My Mom Was Killed Crossing The Street. Years Later, Here's What I Still Struggle To Accept.

"She had the right of way. There were no visibility issues. It was the day before her 65th birthday."
The author and her mom, circa 1977.
The author and her mom, circa 1977.
Courtesy of Milena Nigam

According to recent findings from the Governors Highway Safety Association, U.S. pedestrian deaths rose 77% between 2010 and 2021, and the number of pedestrian fatalities in 2022 was the highest in the past 41 years. Factors contributing to these rising numbers are thought to include an uptick in risky driving behaviors, as well as a lack of sidewalks and good lighting. The increases are largely driven by nighttime fatalities.

In October 2011, my mom was hit by a car in a crosswalk in the middle of a beautiful, clear morning in Washington, D.C. She had the right of way. There were no visibility issues. It was the day before her 65th birthday. She and my stepfather had tickets to attend a play that night, but instead, she died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

To say her death was a shock is an understatement. Our family had spent the prior weekend together in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, celebrating my mom’s upcoming birthday. It rained. We went bowling. My young sons jumped on my mom and stepfather’s hotel bed. We laughed watching my sister’s baby wiggle-dance in her highchair, delighted with her tiny bites of cheeseburger and melon.

The day my mom died, the strangest little thought went through my head on the walk to my job at the University of Pittsburgh: our family, mostly, had been spared from tragedy. I was momentarily swept off balance — tempting fate — but two seconds later easily tilted upright. It was a perfect fall day — crisp, with the Pittsburgh air unusually clean. I carried an Indian potato salad to share at a work potluck. Six hours later, I was in the car with my husband and sons, heading to Washington and making stunned phone calls to relatives and friends.

The driver hadn’t fled the scene of the accident. I don’t know whether he was on his phone when he struck my mom. There was a doctor on-site who later told us that my mom showed no signs of suffering. The Washington news played images of my mom’s high heels lined up by the side of the road, obviously staged and cruelly intimate. An old friend I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years emailed to say she’d been in an apartment building by the intersection at the time of the incident, and had seen the emergency vehicles without knowing the victim was my mom.

There’s something so difficult to accept about an avoidable death. If she’d arrived at the intersection half a minute later. If the driver had stopped longer at an earlier light. If the driver had paid attention at the most significant moment. If he’d driven slower. If she’d walked faster. Perversely, if the weather had been anything but clear and the sky not blue.

The less the accident makes sense and the more the incredible unlikelihood of chance, the darker the thinking goes. There were days soon after my mom’s death when family members speculated that it could have been for hire. Those were the nights I didn’t sleep, imagining a world so upside down that there might have been someone out there who had wanted my mom dead — and made it happen. I was able to face my grief more easily when that outlandish chatter dimmed to silence. But really, we were all just trying to understand.

These are some of the things that my mom missed out on: a fourth grandchild, and saying goodbye to my stepfather’s mother. Chess matches, lacrosse games, school musicals. Tennis state championships, high school graduations, college searches. My husband’s gray hair. My gray hair. Our purchase of the lake house where she spent her childhood summers. My first published story. Travels and dinners with her husband. Freshly cut flowers. Phone calls with the grandchildren. Zoom calls. Thanksgivings. Silly faces. Art projects. Poems.

These are some of the things that we’ve missed: her conversation, her humor, her curiosity, her generosity, her style. Her indignant letters to airlines and the service industry. Her voice. The weight of her hand on a shoulder.

Last spring, a woman in her 30s was struck and killed at a five-way intersection half a mile from my house. The crossing guard who worked the intersection hasn’t returned since the accident.

A writing instructor shared with our online class that her neighbor had been hit by a car on their street in Brooklyn.

Just recently, I almost ran a red light. I wasn’t paying attention, driving on Penn Avenue through East Liberty in Pittsburgh — a route I could narrate with my eyes closed. People had set up a folding table along the sidewalk: women resting their shopping bags; men with plastic chairs pushed way back, their legs splayed wide; a young guy with a baby in a stroller. There are always people hanging around on Penn Avenue and, when a traffic light changes, at least a handful of pedestrians are waiting to cross.

I was halfway into the crosswalk when I understood the red light in front of me and slammed on the brakes. Miraculously, no one was in my path. Miraculously, I was not the cause of someone’s inconceivable tragedy.

After my mom died, I wondered to my husband whether anyone could have been that driver. Whether anyone could make that kind of mistake. My husband didn’t think so.

I don’t speed or drive aggressively. I don’t drive under the influence. And yet, aren’t we all, to some extent, distracted when we’re in our cars? I’ve seen people barrel through stop signs and around school buses with kids. Those are children who need our watchful care. I drive carefully, sometimes make mistakes, let my attention wander, refocus. Others don’t even try to drive carefully. I’m worried about what feels like an increasing lack of empathy in our society, an increasing determination to insist on the self at all costs. What about community? What about our shared responsibility to keep each other safe?

I don’t know why my mom was struck and killed on that beautiful day in 2011. It was an accident that shouldn’t have happened. With funding, we can add more sidewalks and improve lighting, but what are we going to do about aggressive driving? About distractions? About too little empathy? And what about plain old accidents? They happen every day, all over the world. They’re impossible to accept, and yet we have no choice.

Even after 12 years, there are still days when I think I can pick up the phone to call my mom. We have a new photo of her four grandchildren — now ages 10, 13, 18 and 20 — taken at the end of the summer that I so desperately want to send to her. I want my oldest son to take her birding during a visit to his college in Maine. I want to sit next to her in the audience of my younger son’s high school performance of “Sweeney Todd.” I want to bring her flowers that my husband has grown from seedlings in our basement. I want to just sit with her outside on a beautiful fall day with the sun on our faces.

Milena Nigam’s work has been featured in Scary Mommy, Off Assignment and Litro. You can find more of her writing at

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