This project has been in the works for a few months now, and I've been waiting for the right moment to announce it, but after watching Meryl Streep's acceptance speech for the Cecil B. Demille Award on the Golden Globes, I think that right time is now.
As soon as Meryl walked up to the stage, I said to my husband, "Wow, look at that. If some day women stood up like that for me, I'd feel like a great success."
Because every actress in that room was standing.
And then she opened her mouth, and demonstrated the reason every one of them was standing.
A few weeks ago, I read a fantastic essay in Elle magazine written by documentary filmmaker Farihah Zaman, whose father, Wasim, was killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul while on assignment for the UN. In the essay, Zaman said she'd hoped to maintain the usual level-headed toughness she'd displayed most of her life after her father's death, but found it near impossible to do so. Here's how she described it:
"I have always equated vulnerability with weakness, something to be controlled and, ideally, stamped out. Lately, however, I have come to the realization that it is impossible to do this without also compromising the compassion that I value. Compassion is the best pairing for bravery, its tempering friend and foil. I am reminded that it is also one of the qualities I most admired in my father. Although he did courageous, astonishing things, he also cried openly, constantly sought my mother's approval, and routinely asked my sisters and me if we loved him, a question usually met with eye rolling. He was such a softie that I worried about him being taken advantage of by the less sensitive.
"Yet he traveled around the world championing gender equality, fighting for the rights of women, addressing taboos like reproductive health in communities ravaged by war, ignorance, or denial. Often, I see now, his own adventures unfolded not in spite of his compassion, but because of it. He simply went where he was needed. What a badass."
I'd never heard that before, the idea that compassion is a necessary ingredient for courage. This part of the essay brought me to tears. Because I remembered immediately the remarkable compassion my father had for his fellow man. And for the first time in a long time, I was reminded that perhaps I did resemble him somewhat. Perhaps this was a quality he'd passed down to me.
Something I've come to learn these past few years as I've allowed myself to be more public in the fight against distracted driving, in honor of my dad, who was killed by a teen on her cell phone, is that hiding is easy. But being willing to put yourself in the public eye in order to help the less fortunate is not.
And this is what Meryl was talking about in her speech. The sheer power of being that visible and what that power can do. And most important, the power of empathy.
In 2013, I became an activist, around the same time my husband proposed marriage. That summer, I discovered End Distracted Driving while copyediting a story at work. In the decade since my dad's death, because my fear and repression had forced me to avoid any mention of car crashes in the news, I hadn't realized what an epidemic distracted driving had become. When I read the story about Joel Feldman losing his 21-year-old daughter Casey, it dawned on me that my father had died from the same thing—a driver who was distracted. I remembered that the teen had been on her phone at the time of the crash. I called Joel the next day and asked how I could help.
By Christmas Eve, when my now-husband, Steven, proposed, my resolve had solidified. Steven tenderly decided to include my father, who was killed three months after Steven and I met, in his proposal. He attached the engagement ring to our Christmas tree with a green ornament hook right where the star would go, and then he left the star for me, something my father had always done when I was a girl. My parents divorced when I was six, and when my mom later remarried, she replaced the star with a new topper. I felt remorse at the time because the star had always helped me pretend my dad was still with us on Christmas Eve—after the divorce, my brother and I would go celebrate with him for an hour on Christmas Day instead. When Steven and I got our first apartment together, five years after my dad's death, we went out to buy new ornaments for our tree and I spotted a star that looked just like the one I'd missed as a kid. We snatched it up at my insistence.
A version of this story made it into Good Housekeeping magazine, where I work, a year after the proposal. One day our editor-in-chief asked the whole staff what their favorite Christmas memory was. This, of course, was mine.
But sweetness aside, part of the engagement was bitter for me. It crystallized a dread I'd felt for a long time: My father wouldn't be there at my wedding.
To explain the true depths of this feeling would take quite some time, and it took me quite some time just to cope with it in my two-and-a-half-year engagement. But what I eventually realized it came down to was this: I had always embraced the idea of being one of the guys and I was secretly terrified of having my individuality reduced to being just a wife. The reason I hated that my father wouldn't be there to give me away wasn't because I worried I was somehow abandoned, damaged goods, that I was less of a woman because I didn't have a man to pass me over to my new male "owner"—it was because my father had raised me to be incredibly independent, much like Farihah Zaman's, based on her essay. And what I worried about most was that I'd lose that independence once I was expected to be a wife and mom.
And so I became a hardcore activist.
When I was expected by the world to be drooling over bridal magazines I was instead speaking in public schools about my father's death to warn teens about the dangers of distracted driving; recapping TV shows to all hours of the night; training for months at a time for a half marathon just to see if I could do it, and then later for the New York Marathon, raising thousands to support EndDD; getting my story about my running campaign onto the front page of two Sunday newspapers—one in the town where he was killed and one in our hometown in Delaware; writing quite vulnerably about my dad's death on the EndDD website; publishing one essay I'd written about him a few years prior on the Runner's World website and then later, after the wedding, publishing another one on what it was like to become an activist while planning my wedding for the Washington Post. I also got interviewed on the radio twice. (Links to all stories can be found in the toolbar above under Writing and Activism.)
I kept thinking while all of this was happening that if I could fight to prevent another woman from having to go through this, I'd no longer feel like a helpless victim of my situation. I'd be part of the solution. I'd no longer have to feel like the girl who was missing out on something. I'd already been made to feel that way too many times in my life, because my parents lived separately and I only saw my father twice a week. I refused to have to go into my wedding feeling it again.
Because my dad wasn't around for the planning process, I often found myself getting sucked into pretending to be a woman I wasn't. When I wasn't out fighting the good fight, I was inside fighting with my fiancé. While my activism was solving my main concern, that I'd lose my individuality once we were wed, I realized I could do nothing to stem my other fear: that if I acted too much like a wife and mother, my husband might decide to leave. Because even though that wasn't what my father had done to my mother when I was six years old, I'd convinced myself that he had.
My husband was very anti-wedding. In the end, after vetoing three or four different plans, my husband agreed that we should take it back to the beginning for us, and have a small destination wedding in Santa Fe, where we spent our one-year anniversary 13 years prior. It seemed like a leap of faith to ask our dear ones to trek all the way out there just to watch this confused, mixed-up pairing who just couldn't seem to get it right stand there and tie the knot. But thankfully, they all did. And thankfully, it was beautiful and wonderful and whimsical and warm and completely 100% us.
In the last six months of our planning, I immersed myself in every tiny detail. I only came up for air on my birthday, when I was invited to attend a conference in Chicago hosted by the National Safety Council. Because of my work in the previous year, I'd been nominated to become a survivor advocate. The people I met at the conference I now call friends. It was hearing their stories that strengthened my commitment to doing everything I could as a writer to solve this problem. I knew that something had to be done that hadn't been done already.
What always bothered me the most about my father's death was that so often when a loved one is killed in a car crash, people avoid talking about it. There is something about a sudden, tragic loss that makes people afraid to acknowledge what happened. Maybe it's because it makes us feel so helpless; it reminds us how much we really are prey to the hands of fate. That any of us could go at any given moment. But my dad was such a huge figure in my life that this was never OK with me. And for there to be virtually no repercussions for his killer was infuriating. A new reality was made clear to me, one that I wasn't prepared to accept at 25: The people I love could be killed and our government would do virtually nothing about it.
It occurred to me that if only one of these victims could be painted in a relatable light, if there could be a story about them as heroic as one like Philadelphia, for example, rather than one that resembled an after-school special that convinces you to say no to drugs or to carry mace if you walk home late at night, this problem would be solved. If only people could see the other drivers on the road as real people with real lives and real families, they'd stop thinking so much about themselves.
The daughter Joel lost was very real. The people the other advocates-in-training lost at the NSC conference were very real. But how to communicate that?
My father answered this question for me a few weeks before my brother's wedding in December.
A few weeks after moving into his first home with his fiancée, my brother uncovered a brown leather pouch that used to belong to my dad. It held the kind of possessions you'd expect—rings, maybe a watch. But one thing surprised my brother: it was a list.
As we read the list, we started realizing it was a bucket list. My dad had written it when he was 29, the year I was born. We laughed at how hard some of the entries were to read. "Make a few family or freisnck movies"? But mostly we were touched that our dad had thought to do this, and disappointed that he'd only accomplished five of the 60 items.
And then something strange happened—we realized that we had both already accomplished several of his goals, in our own lives, individually, without ever even knowing about the list. And then lightning struck: This was my book. My brother and I needed to finish the remaining items on the list, and I would write about it.
My husband said it would be best to start it as a blog, to try to generate some interest, so you can visit it here. So far, my friends and family have offered to help with many of the items. My hope is that it will be a "live intentionally" movement, because the opposite of living intentionally is living distracted. And that's how car crashes happen.
I pray that the compassion my dad passed down to me will give me the courage to make all these dreams a reality. It's a very positive pursuit—one we need especially right now.
I hope you'll follow along!