One man's effort to rebuild his life—one word at at time—after tragedy strikes
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.
The city college of New York is on a hill that overlooks Harlem, a graph-paper grid of streets sketched among the buildings that constitute the Upper Manhattan skyline. Green lawns dot the neo-Gothic campus; red-brick walk-ups, tenements, cafes, and bodegas line the sidewalks that border the 164-year-old school. To the east sits the historic St. Nicholas Park, where Alexander Hamilton’s post-Revolutionary War home is located. On this busy fall afternoon, students race across the streets on their way to class or to catch the subway home—or to the library, or a bar, or a museum. Amid all of the frenetic activity—the wailing police sirens, the low rumble of trash trucks that barrel through the intersections—Todd Stansfield stands alone.
Todd is 23 now. He’s 5-foot-9, lean and muscular with dark, thinning hair, and a jaw of right angles. His piercing blue eyes look like crystal, so clear and so bright that you trust him immediately. He is polite, perhaps overly so, always wanting to please. He has an almost permanent acquiescence about him—the way he turns his eyes away. People feel his wariness. Todd Stansfield is barely an adult, but he is a convicted killer. A felon. And he worries that is all anyone will ever see.
In Parker, where he’d grown up, Todd felt embarrassed and ashamed. He’d been storefront gossip for years. He was the boy who’d ruined all those families’ lives. He was the boy who’d ruined his own future. He’d done jail time and finished high school, then graduated from college in three years—all while following his probation rules religiously, locking himself inside his parents’ home by seven every night, just like the court told him. He’d wrapped himself in a cocoon of penance, and he’d been good at it. He was one of the best kids his probation officer had ever met. She thought of him as her own son: He was thoughtful, honest—an amazing young man, she said. Still, that wasn’t enough. At home, nothing could change what he’d done.
So in October of 2009, Todd left for New York City. He moved into an apartment with his sister, Lindsay, a hospital pharmacist, who’d offered to be there for him. Todd started to rebuild his life.
Almost a year after his arrival, Todd enrolled in CCNY’s graduate writing program with dreams of one day becoming a professional author. He’d been writing for years now, first at the request of a psychologist, then for his own sanity. He could put things on paper that he’d never say to his parents.
I hate the silence; memories are so easy to come by when there is nothing to listen to…. God, my words are aggravated. It’s amazing, I never thought in my whole life I would end up here.
Back on the CCNY campus, Todd makes his way to North Academic Center, where he shows a security guard his student identification and takes a series of escalators to the sixth floor. The heat is stifling inside his narrow classroom, and the 18 students are fanning themselves with papers and manila folders. A classmate wearing a short skirt shows up late and takes a seat at the head of the long table in the middle of the room.
The students soon review their classmate’s work. Her writing is raw, with lots of sexuality and violence, and the students enjoy it. Todd raises his hand with a question: He isn’t buying one scene in which the protagonist—a young girl—is physically abused in public. “I think that part is unbelievable,” Todd tells the woman. She opens her eyes widely at the suggestion.
Todd eases into his words. The story is good, he tells her: “I just think that someone would help a girl if she were in trouble. I wouldn’t stare and do nothing.”
“Well, that’s how it happens, and I think it’s very real,” the woman shoots back.
There’s an uncomfortable pause. The professor at the other end of the table speaks up. All the students’ stories will need some work if they want a chance at getting published. “Writing is like driving a car in the fog,” she tells the class. “You’re looking at the yellow lines and trying to feel your way home. You need to anticipate the curves in the road.”
June 18, 2004. The rural landscape washes past the car windows as the two-lane road rolls like a wave—blacktop cresting, then falling away to hundreds of feet of open asphalt. Crest. Drop. Crest. Drop.
Open fields swell around the vehicle. The last trace of sun casts a dim light over the wild grasses, which are damp from summer rain showers around Parker. Inspiration Drive shines like polished glass under the car’s headlights. Todd presses the gas pedal in his 1990 Lexus sedan. The engine roars.
Todd is behind the wheel of his new car, 10 days since he earned his license and made his dad so proud. Take the car out for the night. Be back by 11. Have fun.
Up front with Todd is 16-year-old Tony Majestic. Athletic and handsome, with short dark hair and a crooked grin, Tony can disarm nearly anyone at Ponderosa High School. He’s the class cutup, bold and brash, and his friends love him for it. A few months earlier, Tony stepped into the batter’s box during a high school baseball game and blew a kiss to the opposing pitcher. The next pitch drilled Tony in the ribs. Coach made Tony run sprints after the game, and Tony laughed the entire time.
Behind Tony, Michael Budge is the yin to the other boys’ yang. Friends with Todd since the two met in middle school, the 17-year-old prefers hanging out at his church to almost any other place. He doesn’t display the same self-consciousness that seems to preoccupy other boys his age. On weekdays after school, he’ll round up friends and take them to study, then to read from the Bible and pray. He often speaks of making a difference. While other kids talk a good game, Michael measures his life with action. The previous summer, he saved $1,000 so he could travel to Mexico for two weeks and help pour a concrete foundation for an orphanage. A few months later, he started to grow his hair out. Every week, he’d sneak up behind his mother, pluck out one of her hairs, and compare the length to his.
Next to Michael is Sean Student, the new kid in the group. He turned 17 two days earlier. At 6-feet-3-inches, 210 pounds, he’s a physical presence, the captain of an elite traveling hockey team that keeps him out of school and in the Midwest two weeks out of each month. College programs have already shown interest in him. This past season, he logged 41 goals, 43 assists, and 118 minutes in the penalty box while playing through minor injuries. Most important to his mother, Sean has a 3.8 grade point average. This summer, he’ll leave Parker for a new high school and an even more high-profile team in Iowa. For now, though, Sean just wants to concentrate on being a teenager. He wants to spend time with his friends.
Who knows what they were doing on Inspiration Drive? Years later, Todd couldn’t remember. There’d been dinner earlier in town with a bunch of other friends and talk of going to a movie. No drinking. No drugs. Just teenagers out having a good time.
The speed-limit sign reads 40 miles per hour. Todd’s foot is down. Forty-five. Fifty. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five.
Up ahead, Marvin Gilchrist is driving home. The 77-year-old former volunteer fire chief had left a friend’s house a few minutes earlier. He’d eaten dinner, had some wine, and watched the Colorado Rockies on television. He made a right onto Inspiration Drive and gained speed in the burgundy Chrysler convertible he’d bought his wife for their 50th anniversary the previous year, a few months before she died of complications from cancer.
At 8 p.m., a driver behind Gilchrist sees a pair of headlights cross into the oncoming lane. It’s like slow motion: Todd’s car skids sideways toward the convertible. The Lexus’ passenger side slams into Gilchrist’s hood, contorting the vehicles into instant heaps of tangled metal and glass. The Chrysler is blown backward onto the dirt shoulder. Gilchrist is dead.
The Lexus rolls and lands upright, next to Gilchrist’s vehicle. Michael and Tony’s side of the car is annihilated. The glass is gone. Their doors are smashed in. The roof is caved. The car catches fire.
The witness pulls off the road, gets out of his car, and rushes toward the crumpled vehicles. The twilight is broken only by the fire. He sees Michael and Tony. There aren’t any sounds as the flames reach the boys. They’re both dead. The man then runs to the other side of the Lexus and sees Todd and Sean. They’re both alive. He pulls them out of the car.
A few hundred yards away, a neighbor hears the crash. He races to the scene and sees the two bloodied boys unconscious outside the burning Lexus. He blasts the car with a fire extinguisher, but it still burns. The boys are dragged away from the vehicle.
Someone calls 9-1-1, and within minutes firefighters and Douglas County sheriff’s deputies flood the site. A paramedic intubates Sean and works on him for almost five minutes. The injuries are grim: His pelvis is fractured; his face mashed. He’s loaded into an ambulance. A few feet away, Todd’s unconscious. The paramedics strap him down and send him away too.
It took a team of doctors at Littleton Adventist Hospital nearly six hours to put Todd back together. Both of his lungs were collapsed. His neck was broken. His diaphragm was ripped. Most of his organs were pushed into his chest. He almost died on the table. Severe life-threatening injuries, not expected to survive, a doctor wrote on Todd’s file. He’s now in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
In another room, Sean is unconscious. His family is led to his bedside. Karen Student has seen her boy almost every day of his life, but now she only recognizes him from the bottoms of his size 13 feet and from his short-cropped brown hair. Both of his eyes are blackened.
The family sits and waits. By 5:45 a.m., doctors tell Sean’s family that there’s nothing more they can do. They agonize over the decision they have to make. Eventually, Sean’s parents sign some papers and Sean is taken off life support. Karen sits in a chair next to her son’s bed, holding his hand. It’s cold to the touch. It takes him 35 minutes to die. When she finally lets go, Sean’s hand is warm again.
Todd Stansfield grew up at the corner of Seibert Circle and South Edinborough Way in Parker. Kids in the neighborhood played roller hockey in the street, tossed water balloons, and challenged one another to video games in their parents’ basements. At night, they would raid friends’ refrigerators and hang out in backyards—boys atop sleeping bags, staring into the vast darkness and talking about the girls they wanted to ask out.
Todd was the younger of Todd Sr. and Maryanne Stansfield’s two children, born March 11, 1988. At first, he was simply known as “The Baby” because his parents hadn’t settled on a name. Maryanne wanted to name the boy after her husband because she was certain the little bundle in her arms would embody her spouse’s greatest attributes—loyalty, friendliness, and most important to her, dedication to family. Todd Sr. wasn’t sure. How could you tell what kind of kid he was just by looking at him? So the boy’s parents took him home. About three weeks after his birth, it was official: Todd would be his name.
Todd’s father was an insurance salesman, and his mother stayed home until Todd turned seven, then took a part-time job with United Airlines so the family could travel the world together on a discount. During the summers, the Stansfields visited places like Australia, England, and France.
When he wasn’t globe-trotting, Todd was busy playing sports. In elementary school, it was soccer. In middle school, football and track. By Todd’s sophomore year at Ponderosa High School, he’d eased his way into the popular crowd. He was an A and B student who’d become captain of the school’s varsity track team and was just three seconds short of qualifying for the state meet in the 800-meter event. As part of his training, he punished himself with five-mile runs, some in 95-degree heat, others in the cold of winter. Michael Budge once saw Todd sprinting along the path behind his home. He went inside and told his mother that he’d never known anyone like Todd before.
Todd was also the starting fullback on the junior varsity football team. Though he weighed only 150 pounds, No. 22 regularly ran over teenagers 50 pounds heavier. He scored more than 10 touchdowns that season—including three in the JV championship versus Highlands Ranch High School, which Ponderosa won. It would be his last game.
Todd woke up three weeks after the accident in the intensive care unit at Littleton Adventist. He regained a bit of weight and was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Six weeks after the crash, he was relearning how to walk and could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. His parents thought he was finally ready to know.
One morning at Craig, Todd Sr. led his son, still in a wheelchair, into a conference room and closed the door behind them. Maryanne was already there. A social worker and a psychiatrist, both from Craig, were also there.
Todd’s father spoke. Three friends were with you: Tony. Michael. Sean. You hit another man in a car. They’re all dead. Todd, they said you were going 93 miles per hour.
A man in a dark suit—Todd soon learned he was an attorney—came into the room. Todd would be charged, the man said. Don’t worry about that now. Focus on getting better. Later, Todd wrote:
I didn’t cry, not at first. All I could think about was the hours I had spent trying to remember my accident. The harder I tried, the more I found myself imagining it happen [sic] than anything. I crashed into a tree a hundred different times, in daylight and at dusk, in rain and sunshine. I never imagined crashing into another car, another person.
In the 16 months before Todd’s accident, at least nine teenagers died in Colorado vehicle crashes. Most involved reckless driving; some were alcohol-related. In this particular case, four people were dead, but Todd had survived. And now, it appeared, he would pay.
Returning home from Craig Hospital in late August of 2004, Todd felt like he was in a foreign body. His arms were pockmarked from the broken glass; the brace was still screwed into his skull; the tracheotomy scar was bright red and had just begun to heal. Todd drifted between depression and angst. He’d closed himself off to most people—including his parents—and fixated on his guilt and his fear of a potential prison sentence. Prosecutors by now had intimated that Todd could be tried as an adult, and the sentence could exceed 20 years. Vehicular homicide charges were filed in November. Maryanne worried that her son would get raped or killed—or both—in prison. Inside the Stansfields’ once peaceful home, Todd’s father yelled about the unfairness of it all, about how prosecutors seemed to want a fifth victim.
While facing the felony charges against him, Todd had signed a bond that prevented him from getting within two blocks of his old high school. After he left the hospital, he’d been homeschooled. That winter, Todd and his mother met with Ponderosa administrators to discuss Todd’s options. The vice principal suggested Todd attend a private, Christian high school a few miles from home.
Shut out of his school and shut off from most of his friends, Todd enrolled in Lutheran High School Parker. His parents hired a psychologist who encouraged Todd to write about the grief he was facing. He put pen to paper, and a month later he’d written more than 10,000 words. He met regularly with his psychologist and continued to write. He even started a story about his friends. Months later, he couldn’t find the courage to finish it.
His dead friends’ parents, meanwhile, had already begun defending him. Tony’s parents didn’t want to see their son’s friend hurt further. Ivan Majestic and his wife, Mary, had gotten to know Todd over the years, mostly over breakfasts of Cheerios when Todd stayed the night at their home. Ivan called Sherri Budge, Michael’s mother, and asked if she thought two wrongs could make a right. Sherri did not. The day after the crash, she’d visited Todd at the hospital; he was in a medically induced coma. Sherri held Todd’s hand. “I want you to know that Michael loved you,” she said. “We both love you.”
Even before they spoke on the phone, Ivan and Sherri had misgivings about the investigation. During a briefing a few days after the crash, investigators presented their theories about the wreck, including Todd’s speed. Sherri brought her two brothers along; one was an engineer who helped design vehicle air bags, and he questioned the angles of impact, which would have affected the speed calculations. The measurements had been taken at night, when clues could have been missed. The road was opened for morning traffic and cars were rolling over the accident scene. This isn’t conclusive, Sherri’s brother said.
Tony’s and Michael’s parents were prepared to fight, but Sean Student’s family had receded from the spotlight. Sean’s mother, Karen, showed up at court hearings but stayed away from the other families. Sean’s father and younger brother were rarely seen. While the other boys’ parents fought to keep Todd out of prison, the Students wanted to remain neutral, to let things play out in court.
Sherri and Ivan obtained the investigation files and pored over the 400-plus pages. The pair noticed that investigators hired an independent crash-scene reconstruction team—and just as Sherri’s brother had suggested, the initial speed calculations appeared to be incorrect. A new calculation dropped Todd’s speed from around 93 miles per hour to a range: 68 at the low end, 71 at the high end. No one had told the families about the adjustments. Todd was still nearly 30 miles per hour above the speed limit, but it was dramatically lower than what they’d been led to believe.
Then one night, Ivan called Sherri and told her to flip to the coroner reports. “Do you see what I see?” he asked. Marvin Gilchrist’s blood-alcohol level was 0.076, just below the limit of 0.08. If Gilchrist had been pulled over seconds before the crash, or if he’d lived, he could have been charged with driving while ability impaired.
By mid 2005, the case was still hung up in court and there was no resolution in sight. Were Todd’s case to go to trial, Gilchrist’s blood-alcohol content could be admitted in court. Ivan and Sherri had taken the Douglas County sheriff’s investigative findings to the media and now were openly criticizing forensic work on the case. Juvenile justice groups jumped in, too, organizing protests outside the courthouse during Todd’s hearings and circulating a petition against prosecuting him as an adult. A similar case in Jefferson County in 2003—in which a 16-year-old killed three friends and injured nine others—resulted in 12 years of probation.
In August 2005, 14 months after the wreck, prosecutors and Todd’s attorney reached a deal. Todd would plead guilty to two felony counts of criminally negligent homicide—one for the deaths of the three boys, and one for the death of Marvin Gilchrist—but he would avoid prison. He would serve 90 days in a juvenile jail, 12 years of probation, and complete 1,200 hours of community service.
Gilchrist’s family was outraged. For months, they’d advocated that Todd be tried as an adult. They’d gotten friends to write letters saying the boy should pay for his crime. Now their father was being treated as the reason for the wreck. They felt like pariahs, having to be led through a back door of the courthouse to avoid protesters who showed up for the sentencing on September 16.
Inside the courtroom that day, Todd wore Tony’s orange short-sleeved shirt. Before the sentencing, Todd stood and tried to apologize to the families. He broke down. Instead, he faced the judge. “I’m so sorry for all the pain and suffering this accident caused,” Todd sobbed. “I know this has been stressful on victims’ families. I’m so sorry.... I think about them every day.”
On his first night in jail, Todd was put into an 8-by-11 cell. When he was allowed to, he would write with the nub of a pencil:
I wake today with hopes for a better tomorrow / A day when the sky will be painted by God’s blushing sunrise / A day when worry will be limited by the very happiness I seek / A day many dream of and few ever experience / A day when I will be healed from these self-inflicted wounds.
Todd kept up with his classwork and graduated in May 2006 (his plea agreement prevented him from walking during graduation ceremonies), then he enrolled at Metropolitan State College of Denver where he studied business. Every day, he’d ride public transportation home, where he’d study, write, and check in with his probation officer—four times each night—before he went to bed. His mother worried about him. Shortly after Todd’s 21st birthday, when a court-mandated driving restriction was lifted, Maryanne told her son that he should drive the family car around the neighborhood with her. Todd was uneasy, but he made it a mile before returning to the driveway. He handed his mother the keys.
“That was good,” Maryanne said. “What did you think?”
“I think I’m fine, Mom.”
Todd drove infrequently after that, and rarely more than a few miles from home.
By the spring of 2009, Todd had finished college. His sister, Lindsay, had already invited Todd to live with her in New York. His mother pushed the idea, but it wasn’t until October of that year that Todd got clearance to transfer his supervision. In New York, he’d have to have regular urine tests and occasional strip searches. He’d also have a 9 p.m. curfew. Todd couldn’t wait to move.
Ivan Majestic sits at the kitchen table in his home just outside Parker, a ranch house with a deck, a barbecue grill, and a long dirt driveway, flanked on each side by brush and yucca. He’s staring at the hutch in the corner of the room, at the bronze urn behind the glass.
The urn is beautiful, a miniature mountain with an eagle soaring at its peak; the bronze reflects the sunlight. The hutch is like a time capsule, a shrine to a boy who will never grow old. There’s a photo of Tony in his baseball uniform—hands on hips, a wide, bright, mischievous smile splashed across his face—and another picture of him dressed up for Halloween as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. At the bottom, in a sealed white bag marked “MAJESTIC, ANTHONY,” are the belongings Tony was carrying the night he died: keys, wallet, spare change. On another shelf is a ball Tony gave to his dad on Father’s Day nearly 11 years ago. The date is written in black ink across the cowhide: June 18, 2000. Four years, to the day, before the crash that would take his life.
There’s the old cliché that time heals all wounds. But sit here with Ivan Majestic—at the table where he watched his boy so many years ago—and see him stare at the urn that holds what’s left of his son. When you lose a child, he says, you mourn the death of the present and of the future. All the what-ifs in life. What would Tony have done after high school? What would he be doing right now? “There’s a range of emotions,” Ivan says. He has a tattoo of his son’s face on his left arm. “There’s denial and anger. Some people get depressed. It changes you. Am I a better or worse person today? No. Am I a different person? Of course I am.”
A few miles across town on a snowy winter night several weeks later, Marvin Gilchrist’s son sips a beer while his wife sits by his side in a Mexican restaurant. It’s been more than a year since Scott Gilchrist learned that Todd left town to start a new life—news that makes him question whether justice was served in his father’s case. “I don’t know that Todd is truly sorry,” the 55-year-old auto-body shop owner says. Scott is stocky, and a gray goatee hangs below his chin. “You always hear people say there’s a reason for everything. Well, what was the reason for this?”
He says that, yes, his father was an old man; that, at the age of 77, who knows how many years Marvin Gilchrist had left? His father was drinking, yes, but he wasn’t drunk. The sheriff’s investigators said it wouldn’t have mattered. How many people could have gotten around a car going that fast, slipping sideways into an oncoming lane? “It’s ridiculous,” Scott says, shaking his head. His wife reaches for his hand. “It’s like every time we went to that courthouse, with all those protestors supporting Todd, that we were being victimized again,” Janet Gilchrist says. “It’s like everyone forgot what had happened. Four people died, and Todd was behind the wheel. Todd had sole responsibility over that crash.”
The two think about what could make their lives easier, or at least could help them move beyond the anger they still feel. Janet says she’d like to hear from Todd, “but only if he’s really sorry.” Scott says he will never be able to forgive Todd, especially since the move. “It’s too late,” he says. “Why did Todd have to go to New York? So he could get away from this? When do I get to run away?”
Todd Showers and pours himself a glass of milk inside the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment. He stands next to the refrigerator, stripped to the waist, his exposed flesh a scarred patchwork of lines and squares and circles. There’s a buttonhook from the middle of his chest down to his belly button, where a surgeon cut him open and sewed his diaphragm together. There’s a raised patch the size of a quarter over his stomach, where a feeding tube was inserted. Two other circular scars dot his ribs on the right—another on the left—where more tubes inflated his collapsed lungs.
Todd moves to his bedroom, turns on an overhead light, and half-closes the door. It’s a weekday morning and Todd hunches over his desk, a glass-top no larger than a briefcase. He sits at the keyboard in the yellow light of his bedroom and waits. Todd wishes he could remember that night. It’s haunted him all these years—in his bed at home in Colorado, in his jail cell, and now here, where he’d gone to escape the ghosts but now finds himself chasing them with his fingertips.
Think of how great it would be to see the future. Where would I be? Where would my friends be? Who would they be? None of this...would exist.
A few blocks away, Lindsay walks her chihuahua-terrier mix, Bella, through the streets and heads to a dog park near the Queensboro Bridge. Her hair is shoulder-length and brown, and is pulled into a ponytail. She works the 2 to 10 p.m. shift at a nearby hospital, which means she has only a sliver of time each weekday to see her brother. When she returns home from work at night, she takes the dog for a walk. Like clockwork, Todd heats water for tea and serves it to Lindsay in a cup and saucer when she gets back. Later, they turn on the television and watch reruns of The Office before heading for bed.
The two rarely talk about the crash. The times Lindsay has tried to bring up the accident, Todd’s gone quiet, then started to cry. “I want to talk to Todd, but he shuts down,” Lindsay says. “How’s he really feeling? I’m not sure, because we haven’t been able to go there. I think Todd struggles with opening up about the accident. It hurts to think what kind of pain he must be in.”
Every few months, Todd’s parents offer to pay for therapy, and Lindsay’s encouraged it. Not long ago, Maryanne asked Todd if he wanted to fix the marble-size tracheotomy scar at the base of his neck. Todd wore T-shirts under collared shirts after the crash in an attempt to hide the hole, but now he tells his mother that he’s accepted the scar as part of who he is. “It makes you wonder if this is how he’s punishing himself,” his mother says. “The only thing I want is to see my son smile again. I want my old Todd back.”
Inside his room, Todd throws on his scrubs—a white smock and powder-blue pants—a gray fleece jacket, a backpack, and heads out the door. There are 18 subway stops between Todd’s place in Midtown Manhattan and New York Methodist Hospital in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he volunteers 200 hours a year as part of his probation requirements.
When Todd exits the train, the morning wind along Seventh Avenue is blowing hard. He raises his shoulders to escape the chill and heads through the hospital’s glass doors and up an elevator. He goes to the volunteer office to check in and soon is back down a phalanx of stairs, out another door, and into a second building where the physical therapy department is located.
“Hey, Todd!” someone calls out.
There are 10 padded tables lined up in the long, narrow room, with weights and a treadmill up front, and a sitting area in the back where rehabilitating patients get heat and ice treatments after workouts. Todd makes his way to the chairs to begin his work, and one of the therapists steps in his way.
“Whatcha reading now, Todd?” the woman asks.
“Orwell,” Todd says. “Some Gertrude Stein.”
“Stein,” the woman says. “Haven’t read her since high school. Let me know what you think.”
Within a few minutes, Todd is all helpfulness and courtesy. He organizes the exercise balls, strips linens from tables, and tosses the laundry into a bin. Soon, he’s icing a man’s knee and a woman’s shoulder. He cleans the underwater treadmill in the back room, ices another knee, and heats a back and a shoulder and an ankle and a calf. All the while he’s getting directions from the half-dozen-or-so physical therapists around the room. Todd, can you take this patient? Todd, can you reserve that table? Todd….
None of the therapists knows what Todd’s done to be here, and Todd’s not telling them. He just wants to work. So when people ask why he was here 250 hours last year—50 more than his sentence called for—why he pulled entire shifts for no pay, he answers simply, “I like it.”
Around noon, Todd spies a group of therapists huddled near the front door. Someone turns off the lights. One of them, a man, calls out.
“Todd,” he says. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”
“I’m alright, but thank—thank you.”
“Seriously, Todd, you need lunch.” The rest of the group waves him over.
Todd’s face goes flush. He’s frozen.
“I’m good,” he says.
“Really, Todd, come on.”
He lies that the volunteer office doesn’t want its workers mingling with paid hospital staff.
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to go,” one therapist says. “We’d love for you to join us.”
Todd gives a half-smile and watches the group head out the door. He exhales and walks to one of the chairs in the back of the room. He puts his head in his hands.
Now, see Todd Stansfield in the half-light of this hospital in Brooklyn, New York, and ask yourself: Has he suffered enough? If not, how much is enough? No one can answer those questions, at least not now. Maybe not ever.
When Todd finishes graduate school, he’d like to find a job at a university where he can teach other writers, where he is happy and carefree and can focus on nothing but a perfectly turned sentence. He’ll work in a place that is friendly and inviting. He’s sure of that. He’d like to move back to Colorado. It won’t be to Parker—at least that’s what he says now. Give him until 2017, though—after his 29th birthday, when his probation ends—and maybe he’ll change his mind.
By then, perhaps he’ll have a place of his own, with an office and a wooden desk and a big, leather chair. Maybe he’ll have a car, too; one he will drive carefully down some street on his way to having morning coffee with a girlfriend or a wife who loves and understands Todd for who he is.
And then, maybe…well, who knows?
Until then, Todd works at the hospital. He goes to class. He has an internship at Fiction, a well-regarded literary journal. He is home before curfew. He writes, trying to work out the great riddle of his life one letter at a time.
And he dreams. Todd has seen his friends again. He’s written about it. They’re sitting inside his car.
And all at once, it becomes clear to me what I have to do; this is my second chance, and I am not going to waste it. But first, I wait to see those three perfect smiles just one last time. Slowly, I smile at each of them and they smile back at me. I nod my head and clear the tears from my eyes. With my right hand, I take the key out of the ignition and with my left I open the door. My face is still facing theirs and with my last words, I say to them, “I love you guys.”
In his dream, Todd throws his car keys into a nearby field. And then he runs away.
Robert Sanchez, 5280’s senior staff writer, profiled Tom Tancredo in the February issue. E-mail Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.