No, this is not a lesson on grammatical errors. No misplaced modifiers or dangling participles here. If only those were the most difficult lessons I had to learn. If only.
I have actually uttered those words. Yes, in a sentence, in that order during the early morning hours of Father’s Day on June 19, 1988.
I was certain my teeth had been knocked out, could easily be retrieved from the car, temporarily placed in a glass of milk, and then put back in my head. “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy,” as my daughter would say. But as I spoke those words I came to realize that was not the case.
The words didn’t come out as I had intended, in fact, they were barely intelligible to me. My mouth and chin moved unnaturally and felt as if they were going to slide off my skull. Why couldn’t I speak properly? My hand flew to my mouth, probing, trying to understand. My teeth were certainly missing and as I explored the area I realized the bones of my upper jaw had been fractured. I felt the bones move and rub against each other. It sounded like the rough edges of a broken piece of china as you tried to piece it back together, only it was going to take a lot more than glue to fix. Instant, white-hot, intense pain racked my entire body. My hand was quickly pulled away by the young man, probably a college student, I had spoken to.
“Don’t do that!”
He winced and looked away. He placed a cloth over my face, only leaving my eyes exposed. Why did he do that? Did I look that grotesque? Apparently, I did.
I knew I’d been in a car accident. I remembered that I was asleep when it happened. I’d been dreaming. It had been a nice dream and as is typical of most dreams I moved from scene to scene as if magically teleported. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing in my dream the moment before I was catapulted into a roller coaster, but it was something relaxing like walking on the beach. The roller coaster seemed to pick up speed instantly. I was tossed from side to side and wondered what kind of wild ride I had the misfortune to land in. I struggled to hang on. Had it come off the tracks? Then…black.
When I opened my eyes, I was hanging upside down, my seatbelt keeping me restrained. To my horror, I realized it had not been a dream. My right arm was unnaturally twisted within the seatbelt strap and trapped behind my head. I looked to my left and saw my boyfriend’s body hanging lifelessly from his seat belt. Oh my God! Is he dead? Am I dead? I’m dead! I’m dead! I heard voices, urgent voices. Could the car blow up? What? Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Who was that screaming? Was it me? My heart was racing. I’d never felt it beat so fast. Oh my God, it was going to break out of my chest! Calm down! Calm down! Calm down! You’re alive. Calm down…just calm down or you’ll go into shock. You don’t want to go into shock do you? Remember what you learned about shock in school? You’re alive now just… calm…down. That’s it. Breathe. Stay alive.
I saw legs moving outside my door. The car began to rock and then flipped over. The sudden movement caused shooting pain in my shoulder. I didn’t know it at the time but my right collar-bone had just snapped. I winced in pain and the gesture caused severe pain in my mouth. I probed the area with my tongue and the pain grew more intense. I glanced down at the rest of my body. My legs were resting upon the dashboard but I could move them. They didn’t appear broken. Everything hurt, hurt beyond belief. It was the most unbearable pain I had ever felt. Please just let me pass out, please, I begged. No! What if you don’t wake up? I fought to suppress the extreme need to close my eyes and just let go. Stay awake. Stay alive.
Do I dare look to my left toward the driver’s seat? I braced myself for what my eyes might see.
The driver’s seat had been fully reclined when they turned the car upright. My boyfriend was sprawled out on the seat, still strapped into his seatbelt, with his eyes closed. There were no visible marks on his body. He looked asleep, possibly even dead. I spoke his name. It sounded garbled. Had something happened to my hearing? He didn’t respond so I spoke louder and still louder. Nothing. Did I detect a slight movement? Someone opened the door and pulled me out. I screamed in pain. I yelled his name again but they pulled me away and set me on the shoulder of the highway. Then I heard his voice and knew that he was alive. Thank God. He was angry and confused, disoriented, but okay. He wanted to go home. He kept saying he just wanted to go home.
I had a vague recollection of my face colliding with something. Yes, my face must have hit the dashboard. The dashboard! My teeth must be in the dashboard.
“Will you please go get my teeth out of the dashboard?”
Then came the warning, the wince, and the cloth over my face; leaving only my eyes exposed.
My teeth weren’t in the dashboard. I was told later that two had been completely pulverized and another two had been lodged somewhere in the mess of fractured bone that was my maxilla. My chin had almost been sliced clear off. It seems I had blocked out the initial impact. It took several years before I was able to glimpse a sliver of it and allow the gravity of the situation to register in my brain.
I literally came within an inch of losing my life, less than an inch, millimeters probably. That is the distance between the scar along the lower edge of my chin and most likely…decapitation. The force it took to pulverize two teeth, shove the other two into my maxilla and fracture it so horribly it took hours for a surgeon to repair leads me to this one conclusion. Some would say I’m lucky to be alive. Some would say it’s a miracle, some have.
A week later the insurance agent said, “We aren’t contesting this claim. You’ll be paid the full benefits of the policy. I’ve seen the pictures. It’s a miracle you survived.”
From what I was told, my boyfriend’s small car flipped front-end over back-end multiple times, covering a space longer than a football field. That is what happens when you lose control of a car that is traveling at a speed of over eighty-five miles per hour. I imagine it looked like a stunt from a movie scene gone terribly wrong. The area along the side of the interstate where the car crashed was uncommonly flat and bare, unlike any other stretch of land in close proximity; no gas stations, no side roads, no buildings, no overpasses, and no culverts. I think we took out a couple of road signs but there was only a simple barb-wired fence and grassland beyond. If the wreck had started seconds earlier or later we would have met with the concrete pillars of an overpass and certain death. When I travel that length of the interstate today the fact that it is dotted with buildings and other stationary structures does not escape me. It was like the perfect storm of time and space, or rather the eye of the perfect storm – that calm place surrounded by chaos – where a miracle happened.
I’d been taking a philosophy course the summer of the accident and had a conversation with my professor a week after it occurred. The most recent class discussion had focused, ironically, on the meaning of life. After hearing of my near death experience he wanted to know what insight I had to share. No doubt he was expecting some profound wisdom to spring forth from my lips but my response probably left him disappointed. I was barely over the initial shock of the experience. I wasn’t yet able to process it, let alone express it in words. I think I said something about having a renewed reverence for life but the words fell flat to me. They were nowhere close to capturing what I felt. I’m still not sure I can ever do it justice. How do you describe the feeling of getting a second chance to live? I really don’t know if there are words for it. I will give it a try at some point, but not today.
Today, I want to wish my father a Happy Father’s Day. Yes, I know the official day has passed and initially I’d wanted to post this on Sunday but for obvious reasons this day seemed appropriate. Somewhere around 2:30 in the morning on this day twenty-five years ago, my parents got the call that all parents dread. They were told to get to the hospital as quickly as they could.
My father immediately blamed himself. He later told me that every time he’d allowed himself to drink “one beer too many” while relaxing at home some sort of accident had befallen one of his five children. Up until that point they had been relatively minor accidents but he stopped drinking altogether after mine.
Now, just so you don’t get the wrong impression, my father would never be considered an alcoholic. He was a social drinker, who occasionally had a beer or two while watching his favorite sports on TV at home. Pretty tame stuff. I attribute this guilt to his religious upbringing where alcohol was deemed to be evil and drinking it was akin to cavorting with the devil. He would later describe the hour and half drive to the hospital as one of the longest in his life. During that drive, he repeatedly pleaded with God to make a deal. I will never drink another beer if you will spare my daughter. I will never drink another beer if you will spare my daughter.
Immediately following my release from the hospital the beer was removed from the refrigerator. My Dad was no longer enjoying his favorite beer while watching sports. It had been replaced with the non-alcoholic beer, O’Doul’s. Now, when I visit my parents, open the fridge, and see the O’douls on the shelf, I smile. It’s been twenty-five years and he’s still keeping his promise.
That is devotion. That is a father’s love. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you too.