Simple choice affects lives, loved ones

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- I was 10 years, 1 month and 1 week old when I lost the first 10 years, 1 month and 6 days of my life.

I grew up in a small town in Oregon in a typical family: mom, dad and two older sisters - Tammy, who was eight years older than me, and Rhonda, who was five years older. In 1976, I was in the fourth grade. My oldest sister, Tammy, was a freshman in college about 30 miles away, and Rhonda was a sophomore in high school.

As with most little sisters, I grew up idolizing my older sisters. Especially Tammy. She was a cheerleader, ran track in high school, had tons of friends and had a great laugh. I wanted to be just like her.

In April 1976, when I got home from school and saw Tammy on the doorstep talking to my mom, you can imagine how excited I was to see her. I yelled her name and went running. My sister and her friend, Debbie, had come home to visit. They were just leaving to head back to school. My mom and I said goodbye and waved as they drove away.

Later that night, my parents were throwing a going-away party for some friends from church. During the party, the adults were upstairs and the kids were downstairs. Every time the doorbell rang, I would run halfway up the stairs to see who had arrived, so when the doorbell rang again around 9 p.m., I ran to see who else had shown up. My mom and dad answered the door.

"Are you the parents of Tamara Lee Griffith?" the man asked. My parents said yes. He said, "I'm sorry to inform you that your daughter has been involved in an accident."

My sister, Tamara Lee Griffith was born Oct. 8, 1957. She was killed by a drunk driver April 23, 1976.

I don't remember much after that. I have fuzzy snapshots in my head. After the policeman left, I remember seeing my mom standing in the kitchen, her head in her hands, crying.

As Tammy and Debbie were driving down a two-lane road back to school, another car hit them head on. Tammy died on impact. She was thrown into the dashboard, crushing her chest, killing her instantly. Debbie was alive when the paramedics got there, but she too died at the scene. The four people in the other car were hurt, but alive.

When someone dies, the funeral home holds a viewing for family and friends. I remember standing in a small room with my mom, dad and Rhonda looking at Tammy. She was laid out in her coffin, dressed in a long silk dress that she had just worn a few weeks before to a dance. Her face had a lot of makeup to cover the damage done to it during the accident. Her chest had been reshaped to look normal under her dress.

At a cemetery, everyone knows that people are buried 6 feet under the earth. I don't think you ever realize what that means until you see the gaping hole with your sister's body balanced above it, waiting to be lowered. Or later, after she had been lowered into the ground, all that dirt piled on top of her.

My sister, Tammy, was killed by a choice another driver made and the choice other passengers also made allowing that person to drive after drinking. My sister Tammy was killed by a decision she didn't have a say in. She was killed by a situation that didn't have to happen.

If someone in that car had taken a second to say, "I won't drink" or "I'll be the designated driver," none of this would have happened.

It's possible that someone reading my story has either been in a car with a driver who has been drinking or maybe even been behind the wheel after drinking. When a person decides to drink and drive, that person is only thinking of his or her own life.

"It's my life, I can do what I want."

In reality, the choices people make for their own lives can force others to live a life they would never have chosen. The choice to drink and drive does not affect only you.

Because of someone else's choice, my mom and dad have to live every day with the painful memory of losing their oldest daughter. Because of someone else's choice, the first memory of my life is as a 10-year, 1-month and 1-week old little girl sitting on the stairs hearing her sister is dead.

I have no memories of the first 10 years of my life - the only part of my life that included Tammy.

Because of someone else's choice, I have problems saying goodbye to the people I love.

I didn't realize that day in April would be the last time I ever saw Tammy alive; so now, every time my husband, Mike, leaves the house for work or the commissary or base exchange, he has to call me and tell me he made it.

My daughter got a cell phone when she was 10 years old because she decided she was old enough to ride the bus to school. I needed her to call me when she got off the bus at school to tell me she made it. As she got older and traveled for sports, the first thing she did when she arrived was call to say, "I made it, mom. I'm OK." When she started dating, she called as soon as she got to the restaurant, movies or prom to say, "I made it mom, I'm OK."

Ashlee is married now with her own family and lives in California. Whenever she travels, she still calls me to tell me she made it and that she is OK.

That is how the choice four people made 33 years ago is still affecting so many people.

I hope when people decide to drink, they think of the big picture - about other people on the roads, all their family members and friends.

Make a plan before leaving. If there's a common group of friends that often stick together, it's as simple as rotating a designated driver - someone who agrees to not consume any alcohol.

It is a simple choice.

It's better to make a plan beforehand because the likelihood of making a plan later after people have started drinking is slim. Responsible thinking is inhibited. Have a plan, and stick to it.

When presented with the choice to drink and drive, I hope people think of their mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, husband or wife.

I hope people think about how they would feel if they had to answer the door to, "Are you the parents of _____? I'm sorry to inform you that _____."

How would people feel if they got a phone call saying their child just killed someone because there wasn't a plan - because they made a choice, and that choice forces that person to live knowing someone is dead because there wasn't a plan.

Remember the little 10-year-old girl sitting on the stairs and the difficulties forced upon her - me - because of a choice someone else made to drink and drive.