When I was about seven years old, my family was living in a small house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Champaign, Illinois. The gray house behind ours was occupied by a family named the Canadays. Our back yards adjoined, with a hedge in between. Scotty Canaday was my age and we used to play together. He had an older sister, Gail, and an older brother, Bobby, who was in little league.
One summer the Canadays went on vacation. A week or so after they’d left, I was watching cartoons on TV one Saturday morning when my mother got a phone call. Afterwards, she called me in and told me the news. There’d been an accident. A head-on collision with a drunk driver. The entire family had been killed instantly.
I didn’t know what to do with myself then. It was the first time anyone I’d known well had died. I don’t remember what I felt. All I remember is that I didn’t want to watch cartoons anymore.
The rest of that summer, the accident was a frequent topic of conversation among the neighborhood kids. The girl next door had been best friends with Gail Canaday and had been invited to go with them on their trip, but had stayed home. This fascinated us – that she could so easily have died, but for some trivial reason she was still with us. We reenacted the accident endlessly with our toy cars, arguing about details of exactly how it had happened. Of course, none of us really knew.
But the image that sticks with me is the sight of those five caskets in the funeral home, with flowers, flowers all around. So many flowers.