I recently finished the book "Ten Minutes From Home" (Beth Greenfield). It is a memoir that no mother of two young children has any business reading. It is the true story of an adolescent girl who loses her best friend and seven year old brother in a random, tragic car accident with a drunk driver. It's touching, yet haunting and sends a clear message; some things are just out of your control.
That novel inspired this post about my own "brush with death" fourteen years ago, in the autumn of 1996.
I graduated from college that May. My serious boyfriend, who would later earn the title of "husband" took a short term position writing for the local paper in Monroe, a small town about 45 minutes outside of Madison. He got his very first apartment of his own just blocks away from the local watering hole. I relished our time together there, playing house, grocery shopping, cooking meals , jogging through the small town streets and partying with the locals.
I lived with my parents. I worked a temporary clerical position at an insurance company while saving funds for our upcoming European adventure.
I drove my parents boxy blue Volvo to and from Monroe frequently. I spent weekends and occasional weeknights in Monroe, commuting in before and after work. I didn't mind the drive, not one bit. In fact I liked the time to myself. I would pop in one of my carefully crafted "mix tapes" (yes, this was before Ipods and play-lists) and jam out as I enjoyed the Wisconsin scenery (cows).
I believe it was a Sunday, but my memory all of these years later is fuzzy. I remember a last minute workout on the treadmill in my parent's basement, leaving me sweaty. Noticing the time, I decide to skip the shower. I throw my things together in a duffel bag and jump into the Volvo for the drive. Evening falling. Twilight. I had no reason to fear the the fading sky.
I'm listing to Toni Braxton. "Unbreak My Heart". Night falling. Two lane highway. I'm singing along . A bend in the road leads to something blurry ahead. A paper bag? I barely break. Slow motion. Impact. Shear force. Jolting. Shattering glass. This is it. This is how people die. Over in seconds. The car screeches to a halt. I pat myself down from the top of my head to my knees. I look at my hands. Small specks of blood. From where? Am I okay? I feel fine. I'm fine.
From there it is a blur of flashing lights and questions. What happened? What is your name? Did you lose consciousness? Does your neck hurt? Do you know the date? Is there someone we should call?
I am fine I tell them, just fine.
They insist on a stretcher. I worry that I should have taken a shower. I must smell. I am strapped down in a a neck brace. Do they think I was drunk? I hadn't had a drop to drink. But what did I hit? I am sent to the hospital via ambulance. X-rays. Insurance cards. The damn neck brace, won't they please take it off?
My boyfriend arrives. "What happened?, What did you hit?" He asks.
I have no idea. It looked like a paper bag.
The doctors give me the green light to go home. The blood was merely from my tongue which I bit during the accident, just a normal reflex the nurse informs me.
I am set home with some warnings. I am told that my whole body will ache by morning. I am told that I will have a black eye. I am told that I was lucky. My sturdy car, my seat belt, my puffy Wisconsin-style winter jacket all protected me.
I feel stunned. My boyfriend takes me home to the apartment. Eventually I fall asleep. When I awake I expect to feel stiff and sore, but I feel perfectly fine.
By the next evening, as the doctor promised a dark purple bruise starts to spread across my eye until finally it nearly swells shut. For the next two weeks I wear the badge of survival on my face and ponder the purpose of styling my hair each morning. What was the point? I looked completely disfigured.
The day after the accident my stepfather took me to the auto shop to collect my belongings from the totaled Volvo. I was told that the car actually rolled over. I had no idea. I saw the dent in the roof of the car. The paint scraped off the doors. A cat sat in the back seat of the car, eating a sandwich from my duffel bag. I worried that he would cut his paws on the pieces of glass from the smashed windshield.
The police informed me that I had hit a tractor trailer tire that had fallen off the back of someones truck. They found it in a field near the accident site. They did not ticket me. They told me that it wasn't my fault.
Perhaps not. But it is easier to think that it might have been avoided. If I had seen it sooner, if I had identified the object for what it was, a heavy tire, and not a weightless grocery bag. If I had breaked. It never would have happened.
In the weeks that followed the accident I was left with a feeling that I can now identify as anxiety. I felt jittery, a constant sensation of butterflies flitting around in my stomach. I couldn't eat. I lost weight. I had no car, so I saw my boyfriend less, but at least I avoided driving.
The accident has had a lasting impact on my life. To this day I fear night driving. To this day I sometimes dream about glass shattering in slow motion. The truth is, we are physically fragile. We take risks every single day. No one knows when a drunk might plow into us and snatch away the life of our loved ones, or when you might come around a bend in the road to find something unexpected that can turn your life upside down .
But life marches on. We get back behind the wheel because what is the alternative? Life is full of risks and danger, and things outside of our control. Our only choice is to keep going, buckle up and hope for the best.