Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old Todd Stansfield was behind the wheel of his car when it smashed into another vehicle on a rural, two-lane road in Douglas County. Four people died. Stansfield lived. And ever since he put pen to paper after the crash, he’s been trying to use the power of his words to make sense of that horrific night.
This article was a finalist for the 2012 Livingston Award for Young Journalists. It also was a finalist for a 2012 City and Regional Magazine Award in the feature category and was part of Robert Sanchez's finalist portfolio for CRMA's writer-of-the-year.
Todd Stansfield is awake, just barely. A sedative enters his bloodstream through a needle that’s stuck into one of his torn-up arms. His joints ache. His chest is a road map of stitches from the surgeries he underwent three weeks earlier. He’s dropped 30 pounds from his already lean frame; his arms and legs have become emaciated sticks of skin and bone. The 16-year-old’s head pounds from the screws bolted on a brace attached to his skull.
It’s early July 2004. The room at Littleton Adventist Hospital is bright. The lab coats and steady march of friends and family—too numerous to count—flow in like an ocean tide. Most everyone is warm, positive, enthusiastic. How ya doing, Todd?
The tracheotomy hole at the base of his neck makes it impossible to answer; the air tickles his throat. So he points to a small board of letters that the doctors gave him to communicate. His girlfriend at the time, a blond high school cheerleader, sits at Todd’s side and asks him to spell out how he’s feeling. Point to the letters, Todd. He strings together a few random letters. Katie looks confused. He’s not making sense.
He’s been awake only a few days, but he’s already come to fear the night here. Not because of the darkness that envelops the hospital room, but because of the loneliness that surrounds his mind. At night, Todd is left only with questions.
Todd survived a car crash—he’d gotten that bit from his older sister—but that was it. So far, there have been no stories of how he’d nearly died during surgery, or how his car was so badly burned that it didn’t even look like a car anymore. No one told him about the others—his three high school buddies, and that old man in the other car. They didn’t make it.
No one told Todd about the funerals and how hundreds of people showed up for them, packed the churches. No one told him about the investigation and the questions that sheriff’s investigators had been asking around town: On a scale of one to five, how responsible is Todd? Do you know what the boys were doing? Do you think Todd would drive that fast?
Ninety-three miles per hour. It was all over the news by now: Sixteen-year-old driver, 10 days with a license, four dead. Todd will have to get better before they deliver that news. Until then, Todd is here in a hospital bed, listening to the sounds of the machines that are making sure he’s still alive.
While everyone quietly worries about his future, Todd worries about his family. His parents and his sister are at his side every day. He can see the concern on their faces. Todd’s sister wonders if her little brother knows how he got here. Do you know what happened to you, Todd?
There is a pad of paper nearby. Todd scratches out a letter. I…. Then another. W… His sister watches. A… S….
During his brief existence, this is the first time Todd would see the power of the written word, the deeper meaning behind a phrase, the staggering punch of a simple, declarative sentence. These would be the first words of his new life.
I was in a car crash.