A Man Died Today

Marker for Martha and Erich Wilkens

I wrote this story back in 2009 but wasn’t willing to post it then for fear it would open old wounds among any of my family who read it, particularly my mom. However, mom passed away a few weeks ago and I feel it’s time I publish this story. This post “A Man Died Today” is in memory of my mom, my maternal grandmother, and a nameless man who’s death triggered me into writing this.

The August 7, 2009 edition of The Potomac News, our then local newspaper, headlined the story “Man struck by two vans, killed on U.S. 1;” reporting that a 35 year-old Woodbridge man was stuck and killed by two vans while walking across roadway US 1 at the intersection of Woodside Drive at 5:38 AM that morning. The details were horrifyingly gory. 

It just so happened that my wife and I had stayed at a house on Woodside drive that night.  On the morning of August 7 I left for work on my normal 6:00 AM routine.  I knew when I approached the corner of US 1 and Woodside Dr that something bad had just happened.  There were police all over the intersection;  the southbound side of US 1 was completely blocked off with cones, yellow tape, and flares.  Not being a ghoul I stopped only long enough to be sure it was safe to turn north for D.C. and head for work. 

Reading the news story later that day brought back memories of my rather morbid personal connection to Woodbridge, that dates back forty years before Winnie and I settled here.

Growing up, my family and I lived in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, reasonably close to my maternal grandparents who lived in Queens. We visited each other all the time.  We kids revered our grandparents and a visit with them was always an exciting event. My mom was an only child in an era where big families were the norm.  Her and her mom were best friends, close sisters, and mother/daughter all rolled into one very tight-knit relationship.

As most good New Yorkers did back then, my grandparents made an annual pilgrimage to central Florida each spring for a two week vacation.  They would spend two or three days driving down, hang out with their friends who had already retired and moved there, then drive back north until the next year.

On the morning of April 6, 1967, my grandparents drove off heading to Florida for that years pilgrimage. At about 7:00 PM that evening, my dad received a call – from the Virginia State Police.  They informed us that my grandmother had been killed, struck by a car traveling in excess of the speed limit while she was crossing a street.

My grandparents had driven down US 1 that day, which in 1967 was that main north-south highway connecting New York to Florida. They stopped for the night, got a motel room and had dinner. After dinner, walking back to their motel, my grandmother decided to do some “window shopping” at stores across the street. The car that hit her while she crossed the street was described by bystanders as  “coming out of nowhere.” The coroners report stated that she had died instantly from the impact.

Her sudden violent death devastated our family.  I can still vividly remember the night we received that phone call. At one point mom was nearly hysterical. We were all deep in shock. After a while dad pulled himself together and started making calls to our immediate family friends. 

About midnight one of our family friends who had been particularly close to our grandparents showed up at our house. My brother Howard and I went back home with them later that night and spent the next several days there.  My sister Melinda went home with another family. Dad flew down to Virginia the next day, made arrangements for my grandmother’s body to be returned home, and helped my grandfather drive back to New York.

Our family joined back up again at the funeral parlor on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I remember the funeral parlor was full of flower arrangements, more than I had ever before seen. To this day I still link the heavy smell of flowers with death.  

My grandmother was buried in Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, and mom would visit her graveside at least once a week until we moved away to the Hudson Valley region of New York state in 1972.  

It took mom years to get past her mother’s death, and I don’t think she was ever again really the same. My grandmother’s loss opened riffs between mom and dad that proved to be the beginning of the end of their marriage.  They divorced seven years later.

Two years after my grandmother died my grandfather sold the house he and my grandmother had lived in for 40 years.  He moved in with us for a while, then moved back to Queens and rented an apartment. When we moved  in 1972 he moved with us and lived in a cottage on our property until he passed in 1979. He was buried in Pinelawn Cemetery with my grandmother.

It wasn’t until the year after Winnie and I settled here in Woodbridge that I learned exactly where in Virginia my grandmother died.  While visiting with my mom at Christmas in 2007 she pulled out my grandmother’s death certificate, which I had never previously seen.  In reading it, I learned my grandmother had died here in Woodbridge, about one mile away from the house on Woodside Dr where I was sleeping the morning of August 7, 2009.

Reading about this man killed crossing US 1 just a few hundred feet from me brought back a flood of memories about my grandmother, and about the fallout from her sudden death that torn our family apart.

I don’t know anything about how this man lived.  But I do know how he died.  He died the same way my grandmother did, one mile and 42 years apart. I knew what this man’s family went through afterwards, and my heart went out to them.

So to his family;  I wish you peace and healing.

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