Jackie Hance still struggles with the grief over losing her three daughters in a tragic car accident on the New York State’s Taconic Parkway. In July 2009, following a camping trip, Hance’s daugthers, Emma, 8, Alyson, 7, and Katie, 5 were riding home in a minivan driven by their aunt, Diane Schuler, when Schuler went the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, crashing head-on into an oncoming vehicle. Hance’s three daughters, their cousin, Schuler, and three men riding in the other car all died from the crash. Later, a toxicology report revealed that Schuler had marijuana in her system as well as a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit. In her new memoir, I’ll See You Again, Hance recalls the tragedy that challenged both her sanity and relationship with her husband, Warren, and her slow and painful recovery. In the following excerpt, Hance recounts the moments after she learned the devastating news that her children were gone, and coming to terms with the fact that she was unable to protect them on that fateful day.
Swarms of friends and neighbors had already gathered inside and outside our house, and several of the men had gone to the hospital to get Warren. I was in our living room when he arrived home, and the moment he saw me, he crumbled. His grief was already crushing, but once multiplied by mine, it became unbearable. He put his arms around me and we both fell to the floor, reeling and helpless, grief rolling over us like a locomotive.
By the next day, the police had cordoned off our street, but television producers and news reporters clambered across our lawn, looking for an interview. Friends went outside to shoo away bookers from Dr. Phil and Oprah and the network morning news shows. Were they joking or just unbelievably callous? My tragedy as a lead-in to Lindsay Lohan on Fox News?
I got the story in fragments and didn’t fully grasp what had happened until much later. In the immediate aftermath, all I knew was that Diane had put the children back in the car, then driven from the rest area where Warren had begged her to stay. Not answering her phone, she headed north instead of south on the major road, then drove onto an off-ramp for the Taconic State Parkway. For nearly two miles, she drove the wrong way on the highway.
Eight people dead. Police called it the worst car crash in the county in seventy-five years.
The newspapers dubbed it the “Wrong Way on the Taconic Tragedy” and splashed it across their front pages. Local TV couldn’t get enough of it, and the story went viral on the Web and got national attention.
But none of it could bring back my girls.
My daughters were gone.
At some point that evening, I slipped away from the concerned friends and neighbors and went to the bedroom Emma and Alyson shared. I retreated into their closet and closed the door. I could hear the swell of voices downstairs, the anguish and the sobs. But I covered my ears and just rocked back and forth in the corner. My girls, my girls. In their dark closet, I could breathe their air and feel their presence. Friends came upstairs to get me, talking to me from the other side of the door. But why should I come out? Why would I ever come out again?
The next day, Thursday, was my children’s funeral.
I suppose I got up that day and brushed my teeth, took a shower, and combed my hair—all the little daily routines that would suggest I was alive and functioning. But I wasn’t, really. What was happening was beyond comprehension, and my mind completely shut down, refusing to take in the scene. I survived the day by not really being there.
I had grown up as a devout Catholic, so the familiar traditions of the Church brought some comfort when everything else around me was crumbling…Funerals become grand exercises, a kind of pomp and ceremony to mark graduation from one world to the next. Since Emma, Alyson, and Katie would never get to graduate from high school or college—or even grade school—this was all we had.
More than a thousand people filled the pews in the church.
Hundreds more waited outside.
The hundreds of people who knew us or had been touched by the girls came to the service in shocked disbelief. The tragedy had seeped into their homes, and they reacted as if it were their own family. A small town like ours functions in some ways like an extended family—everyone watches out for one another. The gossipy chatter that can sometimes feel intrusive turns, in times of trouble, into a saving grace. Even people who didn’t know us lined the streets or stood on their front lawns, offering prayers and support. I didn’t realize until much later how much I was buoyed by the strength and support of the community. Warren and I felt like we had lost everything, like we had only each other. But now a thousand people wanted us to know that we had them, too.
As we walked into the church, part of me kept thinking, This isn’t really happening. I would wake up tomorrow and get my life—and my girls—back. This nightmare would be over and we could get on with our plans for summer camp and church plays.
One newspaper reported that as the coffins were wheeled into the church, music played softly in the background and “Jackie Hance placed a hand over her mouth, hugged her husband, covered her face and placed a hand over her heart.”
How theatrical that makes me sound, as if I had planned each gesture for fullest effect. But this wasn’t a movie with Meryl Streep playing the part of the grieving mother. Instead, it was real life, and the grieving mother—me—was disappearing into a black hole of woe.
Warren had decided to give the eulogy, knowing that it would have been impossible for me. I couldn’t imagine how he would do it.
“I have one chance to tell all the people at the funeral about the girls and what’s in my heart, and if I don’t do it, I’ll regret it the rest of my life,” he had told me right after the accident. Those words came back to me as he walked forward to give the eulogy.
Warren had never done much public speaking, and he avoided the television cameras that were everywhere. He wanted to talk only to the people he cared about—and they were all gathered at the funeral. As he stood at the front of the church, he spoke calmly, his voice steady.
“What we ask all of you going forward is when you see us on the street, please don’t look the other way,” he said at one point. “Please don’t be afraid to talk to us. You don’t have to offer any more condolences, you don’t have to tell us how sorry you are.”
Our own sorrow was already so relentless, pressing down so heavily, that any more might crush us completely.
He talked about our girls and he talked about Bryan, the “miracle child” who had survived. Only at the very end did he lose his composure.
“Cherish your children,” Warren said. “Hug your children. Kiss your children. And don’t forget—”
But he couldn’t finish the sentence. As he gave in to his grief, the whole church seemed to be rocked by sobs. Parents clutched their children and held them tightly. The girls’ friends had tears streaming down their cheeks. When people finally left the church, some of the children sat on the curb, too stunned to move. I look at pictures from that warm, sunny day and feel sad for the pretty little girls in their summer clothes whose lives had suddenly changed. They had always felt safe and protected in our suburban community, surrounded by parents and adults who loved them. But now they had discovered the truth they shouldn’t have to face: Mommy and Daddy love you, but they can’t always protect you.
The Hance Family Foundation honors the lives of three beautiful sisters by ensuring healthy, happy, and safe children through innovative self-esteem educational programming and the support of children in need. Please visit www.hancefamilyfoundation.org for more information.
Excerpted from I’LL SEE YOU AGAIN by Jackie Hance with Janice Kaplan. Copyright © 2013 by Jackie Hance and Janice Kaplan. Reprinted with permission from Gallery, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.