Melanie Bassi’s mother promised to wake her up from a nap with a phone call on Christmas Day six years ago, but instead, she received a message from police in her Connecticut hometown. A neighbor was concerned about a large package left at the home of her parents, they said, who were visiting relatives in Florida.
Bassi went over to her parents’ house, noticed two patrol cars and helped officers bring in the package, which was from her sister. The package, though, was an excuse for officers to get her face-to-face.
“I remember them saying, ‘This is not really why we’re here,”‘ Bassi said. “The next thing I remember them saying is,’Your dad didn’t make it.’ I think I almost passed out. Everything in an instant felt different and hurt, and I didn’t want to be in my body.”
Bassi’s parents, Denise and Gerard Bassi, and grandmother, Linda McWilliams, were killed and her grandfather, Ray McWilliams, was injured when a pickup truck crashed into the back of their vehicle, which authorities say was stopped at a red light. The driver, who authorities say had in his system alcohol below the legal limit, Xanax and evidence of cocaine, pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Bassi started campaigning four years ago with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which also focuses on drugged driving. She speaks to offenders and high school students, including those at the school in Fairfield where she teaches math.
Some offenders cry or stare at her with jaws dropped as she tells her story. Occasionally they tell her she changed the way they think.
“You feel like you’re trying to make some good come of it,” Bassi said.
MADD highlighted Bassi’s case around the holidays, when drunken driving deaths typically spike. In 2011, 931 people were killed in drunken driving crashes nationwide between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve out of a total of 9,865 for the year.
Experts say drugged driving also poses a significant problem. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has set a goal of reducing drugged driving in the United States 10 percent by the year 2015.
Bassi lost a mother who was active in her life, recalling the popular Girl Scouts troop she led. Her father was a civil engineer.
“My dad was the person I always went to for any kind of life advice,” Bassi said. “I just felt like he knew about everything.”
Christmas was her parents’ favorite holiday. Her mother would blast Christmas music, decorate the house and make meals such as a rack of lamb and filet mignon.
“I don’t want to deal with Christmas really at all,” Bassi said. “It actually upsets me when we try and repeat the traditions. For me, it’s a reminder of how different things are.”
Bassi, 36, and her sisters open presents on Christmas Eve and go to the cemetery where her parents are buried, light candles and reminisce about happy memories. On Christmas, Bassi tries to distract herself by going to the movies and getting Chinese food.
Christmas isn’t the only trigger. Construction noise can remind her of her father working on the house. The smell of pumpkin bread may remind her of her mother baking.
Sometimes the reminder is pleasant; other times it retriggers the trauma.
A double rainbow that appeared during her parents’ funeral brought hope.
“A lot of times we’re OK,” Bassi said. “But it’s always lingering. You always have to keep yourself in check because there might be a smell or a sound or a voice that reminds you of something. You could fall apart in a second, but you do everything you can to keep control.”
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