On the evergreen-lined roads winding through Bismarck’s Fairview Cemetery, Tom and Arlene Deutscher rolled past the temporary grave markers where their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were buried almost a year ago.
Arlene “simply crumbled,” her husband said. They had to stop.
Tom knew his wife was imagining the July 6 car crash – “the worst of the worst” – that claimed the lives of 34-year-old Aaron Deutscher, 36-year-old Allison Deutscher, who was pregnant, and 18-month-old Brielle.
As they stood and looked at the graves, reality hit Tom, too.
“It all came back 10 times what it was before,” he said.
And, as always, the “what-ifs” followed about what happened that fateful Friday evening on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown, where a drunk driver going the wrong way ended the lives of the West Fargo family, as well as his own.
“I mean, everything had to be just right or wrong. If you’ve ever been on that stretch of road and seen where there’s …” Tom said, trailing off. “You know, 10 seconds could have saved them, or a different part of the road where the visibility was better. You know, all that. Just all those questions.”
Allison Deutscher’s father, Lynn Mickelson of Colfax, said the last year has been “extremely tough.”
But the two families, linked first by marriage and then by tragedy, have found strength in each other, in the stricter drunken-driving penalties for which they lobbied and in the stories and support from those whose lives their children touched.
Today, members of both families will gather at the cemetery for a private remembrance. They plan to release balloons into the air to signify the lives lost.
“We’re looking at probably not necessarily commemorating the day of the loss as much as we are going to try to commemorate the memories of the ones that were lost and what they meant to so many people,” Mickelson said.
DUI laws changed
Shortly after the crash, as well as an incident the next day in which two young boys were run over and killed by a drunk driver as they slept in a tent at Lake Metigoshe, Mickelson set his sights on strengthening North Dakota’s DUI laws and stopping such “100 percent preventable” accidents from happening, he said.
Both families got behind the effort, publicly putting faces to the tragedy to try to build support for harsher DUI penalties. But Mickelson said they “found out it was not an easy thing to do.” Despite no outward opposition, they encountered partisanship and resistance to change, he said.
Page 2 of 3 - Lawmakers ultimately approved stiffer penalties, which took effect Monday and include a higher fine for first-time DUI offenders and mandatory participation in the 24/7 sobriety program for repeat offenders.
“Is that what our fate was to be, our kids’ fate, our little girl’s fate, to do that?” Tom Deutscher said. “I’m hoping it makes a difference.”
The families donated the 2009 Subaru Forester involved in the crash to the Safe Communities Coalition, which uses it for educational purposes and had it on display at the state Capitol in January.
Mickelson said he tries to accompany the vehicle and talk to groups about it, “and just say that, hey, this isn’t a show-and-tell. I mean, this isn’t made up. This is real. There were people that died in this thing.”
“People have asked me, how can you even stand to look at that wreck?” he said. “And I say, well, it’s not easy. But I do use it as part of the healing process.”
Families grow closer
Just as tragedy can bring people closer together, it also can drive them apart. But that hasn’t happened with the two families, the fathers said.
They talk regularly, on at least a weekly basis, and have remained close even through dealing with delicate issues such as settling the estate and burial arrangements.
“These are really sensitive times, and people’s nerves are kind of frayed,” Tom Deutscher said. “But through this we’ve managed to stick together and form relationships with their family, their children, too.”
“To this day, we have not had one disagreement. None. Not even a question,” Mickelson said. “And that is just amazing to me.”
“It’s almost like we’re one family,” he said.
Equally as impressive has been the outpouring of support from the couple’s friends, co-workers and even strangers, they said.
“It’s amazing, their interest in staying in contact with us through them,” Tom Deutscher said. “Maybe it just kind of keeps them alive.”
Mickelson said he and his wife, Donna, still have about 20 sympathy cards to which they are unable to reply with thank-you notes because the senders didn’t provide a name or return address.
“These kids touched so many lives, so many entities, that it’s unbelievable,” he said.
‘We’ll never forget’
Both fathers said it’s hard to believe a year has gone by since the crash.
Page 3 of 3 - “To be honest with you, I still can’t say goodbye,” Tom Deutscher said. “I feel like I’m still quite stunned about the whole thing.”
Mickelson said the last 12 months meant having to face many firsts without their loved ones. There was no Brielle to open Christmas gifts or enjoy her Easter basket, no Aaron and Allison to celebrate their wedding anniversary on July 25.
“A lot of those dates that mean a lot, quite painful,” he said, his voice cracking. “And we’re still going to be running across those.”
“But I guess it’s like everything else,” he added. “We suffer and hurt for a while, but eventually we will move on, and we know things will get better. They just will. But it’s going to take time, and we’ll never forget.”