bracelet for the psychiatric hospital that she had been at prior to coming up here was a lottery selection sheet. And I told my sister, “She still thought she had a chance to hit it big.” Whatever kind of hope that was, there was still some hope there in her life. She ... her life was not over ... she was not ready to go. She still had hope that there was maybe something was going to turn around or, you know, I know your chances of winning the lottery are one in a million, but right? Everyone plays when it's really big, because you know, it's some form of crazy hope that you might be that one in 10 million. And she had that, apparently. So … how can that not just be so sad? How can it not be so sad that someone who had a lottery selection sheet with them, that still had some hope for their life, was just taken away in an instant. Just ... gone. And there never was another one of her and there will never be another one of her. She was Heather.
She was Heather. She mattered.
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”