The second half of autumn. A time of year I had learned to guard against in my adolescence if I wanted to arrive at the holidays with any peace, gratitude, or love in my heart. Fifteen years ago tonight, I would also become grateful to arrive at the holidays alive, with only bruises remaining from a car accident that claimed the lives of two other drivers and injured another four.
The waning hours of sunlight, a precious resource this time of year, met me as I left my rented townhome. I had borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum the night before as I prepared for a small party I had hosted. When you have roommates, you don’t always know what amenities might pack up and leave with them, and apparently the last move-out had supplied our vacuum cleaner.
So after spending the entire day in bed (I did this a few times when I was single, it was November, no one was hassling me, and I had no definite commitments), I had urged myself to get up, dress up, and show up. Even if destination Walmart for a vacuum cleaner and the local mall for some comfy shoes sounds like I’m goin’ nowehere, it felt like a pretty solid evening plan since my object for throwing a party the night before had given me mixed signals as to whether there would be a follow-up. I would just go with the flow on this one.
I exited my parking lot onto the main street, though the speed was just 35 mph. I waited at a red light while fiddling with the radio. I still have little patience for a song that just isn’t doing it for me. As I flowed with traffic into the next intersection, I slowed nearly to a stop, but the light changed from red to green, so I didn’t have to quite drop into first gear again. A moment for my hand to fiddle with the radio some more. It landed on U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I passed through the small intersection using the left lane since the right lane became a Right Turn Only. I had heard this song a million times. I glanced down at the time and reached to try another station. 5:28 pm. A deafening sound and a punishing jolt drove my car forward and sharply to the left as I slammed on the brake and careened into the curb.
No airbag to slow me, my face must have hit the steering wheel for the bruising and small scar I sustained. I had taken my nurse licensing exam just two weeks prior and had the sense to keep my neck in a neutral position while finding my cell phone and answering questions of Good Samaritans and assessing the cause of my wet shirt (it was water–my grandfather had taught me to carry a gallon of distilled water around with me for my finicky radiator, and it had exploded with the impact).
I would learn that a man traveling in excess of 80 mph and likely intoxicated had jumped the curb after he missed the Right Turn Only sign. He lost control of his vehicle and sideswiped one car, slammed into my right rear side just before he crossed into oncoming traffic and hit a car whose driver died at the scene, a woman about my age who was engaged to be married. His vehicle then went airborne, tearing off the top of her car. He was ejected from his vehicle and killed. His vehicle then slammed into the front of a truck, mangling the legs of the driver, a 30-something military veteran.
That night I learned things that a nurse might learn in no other way. I learned about the difference between procedural and compassionate touch. I learned the humiliation of having your clothing cut off of you and saved in an impersonal belongings bag. I learned that a backboard offers no comfort when you need it most. I learned that an x-ray tech can speak kindly and offer gentleness to a body that now fears touch. I learned that a patient transporter can make whiplash less worrisome by warning of bumps in the road.
And I learned that isolation brings out feelings that are erased the moment family support becomes apparent. No one should have to go through trauma alone. I remember, too, the bewildering request that I supply a blood sample as part of the investigation. I could now feel for the parents of my patients who asked, “Is this blood draw really necessary? Is my baby going to have any blood left after you run all your tests?”
After the adrenaline wore off and my various needs were addressed–I’d left my keys in my torn-open car and couldn’t get into my apartment, so I stayed with my nearby aunt and uncle who had arrived at the scene earlier only to learn there had been a young woman killed–I didn’t know until years later how upset they’d been–I settled into telling my story to every well-wisher and visitor I could. It needed to make sense.
I had barely grasped the content of my Physics 101 course, but I wanted to know trajectories and vectors and the yaw, pitch, and roll of every vehicle in the accident. I wanted to understand what the injuries were and how they had happened. I wanted to be able to look at my little Honda Civic, Stevie, and tell him exactly how he had died. I would have gathered him in my arms and held him as I sobbed over his squashed frame the following Monday. We had been through so much together, and I’d never expected to lose him like that. He had been my father’s, and part of me felt like I had lost a family member that night. For a stupid vacuum cleaner.
I continued with my life. I returned to work feeling stiff and getting a lot of questioning looks. My face looked like my left-handed boyfriend had hit me with his over-sized commemorative ring. I laughed off whatever I could. I explained what I could. Then a respiratory therapist asked how I was doing with the survivor’s guilt.
I felt invaded. Was it her business? Should I feel guilt for not having died when someone so much like me had died? Is that what the heavy feeling was? The unspoken desire to have it all make sense?
Over time, I found purpose and meaning in my experience because I wanted to find it. I learned with some help from a counselor to get into my feelings and live again. I shared my story in a way that helped my friend a year later when her own sister passed away in a car accident. I stopped asking, “What if I had gotten up earlier that day? What if I had taken the other route out of my parking lot? What do I need to do to prove that my survival was for a reason?”
Instead, I remembered that whether aloud or in my heart, I had prayed for safety in my travels, and the Lord had been with me–He and the angel forms of my ancestors–throughout the incident and its aftermath. No one waved a magic wand and forced me to have the experience. It just happened. And then I worked out what to do with it.
Yesterday I hoped for a lovely day. My PMDD issues had subsided and I looked forward to the kids all back at school (three of four, anyway) so I could write or catch up on emails or something besides the usual housework. But my brain just wouldn’t light up. I couldn’t keep the rainy weather from creeping into my mood. My energy only lapped at my feet for a moment and then drained away.
I had barely enough energy to get the kids to school. My third-grader made glaciers look like white water rapids. I wanted to lay him flat and tug off jammies and place him in clothes, but he wouldn’t uncurl. A backboard and the jaws of life might have come in handy.
After school, I had to fight a flutter of anxiety as I saw a message appear on my phone from his teacher. It didn’t look good. She thought I should know that although he remained respectful, he refused to do any work that day.
“Not again!” I silently lamented. He had done so well the week prior. I thought maybe we’d hit a sweet spot with medications, supplements, essential oils, diet, learning resources, friend support, and so on. I began turning over all the possible explanations for this regression.
When he arrived home from the bus, I gently asked about the message. He slumped into a chair and told me everything was just harder today. I began to ask what he thought was different, when it occurred to me that everything had been harder today for me, too. I looked at him with compassion and instead asked, “What do you think went right today? Were you kind and thoughtful? Did you keep from saying something mean?”
He thrust out his chin in stubborn resistance for a moment. “I didn’t say anything all day. That’s how I wasn’t mean. Hmph!” Then he tilted his head on second thought and added, “But I did know that another word for teenager is juvenile, so I said something.” So we talked about that. It might not be much, but it kept us from giving up on the day with its dreary, wet weather. We seemed to have a bit of an understanding after that. He knew that I knew something of how he felt, and he wasn’t in trouble for feeling that way.
Of course, I didn’t see it as a blessing that I had dragged through my day and taken a nap on a day when I would usually feel energetic. As I pondered how similarly I’d felt the day of my car accident, I realized that more than anyone else, God lets us feel what we are feeling. He wasn’t telling me to go and make something out of my mostly wasted Saturday. He didn’t invent the “get up, dress up, show up” mantra. He didn’t even tell me that I had to find a purpose in my surviving a deadly car accident. He just stayed with me while I experienced some of what life has to offer.
I continued this line of thought, and it occurred to me that I had prayed yesterday morning that I would know how to respond to my son’s needs. Would I have known if I hadn’t felt some of what he had felt? Maybe. But I believe the Lord offered me that experience so that I could offer my son some freshly formed compassion.
“And he will take upon him death that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).