A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude
By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, MD
Reviewed by Karna Converse
It only takes an instant– a heartbeat really—for one’s world to change.
crash offers readers an intimate look at one such moment that occurred in January, 2003. The book is a mother’s memoir but equally importantly, it’s a call to action every parent should hear.
Author Carolyn Roy-Bornstein writes:
There is one moment after which nothing is the same. . . Here, in that moment, blood that should be contained within the intimal walls of the brain’s blood vessels instead seeps beyond them through a rent . . . In this moment the skull has careened through space and collided with glass, forming the crack that now divides my life in two.
That moment is this: Neil Bornstein is walking his girlfriend, Trista, home shortly after dinner on a cold Tuesday night. They’re hit from behind by a speeding car that’s crossed the center line. The drunk driver continues down the street, flips the car a few hundred feet later, and attempts to run away. He’s not much older than Neil and Trista and is ultimately charged with manslaughter, vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident, operating under the influence, and possession of a Class D substance.
Roy-Bornstein introduces us to her son through vignettes that recount high school theatre performances, a budding romance, and a fierce trust in, and affection for, his older brother. We meet the rest of the family through narratives that describe Carolyn and her husband’s early years of marriage, family, and careers. Some chapters read like journal entries, others like a well-documented report but in each, it’s easy to recognize a family that is grounded in the mantra: L’dor Va’dor – from generation to generation.
“That is one thing I feel good about,” she writes. “Family supporting family. Being there when it matters … Never any question about where our priorities lie. Never any question of where we belong.”
The author writes with a mother’s heart, but it’s her professional knowledge as a nurse-turned-pediatrician that takes this memoir to the next level. She plants details about the accident and its aftereffects that only a medically-trained person would know. Her insight adds a bit of color to the shaded greys of uncertainty — a plus for the reader yet, for her, it also amplifies her fears and feelings of guilt.
For example, when she and her husband met emergency room personnel immediately after the accident, they were told that Neil had a fractured skull and a tiny bit of bleeding. He was to be transferred to another hospital as a “precaution,” but she knew the real reason: their hospital was not equipped to do brain surgery on a child; the other hospital was. When she saw Trista on a stretcher, she noticed that Trista’s pupils were fixed and dilated; the ER staff had not yet spoken with the parents, but Roy-Bornstein knew it was time to say a final good-bye.
In a chapter describing her experiences in the waiting room, she reminisces about the mother of a former patient who visited her quadriplegic son every day and greeted Roy-Bornstein with a cup of coffee: “Hey Carolyn. Brought you a coffee. Black. Just the way you like it.” During Neil’s hospitalization, the author admits she never once brought, or thought to bring, a cup of coffee for any of Neil’s nurses. And even years after the accident, Roy-Bornstein is ashamed of how little she knew about the long-term effects of a traumatic brain injury.
crash‘s pages are filled with a sadness no parent should ever have to endure, and I imagine books of this nature could easily be filled with anger and hatred — their pages plastered with police reports and photos from the accident scene and the victim’s childhood.
Instead, Roy-Bornstein takes the high road — and that outlook kept me turning pages. I found myself encouraging Neil through each setback and celebrating each victory. I wanted the Bornstein’s to lash out at the driver and the inequities of the court system, yet was heartened by their non-retaliatory attitude and subsequent advocacy for justice.
I found the chapters where the author grapples with fate particularly moving. By this point, readers have been exposed to enough details about Neil’s high school academics to believe that he would have seen great success in college and the working world. Roy-Bornstein is irritated with the everything-happens-for-a-reason, things-are-presented-to-us-when-they-need-to-be comments she hears from well-meaning friends, and she’s not afraid to use these pages to explore her struggles with prayer and in finding God. Eight years after the accident, she concludes:
I believe now that grief has many faces. There is no one right way to behave in the face of it. No correct approach. There is no one set of circumstances that warrants it as a reaction and no specific set of behaviors that qualifies as appropriate in response to it. It just is… I don’t want to focus on what Neil might have accomplished without his brain injury. Instead I want to celebrate everything he has accomplished with it. Despite it. That is grace.
Roy-Bornstein and her family embraced that split-second, defining moment of their lives and it has become part of who they are. Today, both she and Neil work to educate others about the dangers of underage drinking and the effects of traumatic brain injury.
Readers will want to carve out an entire evening to savor Roy-Bornstein’s story and to contemplate the meaning of grace. crash is a poignant reminder of how quickly one’s life can be turned upside down and a heartening look at how one family turned it right side up.
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Note: This review was first published at The Internet Review of Books.