Yesterday’s New York Times has a long and moving article about a Brooklyn family whose twelve-year-old son Sammy was killed by a truck on the street in front of their house. Since They Lost Sammy The article touches on their grief, but focuses on how the tragedy galvanized Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein to become activists for increased pedestrian safety.
The article resonated with me because I know something about families who turn tragedy into a greater good. I spent two years in Len Gengel’s shadow, watching him twist his grief into something remarkable, the Be Like Brit orphanage in Haiti. I also observed, with pain, how Len recriminated himself for his daughter dying in the Haiti earthquake. Britney’s death was an arbitrary accident, but affluent Americans, accustomed to controlling our lives, cannot accept arbitrary or accident with any grace.
My heart went out to the Cohen/Eckstein family and I applaud how they are directing their grief for public good. But I am disappointed by how the New York Times presents a grieving parent’s feelings as fact.
By all evidence Sammy was a great kid, bright and engaging. Since the family has become public advocates, they have exposed themselves to public scrutiny, as I am doing in this post. Mid-way through the article Ms. Cohen counters, “There was the suggestion that it was just some stupid kid who ran into the street for his ball.” New York Times writer N.B. Kleinfield follows with, They knew that was impossible.
This is where the New York Times slips in its reporting. Ms. Cohen and Mr. Eckstein certainly believe this was impossible; it may have been improbable, but it is wrong of the Times to report this impossibility as fact. None of us were there. A twelve year old, no matter how mature, is still a twelve year old, and accidents happen.
The disservice the New York Times brings to this family and everyone reading this article is to present a family’s belief, no matter how strongly felt or how much they need it to justify getting up every morning, as a fact. I have no doubt Ms. Cohen and Mr. Eckstein’s belief in their son is steadfast as a fact. My own mind has conjured and bent ambiguities to help me sleep through the night. But the article’s author should know better.
I hope that Ms. Cohen and Mr. Eckstein find solace in their advocacy work. I hope it helps reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities in New York and elsewhere. I also hope that the New York Times will be more careful in their word choice; not every ‘fact’ we carry in our heads is objectively true or verifiable. Finally, I hope that the family realizes that whatever caused the horrible intersection between Sammy and that truck was a terrible accident, and accidents, by definition, cannot be fully explained. Why this happened to your son and not mine I do not know. Sometimes we just have to accept.