April 22, 2013 at 8:10 AM ET
Bestselling author Janice Kaplan had preconceptions upon taking on the project of “I’ll See You Again,” expecting the task of helping tell the story of grieving mother Jackie Hance to be an arduous and sorrowful affair. But Kaplan soon realized that Hance’s was more than just the story of a mother’s loss. It was also a story of hope.
Writing a book with Jackie Hance about the terrible tragedy in her life was an amazingly therapeutic process--for both of us. Every week for several months, Jackie came to my apartment in Manhattan and we talked for several hours. She answered all my questions openly and honestly, and told me what it was like to have the worst happen.
Jackie’s three beautiful children--Emma 8, Alyson, 7, and Katie, 5--were killed in the horrific car crash that had been dubbed the “Wrong Way on the Taconic” tragedy. The grief and pain were almost unbearable for her. She was also overwhelmed with anger and confusion because her sister-in-law Diane had been driving the car, and toxicology tests later showed that she was drunk.
At first, I thought Jackie’s story was too sad even to tell. Her anguish was extreme, and the tragedy far, far beyond what most moms would ever face. But I quickly started to see Jackie’s story as Everywoman’s, writ large. Jackie was an ordinary mom, no different from the rest of us.
We all grapple with problems that--in our own eyes--loom huge. When Jackie told me about fights she had with her husband Warren, I heard echoes of so many other husbands and wives struggling to keep their relationship going and understand each other when there are bumps (or boulders) along the way. When she described her fear of people judging her, I reassured her--but knew that we all worry too much about what other people think.
On some days, Jackie and I nibbled fruit and bagels at my kitchen table as we talked about how her Catholic faith had been shaken. Jackie had always gone to church every week, been a good person, prayed for her children. Since the accident, she had spoken to several priests, but none could give her answers and their platitudes about “God’s will” or heaven being “a better place” only made her angry.
So we discussed the randomness of life. How as moms we plan carefully for ourselves and our children--but then the unexpected happens. Jackie was a great mom who loved being with her girls and planned birthday parties months in advance. She spent every moment with her daughters, taking them to soccer practices and play rehearsals and summer camp. She loved giggling with them as they shopped for clothes, and then she would sit with them in their bedrooms, talking about the careers they should choose when they grew up. She did everything she could to protect them.
Jackie never worried about sending her daughters for a weekend camping trip with the sister-in-law they all loved. The two families were close.
As we talked, I would think about my own friends and how all we do the best we can to raise good kids. But ultimately, we have to admit that we can’t control their lives and their futures. Events occurs that nobody thought about. Whether you call it randomness, God, or fate, all you can do is take what happens and figure out how to go on.
And that’s what Jackie taught me--how to go on. She didn’t think of herself as a hero or a role model. When I told her what an inspiration she could be to others, she looked at me with wide eyes and said, “Me? I cry every day. I’m a wreck.”
But she had also decided that if she were going to have more years on this earth, she wanted them to be good ones. She got pregnant again, and after baby Kasey Rose was born in October 2011, I saw a remarkable transformation. Jackie wanted to live a positive life. She understood that she couldn’t change the events that had happened--but she could change her responses to them. She started talking about how grateful she was to the friends and family who had helped her in the bleakest times.
“Despite everything, I realize how lucky I am,” she said one day. “My friends have been there every step of the way and I’ve met amazing people.”
If Jackie Hance could talk about being lucky, what can the rest of us learn? When one of my friends lost a job she loved and another discovered her husband was having a long-time affair, I commiserated. But I refused to see the problems as the end of the world. I said--gently--that if Jackie could find a way forward, the rest of us can, too.
When I first met Jackie, she was fragile and reeling with grief. My gift to her was taking the crazy events of her tragedy and turning them into a narrative that gave them some shape and meaning. Her gift to me was a new perspective. Parenting--and life--is horrible and wonderful, full of grief and full of joy. None of us is really luckier than anyone else. The difference is what we do with our luck, good or bad.
I thought “I’ll See You Again” would be a book about tragedy. But it turned out to be a book about inspiration and hope.
To learn more about the work of the Hance Family Foundation, click here.