Kind Words From A Stranger

The week of January 22, 2007, I received two phone calls from complete strangers. The first came on a snowy, bitter Monday evening. A chaplain from Loyola Hospital told me my father was in the emergency room. He needed some tests, and he might feel better if I were there. But when I arrived, I was shown into a small, private waiting room. A chaplain, the pastor from my parents' parish in Brookfield, and my cousin Marty, who lived about a mile from my parents, were there. Logic would have told me this could not be good, that more than tests were involved, but the mind protects us at least for an instant or two from what we don't want to face. So I listened without any real sense of what was coming as the chaplain explained that a drunk driver had hit both my parents, who were crossing the street on their way into an evening church service. The driver tried to flee, but was apprehended. My father needed emergency surgery, and I agreed right away I would sign whatever forms were needed. Then I asked about my mother. I'd tried to call her but had gotten no answer at my parents' house.

Francis and Helen Lilly at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

The chaplain told me my mother had not made it. She had died at the scene. In the street, as I later learned. A passerby had run into St. Barbara's church to fetch the pastor, and he'd given my mom what used to be known as last rites.

My father’s injuries required two emergency surgeries that week, one that very night, another two nights later, just before my mother's wake. He awoke and partially recovered after both surgeries, but he died of his injuries six and a half weeks after that. I’m grateful I had the chance to talk and spend time with him after the crash, but still grieve not only my parent’s deaths but the pain, frustration, and loss my dad suffered as he struggled to recover.

The second stranger to phone me that week called on a weekday evening and left me the kindest message I’ve ever received. She said she was an advocate from an organization I’d never heard of, the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, and she had gotten my information from the prosecutor’s office. I could hear the concern in her voice as she said how sorry she was to hear about my parents. She told me that she would be at the court date on Friday—the driver was in jail and had a hearing that day to see if bail would be set. If I could attend, she would meet me there. If not, she would call and tell me what had happened.

My brothers and I spent that week in my father’s hospital room, the operating room waiting areas, and the funeral home and church, so I did not attend court, though I talked with the prosecutor on the phone. The first time I attended a court hearing, Twyla from AAIM introduced herself and explained what was happening. I was grateful. Much of it I didn’t understand although I am an attorney. The benches for observers were far from the judge, so I couldn't hear what the attorneys were saying, plus other lawyers drifted in and out, talking about their own matters. And our case never seemed to be called at the time we'd been told to be at court. (I learned later this is because many criminal defense lawyers drive between courtrooms all over the Chicago area, so they can't always appear at the precise time set. In addition, those defendants who are in prison are brought in by bus as a group for their court hearings, so when their cases are heard depends upon when they arrive at the courthouse.)

Twyla sat with me each time, talking with me if I wanted to talk, offering silent comfort if I did not. Her support helped me handle my grief and anger, as well as the stress of seeing the driver whose reckless actions caused so much harm. He'd had two DUIs before the night he ran into my parents, and he'd been so intoxicated he'd claimed to not even know he'd hit anyone. After each court hearing, Twyla took me to a nearby coffeehouse. The case continued for nearly a year, and she and I watched the trees and plants near the river behind the coffeehouse change with each season. Her steadfast warmth, encouragement, and good humor helped me pull myself together after each hearing so I could return to my office and work.

Because Twyla's help meant so much to me, eventually I joined AAIM and now serve as its Vice President. I learned about the many other services AAIM provides, including assisting victims where possible with one-time expenses such as bus passes to visit a loved one in the hospital, emergency rent assistance where the household's breadwinner was killed or is so devastated by grief she or he is unable to work, and, sadly, gravestones. AAIM also works hard at educating people about the dangers of DUI and preventing deaths and injuries. On and off for years I've spoken on AAIM panels to first-time DUI offenders in the hope that telling my story will make enough impact that they never risk drinking and driving again.

In that awful time after the crash, I felt I’d never have a normal life again and that nothing could ease the loss and pain. And it’s true, nothing could bring my parents back. But that first voicemail from Twyla is, for me, the essence of what AAIM is all about. In a dark time, a stranger’s kind voice on the telephone kept me moving forward, believing in people, and looking for the good in this world. For that, I will be forever grateful to AAIM.

This month, AAIM is celebrating its 25th annual event to raise funds for victims on the evening of Saturday, October 24, 2015. If you'd like to attend, to buy raffle tickets, or to donate to support AAIM, call 847-240-0027 ext. 12, or visit AAIM's website.


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.