Two Friends, Two Fates

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and
On Wednesday, there will be a funeral service in California for one of my oldest and best friends, Dennis Mihelic, who was killed Saturday night when the car he was in, driven by a friend, lost control and rolled over. On Thursday, on the other coast, another great and good and old friend, Michael Colman, a Commander in the United States Navy, will be awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service to his country. Oh, how I would wish I would be traveling this week to the Pentagon instead of to Orange County.

There is no bright spot in the story of the end of Dennis' life. There never is when someone dies long before their time. My friend was killed instantly and brutally in front of his beloved wife and sweet son, both of whom now will bring that moment along with them all the rest of their days. Worse, the friend driving the Mihelics that night now has been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Whether or not he is ever formally charged or tried or convicted, he, too, will have to live with his guilt all the rest of his days.

During my 10 years on the law beat, I have read probably one thousand different stories about drunk drivers and have covered, or at least kept my eye upon, maybe a hundred or so drunk-driving-related cases. I have heard and seen first-hand the devastation that drunk driving brings to the families of its victims and now this time I am experiencing it myself. For me, there is no point in asking why; no point in raging at the inequities of life. For me, the father of a wonderful son, all I have been able to think about since I heard about Dennis's death is his own son.

How heavy is the burden he now will carry; how tangled are the memories he now will have; how awful and disappointing life itself must seem to him these days. When I see brave, darling Patrick on Wednesday, I plan to tell him, to remind him, that his father loved him very much and was prouder of no one or nothing more than him. But to Patrick those will be just words, from a man who lives 1,000 miles away, and I doubt they will have any impact upon a boy who worshipped his dad the way sons are supposed to worship their fathers in a perfect but often all too nebulous world.

And in doing so I will miss my friend Mike's happy moment when he is honored by his country for "exceptionally meritorious service" in helping to build a new Iraq. He spent a year in Baghdad, Mike did, working with Iraqis and his fellow Americans to make the country work better. It was all hush-hush and he wasn't about to share his experiences with a journalist (perish the thought). But I know enough about him to know that he was part of the solution over there and not part of the problem. And, ironically, it turns out that Mike was safer in the Green Zone than Dennis was on our own highways.

Two friends who shaped my life and made me part of who I am today. Two people I met as a boy, or as a young man, who came with me on the journey into adulthood. Two decent, good guys who both just wanted to find happiness and perhaps leave the world, or their corner of it anyway, a better place. The story ends in unspeakable tragedy for one and continues with a touch of glory for the other. There are few patterns in life, few just destinies, and even fewer certainties aside from the one that has morphed into a cliché: Life, indeed, is short, and each moment a precious gift. I would tell that to Patrick, too, on Wednesday, if only he were able to understand.