By Gretchen Voss | April 20, 2015 | Lifestyle
After forgiving the motorist who killed their daughter, Anna and Richard Levitan turned their grief into a crusade against texting while driving.
It is, quite simply, unthinkable. The “what if” question that no parent wants to contemplate: What if my child died?
It was certainly not a question that Anna Cheshire Levitan—founder of 5th Street East Production Launch and a former executive editor of this magazine— and her husband, Richard, ever asked themselves. No, theirs was a reasonably charmed life, raising three children in a beautiful brownstone on Beacon Street and later in the leafy enclave of Milton, where the kids attended the prestigious private school Milton Academy.
Brilliant, adventurous, and unfailingly present, Merritt, their oldest daughter, was “extraordinary,” Anna says. She was not only a top student, but also an editor of the school newspaper, a four-year varsity athlete on the ski team, and a co-captain of the tennis team. Despite having been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 7, “she never let any obstacles stand in her way,” her mother adds.
Merritt had set her sights on a cross-country bicycle trip the summer after graduating from high school. She trained during the spring of her senior year, biking some 500 miles and, working with the Joslin Diabetes Center, creating a training log for fellow diabetics who might harbor similarly ambitious dreams.
“I’m going off the grid—I am so excited,” Merritt posted on Facebook. There would be no cell phone, no texting, no social media of any kind. “I’ll text you in six weeks.”
In an Instant
In the late afternoon of July 2, Merritt and 13 other bikers—clearly announcing themselves with brightly colored shirts and flags whipping in the air above their bicycles—were peddling along a straight, flat road in the middle of Arkansas. With cornfields unfurling around them for miles, they were visible to all
Teagan Ross Martin, a local 21-year-old, approached them in his car from behind, his eyes ping-ponging between the road and his phone. He sent a text at 4:01. Another at 4:02. One more at 4:03. And then he slammed into the bikers, hitting eight of them, including Merritt.
He placed the call to 911 at 4:04.
Two hours later, Anna’s husband called her from Boston. Merritt had been hit by a car. “We might lose her,” he said. Anna immediately jumped on a flight to Memphis, where her daughter had been airlifted. Richard and their two other children arrived later that night, along with members of their extended family from California, Vermont, and Massachusetts. For the next 24 hours, they held Merritt’s hand and talked to her as she lay unconscious on life support. “I’m a devout believer in God,” Anna says, the emotion catching in her voice. “There’s a part of her that knew we were there—that we know. But it was irreparable brain damage, and it became obvious that she was gone.”
They removed her from life support the next day.
Bitter rage. Blind hatred. Those would be understandable reactions toward the person who killed your child.
Perhaps not as understandable is the Levitans’ reaction. There is sadness, of course. “I don’t know pain greater than this,” Anna says. But there is also grace.
Last March, Anna and her husband set up a meeting with Teagan and his family at Trinity Church. “We didn’t have any hate,” she says. “We didn’t have any anger.” After spending the day with Teagan, they asked that the charge of negligent homicide against him be dropped. “We opted to forgive him. It didn’t seem right for him to go to prison; it was so unintentional.”
Unintentional, yes, but texting while driving is also ubiquitous, and the Levitans wanted to make a difference. “We knew in our shattered reality that we had to get the message out,” Anna says. Merritt’s school friends established an advocacy group called TextLess Live More to discourage excessive smartphone use, and the Levitans jumped on board. “When we were able to stand on two feet again, we got involved by producing the public service announcements and the branding,” says Anna. “We also worked with a communications firm and took it out to national scope.”
Today, almost a year after the organization’s inception, 10,000 TextLess Live More for Merritt bracelets have been distributed. The group has spread the word about the dangers of texting and driving through events at more than 100 high schools, colleges, and community organizations across the country, where student leaders tell Merritt’s story and show powerful videos. One of them, narrated by Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus on Breaking Bad, makes the point that just four seconds of distracted driving can kill (the video has been shown nationally on ABC and Fox News). TextLess Live More endorsed a bill in Vermont (enacted last year) to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. But its ultimate goal is to make texting while driving illegal everywhere, and to prevent what happened to Merritt from happening to anyone else’s child.
“It’s been a rough road—I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Anna says. “It’s been a huge cost for us, but this is an incredible message.”
Photography by Cheryl Richards (family); Michael Blanchard (gala)