I did not truly understood the importance of taking wonder in the present until I was in a serious auto accident coming home from the grocery store on a quiet neighborhood street. Had I been in my husband’s compact commuter car, I would not be here to write this story.
The Story That Changed Me
No person wakes up and thinks, "Hmm, after I read the Sunday paper, I’m going grocery shopping and will be on a quiet neighborhood street around noon so my Pathfinder can be hammered by Four Runner driven by a fledgling driver who will run a stop sign at such speed my car will be airborne, roll, and land upside down perpendicular onto the opposite street.” People don’t write those events in their daily planners. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.
It happened to me one beautiful Sunday around noon in the fall of 2003. Right before the 17-year-old hit me, behind the left front tire, dangerously close to the driver’s door, I was thinking about what a beautiful shade of blue the sky was and how at peace things felt. I was excited to give my daughters two white pumpkins purchased at the store.
Didn’t I see him coming? Yes, about a half a second before impact. I braked – hard. When people are running stop signs in neighborhoods with trees and gardens blocking the view of corners and they’re driving really fast with no intention of braking, one cannot see them coming. They just appear.
There were four fortunate things about that day: 1) I was alone. My husband and two daughters, ages two and four, were safe at home. 2.) I didn’t die. 3.) There was a witness behind me and came to me right away. Though much younger than me, she nurtured me like a mother and I cried like baby. 4.) The ambulance, fire department and police were on the scene before I even understood they came for me.
I was traveling less than 25 miles an hour, slowing to meet a red stop light on the next block. After impact, the boy’s Four Runner hit the corner curb and sheared off the front right tire of his mother’s car. (the Four Runner's tire rests next to the fireman in the below photo.) I crawled out from under my car onto a field of shattered glass to look for that other driver and determine if medical attention was required. It was hard to see because of the blood running into my eyes. The other driver was nowhere to be found. With airbag deployed and not one drop of blood on it, it looked a freshly made bed of white sheets where perhaps I could lay my aching head. I felt like a ghost hit me.
They put the kid in the ambulance with me for observation. He cried the entire trip, “I’ve only had my license for four weeks and now I’m going to lose it! How will my mother get to work tomorrow? She’s going to be so mad at me!”
In the ambulance strapped down on the gurney and immobile, I practiced Lamaze breathing to stay calm. “I’m glad my babies weren’t with me,” I told the EMT. He smiled, patted me gently and said, “Me too.” He was very sincere. How do EMT’s remain sane and stable after pulling mangled children from car accidents? Bless all EMT’s. They have my deepest respect as do firemen and police. Next time you see an ambulance or fire truck racing past with lights on, whether you're a man or woman, blow them a kiss and wish them Godspeed. Okay, if you're a man and don't want to blow kisses then salute them. But be assured, if they ever save your life or someone you love, you'll want to kiss them.
I never heard from the boy or his parents and later learned that the police officer on the scene failed to check a simple box, “injury accident.” Why he didn’t, I don’t know. Maybe he felt sorry for the kid. Maybe he forgot. There was no doubt this was a serious injury accident. Had this box been checked, this kid would have been mandated to stand before a judge. Instead, he paid his ticket early and received a lesser charge. His ticket was under $100. Once the judge learned about this, the officer was reprimanded. Seems everyone paid dearly but this kid, who walked away with a sore thumb from the air bag.
The kid's parents escorted him out of the ER while I was in x-ray. They walked right by my husband, waiting to learn of his wife’s condition. They offered no words of solace or concern.
So began my convalescence. My husband burned through vacation time and then onto three months of FMLA taking care of our daughters and taking me to countless doctors appointments. Life stood still and painful.
My first diagnosis was muscular damage in the regions of C3 and C4. This took years to fix. Soft tissue damage is very slow to heal and often triggers unhealthy cycles of overcompensating muscles. I wore a jacket several times a week that sent electrical shock pulses to try and strengthen these muscles. I did therapy, acupuncture and took painful cortisone injections to the base of my skull where I could actually hear the long needle going into my head. Mind you I don't usually have any problems with needles but these were different, medical shive is more like it. This cycle of muscle weakness caused headaches the crept up from the back of my head and over the top to my forehead. I called them headache caps but I couldn’t take them off.
These headache caps were nothing compared to the post concussive headaches from what my neurologist told me was a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, an MBTI. He admitted “mild” was not a fair word. It basically meant that I didn’t need to go into an institution. MBTI’s are receiving more medical research with more soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with them. Not certain if they issue Purple Hearts for them. If not, they should for any person with an MBTI will tell you they’d have rather broken their arms and legs. Bones heal faster than brains and muscles.
For a few months I couldn’t read anything more than a headline, couldn’t follow movie plots, couldn’t even cook soup because I’d forget about it until I smelled the scalding pan. I think one of the saddest things happened six months after the accident. I went to my daughter’s spring recital. I managed to sit through it and tell her she did a great job. Then I raced home to throw up and get ready for the pending headache hell. Watching a group of beautiful first graders sing was too much for my brain to manage. I couldn’t watch snowfall with out tossing my cookies and going to bed for hours with a headache. For several years, nausea was a major indicator that a headache was on its way. So I left little parts of me all over town as I raced to get home before completely incapacitated.
That’s my story. Months later my dear friend Ken of 21 years asked me, “What have you learned?” He wasn’t patronizing. He was curious and sincere. And, he was the only one to ask.
When in chronic pain with two to three serious post-concussive headaches a week and most your time either in bed, at various doctors appointments, or some kind of therapy, you don’t spend much time reflecting. And, depression creeps in as you lose the capacity to do the things that once gave you joy. I’ve always felt reflection is critical to a healthy life so I answered Ken’s question. Follows is roughly what I wrote and I think much of it pertains to living in and having a deep appreciation for present.
- The state of shock has no emotion and has no sense of time.
- A simple mind is not a stupid one.
- What you are today will not be who you are in a week, month, or year.
- Appreciate your health; aside from love and a safe place, nothing else really matters.
- Multi-tasking is overrated.
- What’s the rush?
- Value the everyday routine. You’ll dearly miss it when it’s gone. I cried the first time I did laundry and folded my girl’s little clothes.
- At age 36, I finally accepted that I am an adult. I’d been a responsible bill paying, tax paying, home owner and mother of two for years. However the completely selfish, adolescent whines of this 17-year-old along with his total ignorance as to what he did to another person put to rest all of my previous objections of accepting full on adulthood.
- I have an internal guidance system. It’s my voice but it’s not me and calmly directs with the simplest words of in life-threatening conditions. “Lock your arms to the steering wheel, push back into the seat, you don’t have an airbag. You’re going to roll, be small. It’s over. Get out! Get out! Get out! Go find the other driver.” My rear view mirror was level with the heating controls; all but two windows were shattered; the driver’s front side was like crumpled aluminum foil with flaking paint chips and there was this little tiny space left for the driver. I was covered in radiator fluid. The drive shaft was bent. Doctors and physical therapists cannot figure how I came through without any broken bones. I told them, “I drink milk.” I do and always have. Below is a photo of the front of the car near the driver's side.
- Unless secured, groceries become weapons in a roll over. A soup can wedged open the back window of the Pathfinder. Groceries were all over the car and street.
- Insurance claims adjusters can act with unconscionable manners. The kid’s mother’s insurance adjuster attempted to dodge reimbursement of our daughter’s car seats, mandated by state law. We had three seats for a whopping $300. “Seats are a standard item in a car. We do not reimburse standard items,” and they expected us to suck this hook, line, and sinker. That’s when we hired an attorney because we knew these folks, though they did not contest fault, did not have our best interest at heart. It wasn't personal. It was business.
- Research and buy the safest car seat you can find. This is not an item you run over to the store to pick up, like milk. I understand car seat can become annoyances and feel causal. Looking at those empty car seats upside down in my mangled car taught me how important they are.
- From the very beginning, be prepared to drive again. Don’t let a fear of it even start to simmer. I remember looking at my mangled car and thinking, “Ugh, I have to drive again.” Immediately accepting that did me world of good and saved me from a lot of future anxiety, something I really wouldn’t need when I had a mountain of recovery ahead. This can become an overwhelming fear; a fear so huge it gets in the way of just living.
- Slow down at right of way intersections to give yourself a shot of catching a stop sign runner. I’m not attempting to induce a fear, just an awareness.
- The kid who hit me called me a “lady”. Ladies have set blue hair, wear coats in the summer, and smell like mothballs. Thanks KID. Your were a KID and behaved like one. You were a minor who abused your privilege, not right, to drive.
- It’s a big bummer when you roll into the ER on a gurney and all the attending physicians are younger than you. Aren’t doctors supposed to be older than their patients? I thought that was a natural law like gravity.
- I was taken to the nearest hospital, the public hospital. I was the only patient not handcuffed to my bed. I was so proud!
- Don’t try to be tough. You want drugs. When offered, take them. Nobody’s going to think you a better person for turning them down. You will have enough hell to manage besides physical pain.
- I have two guaranteed methods for weight loss. 1) Be your own general contractor on an eight-week kitchen remodel. 2) Suffer a brain injury. I dropped 20 pounds in a little more than a month. The injury closed down the part of my brain that said, “Eat!” And when I finally did eat, my stomach had forgotten what to do with food and it was painful.
Exactly what happens at 16 or 17 years of age that creates a pressing need for a teen to drive? Parents, I understand you are tired of playing chauffeur. I am a mother who chauffeurs; I get it. Those three years of changing diapers was tiring too. But that didn't mean that I made my daughters sit on potties all day because I was sick of changing diapers. Years of constantly explaining why they couldn't have everything they wanted was tiring too. But that didn't mean that I caved in and gave them credit cards to buy things on greed, ignorance and impulse.
I fear 16 and hope the driving laws are raised to 18 by the time my children are of age to drive. My children will be more at risk of dying in a car crash when they are teens than they will be for catching West Nile Virus. But, what does the media focus on? Of course I have my opinions on teen driving based on experience and, based upon my experience, I feel very entitled to these feelings. I'm not certain why, but I do not believe we take that act of passing the keys with the serious nature that would be wise to accompany it.
After all that I have lived through, I have learned to take a step every day. Some days, it's very tiny step, minuscule. Other days, it's so huge I felt like a flew. Most days, it's just a step and that is good enough because it is movement. My movement feels a bit lighter on this planet and that makes me understand my fragility but it also makes me strong. Most of all, it makes me Mommy Golightly.
Below is a photo of my daughters ages six and two on a family vacation exactly seven days prior to the accident. They are feeding chipmunks. My youngest was a bit nervous, but intrigued by these "monkchips."