Cheating Death: 30 Years of Borrowed Time

We weren’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t drinking or doing drugs. We were good kids hanging out on the last night of summer. But that Sunday night of Labor Day weekend 30 years ago ended in a way we never could have predicted.

It was eight kids in a Toyota pick-up truck versus an unforgivably curvy, country road. Two were up front and six of us were in the back. It was a beautiful summer night. We were young. We were having fun together. A ride anywhere with the breeze blowing back our hair was excitement enough for us.

Before we left I told my friend Brian that he and Peter had the safest seats. They were sitting against the truck cab window below the roll bar. I don’t even know why I said it. But I’d never forget what Brian said. He said he’d switch with me.

I had known Brian since we were five years old. He was nice. I mean it. Nice. In every way a boy could be nice. There was something innately good about him. Ask anyone. I knew he’d switch with me. Of course he would. But, I said I was fine. Maybe because I didn’t want to seem scared or make him move. He seemed happy next to Peter. Besides, what did it matter? We were going for a short ride.

Only it did matter. It’s why I’m writing this and Brian has been gone for 30 years.

There are things you will never forget about an accident like that one. You’ll never forget the things that were said before. You’ll never forget the moment the truck lunged down the driveway and turned right onto Yankee Peddler Path. You’ll never forget how you were nervous we were going too fast, but figured you were just being a wimp. You’ll never forget the feeling of the wheels sliding out from underneath you….how impossibly long that felt, like it was happening in slow motion, like there was time to stop what would come next. You’ll never forget the sounds of a one-ton vehicle flipping over. You’ll never forget the very clear, and yet, almost unimportant, calm understanding that you are going to die.

But what you’ll really never forget is the silence. Once the truck came to the final landing spot, there was silence. A quiet from briefly losing consciousness, maybe, but no. The quiet was this lag of time where the accident was over, but the speed of life hadn’t caught up to it yet. As if it was too horrible for life to recognize it just yet, so it waited to collect itself. You’ll never forget that, just briefly, the world stopped spinning.

Then life catches up. The quiet is invaded by sirens, shouts, neighbors coming to help, and screams for help from a friend pinned under the truck. Chaos.

I try to get up but there is something heavy on me. I’m moved by an EMT, who, without hesitation, slices the legs of my pants with a knife. There is talk about the blood. Too much blood. On my clothes, in my hair. I have no real sense of my condition, but I don’t feel like I’m bleeding out. And I’m not. The blood is not mine. It is Brian’s. He is what was on top of me.

Brian. That beautiful boy with the bushy brown hair and dark brown eyes with the insanely long lashes who played hockey and loved his family and his friends. Brian who asked me to a boy-girl party in fourth grade while we finished our ice cream on the stage of High Hill Elementary school on a Friday, making me feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Brian who patiently taught me how to jet ski at Camp Laurelwood and could dance ridiculously well and who seemed to always have a smile on his face. Brian.

I’d be okay. I was not even all that hurt. Broken ribs. Broken wrist with road burn so deep it couldn’t be in a cast. Two other friends from the back would be okay too. And miraculously, after months in the hospital and a grueling recovering process, our friend who somehow took the weight of that truck on her hips, recovered. To this day I will never understand how she survived the accident and her injuries, but every single time I see her I appreciate the wonder that she is.

The two boys in the cab of the truck were okay too, only they weren’t. How could they be? They saw everything. My friend driving the truck treasured his friends, and Brian was his best friend. He never wanted to hurt anyone. I love him dearly and think about all he lost that night, pieces of himself maybe. How quietly and bravely he shouldered that burden. No one walked away unscathed.

Brian wasn’t the only one to die that night. Another boy, a year older, died instantly too. I didn’t know Peter well, but he seemed like a really good person too, dearly loved by his friends and family. I’ve never been able to reconcile how unlikely it was that he was with us that night. And how difficult that must be for his family and friends. The rest of us were good friends for many years. I always felt like Peter shouldn’t have been there, as if it mattered to think this way, as if any of it made sense or I got a say.

That’s really the lesson. Cheating death is random, based on a million small inconsequential decisions that were made that day, that night. I’ve thought about what would have happened if I did switch places with Brian. Would he have been haunted by offering up his seat if I had been the one to die? Trying to find some rhyme or reason to any of it is futile and will drive you mad.

You also learn quickly that there are no do overs. As much as you dream of a time machine that changes the course of events that night, you don’t get one. You can change nothing about what happened. You learn how unexpected death is. How one minute you can be having fun and the next you are certain you are going to die.

You start to understand the physics of death. You know that the way the truck flipped and where we were sitting made a huge difference. One seat meant instant death. One meant the truck landed on you. One meant you rolled out fairly unscathed. This will stay with you.

For many years after, I thought about every single tiny decision I made. I thought a lot about where I sat in a car, what roads we were on, how fast we were driving. For years I couldn’t switch my seat on a plane, or anywhere, ever. I thought through every possible thing that could go wrong before I did anything. I tried so hard to be sure I didn’t give death the opportunity to sweep in and finish what it started when I was fifteen years old. But it was a waste of time.

Ultimately, cheating death makes you realize that death is there, all the time, as a possibility. You know that it can happen to you. You know it without doubt. And instead of letting it breaking you, you let it empower you. You get that life is short, but more than that, it can end when you least expect it. Most people can only intellectualize this idea, whereas we, the survivors of accidents, the cheaters of death, feel it in our bones. And somehow that has made me more fearless, more curious, more open to experience life fully, just in case I end up in the wrong seat.

The anniversary of this accident always weighs heavily on me, thinking of Peter and Brian and their families, always…along with all of us in that truck. But this year it’s particularly personal. My oldest child is a sophomore in high school, fifteen years old, the same age I was the night of that accident. I see my daughter and can’t believe we were that young, that I was that young when this happened to me. How my life has been colored by this one night, this one ride, this one moment in time.

I’m grateful for the 30 years I’ve been borrowing from death, from Brian, from Peter, from deciding to stay in my spot in the truck, from the physics of the accident working out so I made it out alive. I’d be lying if I said I had some great understanding of the universe or why I’m still here. I don’t. And it doesn’t matter anyway. No understanding or lessons learned can change the fact that I still think of Brian and miss him. His wild hair, his gorgeous brown eyes, his love of life, his positive personality, his exuberance, his warm smile, and his kind, kind heart. The only thing I know for sure is that his light is too bright to ever go out.


  1. Maureen Dalton on September 9, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    To Meredith & Dia and all the wonderful, incredible kids who lived through the tragedy of September 2, 1985. I write for my beloved husband, Peter Dalton, Sr., who I lost to cancer 4 years ago at the young age of 68. Peter, Sr. came to a place of peace over losing “Pete”. He understood that he was reaching out that night to a wonderful group of Hand High kids that he was soon to be a part of. Peter, Jr. was transferring from Xavier for that first day of school, his junior year, and was eager to make new friends. I was lucky enough as a Madison teacher to have known him as a friend and neighbor to many of my students. Pete was an outstanding individual, charismatic, handsome, and a bright spot in everyone’s life. The difficult details of his death were too heart wrenching for my husband to recount.

    I was also best friends with Maureen Hughes and her family and knew Joanne Nee quite well through her affiliation with Dr. Gleich. Eventually, of course, our daughter’s God-Brother, Brian Hughes married Mary Beth Nee and our families were lovingly linked again together in a joyful way. Stephanie Nee became a Dalton neighbor for a while and little by little over the years, healing and mutual understanding of what everyone lost that night was unspoken but acknowledged with a smile, a nod or a hug.
    I will spend eternity next to my extraordinary husband, Peter Dalton and his beloved son, Pete. All my love goes out to all of you who have honored Pete & Brian’s legacy on this 30th Anniversary. My husband would be so proud and moved by your words.
    Lovingly written by Maureen Dalton.

    • M. on September 10, 2015 at 8:34 pm

      Maureen, Thank you for this beautiful note. I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Dalton. Over the years since the accident I’ve gotten the chance to know of your family and learn more about Peter from his friends. They adore him and have reached out to me about how much they miss him and appreciated hearing about that night. I do remember Pete’s smile and just easy going, sweet personality that night. Very easy on the eyes too! He and Brian were happy to be hanging out and any friend of Brian’s and Kurt’s was surely a friend of mine. I enjoyed hearing about how your family connected with the Nee family in such a beautiful way. And rest assured, we all think of Peter and Brian often, miss them, and sometimes imagine what their lives might be like now. My one take away is that however many years they got, they were happy, nice, kind, good guys. Much love to you and John. And thank you for sending this and adding to the conversation about the boys who are so dearly missed still, 30 years later. xxoxox

    • Stephanie on September 10, 2015 at 8:50 pm

      Hugs to you Maureen. Beautiful.

    • Stephanie on September 10, 2015 at 8:50 pm

      Hugs to you Maureen. Beautiful.

  2. Sue on September 9, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    Wow Meredith that was wonderfully written. It is spot on. I go over that night in my head often. I have shared this tragedy with my kids and their friends since Ryan is driving now. I am so happy that the teenage driving laws are so strict in CT now to be prevent young inexperienced teens from accidents such as this. I have often thought about the seating that night. I was sitting on top of a wheel and must have looked uncomfortable because Brian asked me, too, if I wanted to sit where he was sitting and I said no I was ok. I don’t even know why I said no, I just did, I wonder about this often. Brian and Peter are missed every single day. They hold a special place in all of our hearts. And thank you Bill for sharing your experience and helping us that night. I never knew of your extreme involvement at the scene.

    • M. on September 9, 2015 at 8:53 pm

      I remember you and Brian talking about it too. We were sitting opposite each other by each wheel, me next to Brian, you next to Peter. But I also remember it being fun…just hanging out talking before we left. You and I had a lot of great times that summer with Kurt and Brian. There was no reason to think that night would be any different and change our lives so much. One thing it could never change is how much we loved Brian…and Kurt too. You are a wonder, Sue!

  3. Joe B on September 8, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing such an amazing story 30 years in the making. What an emotional roller coaster reading your verse and all of the comments that follow. Our entire town wept for Brian and Peter that night and also prayed for the recovery for the rest of you. Now, as adults we realize that the emotional scars are just as horrific as the physical ones. We couldn’t possibly have realized that back then. Our class and the classes around us lost far too many good souls for such a small town. Just a couple of years later we lost Dean after a brief but horrible snow squall spoiled a beautiful 70 degree March day. While Brent walked away unscathed on the outside, he’s never spoken of the incident to this day. All too often, there’s never a rhyme or reason. No one can ever accurately explain why someone lives and someone dies. All we can do is have faith. Faith that there is a better place and we all have a purpose in life. Regardless of the test or time on this earth; we are all tested. It wasn’t just Brian that no one could ever utter a bad word. It was all of you. Such an unlikely accident took and tested the souls of the most unlikely. No one could have ever imagined such a tragedy.
    Godspeed to you.

    • M. on September 9, 2015 at 8:48 pm

      Thank you, Joe, for your lovely post. I clearly remember when we lost Dean too. It was like one patch of ice on an otherwise fine road and he was just gone. And he was an EMT in training, I think too. So sad and tragic. I remember our crowd bonding with your crowd because he knew how you guys felt. In the end, we all became one very united Class of 1988. Your comment was really nice. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

  4. Frank Barron on September 8, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Thank you for writing this very moving piece Meredith…very powerful…and as a former faculty member and Brian’s lacrosse coach…I truly remember all that was contained in Brian’s eternal smile…

    • M. on September 8, 2015 at 9:00 pm

      What a smile.

  5. Noreen Kokoruda on September 8, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Thank you Meredith for such an incredible story. Madison was changed for so many of us that night. We all remember where we were when we heard the news. Several wonderful families had their lives changed forever. Sending my love to all of you dear ones that were there that fateful night.

    • M. on September 8, 2015 at 9:03 pm

      Hi Noreen. So many intersecting families and friends changed that night. So many ripples spread through our quaint town. Lots of love to you and your family. xoxo