The hardest thing I’ve ever done is to give the eulogy at my best friend’s funeral. Probably the second hardest thing I’ve ever done is tell people how she died.
Last spring, I was asked by my friend and fellow attorney, Karen Koehler, if I would be a speaker at our state’s trial lawyer convention. Trial lawyers represent injured persons. Most commonly, these are people injured in car accidents. I also represent bicyclists struck by motor vehicles, and persons injured on business premises, such as at a store. Our trial lawyers’ association is called the Washington Association for Justice (WSAJ).
My assigned topic for my talk at the convention was “Direct Examination of the Lay Witness.” To demonstrate the technique, I was the lay witness, telling a very, very personal story. Karen’s mantra is that an eyewitness who speaks in the present tense takes their audience, the jury, to experience an event first-hand. I had taken her Female Trial Advocacy Program last fall, and this is one of the techniques that we practiced. During the workshop last fall, in order to help me learn to convey a client’s story with passion, Karen asked me what I did besides being a lawyer. One of the things that I mentioned was advocacy for bicycle safety, so she asked why. I told her about the death a decade ago of my dear friend, Ann Weatherill, while we were riding our bikes with friends. Karen then had me tell the story of what happened that day. Reaching back to tell the story of my best friend’s death made what had happened vivid and real to my audience, which was the “jury” of my fellow workshop participants.
I had previously told the story of Ann’s death several times when testifying for bicycle safety legislation in the Washington legislature, such as for the Safe Passing Law (RCW 46.61.110). (All bicycle laws for Washington can be found at http://wabikes.org/growing-bicycling/washington-bike-laws/bicycle-laws-safety-revised-code-of-washington-state-bicycle-related/ ). The focus of my testimony in the House and Senate Transportation Committees had been on telling what had happened that day as a way to make the proposed legislation personal. Testifying brought back the nightmares and was extremely difficult, but the emphasis of my testimony was on the prevention of another tragedy by telling what had happened that awful day. I was telling the story in the past tense, which gave me a bit of space.
What Karen and I did at the convention was different. She asked me questions as she would an eyewitness in a trial, such as “where are you,” or “what do you see,” and I answered with what I heard, felt, and saw that terrible, tragic day. This was a painful process to rehearse, as I needed to dip deep into memories that I usually try to forget.
Once we started my talk at the convention, though, everything else receded; those awful minutes from a decade ago were all that was real. I spoke of the smell of the fresh spring wheat, of the feel of the sun on my arms on a beautiful day in May. I also told of seeing Ann struck and killed by a motorist that swung wide to pass, and of her body landing next to mine on the asphalt, and the smell of blood. I re-experienced the worst day of my life.
When I tell the story of Ann’s death, I honor her memory. When you drive, I hope that you strive to remember that everyone else on the road is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, spouse or friend. The loss to those of us who remain after a death, or to those who are injured, is one that never goes away.