Behind Every Streetside Memorial Is a Life That... Was

We look and we feel something human and compassionate, and we wonder: who was this person? What happened here? Who left this memorial with its tableau of sorrow and windblown plastic flowers?
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You pass them in the blink of an eye, the blur of flowers and heartache and somehow you always notice, you always look. You see the plastic petals wrapped around a sign post, the candles left flickering until they burn out; the crosses and pictures and ribbons and prayer cards and you know it's the place where someone last lived; the place where someone died. You see the poignant markers alongside a dusty road where a car swerved too hard after a late night of drinking; next to the field fence where a motorcyclist lost control; near a bedraggled ditch where a hit and run driver left someone to die alone. We look and we feel something human and compassionate, and we wonder: who was this person? What happened here? Who left this memorial with its tableau of sorrow and windblown plastic flowers?

I walk by a particular street memorial almost every day. It's on a curved road at the bottom of a short street in this tiny beach town in California, and it's been up and lovingly maintained for over 2 1/2 years, ever since the night a woman was killed in a hit and run just a few days before New Year's Eve, 2010. Her name was Brigitte Burdine; she was 48 and a respected voice casting director in the video game industry. They never found her killer; no one, apparently, ever came forward with information. On that cool, silent night when most people were still celebrating the holidays and looking forward to the new year, this reportedly beloved woman lost her life on that scrubby street corner.

I remember the days and weeks that followed; posters and flyers were everywhere with her smiling face and passionate pleas for help in finding the driver. My daily exercise became a sort of homage as I walked past that memorial and thought of her... a woman I didn't know yet felt such sadness for. To think of what she experienced, heading home after a night with friends at a local hangout: the sudden approach of a car, the shock of pain and fear. I think of her lying alone in that ditch and the person who drove away without a look back.

Who was that person? I often wondered how anyone could just get on with their life after ending that of another. Are they racked with guilt, buffered by denial or have they found a way to compartmentalize, separate the event from life and reality, so they can go on without falling to pieces? I pondered this enough that I was finally compelled to imagine a fictionalized scenario, one that left open a possible set of consequences for a driver who could hit and run. I put it in a short story called, "She Tumbled Down," and after writing it, felt some sense of acknowledgement of the event; not her story specifically, but one that set a hit and run killer up for karmic response. If not in real life, at least in my story... in her honor.

There remain so many other stories behind the countless street side memorials found on the roads banks and off the highways throughout our country. Reminders of the tragedy of drunk driving (in some states with high drunk driving rates, there are so many crosses in certain bends in the road that they've finally put them all together in one large memorial); reminders of other hit and runs, of asleep-at-the-wheel collisions, even deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists. Every memorial is a poignant reminder of someone, the physical marker of where they left this earth... a place only remembered by those who knew them.

Except for this one. This one is remembered by a perfect stranger. As I walked by Brigitte's memorial again today, I took a picture for this story, feeling the usual pang I get whenever I see a fresh photo or the cyclically new flowers. That it is tended so carefully is the loving act of someone who will not let the significance of this place diminish. I note the cars whizzing by without pause and wonder if anyone in them ever looks out and sees Brigitte's memorial and wonders who those flowers are for. Who that person was... whose life ended in that dusty, sacred place.

Photo by Lorraine Devon Wilke

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