LAND O'LAKES — Rob Lewis stayed home from work on the anniversary. He has spent this past year without his wife focused on their three children: how they are coping, how they are grieving. He doesn't dwell. He pushes forward. But he knew Oct. 13 was going to be very difficult and tried to stay busy. He was paying bills when he got a call that brought it all back.
It was from the Florida Highway Patrol. An investigator wanted Lewis to know that the man who hit and killed his wife was in court that day answering the traffic citation for the crash. "How ironic," Lewis thought, that it happened to fall upon the one-year anniversary of the accident.
The corporal asked if Lewis wanted details.
"No," said Lewis, 47. "Whatever happens happens with it. I don't need to know that."
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Oct. 13, 2010, started off so normal. Lewis lived at a house on Night Heron Drive in Land O'Lakes with his wife, Susan, and their three children: a daughter in high school, one in middle school and a then-7-year-old son, Hayden, who has autism. Rob and Susan, 45, had been together since 1988 and were married in 1993. She was a health care case manager and worked from home, which she loved. Her children were her life. Even when she was pregnant, her husband said, she told him what to do if something happened and he had a choice of whether to save her or the baby.
"You take the baby," she told him often. "You don't give it a second thought."
It was a little after 8 a.m. and Rob Lewis was at his job as an assistant state attorney in Hernando County when he got a call from his friend, a deputy who said he heard about an accident near the Lewis home involving an autistic child.
Lewis said it couldn't have been his family. The only time his son was on the street is when Susan walked Hayden to his bus stop in the morning — and that only meant crossing the small street in front of their home.
"No," Lewis said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense."
But then, while working, he missed some calls from neighbors in Wilderness Lake Preserve. He called his wife and couldn't reach her.
"I need to get out of here," Lewis told his colleagues and headed home. En route, Lewis reached a neighbor, who handed the phone to an FHP trooper.
The trooper asked him to pull over. Lewis did. He was told his wife and son had been hit by a car while crossing the road. His wife was still at the scene. His son was flown by helicopter to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. Lewis needed to know where to go — where he could help most.
"Be as straight with me as you can," Lewis said.
The trooper said his wife didn't make it. Lewis felt numb. He remembered what his wife said, to always take care of their children first, so he pulled back on the road and drove to the hospital.
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The man who drove the car is 65-year-old Eugene Williams, a neighbor who lives less than a half-mile up Night Heron Drive. He is a project supervisor with Pasco County's community development department. He was not injured. He has no arrests in Florida, and his driving history is clean. FHP said Williams was not impaired. He just somehow failed to see Mrs. Lewis and Hayden in the road.
It was unclear whether the two were in a crosswalk. Neighbors said Mrs. Lewis was a stickler for that and they always went out of their way to cross at the designated area. Williams received a traffic citation for failing to use due care. He pleaded not guilty in traffic court on Oct. 13. The judge withheld a formal finding of guilt, but ordered Williams to pay $1,000 in court costs within 90 days. His license was not revoked.
Williams grieves for the family every day, he told the Times. He said he did not want to comment for the story.
Lewis did not want to speak of Williams or of how he thought the accident happened. He didn't want to get into Hayden's injuries, either.
"He was injured, but he came out of it okay," Lewis said. "We don't know whether he was hit or whether Susan threw him out of the way. There were no eyewitnesses."
Hayden was in the hospital for a few days, Lewis said. Lewis asked the school to change the bus stop from across the street to their side of Night Heron Drive. They agreed, so now Hayden doesn't have to cross the road.
He doesn't talk about the accident, Lewis said. Though Hayden, who is now 8, does talk about his mom.
"He will say, 'That's mom's cup,' or 'That's mom's chair,' " Lewis said.
• • •
At the outset, Lewis sat down with his children and told them what happened to their mother was unfair, and it was unfair that they now had to live without her. But they had to move forward.
"When things happen, you either curl into a shell or you make allowances and you make adjustments and you move on and you function," Lewis said.
He said he didn't want his family to think of themselves as victims.
"Life is going to give you tragedy. It is going to deal you things you are not happy with," Lewis said he told his children. "You can sit around and whine and complain, or you can pay respect to your mom and live life the way she would have wanted you to."
So the family tries to be as normal as possible. Lewis never considered moving.
"We had five-plus years of fantastic memories in that neighborhood and one really, really awful day," he said. He wanted to focus on the good times. He said the neighbors have been wonderful and supportive in helping him to adjust to being a single parent. The time it gets to him is in the wee hours, when it's 1 or 2 in the morning. He will go walk the neighborhood, like he used to do before big cases, to clear his mind. He'll go to the site of the accident and think of his wife. This is where he grieves. Then he collects himself and goes back inside the house, to do what he has to do, to be strong for his children.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.