“So how’d you tell mom I crashed without her going spastic when you went in to call 911?” I asked my sister, Bianca, on the phone several years after my car accident.
“I didn’t. I told her to call 911 because there was a crash down the road. I didn’t tell her who it was.”
“That was probably a good idea,” I said. Bianca, a nurse, was good in high stress situations, but our mom was not.
“I told Kim to go with me to watch Camrie and Laine in the van. Then I left. I honked the horn as I drove back so you would know I was on my way,” Bianca explained.
I didn’t remember hearing her honk. And, even though she told me I was conscious when she found me, I had no memory of the crash or anything thereafter.
“As soon as I got to you, you told me you were able to reach the key to turn the car off. That worried you a lot,” Bianca said.
“Was I scared it would explode or something?”
“I guess. I couldn’t reach it myself. The door wouldn’t open and the window wasn’t down all the way. I asked if you felt any pain and you said ‘not much.’ But, you told me you couldn’t feel your legs.”
“Wow. I told you I couldn’t feel my legs at that point? I never realized that,” I said. There was a moment of silence as tears filled my eyes. My own emotional response surprised me because it never bothered me to talk or hear about my accident before. This time I couldn’t help thinking: Damn it; I was just a kid! I sat alone that long knowing I could not feel my legs. How can I not remember that? I was just a 16-year-old girl.
Bianca, ten years older, was the typical big sister who was always there to take care of Kim and me when our parents worked or to give us wedgies for her own enjoyment. I was close to her in my teenage years; I’d stay the night at her house and would often watch my niece and nephew when she was at nursing school, working, or just because I wanted to. And while Kim was the blonde, even-tempered middle child, Bianca and I were both redheads. As kids growing up, she was more hotheaded and passionate, and I was more soft-spoken and shy, yet spunky. It’s simply remarkable that this big sister of mine was the one to find me though. I don’t know when I was told, but it seems I’ve always known that Bianca was driving home from a meeting she had in Danville at the nursing home where she worked, about 40 minutes away. The meetings were normally on Thursdays; however, that week it was changed to Friday, allowing our paths to cross only ten or fifteen minutes after I crashed.
Bianca said she pulled over, but the damage was so bad she didn’t know it was my car until she saw some of my long red hair flowing out the half opened window. She was able to talk to me fluidly, yet knew I needed immediate medical attention. Not having a cell phone yet, she had to call for help, so she drove to our property, where I lived with our parents and Kim, and Bianca lived next door with her husband and two kids. We’ve always accredited the way this scene played out to God’s divine timing, especially since I wasn’t there by myself too long and she knew exactly what to do to help me the most.
I don’t remember sitting there alone in my crunched and crinkled ‘78 Ford Granada, formerly my red steel beast. I don’t remember losing control or the impact of the crash. I don’t even remember driving home.
I do remember waking up to a sunshiny, warmer than average day for February in Indiana. I was in a great mood because I was looking forward to the first tennis meeting of the season to discuss tryouts and then later that evening I had plans to go shopping. However, my very last memory rests in the parking lot at South Putnam High School, arguing with my boyfriend, Paul. We’d been unofficially a couple for a few years and our first formal anniversary was only six days away on Valentine’s. Although we argued from time to time throughout those years, this spat was different. A punctual and dedicated worker, he was due to clock in at the Cloverdale Travel Plaza kitchen and I was stubbornly unwilling to stop the disagreement. Standing between our cars, in the heat of the argument, his green eyes met mine as he sensibly told me to drop it because he had to leave. He left and I was alone and upset in the school’s parking lot. I felt that our agreement to never leave each other mad or in the middle of an argument had been broken and I, as an emotional teenage girl, felt sad and hurt. I decided to take the long way home through the country, instead of the shorter way on 231 that went directly in front of the Travel Plaza. The decision to take another route changed the rest of my life.
At some point after my accident, Paul told me he remembered waiting outside the Travel Plaza for me to drop by as I often did to spend a few more minutes with him since it was on my way home (and I was used to the building anyway because I worked at the Subway that was also inside the Travel Plaza). Any other time, we would’ve said our apologies and moved on, but this time I never showed. Just after he went inside to clock in, he could hear the screaming sirens of the emergency vehicles and had a gut feeling that something bad happened to me. A few minutes later, my mom called him, and he then left work to come to me.
I was an inexperienced driver, receiving my license the summer before, but I knew the area where I crashed was notorious for being tricky to drive. The single lane gravel road cut straight through the flat, expansive planes of two cornfields, the rugged stocks still scattered from the harvest. The quarter-mile stretch, lined with telephone poles, led to a bridge that went over Interstate 70. Two thirds down the road was an adjacent junkie mud pathway to the east where the tractors could enter and exit the field. Where that path met the road, rainwater would wash out the gravel and create large potholes that resembled a bad case of acne: ugly craters everywhere, so deep and occasionally overlapping. The leftover mud was often like driving on ice and other times would yank and pull the tires at its own discretion. I was headed home going south, but ended up on the opposite side of the only culvert on the road, in the ditch facing north. I was only one mile away from the safety of my home.
However it happened, still I crashed. Badly. Pictures of my car in the junkyard, taken a couple days later, show the front intact and the roof flattened, but everything from behind my driver seat was mangled, twisted, and torn apart and collectively just a pile of contorted steel. Bianca remembered the inside was smashed and damaged everywhere around me, except for a few inches surrounding my entire body, my seatbelt holding me in place. Kim, a year older than me and sitting in the van watching Bianca’s kids, remembered seeing my pink backpack out on the opposite side of the road with other debris. And Paul remembered the complete rear axle with tires across the road in the field.
In my mind, I’ve constructed my own version of this memory with a clear image of the scene of my accident: the sun shining bright from a blue, cloudless sky as Bianca stood next to my wrecked car that rested partially angled in the ditch. I can see my mom, a bundle of nerves, and Paul, trying to be strong, standing by their parked cars several yards behind mine to keep their distance. Then I can see the ambulance parked on the other end of my car in middle of the road, and the lifeline helicopter just close enough in the cornfield.
The mind is an amazing contraption that holds every moment ever experienced, yet I still fail to recall the very moment that changed my life forever. Why wasn’t I able to recall any of these details myself? Why does it even matter? And why was there this need within me to search for this reconstruction? If I could, would I want to watch the video recap of that girl traveling down that road, losing control, and then crashing? Did it roll? Did I toss around? What did it feel like to sit there alone and initially know that I could not move my legs any longer? I think sitting by myself in the silence and in the cool, still air out in the middle of the country would have been petrifying, maybe even with traumatic consequences. So perhaps this void is an indispensable blessing.
“You were a real trooper given your circumstances sitting there in the car so long,” Bianca said to me as we finished one of our conversations. “As we waited for the ambulances to come, I knelt down beside your car there in the gravel and started to pray with you. I saw how badly you crashed and could tell you had a significant injury, but as we prayed, I remember reaching one arm straight out to the sky and felt a reassuring peace over me that let me know everything would be okay in the end.”