By ROBIN FINN
Published: May 15, 2009
AL and Betsy Shein, dry-eyed but red-eyed, were huddled in the dining room of the white Cape (its black shutters are unintentionally poignant) they bought here in 1979 and have owned outright since paying off their 30-year mortgage in February. That occasion should have called for a small celebration, or at the very least an exhalation of great relief for reaching a milestone right on schedule, were it not for what happened to the Shein family on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008. Since then, there have been no celebrations and no relief.
No social life, either. Not unless you count the April 27 dedication of a commemorative brick and a teak garden bench at the Mothers Against Drunk Driving-sponsored Wall of Remembrance and Garden of Awareness at Farmingdale State College. A metal plaque on the Sheins’ brick (there are more than 2,000 bricks in the wall, 300 of which are spoken for by other families who have lost loved ones to drunken driving) is engraved with this message: Jason D. Shein Forever in Our Hearts Love, Mom, Dad, Deena, and Jami. The same message — bordered by a pair of baseball players at bat, homage to Jason’s love of baseball and all things Yankees — is engraved on the headstone soon to be installed at Jason’s gravesite at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale.
And on May 31, when MADD holds its annual 5-kilometer Walk Like MADD fund-raiser, Team Shein, which numbers 200 friends and relatives and has raised roughly $12,000, will lead the 50 teams, all of them linked to victims of drunken drivers, who registered to help MADD reach its goal of $85,000. It is an honor the family wishes it had never received.
What happened that holiday weekend was that the tightly knit Shein clan was irretrievably reduced by one when the baby of the family, 21-year-old Jason, an aspiring neurologist with a knack for making and keeping friends, was killed by what the police say was a drunken driver who crossed a double yellow line and plowed into the Sebring convertible Jason was driving home from a reunion dinner at Applebee’s with three high school pals.
According to police investigators, Jason Shein was both a blameless victim and a powerless victim: he never had a chance to avoid the sports utility vehicle that hit him, driven by Persi Esquivel, 46, of Valley Stream.
Mr. Esquivel, on probation at the time for a 2006 drunken-driving conviction, had been drinking at a Saturday night dance held at a Hempstead Union Free School District building and hosted by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the police said. He has pleaded not guilty to 31 counts, including driving while intoxicated and aggravated vehicular manslaughter, a charge that could put him in prison for 25 years. Those charges are small consolation to a family that will never again hug Jason, a college senior who was giggly, extroverted and happy-go-lucky (on the day he died, he had posted a triple smiley face rating on his MySpace page).
Betsy Shein struggles to get herself out of bed in the morning and said she was able to get to sleep at night only with the aid of medications prescribed by a psychiatrist. Describe her as a basket case, and she nods her acquiescence. It is what it is. Grief, that is.
Al Shein has returned to his job as a top-level mechanic for Con Edison, but it no longer holds much meaning or challenge: He is so good at it, he said, that he can put himself on automatic pilot and still get the work done just right. His co-workers, many of whom have been in the trenches alongside him for decades, know enough not to joke around with him as they used to do. Empathy is what they have sent his way since last Thanksgiving.
He is grateful for their solicitude, but not fixed by it. His wife is grateful for, but not fixed by, the needy, slurpy, exuberant presence of 10-month-old Madison, the golden retriever puppy she brought home last fall to fill a void: the empty nest syndrome that ensued after Jason, the youngest of their three children, transferred to the University of Miami for its superior pre-med program and stopped bringing his laundry home on weekends from SUNY Binghamton. She loved doing his laundry.
Al loved sitting on the living room sofa and watching movies with him: the last one, selected and talked up by Jason, was “Casino Royale.” They watched it together on Nov. 29 just before Jason borrowed the car, said “See you later” and never came back. Al still has the movie on tape. Betsy still has her son’s plane ticket back to Miami pressed under the glass top of the coffee table along with funeral roses and other tragic memorabilia.
Jason Shein was killed instantly, his face and body mangled beyond easy recognition; his three friends were injured, one of them seriously. The family of that friend is now suing the Sheins’ insurer. The Sheins are suing Mr. Esquivel, the diocese, the school district, you name it, and girding themselves for not one but at least two court trials: one criminal, one civil. Nothing very personal, except that it is all too personal.
“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him,” said Betsy Shein. “One minute we’re looking around for a caterer for our daughter’s wedding” — Deena, 32, had just become engaged last fall and at Thanksgiving had asked Jason to join the wedding party — “and the next thing you know, we’re scrambling to find a funeral home for our son. He was the light of my life.”
Jason had been a bit of a miracle child for Al and Betsy Shein: They wanted a boy to round out the family, had tried for nearly 10 years to conceive a third child and were elated when he was born, just as Al had predicted he would be, on the Fourth of July.
“Jason always thought the fireworks were just for him,” Betsy said.
“And so far as we’re concerned,” added her husband, “they were.”