I want to tell you a story about Julia.
Julia should have graduated from college last month with a degree in public relations, but she has been dead for six months, lying in the cold ground next to a cathedral in suburban Philadelphia.
I had the privilege of getting to know Julia in 2015 when I helped her with a journalism course. I was a graduate student working as a tutor for the university’s student athletes, and she was a lacrosse player with a healing smile and a big personality.
Outside of school and sports, she loved to wake up early on Saturday mornings and drive into the foothills to spend time alone, away from the chaos of the city, recharging her batteries on sunshine and brisk mountain air.
One morning, she was returning from a hike when she lost control of her vehicle and struck a large pine tree in Boulder Canyon. At 10:55 a.m. on Jan. 13, the Colorado Department of Transportation tweeted, “Hwy 119 closed in Boulder cyn b/c a crash approximately ten miles W of Boulder; No reopen time.”
The post is dispassionate and routine, meant to do nothing more than convey information to other drivers so that they can plan their routes accordingly. But I know the story behind that tweet, I know it refers to the crash that ended the life of a witty, down-to-earth lady who loved nature, llamas and making people laugh.
The police report stated that excess speed was likely a factor. Julia was not wearing a seat belt, which means that when her vehicle struck the tree, it stopped instantly, while Julia, inside the vehicle, continued forward, colliding with the steering wheel and windshield.
A little more than a week after she ran off the winding canyon road, I visited the accident site. Her friends had turned the ground around the tree into a makeshift memorial, with flowers, notes and little artifacts that had meant something to Julia.
I brushed away some of the snow that had fallen on the memorial, and was shocked to find broken pieces of metal alloy, along with glass, hose clamps and wire connectors. The discovery made me dizzy. Where the memorial had been a heartfelt reflection on Julia’s life, the car parts just below the surface were the bitter truth that the memorial attempted to conceal: The accident was real and it was terrible. She would not be coming back.
When Julia left that morning, she probably didn’t imagine that she had reached the last day of her life. Up until the instant she veered off the road, it was just another day, so what would have prompted her to slow down, to buckle up, to be more careful? Unfortunately, in these situations, there is no instant replay, we never get a second chance to retrace those last moments and say, “I guess I should have done that.”
What we can do is train ourselves to take precautions before these situations occur. What precautions might we take? Perhaps we could place a note in our car, written by a loved one, reminding us to buckle up before we start the engine. Perhaps we could turn off our cellphones, or put them out of reach. Perhaps we simply need to imagine someone we care about who would be devastated if we didn’t return safely.
Six months later, it still hurts to think about Julia, the story of a young lady standing at the threshold of a wide open future, full of promise and mystery, so suddenly and unexpectedly sent away from this world, leaving only scattered memories and echoes of the past in her wake.
Ryan Bartlett is a media and information specialist for the Violence and Injury Prevention Program at the Utah Department of Health.