It was just before midnight on that muggy August night.
My windows were down. I took the winding back roads so that I could take my time, turn the radio up, and remember the feeling of the hot wind of my hometown one last time. The back of my year-old SUV contained all the belongings from two years of a desk job. On the seat next to me, a fruit salsa I made for my own going-away party. I was warm from all the things, the air, the love, the beer.
Life was good– an all-time high in fact. The next day was my last day of work for a month. Hours after I would walk out the door one last time, I would be on plane headed toward a month-long adventure that included a mountain wedding, Tahiti, a cross-country road trip, and a new home in a new city with the man I’d been dating for a year.
Floating through those pitch-black back roads, I chose Stevie Nicks to serenade me. A contented smile was scrawled across my face from the simultaneous satisfaction of a job well done and an awesome new chapter just beginning–a rare, transcendent, perfect moment.
I was almost home. One turn into the subdivision and another into my parent’s driveway and I would be there. As I prepared to make that familiar turn an unfamiliar rabbit-shaped missile shot over the hill in front of me. It was the single most paradoxical moment in my life. Never before or since have I free-falled so fast from one state of emotion to another.
If I close my eyes I can still see it under the orange glow of the street lights; steely grey, rabid, wild-eyed. It was coming for me and I knew it. It covered a football field’s distance in less than three seconds. I would learn later that the rate of impact was 86 mph.
I had time for two things; gripping the wheel a little tighter and the realization that my life was about to change forever.
In the time it took me to blink there were shards of metal, glass, plastic, fluid and fruit salsa all around me. I heard the unworldly sound of all these things breaking at once. I was no longer facing the direction I thought I was going; home, work, an airplane. I was facing a darkened road, my car horn stuck in a permanent state of panic and Stevie still singing about Silver Springs in her signature gravel.
My lungs filled with the acrid smoke of the airbags which had slammed into my chest like a 20lb medicine ball dropped from two stories up. My seatbelt had cut deep into my collar-bone and across my lap and in a moment of sheer panic, I suffocated on all of it. My mouth was open, but no sound came.
Then I knew had to get out, but I couldn’t remember how.
Soon, adrenaline became my copilot. It brought air back to my lungs and thought into my brain and I jumped from the critically injured vehicle that was screaming at me in its own kind of pain. In those brief seconds the rabbit had made an erratic turn which slammed its driver’s side into the front of my much larger SUV’s passenger’s side. There was no longer a floor board, only twisted metal and a tan fabric seat smeared with fruit salsa next to me.
The moment my feet touched pavement I felt a sudden and unmistakable weakness in my left leg. It was only a weakness, because adrenaline was in charge and it says that the pain comes later.
I looked to the rabbit sitting there motionless, smoking. It too, was turned toward a direction it hadn’t planned on going. I started to go to it but something about the way the driver’s side was pushed all the way over to the passenger’s side stopped me.
I thought I was brave. There have been many times in my life when I have done brave things. But something distinct cowered inside of me at that sight. It wasn’t adrenaline, it was something else–instinct maybe–that told me not to go. It told me that I would never forget what I would see because forgetting is my survival instinct.
The rest of the night came to me in camera flashes.
FLASH! I am prostrate on the grass, the sky above me is ablaze with urgent lights. My mother is holding my right hand, my father is holding my left. I feel the methodical and hurried rhythm of cold scissors up my leg cutting away my pants.
FLASH! It is just me and an EMT in the back of an ambulance. I am prostrate still. I hear, “blood pressure dropping, heading to a different hospital.”
FLASH! Prostrate on the x-ray table, I am told. “Dead–too disfigured to know the approximate age.”
FLASH! “Miss, have you had anything to drink?”
FLASH! “Hold still, this will only take a second.”
FLASH! “Miss, we’re going to need to take your blood alcohol level.”
FLASH! “You’re free to go.”
Really? Was I really?
I woke the next morning to find out that the disfigured person in the other car was a 22-year-old kid named Andy. He took his father’s sports car without permission and had been wasted on more than one drug. He went to my school. People loved him.
The next day, I didn’t go to work and I didn’t leave on an airplane. But leaving on the airplane was the only thing I wanted to do so I rescheduled my flight for the very next day. I left with my crutches, pain-killers and even more baggage than I had planned on taking. The more distance I could put between myself and those skid marks–the more radically I could change my view–the quicker I could forget.
Because forgetfulness is the best of all coping mechanisms and I use it for all the tragedies in my life.
It’s not that I pretend things haven’t happened. I know they have. Every time I go back to my parent’s house I am reminded of this one by the make-shift memorial two turns from their driveway. But I have developed a calcification process for bad memories and it operates on an involuntary, instinctual level. I harden my true-to-life tragedies and then push them away, outside of myself–into orbit.
If a memory is triggered, for a split-second I will see the event as though it happened to someone else. I see it as though it was not a part of my own life and I am hearing it for the first time. Then I have that strange, surreal, surprised moment when I realize that it actually did happen to me.
This happens every time.
But like the orbital path of the moon commands the tides of the Earth, these things affect an ebb and flow inside of me, too. A silent river flows just below my awareness; an ever-present force brimming with the reality of life’s impermanence and inherent fragility. A reminder that there are no promises in well-made plans and in less than three seconds you can be facing a darker road.
This reality river, it shapes me. It constantly cuts new paths and wears out old ones. Like all rivers, from time to time it floods. Sometimes the rain comes from something in my own life, but more often than not, it is the stories of others that breach my banks; an abducted child, a terminal diagnosis, a freak accident, a tornado.
Like the diligent beaver that I am, I maintain my dams. I stack up everything I own (and some of what I don’t) to shore myself up against what I know will come anyway, inevitably, always–a sadness brought on by things I cannot control and do not understand.
When these times come, I retreat inside myself and onto my raft made of words and I float. I lie prostrate looking at all the things in my orbit, including Andy, and I remind myself that I am that, and they are me, and we are One, and only then do the calmer waters prevail.