Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Defining Moments Of Life

I think there are defining moments in our lives, people. I've had a few of those over the years, perhaps most particularly when my daughter, the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger, was born 12 years ago. They are moments when everything becomes crystal-clear. They are the moments in your life you never forget. I had a moment like that this past weekend - although it wasn't a moment. It was over 48 hours of moments,  moments I will never forget and moments that I think may be profoundly defining in my life - and, most sadly, definitely defining in the lives of others who are far closer to what happened than I. It all began Friday afternoon, of course, with the horrific crash on Highway 63.

If you are reading this blog now then you probably read the open letter I posted to Premier Alison Redford on Friday night. I wrote that letter when the pain of the accident was still very raw, when I had tears in my eyes and when I wrote straight from the heart, mother to mother. I thought over the weekend the pain I felt would diminish. In one of those defining moments, though, I learned it has done anything but diminish. Instead I suppose I feel even more pain now, because since posting that entry I have heard a lot of pain, and each new story simply added to the initial blow.

Since Friday night over 20,000 people from across the country read that open letter. Over 250 left comments, and even more emailed me at my blog email address. Many expressed anger, many thanked me, and many agreed that we need to do something - anything - to stop the deaths on Highway 63. Some people, though, some very, very brave souls, did more. They shared with me stories of loved ones they lost on that highway. A father told me of his 19-year old daughter, killed on the 63 in 2007. Another parent told me of a son killed after he stopped to help at an accident scene. A cousin of one of the individuals in the accident Friday left a comment. And dozens more told me of accidents witnessed, close calls, and pain. Pain, pain, pain, the kind of emotional pain that leaves you breathless, the kind that makes you feel like a hand has reached inside your chest and is trying to wrench out your heart. I have been on the verge of tears all weekend, and some moments - defining moments - were worse than others. The outpouring I have experienced this weekend has been overwhelming. Stunning. Staggering. Far beyond what I ever anticipated.

I have done interviews all weekend as a result of media attention generated by the open letter. My usual stage fright has seemed to disappear, each interview coming hard on the heels of the last and me finding myself saying the same things each time. Twin the highway. Patrol the highway. Report aggressive drivers. Watch your own driving and the driving of those you are with. The same messages, again and again. And in the backdrop, in the back of my mind, the same mental image haunting me.

You see, people, I wrote that open letter when I learned that the 7th victim of Friday's accident had succumbed to her injuries. It was a young woman, described as a teen girl. And that is when fear truly gripped me. I have in my house my 12 year old daughter and my 14 year old niece, my beloved Intrepid Junior Bloggers. I have travelled Highway 63 with them. And the image of them dying on that highway was simply too much for me to bear. And that's when I wrote to Alison Redford, because she has a daughter, too.

Last night I did a live podcast with YMMPodcast, and with some of my favourite people in this city. Last night I sat in Toddske's dining room, with him, and Ashley, and Steve, and Tito, and Matt. We talked about Highway 63. We talked about the victims. I watched as we all got tears in our eyes at various points. And when I talked about my daughter I began to cry. I don't like to cry in front of people, and I don't like to cry on a live podcast when everyone can likely hear me snuffling. But I cried for seven people lost in a tragic accident, and two survivors who are alive but have, in every fundamental way, lost their life - their families. You see, if my daughter died at the side of Highway 63 I would not want to survive that accident. I would not want to live in a world without her in it. I would never recover, I suspect. My life, whether I was still breathing or not, would be over. And the enormity of what the family and friends of those who have died on Highway 63 will endure hit me like a speeding semi-truck.

I left the podcast last night, saying goodbye to my friends, thinking I was okay. I managed to drive two blocks when I had to pull over, too blinded by tears to see the road. I parked my car, my stereo blaring, draped myself over my steering wheel, and I wept, the image of my daughter dead in my arms so fresh and raw and painful that I could scarcely breathe. And I thought about all the family and friends of all those lost on the 63, and all their tears and their pain and their grief. And it was a defining moment in my life, people.

I remember every stage of my daughter's life. Her birth. Her birthdays. Every single moment. She is the person I would die for. I would kill for. I would do anything to protect. And that includes making sure that I do everything I can to ensure her safety. And that, people, includes dealing with Highway 63.

One person said to me this weekend that I shouldn't take this "personally". That I should try to remove myself emotionally. And all I could do was wonder what alien planet they came here from. This is personal, people. This is about dozens of lives lost, and by extension thousands of lives affected. I can't imagine how anyone can not take this personally if you live here. If you love someone here. If someone you love works here. How can it not be personal? This is personal, people, so very, very personal.

And that is why this matters. Someone left a comment on my blog saying we needed to evaluate if it "cost effective" to twin the highway to save lives. Cost effective? Again, I think we are talking from different planets. We could talk about all the taxes those seven people lost on Friday would have paid, the benefits to the economy there would be if they were still alive, we could mull over the numbers and figure them out to the decimal point. And you know what? I. Don't. Care. We aren't talking about economics and data and statistics - we are talking about lives lost, and lives destroyed. So, call me emotional. Call me irrational. Hell, call me crazy. I'm okay with that. If my emotional, irrational, crazy behaviour saves one life I'm pretty okay with that. Actually I am very, very okay with that.

Look, people, I'm not a politician. I'm not an engineer, I'm not a safety expert, I'm not even a trained journalist. I'm a stay at home who started a blog, and who does some freelance writing work. And that's it. It seems this has put me front and centre on this issue and I accept that, and the responsibility that comes with it. But don't tell me to not take it personally. Don't tell me to not get emotional. Because I just don't know how to do that, people.

So, next steps. I have some suggestions, as follows:

1) Email Premier Alison Redford

If every person who reads my blog sends an email to Alison Redford then my one voice becomes hundreds. Thousands. And I don't want you to email her and tell her you are angry. I want you to tell her your stories of travel on Highway 63, and your close calls. Tell her about accidents you've seen, or been in. And if you are someone who has lost someone you love (and I am so, so sorry, there are tears as I write this) tell her what that loss has meant to you. I am but one voice. All voices deserve to be heard and collectively I believe those voices can make a difference.

2) Sign a petition

One voice becomes thousands. One petition becomes thousands of voices. Collaboration, community, collective action. This is how we effect change in a positive, community building manner.

3) Attend the protest

I don't have many details on this yet but I am hoping that everyone will consider attending this event. To memorialize those lost over the years. To share our stories. And to express some of the pain and grief this community is feeling.

4) Listen to the YMMPodcast

The discussion is raw. It is painful. It is honest. And it is important.

4) Take a look at Twin 63

This website is straight from the heart - candles of remembrance and stories from those left behind.

5) Drive safe

This one seems so simple, and so obvious. We can't wait for the twinning to be complete. We need to take responsibility for own behaviours and driving habits. And we need to watch the behaviour of others - and report it. Report speeding, aggressive driving, and any other behaviour that makes the highway unsafe. Record plate numbers and call the RCMP. Call the companies if it is a company owned vehicle. We all have a responsibility - so let's accept it.

People, I apologize to you in advance. There is a good chance I am going to make mistakes as this goes forward. I am going to say stupid things or write stupid things and you will be appalled. And so will I. But this is terra incognita for me -  I have no map for this unknown land. As I write this post today I wonder if it is too raw, too emotional, and too personal to publish. I wonder if I should hit delete and simply walk away, come back when I have had more than two hours sleep and some time to think this all through. But I know that this is true and honest and authentic. This is me. I am writing as I have always done and will always continue to do, because I don't truly know any other way.

This morning my daughter - my beautiful, intelligent, funny, daughter, with all her quirks and charms - asked if she could ride her bike to school. And I said no. I said no because she would be alone, and because she hasn't done it before. I said no because given my current mood I'd like to tape her into bubble wrap and put her in a corner where I could keep an eye on her. I said no and she asked why and I began to cry, and she wrapped her arms around me and told me it was okay, that she didn't need to take her bike today, and she held me while I cried yet again.

Tomorrow I will let my daughter ride her bike to school, because she can't live her life wrapped in bubble wrap. Tomorrow I will try to make more sense of all this, the tragic loss of seven people, the survivors left behind who face unimaginable pain, and my own experience of a little blog that I once wrote thinking I would be anonymous and have about 12 readers. I fully admit I was unprepared for all this, and I am still unprepared. But sometimes life hands you something for which you were unprepared - a defining moment, or defining moments - that change the trajectory of what you were doing and where you thought you were going. That happened to me Friday night when I posted an open letter. That happened to two survivors of a horrendous accident that changed their lives in a heartbeat. That happened to the family and friends of nine people who were in a horrific crash on Friday. That happened to so many people who have lost loved ones on Highway 63. And I think that happened this weekend when our entire community experienced a defining moment when we decided we had lost enough lives, felt enough pain, and dealt with enough grief. The moments that define us are the moments that make us. This defining moment is one we all share in Fort McMurray, and, as I learned this weekend, far beyond our city borders. I hope, in the end, it is the defining moment that ends the deaths on Highway 63, and the defining moment that brings not only sorrow - but change.


  1. This is a blog worth reading. The emotions heard through your writings are exactly what people need to hear, the extension of those affected by this tragedy beyond those directly involved.

    I applaud you on being a Champion for this cause as it affects all of us one way or another. I am sure I am not alone on saying this Theresa.

    My close call came when my young family was passed and the vehicle lost control and ended up in the ditch upsidedown many years ago. My kids were young then as well and I thought of how this person almost affected us, but, I summoned up the strength without to much thought and went to that vehicle to help that person out of his vehicle. He was lucky, He was not hurt seriously, just his vehicle. had there been another vehicle around it could have turned far worse.

    So, keep up the good fith, we are behind you!

    Michael Durocher

  2. Theresa, continue writing from your heart as it touches the hearts of those who read your words. Thank you for allowing your emotions to fly and for speaking out for us. you have given us a road to walk down together as we fight for the twinning of Hwy 63.

  3. Anyone who tells anyone to not take something personally can not possibly be considered a person. God bless you for not only being a person but for being human.

  4. It's always personal. Keep it personal, Theresa. The human connection is necessary, should and will always be there, because we ALL are humans. We are all behind you.

  5. My husband held that little 11 year old for two hours on the side of the highway. She has impacted his life so much that we will never forget her. I am just waiting to hear her name.

  6. Theresa, I am so privledged to have met you 8 yrs ago and to have you in my life. I am amazingly proud of you right now.

  7. I also know people who work in Fort Mac who drive the 63 frequently. I have personally driven it only once, and it was like a very long race track. I had to do minimum 120kph to keep from holding traffic up, and was passed by
    vehicles too numerous to count. Keep speaking, and doing
    interviews, I can assure you the whole province,and country are beside you Theresa. As far as the economics are concerned, I agree with you, but beyond that, the royalties paid by the oil production companies since around 1978 have way more than exceeded the cost of building up that highway. The province owes the people of Fort McMurray a
    highway, and probably much more.

  8. My sincere sympathies, not only to the families, friends & neighbours who lost loved ones last Friday on Highway 63; but to all members of the McMurray community.

    I would encourage everyone collectively to remain vigilant in keeping this issue (highway twin) a high profile for 'Lady' Redford. I am suggesting this for a number of very obvious reasons; others have tried unsuccessfully, great economic value to all Albertans, all prior safety concerns have been ignored and some of us are truly ashamed of the needless loss of life. Cochrane, AB

  9. Now WHY is "Drive safe" number five on that list instead of number one? If you find yourself driving on a difficult / undivided / poor stretch of highway and/or in unfavourable conditions, you alter your driving behaviour accordingly. I was driving on 63 recently and found it empty relative to highways in Calgary. I don't think twinning can be justified in monetary terms - the level of traffic simple does not exist for a twinned highway. Increase patrolling, local educational initiatives, find a few selfish idiot drivers and take away their license - make an example out of them - and people will smarten up.

    Highway 63 has never, ever, killed or injured one single person. The killers are ALL behind the wheel.

    1. McMurray MusingsTuesday, May 01, 2012

      Ah, a reminder that you can never write in a way that will please everyone! Perhaps I put it in the last place as it's the message I wanted readers to have in their minds when they finished reading, Val? But thanks for the comment!

    2. The level of traffic does not exsist to justify twinning?!? Val you have to be kidding me! I have driven to and from and in Calgary on numerous occasions and I lived in Fort Mac for 17 years, you must not travel 63 on a regular basis like my husband does or you would know as I do that your statement is beyond wrong! There will Always be unsafe drivers on every road. You can't possibly say that twinning 63 wouldn't improve the chances for those Thousands who drive it with care and caution! Unreal-this highway NEEDS TO BE TWINNED!

    3. Ann: you present an argument, inherently spurious, for twinning every undivided roadway in the province. Rationality and logic, rather than raw emotion, should form the basis of any analysis of this question. I repeat: by no reasonable standard do the traffic counts on Highway 63 justify twinning. This is a road that links a small town, Fort McMurray, to Edmonton via absolutely nowhere else. The idea that this road should meet the same design criteria as, say, Hwy 2 between Calgary and the U.S. border is patently ludicrous.

      That said, I do accept that the roadway needs to be resurfaced and, crucially, widened to accommodate a passing lane. In general terms Hwy 63 should be upgraded to 2+1 standard, minus the dividing barrier.

  10. Well stated and powerful images of why everyone needs to slow down and drive more safely.

    Someone suggested that this is what people need to hear. Unfortunately, the people that NEED to hear it either CAN'T read, DON'T read, or WON'T read.

    Community coming together to fix what is wrong is required and this blog is important and productive in promoting that.

    Thank you.