Caroline Flohr’s life lurched violently into tragedy on August 23, 2004, when her 16-year-old daughter Sarah Gillette was killed in a Bainbridge Island car accident that became instantly infamous. Eight teens were doing “the Tolo,” a tradition of driving fast on hilly Tolo Road, when the 14-year-old driver of a stolen Ford Explorer lost control at some 75 miles per hour, careened down an embankment, flipped, and struck a tree.
Sarah died at the scene, having never met the girl driving the vehicle before that night.
Tomorrow, September 30, Caroline reads for the first time from her book, released this summer, about the loss of her daughter and its effect on her family. Fittingly, she is reading from Heaven’s Child: A Mother’s Story of Tragedy and the Enduring Strength of Family on Bainbridge, at Eagle Harbor Books at 3 p.m.
The following is an interview Caroline graciously granted Inside Bainbridge on the eve of her first public reading.
Reacting to Sarah’s Death
When a fireman delivered the news of Sarah’s death to her mother at her front door early that morning, horror-struck Caroline did what had to be done. She immediately set to work holding her family together, which in their case was especially challenging. “I had four children still sitting at my breakfast table to feed,” she told me. One of those children was Sarah’s identical twin sister Caiti, who, according to Caroline, “felt half of her had died. . . . Afterward Caiti slept for most of two years straight. People would sometimes call her Sarah. I had to keep her alive.”
Caroline explained that the sisters had always done everything together. “They shared a room, had the same teachers, played on the same soccer teams. Caiti didn’t know how to live her own life. It was as if she had to go back to kindergarten to learn what she needed to know all over again on her own.”
Caroline, previously Caroline Brooks, and her three kids—Sarah, Caiti, and Christopher—had moved to Bainbridge five and a half years earlier from Seattle after a messy divorce that left the family emotionally torn up. Caroline remarried, and at the time of Sarah’s death, she had two more children, 6-month-old Annie and 18-month-old Mary.
I asked Caroline how she managed her health during such a crisis: “With the babies I was already not sleeping much, and then I just couldn’t sleep at all. . . . I developed fibromyalgia that made it painful to move. Right away I lost 10 pounds, everyone could see my hair started turning gray, and there were wrinkles all over my face,” she said. But Caroline added that she did not succumb physically to her grief. “From day one I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to get sick. We changed our diet and worked on staying healthy,” she explained.
“It was my mother who lost her health,” she continued. “She was only in her sixties, but the day the trial [of the driver, convicted of vehicular homicide] started her appendix burst. Then she developed heart issues. And then E. coli. It’s obvious losing her granddaughter, who will never live on like she does, affected her health.”
I asked Caroline about the response from the community after the accident. She said she was overwhelmed by the show of support that flowed in. “My son’s friend’s family organized meals for us. We had a memorial at our house, and 600 people showed up, most of whom I didn’t know,” she said. Amazingly, another teenager had died intoxicated at the wheel on Bainbridge two days before the Tolo accident. Caroline said, “A girl in Sarah’s class organized a candlelight vigil for the two accidents. It was very moving.”
“Bainbridge is a special place. It had become my home,” she said. “People were very respectful. They would always ask how I was doing but were careful not to push.”
And yet our small, close-knit community also represented continual reminders of her loss. “The only time I could be anonymous was when I would get away from Bainbridge,” she explained. ” I couldn’t go to the grocery store during the day. I couldn’t—and still can’t—pass the high school. I kept to myself and focused on my family. The only time I go on Tolo is on her birthday to leave balloons, on Christmas to leave a wreath and then to take it away, and on the anniversary of the accident.”
Writing the Book
Knowing Caroline had a background in engineering, I asked her about the role of writing in her life and how she came to write her book. She explained, “I don’t think of myself as a writer and have no training in it, but I have always used it to organize my thoughts and clarify what is in my head.”
She told me that for five years after the accident she wrote down notes about her experiences and thoughts along the way, which she kept on scraps of paper in her underwear drawer. “Once I realized our family was going to make it, I decided I needed to write my version of the story for my kids. We each have our own story, and I wanted to write mine. They really lost a lot of faith, and I wanted to help them come back to it.”
Initially Caroline wrote the book in Sarah’s voice, something she came to realize distanced herself from her own feelings. She took a few classes with local writing teachers Nancy Rekow and Bob McCallister. “They gave me books about writing. They suggested I rewrite it in my own voice,” she explained.
I asked Caroline what it was like when she rewrote the story from her own perspective. “When I switched to my own emotions in my own voice I realized I hadn’t even begun to grieve Sarah’s death. I started then to be able to cry and begin the healing process. I rewrote and rewrote and cried and cried. Every time I cried I knew I had to rewrite. Only when I didn’t need to cry was when I knew a part was finished,” she said.
When the book came out Caroline sent it to a friend who had been through serious family loss not unlike her own. Caroline told me that her friend responded by saying, “You always masked your humanity. This is the first time you’ve shown it.” When I asked if that had felt harsh, Caroline said, “It was completely true. I walk a very different life now.”
We spoke briefly about the court proceedings around the accident that took Sarah’s life. I asked what it was like for Caroline, and she explained that she hadn’t felt directly involved in it. I asked if she felt justice had been served by the process, and she said, “Everybody in that car is accountable and every parent needs to be held accountable. . . . The one thing I felt was that the second girl [who stole her parents' car] was only convicted of stealing a car; she should have been convicted [as a party to the accident].”
I asked Caroline if she had had contact with the family of the girl convicted of vehicular homicide. She told me, “After the burial, Page and her family called to see if they could come over. They came over to apologize. It was incredibly brave, especially for the parents. I have always been grateful and appreciate it. And I realize I would never want to be in their position.”
Where She Is Now
Caroline told me she is extremely nervous about her first public reading. She said Island best-selling writer Claire Dederer gave her helpful advice about how to handle it professionally. Caroline continued: “I don’t have a huge base of friends. I’m not a member of anything. Everybody has their own version of the story. People were always judging what happened. I’ve never put myself out in public before.”
She went on to describe an epiphany she had that helped her understand her experience. She overheard a woman she knows whose son became a paraplegic in a motorcycle accident describe her experience as “a living hell.” Caroline told me, “It’s obvious, but it dawned on me in that moment what I had been through, how horrible it was, a living nightmare. It was freeing to think it and be able to say it.”
And yet Caroline also told me, “The greatest gift Sarah’s death gave me is I walk more gently, with more awareness, kindness, compassion, and empathy. This strengthened my faith. I know for certain that there is a purpose to things.”
“The book is really about family and community,” she continued. “I’m hoping that in sharing, it will help others share their pain and connect more on a deeper level.”
I told Caroline she was ready for her reading.
Learn more about Heaven’s Child.
Featured photo of Caroline with her son Christopher. Photos courtesy of Caroline Flohr.