By Courtenay Higgins —
It was unusually cold and rainy on April 5, 2003, when 20-year-old Ashley Streiter, back from Kutztown University for the weekend, left her Florham Park, New Jersey, home in the early morning hours to pick up her older brother, Billy. He and his friend had been out for the night in New York City and called her for a ride. Ashley, a blonde and bubbly former captain of the Hanover Park cheerleading squad, and Billy, a star hockey player and handsome 23-year-old Seton Hall law student, were known by family and friends for their unquestioned devotion to each other. A favor like this was nothing between these close siblings. After all, when she had dropped him off at the train station earlier in the night, she had promised him a ride home.
Hours later, though, the two would be found by paramedics dead in each other’s arms, Billy wrapped around his younger sister inside her car on the New Jersey Garden State Parkway. Police reports indicated that Ashley’s car became disabled in the median lane in the rain and was then hit by driver Eric Bullock, who was intoxicated and driving on a suspended license. The unthinkable tragedy would devastate a close-knit community and leave devoted parents Debbie and Bill Streiter with the inconceivable task of living without their only children.
“Why are we so fortunate”
Debbie Streiter, petite and affable, recalls growing up with her own brother in West Orange, NJ, with similar affection. “We were a very family-oriented family with close cousins on my father’s side. We got together every weekend. We had lots of friends.” She smiles when she speaks of childhood friend Annie, whom she met as a youngster in religious education class. The two were drawn to each other, though they only mustered brief smiles and waves in passing before Annie transferred to the public school and out of Debbie’s life. Years later they were reunited in middle school and became inseparable. “We were the best of friends and the happiest two kids. She made me laugh. All we did was laugh.” They wore the same outfits to football games, the only contrast provided by their long hair: Debbie’s was black and Annie’s blonde.
After college Debbie became assistant to the principal of East Hanover School. There she met Bill Streiter, a teacher. The two dated only six months before they were married. One year later, they moved to Florham Park where Billy was born. Three years after that, Ashley would round out their happy foursome and make life feel very full and complete.
As her children grew, Debbie happily left her job to relish the joy of raising her kids—becoming a brownie leader, class mom, and PTA president, and taking on youth groups and board posts with enthusiasm. Her eyes light up when she recalls how Billy was an early protector of younger sister, Ashley. “He would buckle her into her car seat when she was a baby.” When Billy left high school for college, he appointed three younger boys to be his eyes and ears. “Ashley would laugh and say, ‘Billy, you aren’t my father!’—though he thought he was.” In high school, the two started working together at Rocco’s Tuscany Grill in Madison, where Billy led an effort to buy a bike for one of the cook’s children one Christmas. “They weren’t afraid to show their emotions. They would tell each other how much they loved each other.” When Ashley decided on Kutztown to pursue a degree in Special Education, she cried at the thought of leaving Billy. “The first night when we brought Ashley to school, Billy sent Bill and I home so he could take her out to dinner. He just didn’t want to leave her.”
To Debbie, they were a family that had everything. “They were my life. I would say to Bill, why is our life so wonderful? Why are we so fortunate?” The family traveled the world, from a Mediterranean cruise to a trip to Italy, where the family rented a car and “just drove.” Ashley picked their last vacation. “It was Hawaii. We saw Maui, the Big Island and Oahu. It was a wonderful world.”
“The Completely Impossible”
Debbie and Bill had been out with friends the night of April 5. Before she left, Debbie had blown Ashley a kiss and snuggled into one of Billy’s notorious bear hugs. When they had returned home later in the evening, both cars were in the driveway and their children’s bedroom doors were closed. The Streiters, assuming both their grown children were home safely, retired to what would be Debbie’s last night of peaceful sleep.
She remembers waking to the doorbell at 8 a.m. “It was the police chief with two other policeman. We’d known him for years, so I invited them in. He told us to sit down. I offered to make them coffee. He kept telling me to sit down and I didn’t want to, so I just stood in the living room.” She remembers her husband, Bill, breaking the silence and asking, “Is he all right?” In a panic, her mind rushed to Billy, but she was calmed by the thought that he was home. “ ‘This is a mistake, this can’t be real,’ I thought. Then the chief said, ‘They are both gone,’ and I was actually calmed. ‘This is completely impossible,’ I thought. ‘My kids are upstairs sleeping.’ ”
She ran up the stairs and threw open the doors to the shock of empty beds. It would be the start of an emptiness too deep to grasp. More than 1,500 people would attend Billy and Ashley’s wake and funeral, including 36 priests from Seton Hall. Debbie had taken a job as assistant to the rector/dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall just five months earlier thanks to her son’s thoughtful prodding.
“Finally, A Name”
“I remember being paralyzed,” Debbie recalls of the first dark days. “If there was even a cord out of place on the floor, I couldn’t move it.” The nights were either sleepless or filled with horrid nightmares. “I went to a psychiatrist within the first week they were gone because I felt I should go.” It was a grief that had no bottom.
Two weeks later, Debbie returned to work. With deep gratitude, she recalls how the Seton Hall priests wrapped their arms around her and helped her try to navigate her tremendous grief. “I never would have survived. Some of those priests became my closest friends . . . and I thank God and thank Billy for putting me there.” One of the priests even orchestrated a visit with Pope John Paul for her and her husband weeks after their children’s deaths.
Debbie craved talking about Billy and Ashley, though many found it hard to do. “I remember when someone in town lost her daughter years before. I was at a Christmas party and I just mentioned her daughter’s name, and she lit up like a Christmas tree.” She would reunite with childhood friend Annie, who had ironically lost a
daughter of her own. They would meet and talk about their children together and ease each other’s pain. “I would say to her, ‘How did the two happiest girls end up like this?’ ”
But Debbie’s symptoms seemed to grow worse, not better, despite medication that helped her to resume a routine. “I avoided highways, especially the Parkway. If I’d see flashing lights at night, I’d go into a spin.” She avoided Billy’s and Ashley’s rooms, the living room where she was given the horrifying news of their loss, the lower–level which was a playroom when her children were younger, and then a family room as they grew. The albums of photos would be too painful to be viewed; the videos of graduations and milestones all set aside. Everywhere she looked, objects in the world would trigger painful movie-like visions of her children in her mind. All of life seemed to be moving forward, yet hers seemed stuck in time. She and her husband would travel to avoid traditions like Christmas and Ashley and Billy’s birthdays, which are just eight days apart.
Weeks of life like this stretched to months, stretched to years without anything easing Debbie’s pain before her doctors finally gave it a name—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
“A Need for Understanding”
“I felt better after I was diagnosed because I understood what PTSD was. I could relate to it. I knew what I was dealing with, and I had a name so I could read up. There are so many people with it. I don’t feel like I am alone. I don’t feel like it’s not justified.” Exercise and yoga helped ease some of the symptoms before other medical conditions made it physically too difficult for her. “Most people can’t relate to how severe it is. It’s important for others to understand. There’s not much out there, and there’s a lack of interest, but with all the soldiers coming home, the world has to be more sensitive.”
All the struggle that her loss and condition has caused hasn’t stopped this passionate mother from shining her children’s light back into the world. The Streiters created a nonprofit organization called The Billy and Ashley Streiter Victims of Drunk Driving Resource Center and they arrange motivational speaking events about the horrors of drunk driving through the site, http://www.bemoreforba.com “It’s always difficult before I speak, but then, afterwards, I feel better.”
Ashley and Billy’s best friends started a scholarship fund which awards six scholarships a year to deserving youth. “I am thrilled by what that stands for because it represents Billy and Ashley’s qualities.” Debbie also regularly posts to a website http://www.forbillyandashley.com, and a Facebook page. “Some weeks there are 5,000 hits from people all over the world. That makes me happy.”
She encourages others with PTSD to avoid their triggers. “Redo what you have to to stay where you are.” While Billy’s and Ashley’s rooms remain as they left them, the Streiters remodeled their first floor to help Debbie avoid the painful memories of her living room so she could continue to exist in a home that is an anchor to their family’s love and a haunting reminder of all that was lost. “Avoid the calendar, if you have to,” she said. “Stay positive, and surround yourself with positive people.”
A black wrist band that says “Remembering Billy and Ashley” encircles Debbie’s wrist. It’s a reminder of two remarkable lives lost and a symbol of a spirited woman who continues her journey on in their names. “They loved people. They loved life.” Lessons learned, in no small part, from their brave, loving and nurturing mom.