ARLINGTON — Soon after Miriam Kay Robinson moved to the Northwest as a teenager, her family took a long drive to see the ocean. She grew up the fifth of eight siblings near Dallas, and north Texas is not known for its beaches.
That day on the Pacific coast the kids found two dead crabs. Robinson, a high school sophomore, insisted on taking them home for a proper funeral, even if it made the car smell on the 1½-hour ride back to Albany, Oregon.
“She would weep over this thing, because everything had life, and she was sad that it was not there,” her sister Kim Ward said.
Robinson mourned for the crabs at a miniature memorial with her sisters. She put the shells in a shoebox and laid them to rest along the railroad tracks by the family home. That was one side of Miriam. She could not bear to see people or animals suffer.
She was also a prankster, a protective sister and, in the words of her friend, Dora-Jean Wyne, “a beautiful human, with a bright shining soul, who had so much left to give.”
Wyne was driving south on I-5 near Arlington when a wrong-way driver collided head-on with her car July 1. She and her toddler son survived the crash. Robinson, a passenger in the front seat, did not. She was 28.
State troopers arrested a Snohomish County man, 56, who had five past convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol, dating back to 1981. He’s accused of driving drunk again, and with a suspended license. His SUV glanced off other cars for 6 miles on I-5 before the catastrophic crash near the on-ramp from Highway 530. The driver is in jail, with bail set at $500,000.
Any of the hundreds of people on the road could have been killed that afternoon. It happened to be Miriam Robinson.
“We want to keep her story alive,” said her father, Ken Robinson. “We want this to be a catalyst for change. If ever there was a cause for making things better regarding DUI drivers, especially repeat offenders, this screams it.”
‘A beautiful human’
If you ask anyone what they remember best about Miriam, you get the same answer again and again. She would throw back her head and laugh with her whole body, in a way that could convince you something was funny even if you didn’t quite get the joke. Robinson never explained what she found so comical about a running gag that went on for years. She kept buying things made of glass for her younger sister, Kim — completely random, useless stuff. One year for a Christmas present, Kim unwrapped a glass chili pepper. The confused look on her sister’s face was priceless to Robinson.
“She was so pleased with herself for getting this,” Kim said. “She entertained herself easily. She loved dragging us into it.”
Growing up, Robinson was a reader, with a love for novels. She would correct her siblings’ grammar. She got copies of the first Harry Potter books before they were published in the United States. Once she’d torn through them, she made her sisters read them, too.
“I mean, we didn’t regret it,” Kim said. “But it was like we had no choice.”
Micah Brock, a friend at West Albany High School in Oregon, met Robinson through youth group at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They went to school dances together. They baled hay for a summer job. Brock’s family, the Hennekes, took them on a road trip to Forks to see where the “Twilight” books were based. Brock held onto many handwritten notes Robinson passed to her at school. The day after her friend died, Brock posted a note to Facebook, where Robinson had told her how much she’d miss her and worry about her — “on pins and needles” — when Brock went on a brief vacation to Idaho.
In the post Brock wrote back to her: “I keep thinking about all of our memories. … It’s crazy how these insignificant moments make up so significantly who we become.”
One sunny day when they were teens, they set out on bikes without a map or a plan, in a time before everyone had cellphones. They didn’t realize until it was too late that they’d pedaled 10-plus miles from Albany to Corvallis. They went from store to store in search of a phone and eventually rode back along a scary highway.
“We were like two miles from home, and I was just hurting so bad,” Brock said. “I look back, and she’s just laughing her head off behind me. I can’t even describe the laugh. It’s just, like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ We literally couldn’t walk. We fell off our bikes in the yard.”
Another night they ran through a farmer’s field, with Robinson in a bathrobe, twirling around in the full moonlight. It seemed like a fine idea until a cop pulled over, and they had to convince him, no, they weren’t drunk, just being teenage girls.
Robinson worked for a while in a vintage store in Albany. She loved the old jewelry, party dresses and pearls. She collected black-and-white photos from the 1930s. She invented stories about people in the pictures and wrote them down for Brock. Robinson got a tattoo of a mustache on her left index finger so she could hold it under her nose and say, “I mustache you a question.”
“If the world zigged, Miriam zagged,” said Mike Henneke, a family friend and Brock’s father. “And then she’d kind of look back to see who was watching, to see if she could get a rise out of someone, and to see how the world would react.”
‘A bright shining soul’
Two years ago, Robinson’s mother suffered a stroke. Robinson found her, dialed 911 and had to make the life-or-death decisions about her emergency care.
“Miriam was one of those people who would panic after everything was said and done,” her sister Kim said. “But in a crisis she’s the one you’d want to be there.”
Her mom survived. Robinson helped her through the hard recovery. Months later Robinson and one of her sisters, Clarie, were crossing a street in the dark in Albany when a car plowed into them. They both suffered broken legs. Robinson crawled from the street with a wound to her head, Kim said. The trauma scarred her inside and out.
Robinson lived through stretches of being withdrawn and depressed, according to those close to her. She suspected she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, her friend Dora-Jean Wyne said. This year, she moved in with Wyne in Albany and grew close to her son and Piggy, the family Chihuahua. She and Wyne had the same taste in books and classic rock. (Tom Petty, David Bowie.) They battled many of the same health problems, mental and physical, Wyne said.
“She did so much to help bring me out of my shell, because I’ve had severe depression,” she said. “We have similar brains. We kind of relied on each other.”
Robinson was unemployed and feeling directionless near the end of June when Wyne suggested a road trip to a friend’s place in Arlington, where she had an open invitation to hang out by the riverside. Robinson hadn’t left in a long time. Wyne hoped going into the woods would help her. They sang along to pop punk and the soundtrack of “Moulin Rouge!” on the 300-mile drive. In Snohomish County, they took nature walks. Robinson spent much of her time writing in a journal.
On that Sunday afternoon, they stopped at a Dollar Tree in Arlington so Robinson could buy ear plugs and sleep on the long haul home. A true Oregonian, Wyne had never pumped her own gas. She fumbled as she tried to figure out the hose and nozzle at a station along Highway 530.
Moments later she merged her Toyota Corolla onto southbound I-5. She glanced to the lane next to her. She turned her eyes forward, just as she entered the freeway, and saw a Ford Explorer racing the wrong way toward the on-ramp, and toward her. Wyne swerved as hard as she could, a reflex she believes saved her and her son.
Two men ran up to their mangled car, ripped away the windows with their bare hands and freed the survivors. Wyne suffered deep bruises. Jack, her 1½-year-old son, had a cut to his face.
Robinson died instantly. Piggy died later.
‘So much left to give’
Robinson’s father spent the past days planning a funeral at his new home in the Willamette Valley. He had moved there weeks earlier to be closer to his kids, he said. An online fundraiser was set up to help with memorial costs. Friends and family traveled across the country, from California, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas. Miriam’s sister, Kim, flew in from South Carolina. It was hard to find words for what she feels.
“It didn’t need to happen,” she said. “We don’t know how to be ourselves anymore.”
Wyne, like the Robinsons, hopes to channel her anger into a push for stronger drunken driving laws.
“She was taken from us so suddenly and so violently,” Wyne said. “I’ll spend every moment, every breath that I have in my lungs, fighting so that people don’t get their sixth chance to destroy another family. No one deserves six chances.”
One of Robinson’s childhood friends, Lacey Henneke, was a few weeks into a new internship with a social services agency, helping people convicted of DUIs give up drugs and alcohol. She has a new purpose to do this work, she said. The day she heard about the crash, a client asked her for a reason to overcome his addiction. Lacey told him about her friend.
“Remember the pain my friend’s family and loved ones are going through,” she said.
Lacey had not wanted to work that day. She wanted to stay home, and think of all the ways she missed Robinson.
She thought about another trip to the Oregon coast, when she and Robinson were older. At the time, Lacey had a crush on a guy who rode a motorcycle, but she was too afraid to get on the bike with him. Robinson convinced her to put aside her fears — figuring she would have a story to tell at the wedding later. Life doesn’t always work out like that. The guy ended up being kind of a jerk, Lacey said. Robinson told her she was sorry for setting her hopes too high. That wasn’t the point of the story, though.
“Basically, I learned to be spontaneous, and channel my inner Miriam,” Lacey said. “That situation that’s scary? I’ll try it. And I would come out better than I thought, because I made that bold leap.”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.