I’d just left the comfort of our regional minimum security rehabilitation camp and was warming my police car against the dampness of a cool Spring night. My shift had ended at 1 AM, but I had extended my coffee break to continue discussions with one of the inmate trustees, Aidan, who was finishing a three month sentence for his second conviction of impaired driving.I was a new graduate of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police training academy and only four months into my career at my first posting. Aidan was my age, give or take a year or two, and I had held back to engage him in conversation. Being a new cop, Aidan was the first convicted “criminal” that I had ever encountered, and apart from the fact that he was in jail garb locked up and I was in uniform and free to leave, our lives could easily be juxtaposed. It was just different decisions to available choices that distinguished us. And while I had long passed through the tunnel of adolescent uncertainty, he had yet to enter. While contrite when speaking of his decision to drink and drive, he still remained unrepentant.
As our conversation evolved, I wondered if I would have had the insight to recognize the differences between us even one short year ago? My life and my outlook on life had changed so quickly in that time. Even now in discussion with Aidan, I had only begun to process the depth of that change.
“I’m just like you only you didn’t get caught,” he proposed as the small talk finally focused at the heart of his rationalization.
“I’m not sure if that’s true,” I deflected.
“Are you going to tell me you never drove drunk?”
“Well I was never stopped for my driving and I was never tested so I can’t say. I’ve always tried to be responsible and I guess the most honest answer is that I probably drove when I knew I shouldn’t. But I don’t drink much, I hope to think I was still under the legal limit.”
“Well I never hurt anyone, never had an accident.”
And on we went. In the absence of a victim of his crime, Aidan had decided to assume that role. He regarded himself as a victim of the system, a recipient of bad luck and timing. I made an attempt to have him look inward at potential causes of being arrested twice for an alcohol related offence in a short period of time, but he was unprepared to internalize any causes. No winners, no losers. I parted from our conversation unfulfilled, no lessons learned.
I was just about to enter the highway from the camp access road when the police radio squawked. It was close to 3 AM, the call could only mean a call to duty.
“Car 139 from dispatch.”
“Car 139”, I responded.
“Yes, be advised that I have a NOK in your area, are you ready to copy?”
My heart raced as I pulled over to the side of the road and prepared to receive the details. A NOK was a Next of Kin notification. Someone had died or was about to. I would be the one to break the news, in the middle of a dark night, to an unsuspecting loved one. I’d never done a NOK. Never wished for one. And no one was with me for support. I cleared my throat, lifted my pen and spoke.
“Go ahead dispatch.”
“Family request you contact Dale and Cynthia Collins at their cottage located at Block 4, Lot 2 Windermere Lake. They have no phone. Their daughter Cindy, age 17 was involved in a motor vehicle accident at 11 PM last night and is in hospital in critical condition. They are requested to call their son, Derek, at home as soon as possible.”
“Are there any other details?” I asked, hoping to prolong the conversation, or delay the inevitability of my expected response.”
“Well, it’s not confirmed yet, but it’s believed that the driver that hit her was drunk. He came into her lane head on.”
As final details were given to me by dispatch, I started to process the next steps, or what I thought to be the next steps. And as I pulled out onto the highway and turned toward Windermere Lake, I started to rehearse my meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Collins.
‘Knock, knock. Good evening, my name is Constable Bill Adams and I am from the local detachment. We just received information that……..’
No, that wouldn’t work, too long, too official. What if this was my daughter and I was answering the door to the police. What would I want to hear?
‘Knock, knock. Hi (to whoever answered). Are you Mr. or Mrs. (to whoever answered). There’s been an accident and Cindy’s badly hurt. Derek wants you to call him.’
There! That would be short and sweet, just the facts m’am, just the facts! But I was sweating already. I was going to forget my lines, stumble and make anxious parents wait for me to get my act together. It would be a disaster. I needed to fall back on learned skills. The only thing I could think of was when I learned a Hamlet soliloquy in seventh grade literature class.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
I had 10 minutes to get it right. Geeze, I wish I had backup. I thought of going back for Aidan. It was shitheads like him that now caused me this angst. He should be the one to knock, knock. It would make a far better impression on him than on me, maybe get him through his tunnel faster.
I arrived at the cottage. The lot was dark and uninviting. There was no laneway. One four-door sedan was parked on the grass near the back cottage door. I pulled up and parked beside it. I left my car engine running as I got out. My mind raced, jumbled with irreverent questions. Why did I leave the engine running and with the headlights on? A fight-or-flight response perhaps? Should I wear my hat or not? I placed it squarely on my head and took two steps. Then I turned, opened the car door and tossed it back onto the front seat. Decision made.
An answer to my prayers, nobody home.
A light went on in the back somewhere.
While I could not see a person approaching, their arrival was forecast by a progression of light, the hallway, the kitchen, and finally the porch.
Practice your delivery. Practice your delivery.
“Shall I compare thee to a summers day? Thou art more lovely ….”
Where did that come from? Another memory of literature class? A last attempt at preparation? My blood pressure was high, I could feel it pulsating in my temples as the door opened. It was a man. Half dressed, chest bare. Of course it would be, who else would answer the door to a stranger at 4 AM.
I could see the confusion in his face, which transitioned to a look of foreboding in his eyes.
“Derek called. There’s been an accident. He wants you to call him right away.”
“Where do you know Derek from?” he asked. More confused.
Now I was confused. Where did I know Derek from? I should have worn my hat.
A voice from behind the man questioned,
“Who is it Dale, is everything ok?”
“The police want us to call Derek about an accident.”
“It’s Cindy isn’t it? Oh my god. Cindy. What happened, what happened to Cindy.”
My role changed in that moment from an actor to an observer. I had framed this puzzle, but they were clearly adding relevant pieces on their own.
She came into view. Cynthia Collins. Half dressed, chest bare. Oh my god, I looked! I hope she didn’t see me look at her breasts. I averted my glance as she approached, tying the sash of the robe that she had grabbed in haste on her departure from the bedroom.
Mr. Collins backed into the cottage and started walking randomly around the confined space. His shoulders sagged as he realized he had nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. He turned and came to stand by his wife.
“Tell me please!” she begged. Fingers intertwined and hands clenched.
“Can I come in?”
There was no need for a rehearsed speech. In fact to this day I’m not sure what I said to these stricken parents. And I’m now quite sure that they neither heard my words nor judged my performance. Information was exchanged. Decisions were made.
There was no cell phone service in the remote cottage area. I was able to complete a communications patch through another channel on the police radio. Parents to son, they spoke, while I listened on. I stayed to help them pack for the trip back to the city, to the hospital, to their children. I implored them to drive safely, knowing that my wishes would just be words. I repeated them anyway.
They left the cottage lot before me and I watched the taillights disappear into the arrival of the morning dawn. I was hopeful that this new day would bring better news in contrast to the worst news possible delivered in the night.
I got back into my car and with my interior light on, completed notes that documented the initial occurrence and my improvised response. Scribing the details gained me a new felt confidence and a brought a quiet resolution to my fears. I paused to reflect that while I came nowhere close to rhyming off the notification I had so carefully prepared, the empathy and compassion of my contact with the Collins’ transcended the words subscribed to my memory.
As I backed the car into the laneway I glanced forward at the tire track impressions in the dew-covered grass. And while I knew that the physical evidence of my presence there would soon fade with the rising sun, the memories of my visit with Dale and Cynthia Collins would remain forever within us all.