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SANDY BANKS

Of Teen Tragedy, Shrines of Our Times

May 16, 1999|SANDY BANKS

It rated three paragraphs in my local paper, and I intended to transform them into an object lesson for my teenage daughter, who is closing in on driving age:

A 17-year-old girl was in a coma, near death, after the car in which she was riding slammed into a truck parked on a busy street near our home. The driver, uninjured, also was 17.

I gestured out my car window as we sped past the street on our way to school.

"Now, somebody was not paying attention, not driving carefully," I intoned. "You see what can happen?"

But she'd seen this lecture coming. She was paying me no attention, her headphones on, music blasting.

I dropped her off at school and turned the corner toward home, passing the accident scene this time and encountering--unexpectedly--a makeshift shrine there, a shrine that would make the tragedy less my children's object lesson than mine.

*

It has become one of our cultural touchstones--the shrine of candles, notes and flowers that emerges at the scene of tragedy, be it the park bench where a drive-by shooting claimed a life at a family picnic, the freeway overpass where a troubled youth jumped to his death, the Colorado hilltop overlooking Columbine High.

And the wide suburban street leading into the mountains at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, where a moment of frivolity and inattention claimed the life of a teenage girl.

It was a balmy evening--Mother's Day. Nicole was driving; Emily was in the passenger seat. They were off to surprise Nicole's boyfriend with a bunch of helium balloons for his birthday.

Suddenly the balloons whooshed toward the open sunroof. Emily reached up to grab them, pulled them down and--for just a moment--they floated in front of Nicole. Her vision blocked, she lost control and plowed into the parked moving van with such force that the top of the car on the passenger side--Emily's side--was sheared off.

Nicole survived with cuts and bruises. Emily wound up brain-dead, on life-support.

As news of the accident spread, the memorial to Emily grew at the site, on an overpass over the 118 Freeway. There were afternoon gatherings and nightly vigils of hundreds of young people; and mounds of flowers, pictures, candles, teddy bears, handwritten messages of goodbye.

"In Our (Heart) s 4-Eva," says one giant poster. Hundreds of messages scrawled across it tell the story of a girl with a dazzling smile, effervescent humor, a kind heart. A cheerleader, softball player, country music lover, "the best dancer I knew."

"Dearest Emily, You were one of those people that everybody loved. You always knew how to make people smile."

It is impossible to stand there and read them without crying . . . these messages in the still-childish script of teenagers, with loops and flourishes, smiley faces and heart-shaped dots.

Over and over again, they say 637. It is the code they use when they page one another, the signal that means Always and Forever. A six-letter word, three, then seven, one girl explains. "637, Emily."

*

"I wish you could see all the people who you had touched throughout your life. We miss you. You will never be forgotten. We pray and know you are in a better place, with the angels."

Her friends have been there every day this week . . . girls who one night were with Emily at a slumber party, giggling and sharing makeup, and the next night were at the hospital as she emerged from brain surgery, her head swathed in bandages, a respirator forcing her to breathe.

The neighborhood parents have been there too: the grim-faced woman shepherding her teenage daughter along the sidewalk, past knots of weeping girls; the mother whose son just learned to drive. "I say a prayer every time he leaves the house that he comes back alive," she whispers.

Just then, a car full of teenage boys peels rubber as it speeds away from the curb and does a jerky U-turn in the middle of the street. A girl with swollen eyes bursts into tears and collapses against a friend.

"Why are they still so stupid?" she cries.

These girls will never get in a car, they tell me, without thinking of Emily.

"You realize that it takes just takes a second," Kelli says. "You look down to check your pager and . . . it could be over." Her friends nod.

Psychologists say shrines like these fulfill important social and emotional needs, connecting the kids to one another and us to our community.

But all I feel is pain and dread. . . . I have seen too many shrines in our neighborhood, too many reminders of the peril of our unforgiving streets.

And Emily is no longer an object lesson. She is somebody's child, now gone.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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