Coming Home: A Life Lost and a Life Saved
A dead woman's relatives turn their rage into a force for healing as they help the drunken driver who killed her build a constructive life.By Spencer Heinz of The Oregonian staff
Headlights swing into the driveway. Elaine is coming home, finally. David has been anxious for two hours. But now he can relax.
He went to bed at 11 p.m., woke up at midnight to wonder, then drifted off again. About 1 a.m., he reawakened in some panic: Still no Elaine.
It was time to worry. Where was his wife of 27 years?
Now headlights brighten the driveway: Elaine. David breathes again, starts to drift away to sleep.
A second wedge of lights turns in. The drivers leave their engines on. The rhythm of light and sound is wrong.
David and Elaine live in the country. More than one set of headlights within a half-mile of home is uncommon. Here are footsteps on the porch. David levitates to the door.
On the porch are two close friends. Also, there's a deputy sheriff who is a neighbor.
"There's no easy way to say this," the voice of the deputy sheriff says. "Your wife was killed last night."
It happened, they say, two hours ago. Elaine was driving home from a night-school class. A head-on car had drifted over the center line. Elaine was 47.
The friends come in from the porch. They spend the night with David.
They learn that the other driver was drunk. Later, they also learn that she is a 25 year-old mother of two.
At the funeral of his wife, his high school sweetheart, David cries out, "Elaine. I love you."
This was almost three years ago. Daily tears continue. These are not from David alone. They also are from Elaine's parents in Portland, sisters, extended family, people she met in school and business. From her impact point on a two-lane highway in Washington, the field of harm has spidered out like cracks in a windowpane. Her death has lashed together many lives.
Soon, another moment of truth arrives.
Wife, daughter, potterAbout 11 p.m. on April 27, 1993, Elaine Serrell Myers, a resident of the rural Southwest Washington town of Rosburg, was driving the 57-mile return trip from an accounting class at Lower Columbia College in Longview.
She was many things: a wife, an aunt, a daughter, a potter, a KMUN Community Radio broadcaster out of Astoria, a gardener and the founder of a fledgling business called Elaine Myers' Garden, which sells a pleasure called Garden Clip Greenhouse-a knee-high, clear-plastic tunnel for protection of vegetables and flowers against heavy weather.
Elaine died instantly, at about the half-way point in her routine drive home-on Ocean Beach Highway, three miles east of Skamokawa.
Numb, David Myers within hours phones parents, others. He hears the unraveling of their souls.
That same morning, on the advice of a friend, he visits the body of his wife, in the funeral home. The only road to there is through the hours-old scene of the crash. Most of it is clean by now. But transmission shreds are off to the side.
In the funeral home, he wails and moans and holds and kisses her broken face. Now he has seen her dead. Now he has little temptation to deny, and grief completely overtakes him. For the next few weeks, he can hardly aim himself enough to make it through a doorway.
Officials identify the driver of the car that crossed the center line as Susanna Kay Cooper. Cooper, the mother of two young children, lived on a dairy farm in Skamokawa. She was driving a 1991 Mazda. Elaine Myers was driving a 1984 Nissan. Both cars were demolished.
Cooper goes to the hospital in critical condition. She has little chance to live-perforated heart, broken jaw, broken leg, the list goes on.
Officials say that she has a blood-alcohol level of .20, twice the legal limit in Washington, and that she has a previous conviction for drunken driving.
When Cooper awakens and hears that she has killed, she says she wants to die herself. But she lives.
At that moment, David Lee Myers is so full of grief and horror that he could, he thinks, murder this person with his hands. He is not an exception. The family sees her as something evil that changed the world with a homicide.
Rage takes energyThen a 10-year-old spots something. The 10-year-old is the daughter of one of Elaine's sisters, who is a physician in California. Elaine was a favorite aunt of the 10-year-old, and the girl was among those who visited the storage yard to see the remains of the cars.
The girl and her sister notice childrens' things inside the car of Susanna Cooper. She mentions it to her mother.
Does the offender have children of her own? Word gets back to Elanie's father, Peter V.H. Serrell.
Now 80, Peter Serrell is a southeast Portland resident and a retired mechanical engineer who specialized in wind-tunnel work. He had seen dissension break apart his firm in the 1950s. He had learned that rage takes energy. And so does grief. The question is where to spend it.
When Cooper pleads not guilty early on, the family spends much of it on rage.
Then Serrell remembers. Shortly before the wreck, he attended a presentation in church by a man who specialized in setting up talks between victims and offenders. The idea is partly that a victim, in certain cases, has the chance to come face-to-face with the offender. Serrell sees it as a chance, perhaps, to confront the other driver with what she had done. Based on what he heard, a mediation could lead the offender through a list of crucial R's-recognition, remorse, repentance, reform; and some sort of restitution, in terms of trying to repay the world for taking his daughter's life.
Elaine's father tries to try to reach the speaker, Martin E. Price. He is a Portland resident and the founder and former director of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program of Clackamas County.
Price, as a mediator, begins laying months of groundwork. That includes fruitful discussions with the public defender assigned to represent Susanna Cooper. She is devastated by the fact that she has killed someone.
Within a few months, Cooper readily pleads guilty to vehicular homicide. She agrees to enter talks with the family and receives a maximum 34-month prison sentence, which she begins serving about nine months after the wreck-after nine months in the hospital and in a nursing home.
At first, the family is not whole on this idea of mediation. Elaine's husband, David Myers, does not think he can hold himself back if he ever gets close to the killer of his wife. And it is too much for others, too: Are they supposed to forgive the taking of a life? Do they want to take on the pain to try?
After eight months of soul-searching and preparation on both sides-part of which involves Cooper's discovery and admission that she was an early-to-mid-stage alcoholic, the family and Cooper agree to participate in a face-to-face session.
No excusesOn Jan. 17, 1994, they enter a Portland motel-neutral territory-to meet Susanna Cooper. Myers, who is a photographer and a man with some background in mediation as a former elected public utility district commissioner in Wahkiakum County, has come around so far as to suggest that Cooper bring a close friend to hold her hand during the storm of grief and rage that he knows will happen.
The meeting lasts four and a half hours. The setting is sparse-12 chairs around four tables. Those who attend include Susanna Cooper. Her defense attorney. A close woman friend. Mediators Martin Price and Brenda Inglis. Parents Peter and Kathleen Serrell. And two of their three surviving daughters: Barbara Clark, who is the Portland city auditor, and her husband, David Hansen; Dr. Elizabeth S. Menkin, an internist and geriatrician who works in a hospital in San Jose, California; and Menkin's 10-year-old daughter, Aileen-the girl who had spotted the childrens' things inside the wrecking-yard car.
The results:According to those who were there, Cooper is too overwhelmed with tears to speak much at first. She pulls herself together for a moment, enough to say she is sorry and that she knows being sorry is not good enough. She gives no excuses.
Around the room, each family member speaks about the crash and what the loss of a wife and a daughter and a sister and an aunt means to them. They say the hole in their lives will be there forever.
Cooper listens closely. She does not turn away. She cries through most of it. At one point, she says she carries spiders out of the house rather than hurting them.
Elaine's father tells her he had asked for the meeting to help him feel, through the pain of losing his daughter, as though he could do something positive. He says something positive would be a chance for Cooper to rebuild herself and become a true mother to her children: They have been living with a friend, the father to one of them.
Elaine's mother says the wreck had taken her daughter and made such depressive changes in her husband that it feels as though he also has been taken from her.
In the end, they sign a contract with Cooper. She agrees to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. To speak before community groups while doing prison time. To complete her high school education. To write at least weekly to each of her children. To improve her parenting skills. To attend church each week. To give 10 percent of her income to charity. And to write a quarterly progress report to the victim's father.
Family members say they abhor what Cooper has done, but they praise Cooper for her courage to face them directly.
"Many tears were shed," the mediator writes later, "many eloquent words were said, and the victims and offender each became allies in the healing of the other."
Elaine's husband writes in his journal, "What a wonderful effect of last night's mediation-I have regained my brightness and vigor."
At the sentencing hearing a week later, the judge gives Cooper the maximum sentence-34 months. And one of Elaine's sisters, Elizabeth, reads to the judge this statement: "Forgiveness is not something which I believe is my obligation to bestow unilaterally, but it can be earned."
The sister adds: "There is no way she can provide a wife for David or a sister for me. The only restitution she can make is a lifelong commitment to a daily effort toward making the world a better place for her having survived the crash. She is not required to complete the job of repairing the world, but she must not be excused from starting and continually working at the job. Reform means that she must create a new form of herself-to emerge as a sober person, a thoughtful and considerate person, a contributor. If she can do all of these, I can forgive."
Face to faceThat was two years ago.
Since then, Susanna Kay Cooper has served time in the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor, the Tacoma Pre-Release prison and the Longview Work/Training Release facility.
On a rainy day last week, David Lee Myers paid her a visit-his first since the mediation.
They sit face to face at a table in work release.
She moves with a limp. Her hair is blond with a butterfly clip. Her eyes are clear. Small golden crosses triangulate her face-one from each earring and another that glints from a necklace chain that drifts above the tip of a scar where they wired her chest together. A tattoo "L-0-V-E" is on one hand-there since age 17 on the urging of a cousin.
Her body remains connected with help from metal plates and pins in arms and knees, and a rod that serves inside one leg. She has been through many surgeries. She says the pain is building with the years. She says she takes no medication to try to make it go away.
"I just keep telling myself I'm lucky my kids are still alive," she says. "Elaine's family doesn't have that option."
Cooper is older now. She is 27. Myers has turned 50. He wears a nice gray sweater vest that was fashioned by Elaine. He goes to the car and returns to show Cooper his butterfly photos, images on note cards that he will try to sell; images that he describes as his first tentative return to a joyful feeling in his art since the last time he saw his wife. Cooper brightens for only a moment, says she hopes to buy one.
He also brings a photo of his wife. It is for someone else, but Cooper asks if she can hold it. She looks at it directly for 10 seconds or so. She once had a dream, she says.
In this dream, shortly after the wreck, Cooper is on one side of a barn door or a wall, and the woman who died is on the other. In the dream, she can see this woman, but she cannot hear what the woman is trying to tell her. She badly wants to know. Some time after the dream ends, Cooper says, she sees a photo of Myers' wife for the first time. She realizes that the face in the photo is that of the woman from her dream.
According to Elaine's survivors and Cooper's prison counselors, who want to see her succeed, Cooper since then has continued to repent and to become a source of good for the world and her own children. They describe her as shy and full of remorse.
She attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. As part of continuing, victim-offender panels, she has spoken to hundreds of driver education students at high schools. She has completed her own high school education. For prison work-release, she has served as a cashier in a Longview no-alcohol club for recovering addicts.
She also has written regularly to her children, attended church each week, studied parenting skills, spoken and corresponded regularly with Elaine's father and other family members.
"I abhor what you did," Elaine's husband tells her, "but I'm really proud of what you've done since then."
Cooper replies, eye to eye, that the death of Elaine is on her hands. One second changed so many worlds. She wonders why she has survived. She says she will do whatever she can, for the rest of her life, to fight drunken driving.
"I wish you well," says David Lee Myers, and then he leaves.
A little later, so does she. Her time inside a prison is done. After serving 23 months, she is to come home for good on New Year's Eve. She is coming home to help raise her children.
She smiles for a second. It makes her golden crosses move. She says she fights a daily fear.
"Of life," she says. "of life."
The Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) Information and Resource Center, in Asheville, North Carolina,, provides information, training, public education, technical assistance, consulting and victim-offender mediation and reconciliation services. We serve non-profit organizations, governmental agencies and individuals. The Center specializes in juvenile justice and the mediation of drunk driving fatality cases and other crimes of severe violence.
Our mission is to bring restorative justice reform to our criminal justice system, to empower victims, offenders and communities to heal the effects of crime, to curb recidivism, and to offer our society a more effective and humanistic alternative to the growing outcry for more prisons and more punishment.
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