I still remember a cell phone flashlight waving in the distance and judging someone for crossing the two-lane highway on a pitch black night.
I still remember cringing at the crunch beneath my tires, my headlights illuminating bits of broken plastic and glass on the pavement ahead.
Ryan yelling “slow down!” from the passenger seat and then, as we reached the opposite side of the bridge, “pull over!”
I still remember the sound of teenage voices, and once again passing judgment at what I thought was laughter. My heart falling as my brain finally comprehended wailing.
“Why did you do this to us?”
”You’re a drunk!”
And countless other shocked exclamations being shouted in the direction of a smashed car, the exact words having faded from my memory over the past year.
On March 12, 2021, my husband and I rolled up on a head-on collision on Highway 281. We were headed to our property to spend the weekend, this last half-hour stretch usually a source of joy as we approach our home away from home.
The accident had just happened and, on a quiet and dark Friday night, only one other car had stopped. Its driver was the source of the aforementioned flashlight, having run over to check on the wrecked car at the south end of the bridge.
I never pegged myself a strong resource in case of emergencies (I often faint at the sight of blood), but God stood by me during this incident and allowed me to follow suit with my brave and heroic husband, whose military and nursing background kicked into high gear.
Ryan immediately tended to the driver of the small, smashed sedan. A man was pinned in the driver’s seat, his head lolling as he fell in and out of consciousness. I called 911 and did my best to locate and read a mile marker in the distance, describing our location on this stretch of road more familiar to us than anyone else on the scene. I spoke to a woman who was consoling the two teenage boys who had escaped the car mostly unscathed. Thinking it was a family member, she explained to me that she was just another passerby trying to help.
I loaned one of the boys my phone so he could call his mother. Because of the unfamiliar number, she didn’t answer, despite his multiple tries. The other boy located his phone in the wreckage and I soon found it being thrust in my face, explaining on FaceTime to a distraught woman my own age where exactly we were. Or at least, that’s how I remember it. The scene was nothing but chaos, and I understand now how recollections of traumatic events can vary so wildly.
The woman and I took turns hugging the boys and patting their shoulders. With COVID-19 still a significant threat, I remember thinking that if I caught it from being unmasked at this scene, I would have zero regrets. I quietly shared with one of the boys that I was three years sober—that there was hope yet for their father. I doubt it sank in at the time, but they were the most genuine words I could offer.
Within minutes, a man ran up and yelled, “I’m a firefighter!” We assumed he was first on the scene from my 911 call. As it turned out, he was just passing through as well. A trainer for local emergency teams, what are the odds? He teamed up with Ryan and the two began working together to keep the driver conscious. His leg was pinned and he had been stabbed by a flying object. I remember thinking, as I looked at his slumped face, that he was going to leave these boys fatherless.
I heard Ryan call my name from inside the vehicle. The other man’s daughter was waiting in his truck at the opposite end of the bridge. He’d left her with some Good Samaritans but asked if I could relieve them, while also letting her know her father was okay.
I walked across the bridge, flashing lights and first responders surrounding me. I remember thinking how…ironic? soothing?…that I was wearing my “Be Kind” t-shirt as I wandered through the wreckage. I passed the other car, now sitting dark and quiet, its passengers now en route to the hospital.
I found the truck in question and spoke to the family tending to the firefighter’s daughter. They were fine to continue waiting. The man had given me his phone to call the girl’s mother, his ex-wife, so I did so, explaining as best I could that her daughter was completely safe.
In somewhat of a stupor by now, I made my way back across the bridge to return the firefighter’s phone and see if I could be of more assistance. The boys were being checked out by paramedics, and the emergency response team was clearing the road. Someone approached me—could I move my car to make room for Lifeflight?
As they whisked the man away, I finally took a breath. The most piercing forty-five minutes of my life had just passed. Firsts that I hope remain “only”. My husband as a first responder. Jaws of life. Wreckage. Fear.
Several days later, after a little voice in my head wouldn’t quiet, I texted the mother whose number was still in my outgoing calls. I explained who I was and that I hoped her boys were okay. I also explained that I was three years sober. Because of this, I knew about Alateen, a program for teenagers of alcoholic parents. Even if their dad didn’t change his life, they could. She was grateful and insisted she would look into it, another resource in addition to the therapy she had already arranged.
One year later, I have no idea how those boys are doing. Did their father get sober? Did they learn to cope? Does the accident still haunt them? I worked through the stress that followed me for weeks after but they will live a lifetime with those memories.
I heard a story one time that I think is attributable to my writing role model, Elizabeth Gilbert. The details of the memory, much like details of the accident, elude me. She, or whoever she was speaking about, held the ladder for someone who was high atop it working. The person never realized their steadiness was attributable to the passerby beneath them. What I remember most clearly was the point of the story. “What if,” Gilbert mused, “someone’s purpose in life was simply to be there to hold that ladder?”