Submitted by Denise Finch
“Life as you know it will never be the same.”
I never truly understood those words until the morning of May 19, 2007. I was standing at the East Allen Ring at Los Angeles Equestrian Center giving my teenage student her plan for her children’s hunter round when my mom called me multiple times. I kept hitting silent, and going back to coaching my student. Just a couple of minutes later my husband who had been back at the barn walked up and said in a shaken tone, “Derek’s dead.” That is all he could mutter. Life as I knew it was most certainly over, and could never possibly be the same because my best friend, my little brother, was dead at the age of nearly 21.
On January 4, 2016, the families of both Sophie Walker and Andres Rodriguez would feel the same.
Derek J. Walters was killed by a drunk driver in the almost the exact same manner as Sophie Walker. He wasn’t hit by a stranger who was reckless; it wasn’t being in the wrong place at the wrong time; it was someone he knew and trusted whose car he chose to get in. It was nearly 5:00 am and they only went a mile away from my brother’s house where he’d thrown a typical Huntington Beach house party the night before. Derek didn’t know his driver had been drinking and smoked pot, but he himself was intoxicated and just wanted some late night tacos. The driver lost control of the car and slammed into a large palm tree only on the passenger side which resulted in my brother dying at the scene. Unlike Andres, the driver got to walk away without injury.
Please do not read between the lines. At no time am I trying to portray Andres in a bad light because he was the one driving. But the truth of the matter is both Sophie and Andres’ life was worth something to a lot of people. Furthermore, I know that their deaths could have been prevented so easily, and this article wouldn’t have been written (at least not yet). Maybe some of you feel it is too soon to talk about this and it just isn’t the right time to bring it up. But I’m here to tell you, this is the perfect time.
Everyone that knew them is grieving, people like myself that didn’t know them are grieving, but we all need to learn from this grief and take what shred of good can come out of it. This is the time to let the memories of those three giant personalities and their infectious smile save other lives.
I’ve never really felt compelled to do much in a way of using my brother’s death for good because thinking about it just crushes me like it did that day in May 2007. But on Monday, January 4, I suddenly felt the need to speak up and use the past 8 ½ years of my life to send a message that is long overdue.
Driving while under the influence is a national epidemic, and the social scene around horse shows is no exception. We all know about this; no one really talks about, but the silence is deafening. I’m calling everyone out! I’m pointing out the tipsy 600-pound elephant in the room, and I’m daring you to do the same.
I could throw out statistics about how many people die in our country from drinking and driving, but we seem to hear about that daily on the news. What you need to know is that it could happen to you too. Consider this for a moment: maybe you don’t have a tragic ending like so many do each day, but because you had one too many cocktails at the horse show bar or your favorite hot spot after the last class of the day and chose to drive, you kill someone else . Could you live with yourself?
What if you were on the other end of something like this and you didn’t live? Think about how leaving your family without you for the rest of their lives would affect them. I’m here to tell you that it will ruin them in a way that is the most heartbreaking thing to watch and even worse to personally experience.
No one deserves the kind of pain I have had to learn to live with.
So the next time you’re raising a glass to celebrate your victories or drown the spoils of your day, please consider that people love you and they need you to get to your next destination safely for yourself, for your loved ones and everyone else on the roads around you. I dare you to make stories of leaving the Taverns and Tack Rooms a drunken mess a thing of the past. Please think of Sophie and Andres’ infectious smiles, (Derek’s was just as infectious I must say) and in those moments you see their faces or recall a memory you shared, call a cab, call an Uber, or ask a sober friend to take you home.
Because if you don’t, I will promise you this: life as you know it will never be the same.