Melissa Cronin’s work has appeared in Chicken Soup for The Soul, Saranac Review, Brevity, and various online publications. “Right Foot, Left Foot” received special mention in the 2013 creative nonfiction contest held by Hunger Mountain Journal. Melissa lives with her husband, John, and their stuffed animal, Hawk, in South Burlington, Vermont, where she is a correspondent for her local newspaper. Melissa is currently revising her memoir, The Peach, a story of healing, forgiveness, and the search for a new identity after an older driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and plowed through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in 2003. The driver struck seventy-three pedestrians, including Melissa. A former nurse, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Throughout your piece, you allude to the accident that rendered you handicapped. A man named George Russel Weller drove his car into a crowd of people in Santa Monica, allegedly mistaking the gas pedal for the brakes. Could you describe the accident in terms of how it affected you? How did it change the way you saw the world and other people?
The accident affected me in many ways—physically, psychologically, mentally. Before the accident, I had worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse, but my physical injuries prevented me from returning to that kind of setting: fast paced and physically and mentally demanding.
I was not a writer before the accident; the accident made me a writer. Though the accident was tragic—people died and many more were injured—it offered me an opportunity to see and interact with the world in a much different way. With my nursing career a chimera of my past, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had kept a journal after the accident, and, in 2009, when my husband returned to school (we married in 2004), I took a writing/research class with him. It inspired me to write. The teacher inspired me. I asked her to work with me as a writing mentor, and, from there, my writing took off. I joined a writing group, then returned to school in 2010, and received an MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013. I write every day (or almost every day), contribute human interest stories to a local newspaper, and encourage others to write. Writing has spurred me to be more aware of my surroundings: a falling leaf, a flitting bird, lovers kissing in the park, a homeless man crouched in the corner of a building holding a sign that reads, “Anything will help.” And I am more open to listening to other’s share their struggles, whether they are physical, mental, emotional in nature. Writing human interest stories for my local newspaper allows me to interact with my neighbors and the broader community. It impels me to listen closely, to learn, to experience much more than my microscopic world.
Undoubtedly, I am much more cautious than I used to be. I used to ski, rock climb, mountain bike, and even dabbled in a bit of ice climbing. Now, I go for walks. And, though being aware of my surroundings is a good thing, because it keeps me in touch with the world beyond me, I tend to be hyper-vigilant, thanks to PTSD. That falling leaf I mentioned earlier—it’s not unusual for me to flinch when it falls past my line of vision. I jump at the ring of a phone, a knock at the door. I cup my ears at the sound of sirens. I gasp, sometimes screech, when my husband kisses me goodbye in the morning, and I’m still in bed half asleep.
And I am more attentive to older drivers. I’m quick to say that they should not be driving if I see dents on their car. But this is a tricky topic: taking the keys away from older drivers. I had to take the keys away from my father a few years ago when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (I’ll talk about this in the next question).
I prefer not to drive, and no longer drive long distances, and avoid driving at night if at all possible. I’d rather walk, but, then again, I was walking when Russell Weller hit me.
Do you find yourself resenting Weller for what he did, or have you somehow forgiven him for the pain he caused you? Do you think hate is more powerful than love?
I do not resent Russell Weller. When I learned that it was he, an old man, who hit me, and dozens of others, I felt sad for him. I remember thinking, “He’s just an old man. I can’t imagine what he is feeling.” Much later, when I learned his initial response to the accident—“Why didn’t people get out of my way”—I was angry, really angry. I wanted to meet him, ask him why he was driving (he had a history of minor accidents), why he would say such a terrible thing. I wanted to hear him say he was sorry. With my husband, I returned to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in 2010. During that trip, we stopped by Russell Weller’s house. The shades were drawn and there were no cars in the driveway. He was in his nineties then and ill. I wasn’t even sure he still lived there. That morning I bought a sweetheart rose plant to bring to him (it was Valentine’s Day), and, after my husband pulled up to the house, I walked up the driveway to the side door, and left it on the stoop. A no trespassing sign stopped me from ringing the doorbell. I did not leave a note—I believed, somehow, he would know it was from me. Maybe that’s because I had attempted to contact his family, but they refused to speak to me.
But I still needed to see Russell Weller, to find a way to forgive him. I’ve always been a forgiving person, and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s the caregiver persona in me, or as a result of conditioning (my father used to say, “Let’s think about the positive side of things”). In 2011, I requested, from the head deputy of Santa Monica, a video of Russell Weller giving a statement to police less than two hours after the accident. When I viewed it the first time, I did not like him. He did not cry, and, somehow, we equate crying with remorse. He spoke in a way that seemed uncharacteristic of someone who just mowed down a bunch of people. He spoke about his time in the war, about his personal life and history. At times he laughed. Though he said, “Those poor, poor people, and look what I did,” I could not get past his casual talk. It was months later, when I viewed the video again, that I was able to forgive him. This time I internalized his statement, “Those poor, poor people.” I heard the sorrow in his voice, saw it in the way he held his head low. I realized that remorse is not only exhibited through tears; it’s felt, heard, seen through words, the sound of one’s voice, gestures, body language.
That video was the closest I ever came to meeting Russell Weller. He died in December 2010, at age ninety-three. And though I say I forgive him, I believe forgiveness is dynamic. In other words, we may forgive someone one day, but not the next. Overall, though, I can confidently say I have forgiven Russell Weller. For me, forgiveness and hate are close relatives. If you don’t forgive, it whips up hate. If you hate, how can you forgive? I believe hate is equally as powerful as love. But hate eats at you, to the point where you can’t hold it in any longer, so you dump it on others, pour onto them all the built up ugliness inside of you. That’s not who I want to be.
You explore the theme of perseverance, of continuing when things seem utterly hopeless. Your character shows extreme determination to heal, and to return to the life you had. Did you have moments where you felt like giving up? Or were you always an incredibly driven and hopeful person, as you are in the story?
I’ve always been a driven individual. In college, I studied late into the night with the goal of achieving honors, which I did. I worked hard as a nurse, and offered to care for the sickest babies. I ate challenge for breakfast. But I’m getting better at giving in a bit, accepting that sometimes I won’t get it right. I started meditating last spring, and that has helped me a lot— to be in the moment, focus on the here and now, release self-judgement. I didn’t have moments when I felt like giving up, but I did ask myself, many times, “What am I doing? Where am I going? What will I do with my life?” I think those kinds of questions are to be expected of anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma—abuse, rape, divorce. I did feel lost and lonely at times. But I had a solid support system: friends, and my husband, who I married twelve months after the accident. So he has been with me through much of the ups and downs: when I struggled in the workplace, when my PTSD was at its worst and I experienced panic attacks, and when I was diagnosed with a TBI.
How does the accident affect you today? How was it changed you as a writer?
As I mentioned earlier, I still experience symptoms of PTSD, but, through treatment, I have learned to recognize them. Sometimes, I even make fun of myself. For instance, when my husband and I are out for a walk and I jump and grab his arm at the beep of a horn, I say, “I’m a nut,” or, “What a wacko I am.” Then we laugh. What other choice do I have? In terms of my TBI, I know the kinds of things that wreak havoc on my brain: lack of sleep (I need a good nine hours of sleep), doing too much in one day, being around a lot of people for long periods of time, shopping at places like Costco (an environment that no one with a TBI or PTSD should subject themselves to). Like I said earlier, the accident made me a writer, and that I am grateful for.
You used the mantra “right foot, left foot” as both a means of learning how to walk again as well as the title of your piece. Looking at what the phrase meant to you then and today, has its significance changed for you? Do you think the meaning of things can truly change for people, or are these associations stagnant?
I do not believe the meaning of “right foot, left foot” has changed for me. I am always, figuratively and literally, putting my right foot forward then my left (or vice versa). Whether I am out for a walk, climbing the stairwell, crafting an essay, revising my memoir, baking a cake, I am placing one foot forward then the other. That’s how I move ahead—one step at a time. Sometimes the steps are daunting ones, like when I returned to school at age forty-three. Eek! That was scary!
Yes, I do think the meaning of things can change for people. We grow up (or not), we meet new people, we face expected, and unexpected, challenges; the world changes and forces us to adapt. In that way, the meaning of things change for people. I believe that’s how we learn. For example, I used to think forgiveness came dressed in black and white, that you either forgive or not: two options, that’s it. But forgiveness is a process. In graduate school, my critical thesis was about how authors write about forgiveness. I decided that it comes in stages, like Kubler Ross’ stages of grief.
When you were in the hospital the second time, did you feel that all the energy and effort you’d spent trying to heal had gone to waste? What was your lowest moment, the moment when you felt the least hopeful, in your healing process?
My healing bubbled definitely burst. I thought being in the hospital would slow down my progress. I felt as if I couldn’t get a break. But I did not feel the energy I had spent trying to heal had gone to waste. If anything, I was more determined. I think my lowest moment in my healing process was when my doctor told me I might need foot surgery. In the accident, I had sustained a fracture of the first metatarsal (bone behind the big toe) of my left foot, and it wasn’t healing correctly. I experienced a lot of pain, and limped my way through each day. Of all the fractures I sustained— pelvis, lower, back, ribs, sacrum—I never thought such a small bone could cause so much pain, but it did. It took well over a year to heal, and, occasionally, it still throbs.
The theme of time, of wanting to change the past and fix our mistakes is prevalent in your piece. At one point you look at the calendar longingly and and wish that you could stay in August and undo the accident, when it is already October. Do you feel that we forget to experience our lives wishing to fix the past? Hoping to change the stagnant, longing to alter the past so as to create a better reality for ourselves?
Yes, I do believe we forget to experience our lives wishing to fix the past. I have let go of much of needing to go back in time to undo the accident. I’ve come to a place where I would not change what happened. I know, that sounds morbid, but, if the accident had not happened, I would not have become a writer, and I’m not sure I would have re-connected with John, the man I married twelve months after the accident. We met a month before the accident. He was performing in his Irish band at a local pub and a friend, who was in his band, invited me to hear them play. Since I played the Irish fiddle, I couldn’t say no. But my life was very different then: I was single after recently ending a seven year toxic relationship, and wanted to play, be free. After the accident, John reached out to me, several times. When he asked me out to dinner in December 2003, we immediately connected. I could be myself, and say what I wanted to say without feeling judged. What moved us in the direction of marriage, I believe, was his need to be needed, and my knowledge that he was willing to stick it out with me, broken bones and all. He assured me that he’d always be on my side and look out for my wellbeing. I needed that, and it has worked in our favor ever since—we celebrated our eleventh anniversary this past August.