It took a while and a lovely puppy, but Debbie Streiter is living again.
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 her high school cheerleading squad, and Billy, a star hockey player and handsome 23-year-old 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 an intoxicated driver on a suspended license. The unthinkable tragedy would devastate a close-knit community and leave devoted parents Debbie and Bill Streiter with the impossible task of living without their only children.
Debbie Streiter, petite and affable, recalls growing up with her brother 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.” After college, Debbie met Bill. The two dated only six months before they were married. One year later, they had Billy, three years after that, Ashley would round out their happy foursome.
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. Her eyes light up when she recalls how Billy was an early protector of his 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 a local restaurant, 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 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.”
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 closed. The Streiters’, assuming their children were home safely, retired to what would be Debbie’s last night of peaceful sleep.
She remembers awaking to the doorbell at 8 a.m. “It was the police chief with two other policemen. We’d known him for years, so I invited them in. He told us to sit down. I offered to make 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 emptiness too deep to grasp. “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 sincere gratitude, she recalls how the priests at the local university where she worked 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.”
For Debbie, life was a challenge every day. She took 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 got 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, extended to years without anything easing Debbie’s pain before her doctors finally gave it a name—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. “I felt better after I was diagnosed because I understood what PTSD was. I could relate to it,” she said. “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. All the struggle that her loss and condition have 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). They have given out more than 50 college scholarships through the foundation. Over time, Debbie has become a voice of courage and inspiration for others. She encourages anyone with PTSD to avoid their triggers. “Redo what you have to to stay where you are.”
Taking her advice, the Streiters remodeled their first floor to help Debbie avoid the painful memories of her living room. She can continue to exist in a home that is an anchor to their family’s love and a haunting reminder of all that was lost. Debbie focuses on positive thinking and surrounds herself with positive people. Especially the two, she will never see again. 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.