THE UNBREAKABLE LIFE OF NASEEM ROCHETTE by Donny Levit
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
A South Orange neighbor reflects on her brutal near-death experience
On a recent rainy weekday evening, the Rochette family gathers in the front room of their South Orange home. Naseem Rochette is seated on a couch, bookended by her husband, Westcott, and her 15-year-old daughter, Asha. Jasper, their 13-year-old son, is reclining comfortably on one sofa chair while 11-year-old son Kalyan settles into another chair facing his parents. A few throw blankets cover the family members. Throughout our conversation, three cats and three dogs take seats on the laps of various Rochettes, occasionally changing laps and quietly darting in and out of the family room. In many ways, it’s the quintessential snapshot of a poised, tranquil family.
But the subject they are assembled to discuss is anything but tranquil. Over the next hour, we will revisit a terrifying incident in their lives that could have left Naseem dead. Eighteen months later, they are still coming to terms with an event that has changed them.
On Monday, May 21, 2018, Naseem took a train from New York to South Orange after a particularly satisfying day at work. Just four months into a new job at Microsoft, she had closed an impressive deal with a client. Although she usually drove to the train station, Naseem’s car was in the shop that day. She walked home towards South Orange Middle School, where Asha was a student. “It was so nice out that day,” she recalls. “I remember passing my daughter’s best friend and I was just happy to see her.”
Naseem headed towards the intersection of North Ridgewood and Tillou roads, where her husband had parked to pick her up. “I was in the middle of the crosswalk, and I remember how good I was feeling. I was just enjoying life at that moment. And then I saw the car coming and I yelled, ‘Hey!’ and she [the driver] doesn’t stop and she hits me. I slam on her hood as hard as I can, and that’s when it got Westcott’s attention,” she says.
“And here I’m thinking I’m going to be late for dinner. Am I going to have bruises? Oh, it’ll be a funny cocktail party story...so all those thoughts go through my head, and then she accelerated, and I fell forward. And then she drove over me. Westcott is screaming. I’m screaming. I hear other male voices screaming. She goes forward and she reverses over me,” Naseem says. As she tells the story, she is calm and extremely specific about the details of the incident. “I remember thinking around this point that this shouldn’t still be happening. And I’m hearing Westcott. I’m hearing him watch his wife die.”
Naseem also thought she was dying. “The tires went over me five times,” she says. “At some point, I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to get out of this.’ I thought about my kids and how I should have written them more letters. Do they know how I feel about them?...The positives that I take away from this is I had my deathbed moment.”
While this was neither a premeditated nor an intentional act on the part of the driver, it was unclear at that moment if Naseem would survive. The South Orange police and other emergency workers needed to use airbags to lift the car.
“I knew I was alive because my vanity came back,” she says. “I started thinking things like: Was my ass showing? Was I wearing cute underwear?...you know, all of those silly thoughts.”
Naseem was taken to University Hospital in Newark where doctors performed a series of x-rays, CAT scans, and multiple tests. “They told me that there were no breaks, no internal bleeding, no skull fracture. I remember one nurse saying to me that I have to pay it forward. And, you know, that was actually a lot of pressure. That weighed on me,” she recalls. “Jasper started crying when he saw me. I asked Kalyan to hold my hand, but he wouldn’t come close to me. I had no idea of the trauma I put my children through. I was unrecognizable. My iPhone facial recognition didn’t recognize me.”
Miraculously, her injuries were less severe than expected. Still, they were life changing and physical therapy, limited mobility and chronic pain would remain a constant in her life.
When Naseem arrived home, the reality for her and the entire family had changed. Robin Miller and Ethan Wiener, close friends of the Rochettes, were the first people Naseem called to tell about the incident. “Naseem is very private and she’s very independent,” says Robin, who explains how difficult it was for Naseem to accept help. “She’s shy. She’s quiet. But on the other hand, she’s like a ball-busting powerhouse.”
When Robin put out a call for a meal train, the community responded in droves. “At first I was mortified,” says Naseem. “I actually felt like a fraud that I was even having people help me because nothing was broken. But allowing people to help became part of the process of healing. It showed my kids this beautiful coming together of the community and the generosity of people.”
“This was a circumstance that could have happened to anybody,” says Westcott. “The response made us feel very welcome in the community.” Adds Naseem, “One of the benefits and the positives of this is that I was able to spend time with people that I’ve known for years but never gotten to actually know beyond the pickups and dropoffs.”
Naseem credits Dr. Sofia Shapiro, who practices in South Orange, for helping her navigate through the many physical therapy appointments and doctors she needed to see. Westcott says, “When Naseem was discharged, we weren’t sure what we should do next even though we had full [health] insurance.” Naseem adds, “Our family is so well-equipped. My father is a doctor. But we were still so lost. We can only imagine how even more difficult it would be for people who are less fortunate.”
Although the doctors advised her to take more time off, Naseem went back to work eight weeks after the incident. “It was probably too soon, but I wanted to get back to life,” she says. “I wanted to be strong and wanted the kids to see some normalcy.”
In addition to the physical therapy, Naseem was also coming to terms with needing to address her mental health. She recalls going to the Maplewood Municipal Court about six weeks after the incident as a moment when her post-traumatic stress disorder became acute. Escorted by Westcott and Asha, she was walking with a cane and was still bandaged up. “The driver didn’t acknowledge me,” she says. “I [then] came home and I was completely irrational. I was yelling at the kids. I couldn't manage my reactions.” Kalyan recalls that moment. “My mom was really stressed out that day,” he says, beginning to cry. “She got really mad at me.”
“I no longer had the same control over my reactions/impulses and the trauma rewired me,” says Naseem. “My operating system was overloaded and off kilter. I had never experienced such irrational and uncontrollable emotions and reactions, and on courthouse day I finally admitted I needed help.”
Turning to trauma therapist Linda Ditullio, Naseem began working through the incident. “At first I had scars all over my face,” she recalls. “My therapist talked to me about kintsugi [the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery, which loosely translates to ‘golden mending’]. She talked to me about celebrating the cracks and celebrating the journey. I actually used to put glitter on them [my scars]. That was my golden joinery.”
While there are some legal and logistical details to work out, Naseem and her family are focused on moving forward. But articulating the story of the incident has become a significant part of the therapeutic process. Naseem has opened up about the physical and mental trauma and the need for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. In June 2019, she told her story to a public audience as part of the Mapso Storytelling Show, a local “Moth-like” series organized by Maplewood resident Boo Trundle. While audible gasps were heard from the audience, Naseem found moments of comedy to express what happened. “I’m not a funny person, but in certain ways it’s a funny story,” says Naseem. “I’d walk into doctors’ offices and I’d tell them that I got run over three times. People would ask if my husband put a hit out on me.” In a wry wink to the old “Got Milk?” commercial ads, Naseem wore a shirt that read, “Got Hit?”
May 21, 2018. Naseem coined the term “Unbreakable Day” for the one-year anniversary of the incident. “I’ve always known that I wanted to find something positive in the experience. And you know, May 21 could be a really bad day. Or we could celebrate that I survived,” says Naseem. A few weeks before the anniversary, the Rochette family went to a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit in New York. One of his paintings on display featured the word “Unbreakable” written in large capital letters. Westcott took a photo of the word and that section of the print is now hung in Naseem’s home office.
After finishing our conversation, the Rochette family empties out of the front room. Kalyan heads out to his basketball practice. Asha starts her homework. Westcott hits the Peloton. Naseem and Jasper – escorted by two dogs and one cat – flick the TV on. The family simply goes on with their lives. And they are unbreakable.
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his show 0 on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.