Editor’s note: Donovan Webster, who wrote this poignant piece for the February/March issue of AARP The Magazine, died in Charlottesville, Va., on July 4. He was 59. A professor, author, editor, husband and father, Webster traveled the world as a journalist, contributing to other national magazines and writing best-selling books.
Every evening since I got out, I’ve taken a walk, just to see the stars and the moon and to listen to the night. Where I live now, there’s a little more than 70 acres of Virginia farmland to kick around on, patrolled by an owl that, on some nights, I hear glide from the woods to hunt rodents scratching for grain near an empty horse shed.
It’s not my farm. Good friends have lent me a guest apartment at their place, to stay in for as long as I need it. Which is generous of them, because for 21 months I never got to see the stars and the moon.
Because I was in prison.
Late on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2014, in the mood to celebrate a potential two-book publishing deal, I decided to take myself fly-fishing. I went over the mountain from where I lived then, in central Virginia, to the Shenandoah Valley and an easily accessible trout stream. I put four beers into the car, thinking, Why not?
When I got over to the stream, the afternoon sun shone hard on the water, and the fish had yet to start moving in the river’s shadows. I scouted the location a bit and finished two beers as I listened to the car radio. Then I went down the street to the local fly-fishing shop and talked to the guys who run it for an hour or so.
Back at the river, there was still nothing going on, so I pulled out a third beer and knocked it back. Then I took out the fourth one, popped it and began thinking, You’re probably getting close.... I decided to scout a shaded stream on the other side of the mountain. Driving back down the mountain, on a blind turn, I glanced down from the road to check my speed, and at once everything changed. Because when I looked up, a blue car appeared suddenly from behind the curve and was now right in front of me.
The man in the blue car was named Wayne T. White.
He was a husband and father and grandfather, a farmer and churchgoer. He was said to be an exemplary human being.
Up until that day, I’d had a pretty good career: traveling the world as a war correspondent, author and sometime filmmaker. I could get pretty much anyone on the telephone or to answer an email. I felt myself at the center of things. And while the descent from that lofty place to a state prison might have felt sudden, the sky didn’t fall all at once. I had spent the previous two decades being paid to look directly at things that made most people avert their eyes. I’d witnessed bloody rebellions in Africa, covered war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I volunteered to cover these situations — the bombings, the torture, the beheadings, all of it. Then I’d go home to Virginia to sit in a lonely room by myself, sort it out and write it up — and, well, I’d loosen the screws at night with a couple of beers and a glass of wine at dinner. Reporting was my passion, but as I got older, the stuff I had seen began to collect in my mind, and it was increasingly difficult to get away from it.
Then came the Southeast Asian tsunami of December 2004. I was sent all across the Indian Ocean basin by the United Nations as part of a team to write a report on the aftermath. This assignment was different. Everything inside the tsunami zone was gone. There were no houses. No trees. Nothing but bloated corpses, mostly naked — the violence of the tsunami had stripped away the clothes of the victims. Thousands of them, rotting in the sun.
Inside the zone, we all wore surgical-style masks. If you didn’t, tiny particles of dust and rotting human flesh blown on the wind would attach themselves to your teeth and tongue and the roof of your mouth. Not surprisingly, the weight of these things took a toll. A few months later, I began to have debilitating panic attacks.
Since 2007, I have been diagnosed three times with post-traumatic stress disorder. It happens to reporters as well as soldiers. Psychiatrists prescribed Lexapro for depression and anxiety, Valium for low-level anxiousness, Xanax for full-on panic attacks and trazodone to help me get to sleep at night. The drugs turned me into Mr. Magoo, so I put them aside and instead began hitting the sauce harder.
I never saw my drinking as out of control. But slowly, like a cresting wave, it was getting less and less manageable. Though I ran between five and seven miles a day, my body wasn’t as good at alcohol anymore — a phenomenon doctors say isn’t unusual when we enter our 50s. And the volume was increasing, without my really noticing or caring. A few beers after dinner. Maybe a handful of scotches or bourbons after my middle-school-teacher wife retired to bed at about 9:30. I didn’t intend for it to become a habit. It just … did.
There were months at a time — when I was reporting in Saudi Arabia or Islamic North Africa, where alcohol is prohibited — when I didn’t drink at all. But once I got back home, my old drinking habits kicked in.
On that blind mountain curve, I sideswiped Wayne T. White’s car. He went back over into his lane, slowed down, and an 18-wheeler crashed on top of him. Mr. White lost his life. The Commonwealth of Virginia would find that I had a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent. The legal limit in the state is 0.08 percent, so my life, as I knew it, was lost, too.
Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and think of Wayne T. White and the White family and what I took from them. Every day, I feel terribly, knee-bucklingly awful about it. And not a day goes by that I don’t stagger a little bit, wounded by what a split second did to my own life and to my family as well.
We lived in a small town. Everyone knew who I was, and everyone also knew my wife. And when I went to prison for killing a man, she became the public face of our family and my deed. It shamed her, unbearably so. So she sold our house and some of our possessions and moved back to her hometown, in Tennessee.
I can’t blame her. She’d met her limit.
My son and daughter are divided between wanting to love me and wanting to walk away from all the pain. When they were younger, I coached them in baseball and soccer, did homework with them, paid for private schools and vacations, and did local theater with them — where I was a kick-ass Captain von Trapp.
But they’re understandably cautious with their love now.
And as for that star-spangled career: It won’t surprise you to learn that almost everyone I used to work with — to generally happy and successful results — is tentative about going in with me. And few new prospects seem willing to go too far down the road with a man who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
The damage left by the accident, and by the almost two years in prison, shows itself in large and small ways. My wife, who comes back to visit regularly, says I scream and thrash in my sleep. And the way I dress has changed: I used to wear blue button-down shirts all the time. I had dozens of these shirts, from Brooks Brothers and Jos. A. Bank and Orvis and Tommy Bahama and L. L. Bean and other stores.
In prison, blue button-down chambray shirts are what you are given to wear. Which means that now, on this side of the razor wire, I can’t wear blue shirts. I threw them all away.
In prison I read a book a day and lived on public radio. I went to bed early, and every night, weather permitting, before the guards closed the yard, I would go out and watch the sun go down.
The other offenders left me alone on a bench in the evenings, to let me watch the sky, the jets and their contrails tracking through it. The guards allowed me out until last call, after they had rounded up everyone else.
But we all had to be back in our cells by sundown. I never really got to see the night sky.
On the Tuesday morning of my release, my children came to pick me up. They were in my daughter’s Volvo station wagon. As soon as I’d settled into the car’s back seat, I started to cry silently. I wasn’t crying for me. Instead, it was for what I’d done to the White family, to my children, to my wife and father and brother and sister. I had no way to make that right.
I told the kids I wanted — more than anything in the world — a chocolate milkshake from Chick-fil-A. For nearly two years, I’d missed chocolate milkshakes. But as we drove in the direction of a friendly fast-food window, I tried to think about what was next.
Now, after a little more than a year back in the real world, a new sense of freedom has slowly risen up, like spring water deep in a well. I still struggle, but I go to counseling, take my therapy and do my daily best to guard my sobriety. On occasion I’ve succumbed to despair, though I refuse to give up my commitment to recovery. To my surprise, many of my anxiety-related problems have diminished substantially.
As I slowly edge toward 60, with a broken family, virtually no money, nothing great in the way of work prospects, and only my wits and a few friends who love me still around, I have a powerful remorse for the damage I have caused. But what I don’t have — perhaps because I simply can’t afford it — is self-pity.
Yes, there are moments when I walk out under the night sky and ask myself what the point of this journey has been. But feeling sorry for oneself is a luxury people my age can no longer afford. Virtually everything in my life burned to the waterline. But I have realized that there’s some great power in being around long enough to comprehend that no matter the damage we’ve done, a new door will open. No matter what age you are, staging a comeback is only a matter of taking the rest of your life seriously and making the next smart step, and the next.
Is there really any other option?