By Pat Caldwell
VALE – They were going to be on time.
Jessica Bates remembers looking at the clock in the Excursion her husband, David, was driving as they rolled down Oregon Highway 201 on a cold, overcast January day. The clock read 7 a.m.
“We were doing well timewise,” she said.
David, a radiology manager and Jessica, an ultra-sound technologist, were headed to their jobs at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario.
Earlier on that gray morning of Jan. 9, they had gone into their regular routine. Jessica showered first while David trotted into the kitchen to make coffee and help get their five young children up and ready for the day. When Jessica finished, she traded with David so he could shower.
Then they loaded the kids and drove to David’s sister’s house, dropped them off, and headed to work. On the way they chatted. Deeply religious, David and Jessica prayed for a few of their friends.
It was a routine start to a day filled with the obligations of two young parents. Kids. Breakfast. Work.
One moment, the road looked as it did every other day of the year. The next moment, a vehicle was almost on top of them.
“I remember a full-sized vehicle pulling head on toward us,” Jessica said. “Then it came at us diagonally,” Jessica said.
Neither Jessica nor her husband said a word.
Her memories could have – perhaps should have – failed her. But they didn’t. Instead she remembers pieces of the next few seconds, recollections burned into her mind’s eye.
“I remember the sound of the impact,” she said.
Then a black curtain fell over her.
The next thing she remembers is regaining consciousness. She turned towards the driver’s seat, looking for David. All she saw was wreckage.
Then she blacked out again. When she came to, a police officer was next to her, his lips moving. He was asking her a question. She couldn’t understand. He was asking about the car seat in their vehicle. Was there a child in the vehicle?
She couldn’t answer.
“I couldn’t even remember my name,” she said.
Jessica blacked out again, and then regained consciousness in an ambulance. Now she felt pain – deep, hard pain. But she wanted to know about David. She asked the paramedic where her husband was.
“I don’t know. But right now I am here to help you,” came the reply.
Doubts were already surging through her and when she arrived at the Saint Alphonsus emergency room, she asked again: Where is my husband?
The nurses and doctors didn’t answer but focused on treating her injuries, which were serious. She had three broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung and a broken hand. She was in shock.
But she wanted to know where David was. Now.
About an hour later, as she lay in a hospital bed, she finally received the answer she already anticipated.
David’s mother gave her the news. David was gone.
So in a finite moment of time on a stretch of highway, Jessica Bates traveled from a wife to a widow and a single mother.
They had been married almost 13 years.
Jessica doesn’t spend much time reflecting on fate. She is trying to put her life together even as the man accused of crashing into her vehicle – Anthony Montwheeeler – sits in the Malheur County Jail. He is accused of aggravated murder for the deaths of David Bates and for the death of Annita Harmon, Montwheeler’s ex-wife. He is accused of assault for injuring Jessica.
She admits she has hard days, tough moments. Sometimes memories flood over her and she reels. But only for a short time. She has children to raise. She has a life to live. And, most important, she has her faith.
“Faith in God is the biggest help I have,” Jessica Bates said. “I feel like God is my rock, he is the one who gives me hope.”
In the wake of the terrible crash that shattered her life, she views the events through a lens of forgiveness and hope.
One might expect her to hate the man who sat behind the wheel of the truck that snuffed out the life of her husband.
But she doesn’t.
Instead she desires to deliver forgiveness to him. She sees Montwheeler as someone very far from God. To Jessica, that is the saddest fact of all.
“The kids and I have been praying for him,” she said. “I can only speak in terms of forgiving him.”
To Jessica, forgiveness is not just another expression. The word holds real power, significant strength. She draws inspiration from Jesus Christ.
“The ultimate example is Jesus on the cross, facing people who were murdering him,” she said.
Jesus forgave those who were killing him. She feels she must also forgive. So she doesn’t focus on her challenges. She works to forgive the man police say drove head-on into her vehicle and killed her husband. And she wonders about others impacted by the incident, including Harmon’s family. She was found stabbed to death in Montwheeler’s crushed truck.
“It hurts to think of the other victim and her family,” Jessica said.
She concedes people may not understand her. She knows others might prefer an eye-for-an-eye form of justice.
That’s not her way.
“I feel like I have to answer to God first,” she said.
Which means embracing forgiveness. No matter how hard it may be.
The little things intrude. The memories couples take for granted surface without warning.
“You get used to going to bed with someone at night. And that is your decompress time -- kind of a sacred time. You don’t realize how accustomed you are to them,” Jessica said.
The first week after she came home from the hospital she returned to their bed and slept on the same side as always. Yet she couldn’t continue that routine because when she awoke – and sleep since the crash has been difficult – she would reach for David. There would be just an empty bed. And the acute pain of loss slammed into her.
After a week, she broke that pattern, moving to sleep on what had been David’s side of the bed.
Other memories crop up.
“On the weekends he was the breakfast chef. He liked to bake. And barbecue on his Treager. He would get up first and make coffee,” she said.
His outlook on life delivered joy, she said.
“You could be having a crummy day, and he would walk in the room and it would light up,” she said.
Life, in some ways, has moved on.
Jessica recently returned to work at the hospital. Her physical injuries are, for the most part, healed. Still the memories can be hard. Like one from the night before the accident, when she asked David which car she should take to work the next morning. Typically, she said, David was looking out for her.
“He said, ‘I will drive you in so you will be safe.’ He was always protective and always taking care of us,” Jessica said.
The loss of their father impacted each of her children – age 11, 10, 8, 6 and 4 - in a different way, she said.
Grief haunts them too.
Once, her youngest son turned to Jessica and said, “Jesus just needs to hurry and heal daddy.”
Everything, she says now, revolves around forgiveness and trying to move forward. Yet she admits neither is easy. Necessary perhaps, but not simple.
“It is one little bit at time. Point your feet in the direction you know you need to go. We are trying to take it one day at a time. Sometimes one moment at a time. The first few weeks, you just try to adjust to this acute loss,” she said.
Yet in another way, she said, she feels fortunate.
“The amount of joy they brought you is what makes missing them so hard. I thank God because we had so many good memories. I thank God for every one of those. I am so thrilled he asked me to marry him,” she said.
And there is a lesson in this tragedy, Jessica said.
“Live a full life. Because you don’t know when it’s done,” she said.
She came forward to tell her story in part because of the immense gratitude she feels for all of the help offered her family by people in Vale and across Malheur County.
The people she worships with at the Vale Christian Church were pivotal, she said.
“They’ve been huge,” Jessica said.
Others helped too.
Someone offered her a half of a beef. Others brought her food or gave donations.
Then there are her colleagues at Saint Alphonsus.
“They’ve been wonderful, like a second family,” she said.
The outpouring of help surprised her.
“You don’t expect it, so it’s been pretty impressive,” she said. “You could not ask for a better town to go through something like this.”
Her relatives, she said, have been a critical resource. Recently, her oldest son expressed an interest in playing baseball. Before the crash, such a request would have been routine, and between David and Jessica, they would make it happen. But she is as single mother now, which introduces new challenges.
“I worried that I would not be able to get him to practice,” she said.
Then David’s cousin stepped in. He told her he would make sure Dominic made it to practice.
“People have really stepped up,” Jessica said. “A lot of people have come up and said, ‘Your family is an inspiration.’ So it is incredible to see some good things come out a horrible loss.”
David, she said, would have been proud.
“I think he would have been amazed, delighted to know people care about his family,” she said.
She stepped forward to tell her story for another reason, too.
“To show something good. To know we are doing OK. And to show the hope we have. The hope in heaven,” she said.
And yet there remains a huge void in her family’s life.
“There is a profound sense of shock and numbness. I don’t think I am fully recovered,” she said. “But I am thankful the kids and I have each other.”
There’s a saying that God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. Jessica doesn’t agree.
“Because in this life he lets you go through things that are beyond your ability to handle so you will rely on him. When you are not strong enough, he is,” she said.
She admits to questions since her husband’s death.
“I definitely asked (God) why? Why did you let this happen?” she said.
The feeling she received from God was a simple one: Just trust me.
“I do not believe God is the one that causes these awful things to happen. I know David is in God’s hands,” she said.
The children hit rough patches too, she said.
“But we pray together, talk about what happened. We hug each other and I tell them, ‘I miss him too,’” Jessica said.
And, in the end, she finds solace in scripture. Especially Romans, Chapter 8, verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Jessica, 35, could be angry. Bitter. Vengeful.
But she’s not.
“No amount of money can replace what I lost,” she said.
Still, she said she believes that accountability is important. After reading the Malheur Enterprise’s coverage of Montwheeler’s past and how the state handled his release, she said she feels there are some lingering questions about the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which discharged Montwheeler from state control in December.
“Yes, I do think it is reasonable to expect them to do their jobs,” she said. “I don’t think what they did was right. I don’t think it was just.”
Jessica is left to cope with the pain of this huge loss.
“It is not something you’d wish on anybody,” she said.
Yet she finds hope.
“God is still good. He is still love. I know David would be incredibly happy if all of this helps bring more people to God. That was his heart,” she said.
She paused, then added firmly, “I didn’t see this coming. But I know God has a plan for me and the kids and that there is hope for the future.”