Regrets of a Busy Man

When Dr. Ted Patterson was 12 years old he made a solemn vow while staring at a plate of rice. It was the third time that week his mother had served rice for dinner. Monday it was rice with beans, Tuesday was rice with tomato sauce, and Wednesday was just slightly better, rice with ground hamburger. He was beginning to loathe rice, which had become a staple for their dinners. He vowed that when he became an adult he would not be poor and that he would never eat rice in his own home.

He looked at his sister, who ate the meal quietly and without complaint. He looked at his mother, who raised her tired eyes to his. They offered him no sympathy. She knew what he was thinking and it disappointed her. She wanted to tell him he should be grateful he had something to eat, particularly for the free hot lunches he received at school each day. She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t her fault that her paycheck didn’t stretch to the end of the month, even though she worked at least ten hours of overtime each week. Mostly, she wanted to tell him that the meager meals were his father’s fault for abandoning the family two years ago. But she said nothing. She lifted a forkful of the mixture to her mouth and smiled politely at him as she slowly chewed it. Ted felt sorry for her. Someday I’ll make sure you never eat rice again either, he thought.

Patterson made good on his vow. Even at a young age he knew that excelling in the classroom was his best shot at bounding from one social class to the next. In the sixth grade, he was a B/C student, but the first semester of his seventh grade year he earned straight As, and he never got a grade below that since, including throughout high school and all of his post-secondary schooling. He shunned most extra-curricular activities to concentrate on his studies and worked doggedly at them, often completing every extra credit assignment offered. By his junior year in high school he was already taking college-level courses, and by the time he graduated he had a year’s worth of free college credits under his belt, paid for through the high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option program. His perfect grade point average earned him the title of class valedictorian and a full scholarship to the pre-med program at his state’s largest university.

Now at age 43 he was enjoying the fruits of his labor. He lived in a large house on a scenic lake in a swanky suburb — some would call his house a small mansion—and he drove luxury vehicles. In the summer, he cruised to work in his vintage ’63 Porsche 356 convertible and in the winters in his new Cadillac Escalade. His wife, Debra, ten years younger than he, and their two children, Maxwell and Elizabeth, wore the nicest of clothes and were involved in clubs and activities that required expensive membership fees and private lessons from personal coaches. Debra’s panache for spending money was evident in the extravagant furnishing and fixtures throughout their home. For a decade, indulging in these luxuries was never an issue, but after the Great Recession hit, things got tight. Suddenly, Patterson’s income dipped and it became difficult to make the payments for his family’s large mortgage, auto loans and private school tuition.

One early winter morning while driving to County General, Patterson’s mind was heavy with the thought of his debt. He feared that the curtain was closing on the charade he’d been living for the last several years. The cloudy sky cloaked the stars and moon that were still in the sky when he left for work. He drove along a quiet street through his neighborhood and then turned onto County Road 65, which led to the freeway. Traffic on that road, which normally flowed freely, was slow and congested. The red glow of brake lights intermittently illuminated the dawn darkness, looking like a string of blinking Christmas lights. He inched along with the rest of the commuters until he finally passed the problem. There was a white car on its side in the ditch. The driver was going too fast and hit a small patch of ice, sending her careening off the road. It happened at the onset of the rush hour and nobody stopped to see if she was okay, including Patterson. They all assumed the vehicle was empty and they just kept on driving.

About an hour after arriving at work he was paged to the emergency room. Once there he spoke with a nurse and then ducked through a curtain to an examination area. Lying on a metal mobile stretcher was a girl of eighteen, barely older than his daughter. He first noticed her long dark hair that shimmered behind her milky white skin. Her arms were straight at her side and her face looked peaceful. He looked at her clothing, which was blood-soaked and torn. Her blouse was ripped near her abdomen and she was shoeless. He examined the report from the paramedic team and then signed off on the cause of death: automobile accident.

Next, he had the unenviable task of breaking the news to the girl’s parents. He walked down the hallway and into a stark white room where both were seated. He knocked softly on the door and entered in. He quickly noticed a strong resemblance between the girl and her mother, who was seated next to her husband, leaning into him. The husband sat erect and was trying to be strong for her but Patterson could sense that both feared the dreaded news he was about to share.

“I’m afraid I have bad news,” he said while taking a small step closer to them. “Your daughter is gone. She lost too much blood by the time the paramedics arrived and they were unable to resuscitate her.”

The woman gasped and wailed and the man embraced her tightly in his powerful arms. Patterson backed off and glanced away as they wept deeply.

“How can that be?” the woman finally said, her face streaked with bitter tears.

“I’m sorry,” said Patterson. “We have staff here at the hospital that can help you process this. Would you like me to call them?”

She stared at him in disbelief. Finally, her husband said, “No.”

“Take as much time as you need,” said Patterson, while touching the woman lightly on the elbow. He turned and walked out of the room.

At the end of the hallway he saw Tom Carson, one of the two paramedics who extracted the girl from the car and transported her to the hospital. He was standing with his back against the wall, his shoulders hunched over and his head bowed low. Patterson walked up to him.

“You okay, Tom?” he said.

Carson looked up at him, with heavy eyelids hiding his sad eyes.

“I hate these ones,” he said, disgustedly. He, too, was the father of a teenage girl.

“I know,” said Patterson.

Carson’s eyes narrowed as if searching for answers. “What really gets me is that no one stopped to help her for such a long time. I’m sure we could have saved her if we had gotten there sooner.”

“I know,” said Patterson. “It’s not your fault, Tom. You did the best you could.”

Carson looked at him but took little consolation from his words. He straightened himself up, shook his head slightly and said, “Thanks, doctor,” and then walked away.

Later that day Patterson was in the break room getting a cup of coffee. A nearby TV caught his attention as a young, attractive female announced the headlines for the next broadcast, set to begin in just moments. He poured some cream into his coffee, swirled it around with a plastic swizzle stick and blew at it to cool down the first sip. He glanced up at the TV as she read the first headline.

“A tragic accident occurred this morning near County Road 65 and Fernbrook Lane,” she said somberly. That announcement grabbed his attention. He passed that intersection every day on his commute. “Darla Covington, eighteen, from Pemberton apparently hit a patch of ice and lost control of her white Chevy Malibu around 5 a.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene, according to…”

Patterson could no longer hear her voice. His heart raced wildly as he recalled his drive to work that morning. The image of a white car lying on its side in the ditch flashed brightly in his mind. His chest constricted and he found it hard to breath. His knees weakened and he stumbled to a nearby bench and sat down, setting his coffee on the table next to him. He closed his eyes tightly as his mind darted from the image of the car to the grieving parents. The mother’s mournful wail echoed loudly in his head. Finally, he put his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands.

“Why didn’t I stop?” he asked himself. “Why didn’t I stop?”