She would have just turned 23, a recent college graduate and probably in graduate school, or on her first job, or maybe even beginning married life.
I think of her every time I pass by the corner of West Rosemary Lane and Robinson Place, where a makeshift shrine marks the spot where 11-year-old Hannah Louise Knudsen’s life tragically ended 12 years ago Sunday.
It’s just around the corner from my home on Seaton Circle, and I go by it every day. People often leave flowers there, or handwritten notes above a plaque that bears her name and the dates of her birth (April 28, 1989) and death (May 20, 2000), and the words, “You left your footprints on our hearts.”
There also an engraving of a bicycle, like the one the Thomas Jefferson fifth grader was riding down the hill on Robinson Place with four friends that afternoon when she lost control on the rain-swept street and was struck by a passing minivan heading up Robinson Place. Although wearing a helmet, she suffered multiple injuries and was pronounced dead two hours later.
It wasn’t her fault or the fault of the woman driving the minivan, but it was every parent’s nightmare, a young life snuffed out in an instant.
That’s why I called her mother the other day to ask if I could write about Hannah. I told her I wouldn’t do so if she felt it was an invasion of privacy or brought back painful memories, but she said she would in order to help keep her daughter’s memory alive.
We met, ironically on Mother’s Day, and that’s when Louise Molton told me the incredible story you’re about to read, including why one never really recovers from losing a child; the beautiful tribute Hannah’s younger sister Sophie paid her last year; Hannah’s eerily prescient comment a week before she died, and especially about the fox, or foxes.
Molton said she was returning home that fateful afternoon from teaching music after picking up Sophie at school and didn’t see the ambulance and police cars at the scene of the accident because she turned off Rosemary onto Tracy Place, a block before Robinson.
“Then I got a call from my husband on the cell phone I had just gotten the week before. He said, ‘Hannah’s been in an accident.'” Her husband, John Knudsen, whom she divorced in 2002 before remarrying in 2008, had learned the tragic news from a neighbor he’d given his business card to the day before.
She rushed to the scene of the accident, where another neighbor, Elizabeth McCloskey Leibold, led her to Hannah’s broken body.
“I remember somebody saying at the time it was a merciful death, and I understand it now,” said Molton, a native of London who moved to Falls Church in 1987 after her marriage. “Hannah was pronounced dead [at Fairfax Inova Hospital] two hours later, but I truly believe she died when I held her. She wasn’t suffering and she wasn’t a teenager in a car accident or killed by a drunk driver.”
Molton, 47, a successful realtor who lives in Alexandria and often handles home sales in her old neighborhood, said she’s grateful for the “fantastic relationship” she had with Hannah. After her death, the Falls Church News Press described Hannah as “one of Thomas Jefferson’s most popular and involved students. She played the flute in the elementary band, sang in the chorus, and played lacrosse on the George Mason Middle School team.”
Does a parent ever fully recover from such a devastating loss, I asked Hannah’s mother.
“Never, to be honest,” she said. “You just don’t. I was in a survival mode. I could have been a stay-at-home mom but I opened a music store [in downtown Falls Church] and became a single mom afterwards. What I didn’t realize would be so hard were not only the birthdays and anniversaries [ her death], but watching her friends graduate from high school and college. Those milestones have been very difficult.”
They’ve also been difficult for Hannah’s two siblings and, I assume, her father, who still lives on Robinson Place but whom I didn’t talk to because this is a story about her mother. Adam, 25, will graduate from Radford University near Roanoke in the fall, and Sophie, 19, is studying nursing at Radford. “It’s been difficult for both of them,” she said. “Grief is hard to deal with.”
Molton made it clear she has nothing but sympathy for the woman who was driving the minivan that collided with Hannah’s bike, who still lives in Falls Church. “I knew her because I taught her son music and I’ve stayed in touch with her,” she said.
Molton said she rarely visits her daughter’s shrine or her grave at the Falls Church Episcopal Church. In fact, the last time she was there before Sunday was with Sophie a year ago April on what would have been Hannah’s 21st birthday.
Sophie later left a handwritten letter at Hannah’s shrine, telling her how much she missed her.
“It is hard because as each day, month and year passes, there is less and less of you to miss,” she wrote. “Memories fade no matter how old we are. This year I lost the sound of your voice. I cannot hear it or imagine it. The only thing that remains is a home video of your 3rd birthday. But I didn’t know that Hannah. I knew an angel. A role model like no other.”
Using the same words as her mother, Sophie wrote of Hannah’s “merciful death,” adding, “The only thing promised is death. That’s when I’ll meet you again, riding your bike on streets of gold. And kids will grow up unaware of the angel who used to live up the hill.”
Molton did not know about Sophie’s letter, which was still in the shrine when we visited it on Sunday, so I copied it for her. That’s when she told me what Hannah said a week before she died, and about the fox and foxes.
“The Sunday before she died, Hannah and Sophie and I were riding our bikes through the Falls Church Memorial Gardens when Hannah stopped and said, ‘When I die, I want to be cremated because I don’t want people riding over my body.’ That’s why she was cremated,” Molton added. “I don’t know that we would have been able to do it if she hadn’t said that.”
Finally, Molton recalled that when she and Sophie visited Hannah’s shrine in April 2010, they saw a fox across the street on Rosemary. “I said, ‘Don’t move, there’s fox on the sidewalk.’ I had never had a liking for foxes, but I felt there was something special there, like a spiritual touch.”
Since then, Molton said she sees foxes “at least twice a week, when I’m driving by the river, or on the Parkway in McLean. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with something, I’ll look and see a picture of a fox. When I tell people this, they soon see a fox. You’ll see one too.”
I’m still waiting to see a fox and when I do, I’ll think of Hannah.