Inside Matt Wood’s bedroom closet is a dark-colored canvas tote bag that he can’t look inside.
“I just put it in the closet and I haven’t been able to go through it since,” he said.
It took him nearly a year to put pictures of his wife, Susan Wood, back upright on his desk at Unum. The framed photographs had lain facedown. Seeing her smiling face only brought tears.
One day he’ll open the bag, take out the things that his wife carried the day she died. But a little more than a year after her death, life is still a series of baby steps.
There is one item he carries from the bag.
It was with Susan on the morning of Dec. 23, 2009, when a red sports car slammed into her, knocking her gold wedding band off her hand and splattering the breakfast yogurt and the rest of the bag’s contents onto the pavement at Fourth and Walnut streets.
Wood absently rubs the silvery metal lipstick case with his right thumb. Its ribbed edges are dented.
“Feel that; that’s real metal, that’s not aluminum,” he said. “I carry this around to remind me that this is real. That I didn’t imagine this.”
The lipstick case was in his pants pocket as he and Susan’s family waited more than six hours Friday for a jury’s verdict against the driver of the Nissan 240SX that killed his wife.
Jeremy Allen Lane, 26, faces up to 12 years in prison after the jury found him guilty of vehicular homicide, filing a false report and leaving the scene of an accident. He was found not guilty of driving under the influence.
Until the trial started Tuesday, Lane denied any involvement in the hit-and-run. After the fatal collision he stashed his car, called 911 and wove a lie about a carjacking to cover up his act. Witnesses testified that Lane drank alcohol and smoked marijuana after hours at his workplace, the downtown Chattanooga Billiard Club, hours before hitting Susan.
On Saturday morning, Susan’s family sat in her parents’ Red Bank living room and remembered.
The 42-year-old mother of two was the “typical middle child” in her younger days. Her older sister, Karen Duncan, laughed when she remembered how Susan always pushed the limits.
Susan’s mother, Charlotte Berry, nodded. As a teenager, Susan regularly called home minutes before curfew, asking for just a little more time.
But her “mischievous” middle child grew up and found her way in life when she had children, Berry said.
When Susan’s children, Rachel Parker, 12, and Brody Parker, 9, bathed, she would warm up towels for them in the dryer, Berry said.
“People would tell her she spoiled them,” Berry said. “Maybe she did, but maybe somehow she knew she wouldn’t have much time with them.”
Susan died as she was walking to her job at Unum, where she had worked for a dozen years. She and Matt, Hixson High School classmates nearly 20 years ago, were reintroduced in the staff cafeteria.
She was only one of 3,000 employees at the insurance giant, but her death sent ripples through the staff.
Her father, Harold Berry, remembers Susan’s family spent nearly seven hours receiving greetings from friends and co-workers at the viewing before her funeral.
About a month later, her co-workers held a tribute to Susan.
“The cafeteria, which is also their auditorium, was packed,” Wood recalled.
The company also began an annual “Susan Wood Caring Heart” award for the employee who best displayed some of Susan’s helpful characteristics, Wood said.
A ringing telephone woke Matt with the tragic news.
Rachel and Brody slept in that morning, out of school on winter break. Matt and Susan had alternated time off for the coming Christmas holiday to watch the kids. After six years together they had the parent partnership down solid.
Matt remembered his disbelief when first firefighters, then workers at Erlanger hospital, called and told him his wife had been injured.
“Oh, this has got to be a prank call,” he remembers thinking.
He called Charlotte, who came over to watch the children.
Steve Berry, Susan’s brother, had just finished some pre-holiday work at his job as an electrician when his mom called. He in turn called Karen and woke her.
In blurry waves, the family heard more details. Where some had assumed Susan had just been in a car accident or perhaps broken her leg, they soon learned a far more terrible truth.
Steve tried frantically tried to get answers when he burst through the doors at Erlanger; he remembers a friend telling him his sister was bleeding from the mouth and ears.
During the trial a medical examiner detailed how the estimated 30 mph impact dislocated Susan’s ankles and knees, broke ribs and cracked her pelvis. Broken bones and the shock of the impact tore her lungs, liver and spleen.
Karen is an Erlanger nurse. She’d seen mangled bodies come into the emergency room and witnessed many patients walk out again.
Surely, she thought, there was some way for her to help. But she could only pace between her co-workers and her family as everyone waited.
“There was nothing I could do but pray,” she said, weeping at the memory of that awful morning.
A team of doctors, nurses and emergency workers worked for more than three hours but couldn’t save Susan’s life.
Then came the hardest moments Matt Wood had ever faced — telling Susan’s children that their mother was gone.
Steve can still hear Rachel’s words:
“I can’t believe he just left her in the road,” she cried.
“Was anyone with her?” she asked. “Did my mother hurt?”
Matt doesn’t think Brody, then 8 years old, really understood what had happened.
Shortly afterward Rachel, then 11, wanted to see what her mother wore when she died.
So four weeks later, after the clothes cleaned, they were laid out on a bed.
Rachel looked at the dark sweatshirt and blue jeans that had been cut loose from her mother’s body during surgery.
“Okay, you can take them back now,” she said.
Faith through crisis
Faith, prayer and the church community have helped sustain Susan’s family through the tragedy.
Matt said when he met Susan again in the Unum cafeteria, he had recently been saved.
“Susan was my gift from God for accepting Christ,” Matt said.
Each family member admits for some time after Susan’s death they questioned their faith and their God.
“Why in the world would God let something like this happen?” Steve thought over and over on that December day.
He remembers hearing a sermon just a month before his sister’s death, the pastor exhorting the congregation to lean on their church family in times of need.
Those words would provide guidance in the coming year.
For as long as the family can remember, they all got together for Christmas on the actual holiday.
But the plan was different that year — they decided to gather on Dec. 20 so each family could have its own plans on Christmas Day.
Laughter conquered tears Saturday as the family recounted how Susan took two leopard-print doll hats, strung them the together like a mini-bikini top over her shirt and pranced around the living room that Sunday.
Seven presents for Susan were left at the Woods family home in 2009. In 2010, Matt, Rachel and Brody began a new tradition.
Each year they will open one of Susan’s presents. This year was Rachel’s choice. She unwrapped makeup that would have enhanced her mother’s face.
Pain and compassion
Over 14 months Matt Wood has felt a lot of things, but one emotion never arose.
“I’ve never hated him,” he said, referring to Lane. “Maybe I should hate him.”
Instead, he said, his emotions flowed toward Rachel and Brody. He shares custody with their biological father, James Parker.
Others have differing levels of forgiveness for Lane, and some aren’t ready to forgive.
“He has to live with what he’s done,” Steve Berry said. “Remember his family, too. They’re struggling too. I can’t imagine.”
As each family awaited the verdict Friday, Lane’s mother, Janice Bond, spoke with Charlotte and Matt in the hallway outside the courtroom. The families shared their losses, Charlotte said.
Bond didn’t want to speak for this story but read a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
“On behalf of Jeremy and our family we’re are profoundly sorry this tragic accident ended Susan Wood’s life. We will continue to pray for her children, husband, parents, sister, brother, grandmother and extended family. Each of us is forever changed and will honor her memory by living every day with purpose.”
Lane, who has sons ages 2 and 5, has been in jail since January 2010. His sentencing is set for May 16.
Still in their hearts
On the refrigerator door in Charlotte and Harold’s kitchen a white marker board lists the names and phone numbers of their children and family members.
Susan’s name is written in its proper place as the middle child, between Karen and Steve.
Beside her name Charlotte wrote “HEAVEN” in black marker.
“Because that’s where we call to reach her,” she said.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...