Last night I drove by Sunset and Cliffwood in Brentwood California, about five minutes from my house. There was a spontaneous memorial there, several hundred flower bouquets commemorating 13-year-old Julia Siegler who was killed in a tragic accident last Friday when she was hit by two cars while trying to cross the street to catch her school bus. The press accounts said her mother was there and witnessed the whole horrific event. Many of her classmates were in the bus and saw it happen too and then were forced to remain on the bus and witness the continued madness as police and paramedics rushed to the scene.
My sister Mallika, who's closer to the situation than me if only because her own daughter Tara was remotely connected to Julia by virtue of attending the same elementary school where Julia once served as "big sister" to little Tara, already blogged about Julia's death and the community's response to it. Before she posted it, she asked my advice on whether she should. I was honest with her: I said I didn't know. I was conflicted, not at all sure how Julia's family wants to mourn -- privately or with the comfort that even the most anonymous to them feel some measure of their grief. Mallika went with her instincts (and the counsel of some of her good friends) and did publish her blog. The response has been overwhelming and positive.
I'm still conflicted. You see, I never met Julia. I don't know her mother. I think I may have met her father many years ago, but only because the name feels familiar, we're in the same industry (media), and in this town (Hollywood) everyone always says, "Oh yeah, I know so and so. I have a project with him."
Still, the thing is that Julia's death is agonizing to me and I can't even explain why. I can't even explain why I am writing this, except to say that for me writing is cathartic in its own way. Last night when we passed the memorial, I kind of choked up. My wife asked me what was wrong and I shrugged and told her that I couldn't really explain it. Overnight, I thought that maybe it's because I just live in the neighborhood and now I too am a father (and a devoted uncle) and maybe I just empathize in a way I never did before. But really, underneath, I know that that is only part of it. The other part? I'm stumped.
Several people I've spoken with (and Mallika talks about it in her blog too) noted that sadly what happened to Julia happens every day in neighborhoods all around the country and cities all around the world. And sometimes it's not even because of horrible accidents, but inexplicable natural disasters like the earthquakes we've seen in recent weeks in Haiti and Chile that have killed thousands, countless amongst them children. Even more deaths every year are revoltingly the result of violence perpetrated by both friends (US military) and foes (terrorists) alike as they fight in neverending wars overseas.
And yet I confess, that Julia's death has affected me in a way more than the thousands of others that have been suffered by people that are equally strangers to me in the last few weeks. I admit that with no small measure of shame because no untimely death, especially by a child, should ever be more tragic than another. It feels clichéd and cheap to chalk a tragedy like this up to karma or fate, to shed a tear and than make some big broad commitment to some noble cause in Julia's memory, because that won't bring her back which is probably the only thing that matters to her family. That's a hollowness that will never be filled, if even they find some healing over time.