Jackie Hance had no way of knowing that July 26, 2009 would be the worst day of her life.
It started out like many others. She was at home in Floral Park, New York, along with her husband of 10 years, Warren. Their three beautiful daughters --- Emma, Alyson and Katie --- were on their way home from a camping trip upstate with their Aunt Diane (Warren’s sister) and Uncle Danny, and their two children, Bryan and Erin. The girls had been excited to go. They had gone camping the previous year, and Jackie and Warren knew they would be in good hands with his sister and brother-in-law, who had always shown themselves to be responsible, caring parents. Danny had left the campsite earlier in his car, and Diane loaded up all five children in her minivan early that Sunday morning and headed south toward Long Island. A few routine stops were made --- a McDonald’s for something to eat, and a gas station where Diane was captured on security camera, calmly searching for something in the convenience store, not finding it, and then leaving again. The next few hours would irrevocably change all their lives and begin a nightmare for the Hances.
A little after 12:08 pm, Jackie spoke to Diane, who explained they had gotten a late start but that everything was fine. The two then chatted about upcoming family activities and a school play that Diane wanted to make sure she attended. But at 12:58 pm, things took an ominous turn. Emma, Jackie’s oldest daughter, called her to say “Something is wrong with Aunt Diane” and began to cry. Warren got on the phone right away, emphatically urging his sister to stay where they were and not get back in the car. He would pick them up, as he figured they were at the rest area near the Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown.
"Heartbreakingly real, raw and honest, Jackie Hance’s memoir of her staggering ordeal is a true testament to triumph over tragedy; of fortitude and faith pulling you through the worst that life can throw at you."
But before he could reach them, 36-year-old Diane Schuler had gotten back into the car with the children, driven the wrong way onto the entrance ramp of the Taconic Parkway, gone almost two miles at 70 miles an hour, and collided into an oncoming car, killing herself, her baby daughter, the three Hance girls, and the two passengers in the other car. Only Diane’s young son, Bryan, survived. Understandably, the news devastated Jackie, Warren, and their families. What had happened? Diane was always so responsible. Did she have a seizure? An aneurysm? Was it a migraine from an abscessed tooth? (Many thought she was searching for aspirin in that convenience store). How could this have happened? Eight innocent people were dead, and there were no answers or explanations for their loved ones.
How does one go on in the wake of such a tragedy? Jackie and Warren had lost all three children --- their immediate family wiped out, and unbelievably, the worst was yet to come. Weeks later, the toxicology report revealed that Diane had elevated levels of both alcohol and marijuana in her system. (A search of the minivan also revealed an empty vodka bottle.) This went against everything Jackie knew about her sister-in-law. The facts did not reconcile with her own feelings, making an already tragic event even more unbearable: “My pain was so deep that I couldn’t imagine others had ever survived anything comparable. But I realized that through the centuries and across different parts of the world, mothers’ hearts beat much the same.”
As hard as it was to accept that her girls were gone, Jackie leaned on the knowledge that she would see them again in Heaven. But how do you go on with your day-to-day life when your reasons for living have been ripped away from you? Both Jackie and Warren handled their grief in different ways. “Psychiatric manuals give people a year to recover from grief. My year was up with no sign of recovery in sight. No protective scars had formed over the raw grief, and if anything, each day got harder and harder. Whoever writes those manuals doesn’t have a clue.”
They decided together that the best way forward would be to make something positive from their horrific loss, so the Hance Family Foundation came into being. “With the mystifying twist our lives had taken, we had the chance to do good. But how? Families who lose a child to illness often want to help find a cure for the disease. We had happy, healthy children to memorialize, so it seemed natural that we help other children lead happy, healthy lives.” The foundation would provide books and school supplies to families in need, as well as supporting a summer camp for disabled children. “Just two months after the accident, Emma, Alyson, and Katie --- through the foundation --- were already giving a boost to children in need.”
Jackie is quick to point out that her family never would have made it through this ordeal if not for the friends, family members, neighbors and strangers who all provided love, support and unwavering friendship. Through their agony, Jackie was still able to see glimmers of hope, whether it was 50 friends and neighbors appearing on their front lawn on Christmas Eve singing carols, or the subsequent pregnancy and miracle birth of their fourth daughter, Kasey, which finally gave her some semblance of a silver lining to it all: “We have a great need to find meaning in horrible events, and many people have said to me that perhaps Kasey is the meaning…. Kasey is proof that we have only one direction to move in life --- and that is forward. We have both fewer choices than we think --- and more. I had no choice about what happened on July 26th. And it took me a long time to understand that all I could control was how I lived every day after that.”
Heartbreakingly real, raw and honest, Jackie Hance’s memoir of her staggering ordeal is a true testament to triumph over tragedy; of fortitude and faith pulling you through the worst that life can throw at you. It’s a genuine perspective-shifter for those who haven’t known the inestimable grief of losing a child, and a comforting account of the resilience of the human spirit for those who unfortunately have.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 26, 2013