After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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I left the house uncharacteristically early for work one morning and stopped at my favorite cafe for a latte and a muffin. In five minutes I was back on the main road. The light turned green, and, instead of going forward, the vehicle in front of me backed into my car. I was irritated. If I had been on my usual schedule — barely on time or a bit late — I would have avoided this collision.
The other driver looked wizened, gray, and sick. “That was weird,” I said to him. “What happened?” He was flustered, and his words came out in a confusing rush of details. He was worried about the car in front of him hitting him, and he accidentally backed up too quickly, and he had cancer.
I had watched my mother die of cancer. I knew how it not only invaded cells in your body but also left you in a state of disbelief and terror. I told him I was sorry he was sick. I was sure my car was OK. It wasn’t a big deal.
He showed me his license. In the picture he looked vibrant, a boyishly handsome man with no awareness his health would soon change drastically. I told him I would be in touch if the car was damaged. He said he was sorry he had used cancer as an excuse. I told him not to be embarrassed; it certainly was a valid excuse. Both of us were fumbling to make each other feel better, to be compassionate.
I thought about the man throughout the day. After work I looked carefully at the spot on my bumper where his car had hit mine. There was hardly a mark.
Sitting in the parking garage before heading home, I texted him that there was just a scratch or two on my car. I wished him the best with his treatment.
He replied that the accident had provided an important wake-up call: chemotherapy had caused neuropathy in his feet, which explained his over-acceleration. He also told me he was grateful for my kindness. Having a terminal illness, he said, helped him see the good in the world.
As a kid I had “accidents.” That’s what the adults in my life called them, when they spoke about them at all. I tried to hide them from my parents. I knew this shouldn’t happen to me. After all, I was the best athlete in my fourth-grade class, always chosen first for basketball or football at recess.
My palms began to sweat when I received an invitation to a sleepover for my friend’s tenth birthday. At the party we ate pizza and cake and ice cream. We played Twister and stayed up late watching movies. We drank Dr Pepper from two-liter bottles. I refilled my cup several times, even though I knew I probably shouldn’t. It’ll be OK, I rationalized. Recently I’d had several dry nights in a row. Maybe I’d outgrown it.
Before bed I used the bathroom — twice. I unrolled my sleeping bag near the door, away from the other kids. I curled up and tried to stay awake in case I had to go again, but my eyes grew too heavy. When I woke, I was soaked. My cold pajamas clung to my stomach and thighs. I scanned the room and, seeing no signs of stirring from the other kids, stealthily gathered my bag and prepared to tiptoe through the kitchen to the bathroom.
My friend’s mom was awake, drinking coffee at the kitchen counter. “Uh-oh,” she said, “Did you have an accident?” My face flushed. I could not admit it.
I was called “Huggies” on the playground that week. Though no longer chosen first for sports, I played with fury. I played to dominate, to destroy, to restore my image as king of the playground.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned my problem was common. Statistics suggest that if there wasn’t another kid in my fourth-grade class who had similar accidents, there was almost certainly one in the class next door. Nobody ever told me that. Nobody asked me how I felt or how I wanted to handle sleepovers or summer camp or even the daily wet sheets at home. No one told me it was OK to say it: I wet the bed.
There are two that have stayed with me.
The first was a boy who’d been walking home from his best friend’s house when a drunk driver slammed into him. The boy was brought to the hospital, where I was the new trauma chaplain. His parents wept as they walked out of his room, unable to watch their son die. A little while later an older brother came back. Will you pray for him? he asked. We held hands around the bed as he died: a boy who’d been walking home from a friend’s house.
The second was a mother on her way to Target early one Saturday morning. She waved goodbye to her husband, who was mowing the yard. The kids were off on their own. A few minutes later her car was T-boned in an intersection, and she died in the ambulance. I sat with her husband all day, in the presence of her cooling body, as we tried to find their children. They’ll want to see her, he said, his face pale. Months later the family came to the hospital to tell me they would be OK.
I saw other, more horrible deaths, from neglect and abuse and murder. But those two burrowed into me. For years afterward I would slow down at intersections — was anyone about to run a red light? I would yank my children away from the street — was that driver paying attention? It took me years to connect my anxious pacing with my husband’s trips to Target.
I lasted ten months as a trauma chaplain. The fear of sudden loss — even losses that aren’t mine — continues to haunt me.
Holden Village, Washington
In need of a little cheering on a dreary November day, I treated myself to a take-out lunch from a favorite restaurant and ate it in my car. As I drove back to work, I glanced down for a moment to brush crumbs from my lap and rear-ended the car in front of me. Thankfully neither I nor the other driver was injured, but I felt ashamed.
Later that evening I was still shaken up and in need of comfort, but my husband had none to give me. Instead an argument over the accident escalated until he hit me on the head — hard enough to knock me to the floor.
It was the first time he had hit me, but only the latest episode in a three-year pattern of abuse that included verbal assaults, name-calling, and violent outbursts in which he shoved me against walls, pinned me to the floor, and twisted my arms until I had bruises. Somewhere along the way, I had told myself that if he ever did hit me, that would be the end. And so, that night, I finally called the police. We were divorced within three months.
As I struggled to rebuild my life in the years that followed, I often obsessed over the tiny decisions I felt had led to the accident and thereby the end of our marriage. Why hadn’t I brought my lunch from home, as I normally did? Why had I eaten while driving? Why had I taken my attention from the road? At the time I could only see that the accident had destroyed my marriage. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood the accident had saved my life.
In July 1956, a month after giving birth to my daughter, I visited my doctor for my final checkup. I was getting up from the examination table when he asked, “Would you like to be fitted with a diaphragm?”
“What’s that?” I responded.
He smiled and started to explain.
Ten months earlier my boyfriend, Michael, had called and asked me to meet him. We attended college in the same city but lived in separate dorms, and finding a place where we could spend time alone was close to impossible. I rushed to the address he’d given me — a messy little room near campus. We didn’t care. We immediately opened up the hide-a-bed, and he grabbed for his wallet.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I can’t find it.”
The “it” was a condom — the only kind of birth control easily available at the time, and the only kind either of us knew about.
I smiled. “Forget about it,” I said.
Within three weeks I knew something was amiss. I went to the university clinic to take the “rabbit test.” When we found out I was pregnant, we didn’t know what else to do but get married. We found an apartment on campus and settled into our new life.
Almost immediately I started feeling sick. Food never stayed down. It made me retch just to look at Pepto-Bismol. My ankles were so swollen I had to cut the tongues out of my shoes. I was sleeping twelve hours a night and taking long naps during the day. I couldn’t keep up with my schoolwork and finally, reluctantly, dropped out of college.
I was so miserable I thought I’d better go back to the clinic. I told the doctor my litany of complaints.
“It sounds to me like you’re pregnant,” he said.
“Oh, I know I’m pregnant,” I replied angrily. “But what’s wrong with me?”
“What you’re experiencing is quite normal, I’m afraid,” he said and led me to the door.
Our daughter was born in June. Now here I was at the clinic for my last postnatal exam — an educated twenty-one-year-old woman still learning about conception and birth control.
“So,” said the doctor, “do you want a diaphragm?”
Forest Knolls, California
I grew up on a small dairy farm in northwestern Pennsylvania. My family had moved there from a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, never intending to actually farm the land, just to live in the lovely rural setting. No one worried much about accidents in such an idyllic place. My brother, my sister, and I were free to explore and soon discovered the old barn. During a game of hide-and-seek, my brother pushed open the granary door and drove an old sheet-metal scrap into my calf. I still remember the smell and sting of the red-orange Mercurochrome that Dad poured onto the cut. Another time the ladder to the haymow broke as I climbed it, dropping me to the floor. A few years later my sister stepped through a hole in the upstairs barn floor, ripping a gash in her thigh that left a jagged scar.
After my dad lost his job, he decided to turn the homestead into a working farm. Tractors, mowers, and combines became a part of daily life. When I was nine or ten, I was standing on the back of a seed planter being pulled behind the tractor driven by my father. My job was to alert Dad when the seed in the planter needed to be refilled. It was a windy day, and a loose end of my head-scarf caught on the planter’s axle. My father couldn’t hear my cries for help. I could have been strangled, but luckily my father looked back just in time.
The worst accident during our many years on the farm, though, had nothing to do with farm machinery. As my brother grew into young adulthood, he and my dad argued frequently. After his freshman year of college my brother spent a summer in Chile, and when he came home, he told us he wanted to return to South America and eventually become a diplomat. My dad opposed the plan, and a bitter quarrel ensued. The next day, while on an errand for our mother, my brother’s car was broadsided by a flatbed truck carrying a load of bricks. He died a short time later. The loss of my brother plunged us into a grief that nearly destroyed our family.
Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania
From the age of three I was obsessed with flying. Airplanes, balloons, and blimps fascinated me, but what I really wanted was to soar like an eagle. On a warm spring day in 1950 I climbed on my red tricycle, pedaled as fast as I could, and sailed straight out the screen door and off the porch. As I took off, the wind was supposed to lift me into the sky. Instead, seconds later, Mother and Daddy stood over me, wiping blood off my face. Mother screamed, “You could have killed yourself!” I didn’t say it, but I planned to live forever, like Peter Pan, so I had lots of time to perfect my flying skills.
My passion for aerial sports grew through the decades, and I was lucky to experience hot-air-balloon rides and glider lessons. As my seventieth birthday approached, however, I had yet to accomplish my ultimate “bucket list” challenge: skydiving. So, on a sunny April morning, I drove with my wife and several friends to a small airport in South Carolina, where I would experience free-falling with an instructor named Dan. Some first-time jumpers were visibly nervous, but I only smiled.
When Dan jumped from the plane, I was harnessed to his front. A tornado-like wind wailed, but I was so captivated by the beauty below me, I barely noticed.
Suddenly we snapped upward with a powerful jerk, causing my harness buckle to dig into my chest. Dan gave me a thumbs-up, pointing to the colorful parachute that had opened above us. Despite the pain, happy tears fell onto my cheeks as we drifted gently back to earth.
That evening, dressing for bed, I noticed a dark bruise on my chest in the spot where the buckle had mashed against my body. The bruise was sore for weeks, but it was a good kind of hurt. Whenever I touched it, I was transported back to that extraordinary day.
A few months later, soon after my annual mammogram, I got the phone call every woman dreads: the images had revealed an abnormality. I was diagnosed with stage-I breast cancer.
Following my lumpectomy, the doctor said the tumor appeared to have burst out of a duct and split into two pieces. If it hadn’t, it might have grown inside the duct for years before being detected, by which time it could have spread to other parts of my body. I told him the skydiving story, and he suggested that the impact had probably forced the tumor from the duct.
Today I am cancer-free. I have no doubt that jumping out of the airplane that day saved my life.
Asheville, North Carolina
The scar runs from my daughter’s widow’s peak across her right eyebrow and ends in a patch of bumpy flesh at her temple. It’s twenty years old now and hardly noticeable, but because my selfishness and negligence put it there, I see it every time I look at her beautiful face.
When she was seven, I was in my early fifties, eighteen months from my second divorce, commuting a couple of hours a day, working too hard, and angry most of the time. To make matters worse, both my parents had just died. It was Christmas vacation, and my daughter and I were home together while my young son was at day care. I figured I had a two-hour break before I had to deal with the rest of my responsibilities.
“Let’s go to a bookstore,” I said, and my daughter, a voracious reader, was all for it. I strapped her into her car seat — thank God for small mercies — and backed out of the driveway.
I didn’t look both ways. All I was thinking about was those two glorious hours of quasi freedom, and I backed into traffic without seeing the approaching tow truck. The next thing I knew, our car was spinning around, and the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass filled our ears. I looked down the road and saw the truck on its side and neighbors running toward our car.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” my daughter screamed. Her forehead was split open to the bone and bleeding badly.
The ambulance came quickly, and my daughter was given fifty stitches at the hospital. I remember sitting in the waiting room alone and crying so hard I started to retch. I’m seventy now, and that remains the saddest day of my life.
My daughter healed and never held me responsible for her near-death experience. Every time I see her, I’m filled with gratitude. Though I’d been living for fifty-some years, it took that accident for me to become less self-centered, more appreciative, more patient. A better father.
Des Moines, Iowa
As I drive through downtown Newark, New Jersey, on my way to a business meeting, I start to feel pain and gurgling in my intestines. It has come from nowhere, as it always does. I’ve suffered from irritable bowel syndrome since my early twenties, and I’ve spent years visiting doctors, keeping food diaries, and eliminating items from my diet. Now, at the age of fifty-five, I’ve lost control of my condition and resigned myself to a life with an unmanageable bowel. I often turn down invitations to eat out with friends and clients because consuming a meal leads to too much uncertainty. I dread traveling with coworkers because I never know when I’ll have an urgent need, and it’s hard to explain why I’m looking for a restroom again. I’ve learned that trail running is preferable to road running because it’s easier to relieve myself in the woods than to find a bathroom in a residential neighborhood.
And so here I am, driving through Newark, when it hits me. I search for a safe place to stop, but all I see are run-down homes and halfway houses. And then, as suddenly as the feeling came, it’s over. My bowels have emptied. Like a toddler who is not quite potty trained, I’ve had an “accident.”
I continue to my appointment, sitting in my mess. When I find the office building, I pull into a secluded corner of the parking lot and grab the garbage bag, toilet paper, wet wipes, and spare panties that I keep in my car in anticipation of these incidents. I clean myself up carefully, using the skills I’ve developed to avoid staining my clothes. I toss the bag in a dumpster behind the building and walk into the office, where I greet my clients to begin our meeting. I wonder if they can smell my shame.
When I was seventeen, I went to a youth-group lock-in at a church. During a bonfire and marshmallow roast, I noticed one girl, Harriett, talking with her friends, and I tried to flirt with her by lobbing marshmallows in her direction, then pretending I wasn’t the one throwing them.
Later, inside, I went looking and found her in a Sunday-school classroom with a few friends, including a boy playing the guitar. I knew competition when I saw it and took immediate action, peeking through the window in the door until I got her attention.
She came to the window to look for me, and I decided to startle her by smacking the glass with my hand. I imagined Harriett would jump back, then laugh, and we’d spend the rest of the night talking. Instead the window shattered, spraying her with broken glass. Somebody ran to get the youth leaders, who took Harriett to the kitchen to remove shards from her hair and face.
I sulked in a corner and nursed the cut on my hand. After the excitement died down, I went to see how Harriett was doing. She, too, had a cut on her hand, but that was all. We went outside and did, in fact, talk the rest of the night.
We met again a year later and began dating, but the relationship lasted only a few weeks. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given how I’d started it.
In the summer of 1967 I worked for the U.S. Forest Service near the tiny, hardscrabble town of Calder, Idaho. One of my jobs was the dump run: I’d drive a green Ford truck up a mountainside and onto a turnout, where I would back up to the road’s edge and dump our garbage down the hill. On one such day I left the pickup running in neutral with the emergency brake on. I was in the truck bed, sweeping out the last of the refuse, when the pickup began to roll slowly backward.
As the rear wheels went off the edge of the bank, I jumped out of the bed, desperate to get into the cab. I’d left the driver’s door open, and as I hit the ground, the truck lurched, and the door smacked me like a swatter hitting a fly, knocking me down. The door swung partially closed on my arm, and I found myself being pulled into the dump with the vehicle.
I could feel my shirt tearing as I was dragged through the tin cans I had just discarded. Unable to extract my pinned arm from the door, I realized that this was probably the end: the truck would soon roll down the fifty-degree slope to the railroad tracks and then into the St. Joe River. I would never survive.
Life really does flash before your eyes when you know you are going to die. I saw my mother, smiling as she sent me off to my first day of school. I saw my father, teaching me how to catch trout in the Gallatin River. I saw the guys in the Key Club at Bozeman Senior High School and the sweet faces of all the girls I’d ever liked or dated.
Just as the truck seemed about to roll over, it ground to a halt. The tailgate had hit the ends of several large poles someone had dumped.
I was finally able to free my arm, and I crawled back up to the road, where an old couple had stopped to help. My shirt was torn to pieces, and my back was bloody, but I had only superficial cuts that required no stitches. My dislocated shoulder popped back into place on its own. How I went from sure death to minor injuries is one of life’s mysteries.
In 1976 my traveling buddy Carolyn and I decided to explore the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We hitchhiked to Cahuita, a small village with few amenities. After renting a room, we asked our host, Wagner, for advice on where to go. He suggested a hike along the beach to a river about a mile away, but warned that the wind could be treacherous and that we should head back right away if it whipped up. People had been caught in sudden waves, dragged out to sea, and drowned, he said.
We hiked to the river and were enjoying its pristine beauty when a strong wind picked up. We began a hasty journey back, but halfway there we were faced with the option of dodging coconuts dropping from tall palm trees or risking the surging waves on the beach. We decided to make a dash across the sand in between waves. I went first, and an enormous wave knocked me down. Two logs were floating on either side of me, and another wave dragged me and the logs farther out. Carolyn was screaming something I couldn’t hear. I realized that if I didn’t get out of the trap I was in, my life could end. With adrenaline-fueled effort I managed to extricate myself from the logs, but not before my ankle was crushed between them.
Carolyn and I hobbled back to town, my ankle swollen and turning green and purple. There was no hospital or clinic nearby. Wagner told me to lie down on his living-room floor. He cut some limes from a tree in his yard and threw them over his shoulders while reciting some healing incantation. I could imagine my mother, a nurse, rolling her eyes from afar. Then he took out a salve smelling strongly of eucalyptus and applied it to my injury. He assured me that if I performed daily self-massage and used ACE-bandage wraps for a week, I would fully recover. He also told me to walk up and down the street after the storm had passed.
Every day I spent more than an hour tending my injury with the techniques Wagner had taught me. The “bad blood,” as he called my bruising, eventually passed out of my ankle and into my foot, turning my toes black. A few days later I had recovered enough to travel. Within three weeks I was running miles on the beach.
Upon my return to the States a year and a half later, I went to massage school to learn how to assist others. I’ve practiced the healing arts for thirty-three years now and have treated quite a few injuries similar to mine. How strange that an accident led me to a meaningful career I might not otherwise have considered.
My mom called it fate, since the beat-up old station wagon my older brother Jerry was driving had belonged to his dead father. The police called it an accident, because a small leak in the exhaust pipe had allowed carbon monoxide to enter the car. The newspaper called it a tragic event, since Jerry and his young family had all suffocated while napping on a road trip to introduce the new baby to its maternal grandparents. I called it the moment that ruined my childhood. I was only four at the time, and my mother spent the remainder of her short life depressed over Jerry’s death and anxious about my safety.
My mother’s and father’s deaths also made the news. I was fourteen when she died in a car wreck and twenty-four when he died from a bee sting while driving his car. When accidents like these begin to pile up, you stop thinking of them as accidents. At some point they start to feel like personal attacks, like Greek tragedy, like a curse. I looked for clues, hoping to piece together a pattern that made sense. For years I wondered if I would die in an accident, too. As the decades passed, I finally stopped worrying. Sometimes accidents happen for no reason whatsoever.
Brooklyn, New York
I don’t remember how old I was when my mother first told me the story of how I’d come to be. I had never bothered with the math before, never realized my parents’ wedding was just six months before my birth date. (In my defense, they didn’t stay married long, so the anniversary was never celebrated.)
I had always assumed I was wanted, planned for, the product of a loving relationship. The truth was that my mother and father had known each other for only a few months when I was conceived.
They were in no position to have a child. My mom worked as a waitress in a small-town bar and was already a single mother. My dad was living out of a camper and only marginally employed. They were just having a good time, nothing serious. My mom was on the pill, which was supposed to prevent accidents.
I have spent my entire life trying to prove to my mom that I was worth having. I was a stellar student and a talented athlete. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I went on to law school on a scholarship. Despite accumulating many accolades and having a family of my own, I still find myself thinking that I am not good enough.
When I was fourteen, I was hit by a car while walking with my cheerleading friends. Both my femurs were broken, and my right leg had a compound fracture. Medicine being what it was in 1971, the doctor asked my parents to choose what position my knee would be frozen in, in case he was unable to preserve its function. He did save the joint, but my right leg healed with a limited range of motion.
Four weeks of hospitalization were followed by three months at home in two full-leg casts. In the hospital I’d undergone painful procedures, some of which I later learned were unnecessary. My mother worked anxiously to tend to me while also caring for my four siblings.
I became more and more withdrawn. Eating became nearly impossible, and gifts of crafts and books sat untouched in my sickroom. I was unresponsive to the tutors who came to help me keep up with schoolwork. I cried for hours at night, when no one could see me, and stared listlessly at the television during the day. Friends eventually stopped visiting.
When my casts came off and I returned to school, I felt isolated and grew rebellious and quick to anger. I had no interest in academics and took risks with drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex. I slept poorly and often woke weeping from nightmares.
At the age of twenty, with my life in a knot, I forced myself to go back to college. At forty-five I returned to school again to earn a master’s degree in social work. While studying the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I finally understood what had happened to me as a teenager.
I was the victim of a violent crime in my second year of work with other trauma survivors. I was determined not to be frightened, and when I started experiencing PTSD symptoms, I tried to rely on myself for help. It worked for a long time. Then my mother fell ill, and I became her caregiver for four months. Her health was precarious, her medical needs exhausting. I was terrified that she would die in my care, but I forced myself to perform whatever tasks the circumstances demanded.
Now sixty-two, I am once again withdrawn and isolated. I have not yet found effective treatment for my PTSD or been able to apply the healing tools I spent so much time learning. My legs have ached nearly every day since that car hit me. I often wonder what my life might have been like if I had not been in that accident.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
I drove from California to Colorado in 1969 to take my draft physical at a supposedly more lenient draft board. While I was there, my friend suggested we blow up some derelict cars in the desert as a creative outlet. How could a twenty-one-year-old resist?
I couldn’t believe that I could buy a case of dynamite over the counter. The hardware-store employees didn’t so much as ask for ID, let alone question why I might want fifty pounds of explosives. I carried the box to my car and drove to the desert.
It didn’t take long to find a victim vehicle, and I dutifully followed the directions on the box on how to install the blasting cap and fuse in a stick of dynamite. I lit the fuse, ran like hell, and . . . the car’s rear end barely lifted before falling back onto the sand. Obviously I needed more power. With three sticks the car bounced a little more. Five sticks got the car to roll over, but I’d had visions of it being vaporized. This was boring. I decided to take the remainder of the dynamite home to show off to my friends.
Back in Los Angeles we detonated one stick in a storm drain. The lid flew off, and the noise was so huge that I became nervous about getting caught. As we drove around blowing up trash cans, sirens blared, and it dawned on me that the city was not a proper place for explosions. I went home, put the box of dynamite in a closet, and forgot about it.
One day a friend and I ended up at my house with nothing to do. For amusement, I set up a target with a backstop in the hallway and began shooting at it with a .22 rifle. The stationary target was too easy to hit, so I hung it from a string and let it swing. I took aim and pulled the trigger.
The next thing I remember is floating in absolute silence, unsure if I was alive. After some time my senses began to return, and I heard faint voices. I stumbled out of the debris of the collapsed duplex and began calling for my friend. He emerged from the rubble with a splintered one-by-four protruding from his crotch. A fireman came up and asked me what had happened. At that moment I remembered the dynamite in the closet behind the target.
An ambulance took us to a hospital, where we were placed in a jail ward. Our nurse asked way too many questions. I cautioned my friend not to say anything.
The police and FBI searched the wreckage and found two pipe bombs I’d experimented with prior to acquiring the dynamite, plus a recreational quantity of hallucinogenic drugs. The state charged my friend and me with being part of a conspiracy connected to the radical militant group the Weather Underground.
Luckily for us, our case was given to a very green DA who was no match for the seasoned criminal-defense attorney who represented us. The judge gave a summation I have never forgotten: “All I can figure is that you two must have been drunk. This case is dismissed.”
While driving in summer traffic, I got in a fender bender. We both pulled over: I, a white woman in a Prius; he, a black man in a car with so many dings and patch jobs I couldn’t tell if it had new damage. His clothes were spattered with paint. I’d been taught to protect myself after an accident, so I asked to see his license. He apologized and asked if I wanted to get my car fixed. The scrape was small, but I take care of my cars, so I said yes. He said he could fix my car himself or pay for the repair, or he could paint my house.
Just then a cop drove by, made a U-turn, and pulled in behind us. I live in a mostly white area, so I was suddenly scared for the painter. I walked toward the cop, a white guy who looked barely old enough to drive, and told him the other driver and I would work it out ourselves. The cop said he’d stick around until we left.
I returned to the painter and said, “Let’s just forget about this.” And then I blurted out, “I hate what’s going on in our country.”
We stood on the side of the road and talked. The painter said we should exchange numbers, just in case. He was going to Jamaica because his mother had died, but he would be back in a few weeks. I told him I was sorry; my mom had died, too. I wished him safe travels, and we went our separate ways.
The painter later texted to make sure I hadn’t changed my mind. I thanked him, wished him well, and bought a tube of touch-up paint.
In winter in the Hudson Valley my teenage friends and I would meet at the Pearsons’ property for some serious sledding. Their dairy farm had the perfect hill, steep and long.
One cold Saturday found seven or eight of us standing at the top of the slope. One sledder, Robert, was older than the rest of us — twenty or twenty-one. As the afternoon wound down, he decided to make one last run on the toboggan by himself. He jokingly announced he would go headfirst, lying on his back. We all thought it was stupid, but as teenagers we enjoyed doing stupid things, so we laughed and gave him the thumbs-up.
I can still see his lanky body stretched out on the sled, his head tucked under the front curve of the toboggan. Someone gave him a shove, and down the slope he went. We hooted and hollered. When the toboggan sped toward a large oak tree, we shouted to warn him, but I doubt he could hear us as he plowed through the snow. We heard the awful thwack as the front of the toboggan collided with the trunk, and we ran to the bottom of the hill, where Robert was conscious but not moving. Over and over he said, “I can’t feel my legs. I can’t move them.” One of us ran to get help, and we watched in silence as he was placed on a flat board, his body secured with straps. As the ambulance drove off, we walked home to tell our parents, hoping that all would be well.
Robert’s spinal cord had been severed at the neck. When I first visited him in rehab, I was not prepared for the enormity of the experience. As I entered his room, I saw the bed that turned him every couple of hours, his hands fixed around cylindrical tubes to keep them from permanently clenching. His injuries couldn’t be undone.
The time between my visits gradually lengthened, and I was relieved when Robert was moved to a long-term facility, too far away for me to visit. I focused on school and friends and eventually stopped talking about him. Years later I heard he had died. I occasionally think about that day, but I no longer try to understand it. Any lesson I might have learned is tucked away where all my fears reside.
Raleigh, North Carolina
My memories of the accident are fragmented: A blurred view of the pavement. My glasses lying on the ground in the distance. The sound of the ambulance siren. A handsome, dark-haired nurse at the hospital who called me “Pumpkin” and tended to the deep scrapes on my elbows and knees.
It was a spring day in 1977. I was in second grade and walking to school by myself, as usual. Realizing I was late, I broke into a run. When I darted into the crosswalk, I was met by a sedan swiftly turning the corner — driven by a mother running late to get her two girls to school. I bounced off the hood and landed in the middle of the street.
My mother wanted to sue the woman who’d hit me. I felt empathy for the other mother, who was just hurrying to drop off her kids. I also knew I would have to face her daughters at school. Nevertheless my parents took her to court and won a small sum.
My mother decided to spend some of the money on a piano. An amateur pianist since childhood, she’d longed to have an instrument of her own. I played the violin, and she also saw an opportunity to become my accompanist. Thus began a long and complicated relationship involving me, my mother, and music. I remember strict practice sessions every evening; student recitals with Mom positioned on the piano bench beside me; me smashing my violin over an armchair in anger; and the joy when we were perfectly in sync and nothing else mattered.
As I sit in my living room now, I can see a violin case leaning against a bookshelf, gathering dust; an old black-and-white photograph of my mother, who is no longer living; and an upright, caramel-brown Baldwin piano that no one in our house knows how to play, but that I can’t seem to part with.
San Francisco, California
With the coronavirus spreading pain and suffering worldwide, it’s interesting that your latest Readers Write is on the topic of “Accidents” [April 2020]. The entries were helpful to me in many ways.
As the Old Testament reminds us, “Good and evil fall on the just and the unjust.” Or, more coarsely: “Life is a crapshoot.” We all have to deal with events as best we can and not blame our misfortunes on God or others.
As a retired pastor of what used to be called a “mainline” church for more than forty years, I find I now have more questions about life and death than answers. To those who feel the same: know that you have a lot more company than you might guess.