Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Somebody is to Blame for This

This is not a post about programming, or being a geek. In all likelihood, this is not a post you will enjoy reading. Consider yourselves warned.

I don't remember how I found this Moth video of comedian Anthony Griffith.

It is not a fun thing to watch, especially as a parent. Even though I knew that before I went in, I willingly chose to watch this video. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. I watched it five times, ten times. I am all for leaning into the pain, but I started to wonder if maybe I was addicted to the pain. I think my dumb programmer brain was stuck in an endless loop trying to make sense out of what happened here.

But you don't make sense of a tragedy like this. You can't. There are no answers.

My humor is becoming dark, and it's biting, and it's becoming hateful. And the talent coordinator is seeing that there's a problem, because NBC is all about nice, and everything is going to be OK. And we're starting to buck horns because he wants everything light, and I want to be honest and tell life, and I'm hurting, and I want everybody else to hurt. Because somebody is to blame for this!

The unbearable grief demands that someone must be to blame for this unimaginably terrible thing that is happening to you, this deeply, profoundly unfair tragedy. But there's nobody. Just you and this overwhelming burden you've been given. So you keep going, because that's what you're supposed to do. Maybe you get on stage and talk about it. That's about all you can do.

So that's what I'm going to do.

Five weeks ago, I was selected for jury duty in a medical malpractice trial.

This trial was the story of a perfectly healthy man who, in the summer of 2008, was suddenly killed by a massive blood clot that made its way to his heart, after a surgery to repair a broken leg. Like me, he would have been 41 years old today. Like me, he married his wife in the summer of 1999. Like me, he had three children; two girls and a boy. Like me, he had a promising, lucrative career in IT.

I should have known I was in trouble during jury selection. When they called your name, you'd come up from the juror pool – about 50 people by my estimation – and sit in the jury booth while both lawyers asked you some questions to determine if you'd be a fair and impartial juror for this trial. What I hadn't noticed at the time, because she was obscured by a podium, is that the wife was sitting directly in front of the jury. I heard plenty of people get selected and make up some bogus story about how they couldn't possibly be fair and impartial to get out of this five week obligation. And they did, if they stuck to their story. But sitting there myself, in front of the wife of this dead man, I just couldn't do it. I couldn't bring myself to lie when I saw on her face that her desire not to be there was a million times more urgent than mine.

Now, I'm all for civic duty, but five weeks in a jury seemed like a bit more than my fair share. Even worse, I was an alternate juror, which meant all of the responsibility of showing up every day and listening, but none of the actual responsibility of contributing to the eventual verdict. I was expecting crushing boredom, and there was certainly plenty of that.

On day one, during opening remarks, we were treated to multiple, giant projected photographs of the three happy children with their dead father – directly in front of the very much still alive wife. She had to leave the courtroom at one point.

The first person we heard testimony from was this man's father, who was and is a practicing doctor. He was there when his son was rushed to the emergency room. He was allowed to observe as the emergency room personnel worked, so he described to the jury the medical process of treatment, his son thrashing around on the emergency room table being intubated, his heart stopping and being revived. As a doctor, he knows what this means.

On day two, we heard from the brother-in-law, also a doctor, and close friend of the family. He described coming home from the hospital to explain to the children that their father was dead, that he wasn't coming home. The kids were not old enough to understand what death means, so for a year afterward, every time they drove by the hospital, they would ask to visit their dad.

I did not expect to learn what death truly was in a courtroom in Martinez, California, at age 41. But I did. Death is a room full of strangers listening to your loved ones describe, in clinical detail and with tears in their eyes, your last moments. Boredom, I can deal with. This is something else entirely.

As a juror, you're ordered not to discuss the trial with anyone, so that you can form a fair and impartial opinion based on the shared evidence that everyone saw in the courtroom together. So I'm taking all this in and I'm holding it down, like I'm supposed to. But it's hard. I feel like becoming a parent has opened emotional doors in me that I didn't know existed, so it's getting to me.

Sometime later, the wife finally testifies. She explains that on the night of the incident, her husband finally felt well enough after the surgery on his right leg to read a bedtime story to their 4 year old son. So she happily leaves father and son to have their bedtime ritual together. Later, the son comes rushing in and tells her there's something wrong with dad, and the look on his face is enough to let her know that it's dire. She found him collapsed on the floor of her son's room and calls 911.

A week later, I was putting our 4 year old son Henry to bed. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was the first time I had put him to bed since the trial started. Henry isn't quite old enough to have a stable sleep routine, so sometimes bedtime goes well, and sometimes it doesn't. It went well that particular night, so I'm happy lying there with him in the bed waiting for his breathing to become regular so I know he's fully asleep. And then the next thing I know I'm breaking down. Badly. I'm desperately trying to hold it together because I don't want to scare him, and he doesn't need to know about any of this. But I can't stop thinking about what it would feel like for my wife to see pictures of me with our children if I died. I can't stop thinking about what it would feel like to watch Henry die on an emergency room table at age 38. I can't stop thinking about what it would feel like to explain to someone else's children that their father is never coming home again. Most of all, I can't stop thinking about the other 4 year old boy who will never stop blaming himself because he saw his Dad collapse on the floor of his room, and then never saw him again for the rest of his life.

Somebody is to blame for this. Somebody must be to blame for this.

Now I urgently want this trial to be over. I'm struggling to understand the purpose of it all. Nothing we see or do in this courtroom is bringing a husband and father back from the dead. The plaintiff could be home with her children. The parade of doctors and hospital staff making their way through this courtroom could be helping patients. The jurors could be working at their jobs. My God how I would love to be doing my job rather than this, anything in the world other than this. A verdict for either party has immense cost. Nobody is in this courtroom because they want to be here. So why?

I don't know these people. I don't care about these people. I mean, it's in my job description as a juror: I am fair and impartial because I don't care what happens to them. But finally I realized that this trial is part of our ride.

We get on the ride because we know there will be thrills and chills. Nobody gets on a rollercoaster that goes in a straight line. That's what you sign up for when you get on the ride with the rest of us: there will be highs, and there will be lows. And those lows – whether they are, God forbid, your own, or someone else's – are what make the highs so sweet. The ride is what it is because the pain of those valleys teaches us.

Sharing this tragic, horrible, private thing that happened to these poor people is how we cope. Watching this play out in public, among your peers, among other fellow human beings, is what it takes to for all of us to survive and move on. We're here in this courtroom together because we need to be here. It's part of the ride.

I've heard and seen things in that courtroom I think I will remember for the rest of my life. It's been difficult to deal with, though I am sure it is the tiniest reflected fraction of what you and your family went through. I am so, so sorry this happened to you. But I want to thank you for sharing it with me, because I now know that I am to blame. We're all to blame.

That's what makes us human.

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Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror