We drive past them every day. Love stories that ended badly. Ended in burnt rubber and twisted metal. Ended with a grim-faced police officer knocking at the door, to be met with denial and desperate pleas: Please, God, please no!
There at the side of the road, loved ones claim the crash sites and call them hallowed ground. They mark them with flowers and small wooden crosses. That's all we register as we rush urgently on our way. The living have so little time for the silent storytelling of the dead. And gradually, these roadside memorials cede their stories to the seasons, handing them over to grass and ground.
Except for rare ones that don't give an inch and insist their story hasn't ended at all.
On July 7, her 35th birthday, Deana Rogers was tending a roadside memorial on Route 50 in Anne Arundel County, near the Davidsonville exit, when a driver heading west laid on the horn. She turned and waved. Friends and family are always honking when she's out there, which has been about once a week since the motorcycle accident. Once a week for nearly two years.
She cuts the grass around it herself and cuts back the trees. The memorial has grown to nearly five feet wide and changes often. "We have a couple of Christmas trees, then we have Easter stuff," says Rogers. "I have different displays for Valentine's Day and Memorial Day. Every holiday and his birthday . . . I made a tractor-trailer. I got the wreath and dragonfly hanging on it now but it's starting to fall apart."
And you should see the wreaths the family puts out on the anniversary of the crash, Oct. 12.
The memorial features no cement or metal that could be hazardous to drivers so county officials don't make her take it down, she says. Sometimes, though, an officer will stop to ask her why she's been sitting on the side of the road for hours.
"This is my husband, this is my soul mate. We're just away from each other," Rogers explains.
The story of Deana and Charles "Chuckie" Amos Rogers Jr., a 41-year-old trucking company co-owner, began at a Moose lodge in Prince George's County where they met when she was 20 and he was 29. It was set in a double-wide trailer in Lothian, out in south Anne Arundel, and was full-up with family and friends, motorcycles and trucks, Jesus and Jack Daniel's, and American flags.
The lingering memorial is for the husband who is no longer alive but whom she sees in dragonflies and dancing candle flames.
On this Thursday afternoon, a few days past the Fourth of July, dozens of flags are drooping from humidity and rain. It will be time to freshen the site soon. The memorial has grown steadily and she's trying to keep it to its current size. But if she can ever find that motorcycle pinwheel she saw on another roadside memorial, she'll stick that in as well.
Rogers has put mesh underneath some rocks and laid down decorative garden stones to keep the weeds away. There's the five-foot-tall wooden cross carved with her husband's name that she and her brother-in-law made, and the one adorned with two dozen dollar-store roses she put up a few months after the accident, the first time she could bear going to the crash site. Sealed in plastic and taped to the cross are family photos, like the 1999 wedding day picture when she was a radiant bride on the back of a Harley-Davidson, and a tiny reproduction of the vanity helmet Chuckie was wearing the day he died.
There are poems, like the one that came to her one night while she was trying to help with their 12-year-old daughter's homework: I did what I love and loved what I did / just like the quote says / live to ride and ride to live. And there are empty pony bottles of Jack Daniel's, which she sometimes pours into the ground when she comes to talk.
"This is the only time I get by myself to actually have my grieving feelings," Rogers says. "It's very difficult to do it at home around your children," because they need you to be strong. In addition to their daughter, Samantha, Chuckie's daughter, Lindsey Rogers, 20, from his first marriage and her son, Gregory Borges, 4, live in Crofton and have remained close. She hasn't really felt strong since that October day in 2003.
She worked the day before and met up with her husband at a neighborhood barbecue. Everybody was buzzing because Chuckie, who had been riding his entire life, fell over on his motorcycle while giving a neighbor a ride. That neighbor, who had never been on the back of a bike, turned awkwardly, shifting her weight to wave at friends. It had been raining, Chuckie had on cowboy boots, and they slipped out from under him when he tried to regain his balance. It was the first time he had fallen like that, and Deana was spooked. She took it as a bad sign. They were supposed to go riding later, but she begged her husband to go home. She fussed at him about riding in cowboy boots.
"I figured if I started a fight with him and left, he'd follow me home, even just to have the last word," she says.
On the way back to the trailer, he ran into a friend and they rode off together. Later he called Deana to say he was going to park his bike at his sister's house in Davidsonville. He'd left his truck there and decided to drive it home.
Witnesses told Deana a driver cut her husband off at the Davidsonville exit. Chuckie drove up behind the guy -- he always was a hothead -- and that driver slammed on his brakes right in front of him. Chuckie swerved, but crashed into an SUV.
The driver who cut him off pulled away and has never been identified. When Chuckie didn't come home, Deana called family and friends for hours. She drove around checking all the places her husband might be. The police showed up at 5 in the morning.
She still cries when she talks about her husband. And she laughs. She swears Chuckie can hear her doing both. She tends the roadside memorial because "it helps." It makes her feel as though she's doing something for other family members as well. The kids especially can't handle visiting the grave -- Deana's name is carved in the double tombstone, too -- so they visit their father on the side of the road. (Deana also has a headstone in front of her deck. The engravers mistakenly left her name off it and were going to throw it away. "I couldn't bear them throwing his name away," she says, so she took it, put it in her yard and surrounded it with flowers.)
And Deana tends the roadside memorial because it's a way to show her appreciation to a guy she says was always "working to please so many people. If you needed something, he'd get up and go and be there, even if he had a fight with you the day before. He had the biggest heart."
He once let a friend and his mother stay with them after they'd been put out of their house. "He'd take anybody in and we barely had the room ourselves," she says. She stops talking for a while and cries. She takes a long drag from her Salem menthol. A four-inch-long tattoo, "In Loving Memory of My Soul Mate, Chuckie," is visible above her tank top on the left side of her chest.
Sometimes she'll be thinking about him and a dragonfly will follow the car. "That's him," she says. And when her daughter was in a school play and asked Deana if she thought Daddy saw her, a dragonfly attached itself to the car antenna and followed them down the road.
"The world is moving so fast, it's hard to notice signs," Rogers says. "More people should take the time to stop and acknowledge and have more faith" that somebody is out there looking out for you. Because she doesn't believe in coincidence and she still believes in her love story.
Early the morning before her 35th birthday, Deana Rogers couldn't sleep so she lit a candle. She has a ruptured disc in her neck and hasn't been able to go to her deli manager job at Safeway for months. She was worried about money and about Samantha, who is getting to a difficult age and misses her daddy so. She worried because Chuckie always took care of everything and now he's not around and she doesn't always know the right thing to do. So she told her husband, "I need a big sign to let me know that you're still by my side and you'll help me get through. That you'll help me make decisions." That you'll still be there for prom and your daughters' weddings.
That afternoon, a reporter who had seen the memorial came knocking at her door.
Deana says it was Chuckie's doing. His birthday present to her.
She talked to him about it later along the side of Route 50, just past the Davidsonville exit, where, for a moment, even without any details, drivers know there is a love story.