I Still See Him Everywhere

I Still See Him Everywhere

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

I Still See Him Everywhere

Let mourning stop when one’s grief is fully expressed.

Confucius

[EDITORS’ NOTE: On February 22, 1983, young Todd Morsilli of Warwick, Rhode Island, was struck and killed by a drunk driver. He was one of 19,500 Americans who lost their lives that year in accidents caused by intoxicated drivers. One October, Todd’s father was asked to speak to students at Riverdale Country School, just north of Manhattan, about teenage drunk driving. As he looked around the assembly hall, Richard Morsilli wondered what he could say to persuade the students to listen. They seemed bored and restless. He felt he couldn’t lecture. All he really wanted to do was to tell them how much he missed Todd. Which, more or less, is what he did. His talk, interspersed with his thoughts as he addressed the teenagers, follows.]

Good morning. My name is J. Richard Morsilli. Eight months ago my son Todd was struck and killed by a seventeen-year-old drunk driver. Todd was thirteen. He was a wonderful boy.

Why did I say he was wonderful? Every father thinks his kid is special. But Todd really was. He had a knack for making people feel good about themselves. The day before he was killed, I heard him say to Carole, “Hey, Mom, my friends think you’re pretty.”

Todd was a tennis player. He was ranked third in his age group in New England in singles, first in doubles. He was also a baseball player, and when he was younger that’s all he cared about, even after we got a tennis court. Then one day his older brother had no one to play with and persuaded Todd to pick up a racket. In six months Todd was winning tournaments.

That’s what made us so close, my driving him to tournaments and having all that time in the car together. That fellow in the third row with the sun-bleached hair has the same thoughtful look Todd would get when we’d discuss things.

It sounds like Todd was really competitive, but he wasn’t. I’d say, “Todd, how will you play this guy? I hear he’s got a terrific cross-court return.” And he’d say, “Gee, Dad, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.” He liked to win, but he didn’t much like to beat people. His coach urged him to play older kids to sharpen his skills, but he hated to do it because he knew it upset them to get beaten by a youngster.

I was the one who had visions of Wimbledon. All Todd ever said was, “That’s a long way off, Dad. A lot can happen.” Did he sense what was coming, like the garden that blooms like crazy just before frost?

Last February twenty-second, Todd was walking along the street with his cousin Jeff. The two boys were only five weeks apart in age and inseparable. Jeff had been watching Todd play tennis that morning, and they were on their way to rent skis for a Catholic Youth Organization weekend. First they stopped at our house to get money for ice-cream cones. “You know, Mom,” Todd said after she had given him what change she had in her pocketbook, “what we’d really like are milk shakes.” His mother laughed and went upstairs for more money.

That girl in the third row with the sweet face just caught her breath. She’s thinking what Carole can’t help but think—that if she’d said no, the boys would have left the house earlier; they’d have turned the corner before the car came.

An elderly neighbor told us that he was shoveling his driveway when the boys went by. It was a holiday, Washington’s birthday, and the sun sparkling on the snow made the world seem paved with diamonds. The boys offered to finish the job for him, but he said he was glad to be outside, and they went on. The neighbor saw the car coming. Jeff saw it, too. The car was weaving. They both shouted, and Jeff jumped into a snowbank, but Todd . . . Todd . . . couldn’t get out of the way.

Oh, God, help me get through this without crying. I’ve got to keep going.

The car . . . struck Todd. He was . . . thrown ninety feet. . . . The car didn’t stop. . . .

It’s been eight months. Will I ever be able to talk about it without breaking down?

I’m sorry. Forgive me. You just can’t imagine how . . . overwhelming it is. I got a call at my office. It was someone at the hospital. The voice said, “A boy’s been hurt. We think it’s your son. Can you come right away?” All I remember is saying, over and over: “Just let there be a chance. He’ll make it if he has a chance, because he doesn’t give up.”

He didn’t get his chance. At the hospital a priest met me and took me into a little room. . . . Todd’s mother and I didn’t even have time to hope. By the time we knew about it at all, he was gone.

He’s gone, and I still see him everywhere. I see him as I glance around this hall. In the clean line of your chin, there on the aisle. And there, first row middle, in your slim, strong frame. And in you, too, young lady, in the way he bit his lip to keep the tears from coming.

The next thing you know you’re preparing for a funeral. You’re saying things like, “His grave’s got to be under a tree.” You’re making telephone calls. You’re answering the doorbell. His friends . . .

Little girls asking if they could have one of Todd’s tennis shirts. Little boys intending just to shake hands, but then moving into my arms as though, if we hugged hard enough, we could blot out the emptiness.

Nine hundred people jammed the church for his funeral. “It was like he was everyone’s best friend,” a fifteen-year-old who spoke at the service said. “You were just glad he was your friend, too.”

We buried Todd in his warm-up suit and cap. Everyone knew that beige felt cap. It was like the one worn by Frew McMillan, the South African tennis player. Todd admired him because he was always a gentleman on the court.

Afterward, we got letters from all over the country— hundreds of letters—from people who’d met Todd at tournaments. They pretty much said the same thing: We knew your son. He was a terrific tennis player. But, even more, he was such a nice boy.

Then the funeral was over. You’ve buried your son, and you go back to work. The world goes on. But things don’t mean the same. I’m no different from your fathers. I wanted to provide a bright future for my family. All I can tell you now is I’d give up all I have in a minute if I could just have Todd back.

Shall I tell them about the fox? No, probably not. I don’t want them to turn me off.

Because of Todd’s tennis playing, there was a lot in the newspapers about the tragedy. They called it a hit-and-run accident, which it was, except that the girl ran into a tree a mile down the road so the police caught her right away. She’d spent the holiday drinking beer at a friend’s house, starting at ten in the morning, and later they switched to vodka.

She goes to school. I see her at the supermarket. Is her life going on as usual? Did Todd’s death make any difference?

People wanted to do something. They started a Todd Morsilli Memorial Fund. Somebody suggested renaming the tennis courts at Roger Williams Park in Providence in honor of Todd. In June the first annual Todd Morsilli Memorial Tournament was held there.

Sometimes I tell myself: He was just a thirteen-year-old boy. How could he have touched so many lives? Sometimes I think: It was just another tragedy. How could so many lives be so terribly changed by it? But it’s true.

I worry about Todd’s brother David. He looks so much like Todd that people expect him to be Todd. I worry about Todd’s sister Lisa, because she and Todd were closest. I worry about Todd’s kid sister Kristin. She was visiting a friend before the accident and hadn’t seen Todd in two days. She’s recently become very enthusiastic about tennis. Is she genuinely interested? Or is she trying to make up to us for Todd? And I worry about Jeff, Todd’s cousin, because he lost his father four months before Todd was killed.

I pray every day he’ll make it. I pray every day that all of us make it.

They say grief brings people closer together. It’s not true—grief is isolating. It locks you up in your own heart. If Carole and I hadn’t had such a good marriage, I think we’d have come apart. I was out of the house all day, but Carole was home, and everywhere she looked there was something to remind her of Todd. And I think the strain began to tell.

What saved us was the squirrel. If Kristin hadn’t told Carole about the car in front of us hitting a squirrel and my getting out, pointlessly, to move the poor broken body to the side of the road and then sitting down on the curb sobbing, the silence might have won out over us. But that squirrel saved Carole and me. We talked to each other then. We realized we had to get help, and Carole took a part-time job to get out of the house.

I’m not on a crusade. As you know by now, I’m no speaker. And I didn’t come to tell you not to drink. I only came to say that when you do drink, please, please call your parents to come get you. Because if something happens to you, it won’t be just another tragedy; it’ll be their beloved child. And if you kill someone else’s child, it’ll be someone like my son Todd. It doesn’t have to happen. Don’t let it happen.

I guess that’s all I have to say. Thank you for listening.

Did I say enough? Did I say too much? Why, they’re applauding. They’re all standing up. That fellow is coming up on the platform. He’s holding out his hand. They’re lining up. Are they all going to shake my hand?

Thank you. I’m glad I came, too. No, she didn’t go to jail. Her three-year sentence was suspended. Her probation terms included regular psychological counseling, work at a halfway house and no drinking. And her driver’s license was suspended for five years.

Thank you. Take care of yourselves. All of you, please, please take care of yourselves.

What nice kids they are. I think if I’d told them about the fox, they’d have understood. They’d have appreciated how astonishing it was, when we’d never seen a fox before, to have one come and stand on the patio two days after Todd’s death—just come and stand there staring at the kitchen window before it turned and slowly moved away.

Carole’s pregnant sister came to be with her that afternoon. “I’ve been looking at a book of baby names,” she said. “Did you know when you named Todd that it means ‘fox’?”

Was Todd trying to tell us he’s all right? I think these kids would understand how much we want to believe that.

Richard Morsilli with Jo Coudert

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