Sunday, June 19, 2005
Four Years Tonight

I was driving south from Memphis -- I was living in Mississippi at the time, but had been visiting my then-boyfriend, and had stayed rather later than I'd intended (though that was hardly unusual.) I'd made the entire trip and was within no more than a few miles of my house at a four-way stop, crossing a highway where the traffic moved very fast carrying people towards the casinos further away. I got to the intersection, stopped along with everyone else, waited my turn while others moved through, and when my turn came headed on across -- all perfectly normal.

I didn't hear anything, and I certainly didn't see anything, but very suddenly I found myself being whipped violently through space -- I couldn't tell what direction or in what orientation (spinning? flipping?), and I vaguely remember screaming, but I was half expecting the world to return to normal so I could continue home. When the car came to a stop, several thoughts passed through my head simultaneously:

What the fuck just happened?

Are all my extremities still attached?

Will I still be able to go to work tomorrow?

Can I get out and walk? Could I just walk home from here?

The urge to simply get out of the car and go home was intense; I checked around for blood (completely terrified, but completely calm), and then noticed with great surprise that most of the parts of my car were no long in their correct places. The steering wheel was (or at least seemed to be) above my head and beyond my reach; I could see the side of the front, driver's side wheel through the window (or the hole where it used to be), an angle that I only recognized as not making sense. The car door was digging painfully into my left hip. I made a feeble attempt to open the door to get out, but I couldn't even move my arm, much less budge the door.

People started wandering up to the car -- they all had horrified expressions on their faces and wouldn't get closer than ten feet; one of them shined a flashlight in my eyes and asked if I was okay. The look on his face was much, much more alarming than the state of my car -- what the hell is he seeing in me that makes him look so frightened? I tried to answer, but he didn't seem to be able to hear me; he told me the ambulance was coming (the station wasn't more than a quarter mile up the road; they probably heard the collision) and not to worry. I just sat there trying to make sense of everything. I couldn't see any other car around me, and I started wondering if I'd done something wrong, if I'd hit something, if all this was my fault -- though I couldn't imagine what it was I might've done. And I really, really wanted to get the fuck out of that car.

The paramedics showed up directly; a middle-aged blonde woman climbed into the passenger side through the back seat and started checking me over, reassuring me that they was going to get me out. She put a neckbrace on me and asked me where I was hurt -- I tried to answer again, but even though she was just a foot away she couldn't hear me; I couldn't get my voice to rise above a faint whisper. Some guy appeared outside the driver's side with a huge piece of equipment and told me he was going to cut the car open so they could get me out; he jammed it into what was left of the door and started crushing the hinges. The power of this thing was forcing the door further into the car where it had buckled in against my left knee; that, in turn, forced my knee to bend further and further to the side around the door until I could feel something inside popping under the strain; that was the first hint of pain I felt. The lady behind me was asking me a steady string of questions -- what was my name? (I told her) what day was it? (Tuesday -- no, Wednesday now) did I remember the accident? (I remember something, what happened?) did I have ID in the car? (yeah, somewhere) was there anyone she could call? (call my mom, call my boyfriend) could I move my fingers, wiggle my toes? (yes) did my head or neck or back or chest or stomach hurt? (no, but my shoulder feels weird, and I can't move my arm.)

I sat there while the guy with the cutter ripped the car door open like a tin can; there were people standing all around and other cars trolling by with people gawking out the windows, staring straight at me; all of this was visible only because of flashing red and blue lights. A firetruck came; a cop stuck his head around and asked if I was okay and if I had ID; some other guy brought a stretcher around behind the first guy. Two more men joined and along with the first guy bent the shredded door back towards the front of the car, then caught me as gravity pulled me out and down towards the pavement. "Don't move, don't try to help, just go limp and let us pull out out, we'll do all the work." Two of them grabbed my jeans and my shirt and slid me out of the wreck, pulling me up onto a backboard while the lady climbed over the seat and followed, supporting my head. I experienced a very visceral memory of what it was like to be helpless in my mother's arms as a baby, and was overwhelmed by a rush of trust in and gratitude towards the paramedics, who were enormously gentle with me. And then I was out, finally getting a full breath of air, being loaded up on the stretcher and staring up at the stars... "wow, it's a nice night out."

I couldn't turn my head because of the neckbrace, so I couldn't see any of what was around me. The cop compared my face to my driver's license and said he'd take care of my car, said I shouldn't worry. I heard someone off to one side say to someone else, "he's refusing to take a breath test... I'm not surprised." Then the dark and the flashing lights were replaced by fluorescent light and white plastic, the lady who'd been in the car sat down next to me, and the ambulance door was slammed shut. "Methodist?" said the driver; "no, go to the Med trauma center." Then she turned her attention back to me: oxygen mask over my face, flashlight shining in my eyes, her fingers digging into my stomach, asking me to move my fingers and wiggle my toes again. After a few minutes of this, and more questions, she stopped, looked down at me curiously, smiled, and said, "I thought you'd be dying on the way to the hospital, but you seem okay. You were really lucky."

"What happened?"

What had happened was that a black car, without its headlights on, had run the stop sign doing roughly 60 mph/100 kph and nailed me square in the driver's side door. According to witnesses, he hadn't even hit his breaks before he hit me, just plowed right in. For all intents and purposes I'd been hit by a speeding car with nothing but a four-inch-thick, 1977-vintage car door between me and the front bumper of the car that struck me.

She spent the rest of the trip trying to get an IV line into my arm, without much success; she was much more relaxed (barring a brief moment when I sleepily closed my eyes and was commanded to stay awake and keep looking at her until we reached the hospital), and finally gave up on the IV, saying I was stable and that the ER nurse would have an easier time without all the bumps in the road. As I lay there, taking the opportunity to really see the inside of an ambulance (definitely not worth the trip), I felt completely at peace -- I was certain that I wasn't dying, but it seemed curious to me that I felt like, if I were, it wouldn't be bad or frightening, that if I'd died that night everything would've still been okay. What was scary was the idea that it could be that easy to let go.

We reached the hospital quickly, I was unloaded and whisked off to a pink emergency room, my clothes were cut off (goddammit, my good sweater), I was poked and prodded and asked questions by a doctor and two nurses -- what was my name? (I told her) what day was it? (Wednesday) did I remember the accident? (yes) was there anyone they could call? (call my mom, call my boyfriend) did my head or neck or back or chest or stomach hurt? (no, but by shoulder aches and I still can't move my arm); can you move your fingers, wiggle your toes? (yep.)

I guess I passed muster because the doctor left and the nurse started talking to me -- I was in line for an x-ray, but until then I'd have to stay in the brace and on the board. Another nurse would be along very soon to give me something to make me feel better. He appeared, asked how much pain I was in (not so bad), and injected something into my IV; I remember his hands were badly deformed from arthritis. And then, I think, I fell asleep for a while.

I woke up to the sound of people talking on the other side of a curtain; my shoulder was throbbing and my back had begun to ache. I used my good arm to pull my injured arm across my chest (it hurt less that way) and held on to it for much of the night. I still couldn't look around because of the neckbrace; I had no idea what time it was, and I was thirsty. I tried calling out, hoping someone would notice, but nobody came. So I just lay there. Behind the curtain a doctor was explaining to another patient that he was going to put some pins in his leg to keep the bone steady while he waited to go to surgery; yes, it'll hurt, but it won't last long. That was followed by the sound of drilling and the most agonizing screams I've ever heard; then nothing but whimpering and the doctor's reassuring voice. I had nothing to look at but the ceiling tiles; there were the stains from splattered blood on them in various places.

The rest of the night passed in that way -- periodic visits from the nurse with the drugs (which never quite completely worked), alarming sounds from other corners of the room, staring at the blood on the ceiling, alternately worrying (offended) that I'd been forgotten in the corner and then passively dozing off, wishing my mother would come for me, wriggling to relieve the gnawing ache in my back from being on that goddamn board for eight straight hours, wondering what time it was. Somebody brought me some water; another nurse reported that my mother had been called -- the only answer at my house was by a machine (sigh, typical) but they'd keep trying -- and a friendly nurse brought me some folded sheets to prop up my bad arm so I wouldn't have to hold it all night.

My mother appeared in the morning -- she'd noticed that my car wasn't back, so she'd checked the machine and found the message from the hospital and rushed over -- just as I reached my turn under the x-ray. The technician was this beautiful, grinning, round-faced guy who told me that he "wasn't into pain" and handled my broken shoulder like it was a holy relic, turning it gently to get the required angles. When they were done I was taken back to the pink room -- I had a broken collarbone, but nothing else, so the collar came off and (god, the relief) the board was removed; they sat me up just a little (my first look at the room where I'd spent the night) and a new drug-nurse came by. "My philosophy," he announced, "is that as long as you can still talk to me, you're good for more drugs." He presented me with a syringe full of morphine -- "you'll feel kinda strange for a few seconds, but then you'll be in a reeeaaal good mood" -- and shot me up through my IV. Five seconds later, it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room; I was a fish flopping on a pier. Ten seconds after that, the pain in my shoulder was still there, but I didn't care anymore. I caught myself grinning like an idiot, but not because I was happy -- though, admittedly, I was no longer miserable. It was my big chance to try really hard drugs -- I can't say I was impressed.

I lay there a while longer and napped while my mother fussed over me (which she was very welcome to do, I'd never been so happy to see her). An osteopath dropped by eventually, all smiles and jokes: "how are you at dealing with pain?" he asked. Dunno, okay I guess. "Well, you're going to have a lot for a while; your clavicle -- that's your collarbone (I know) -- is broken, and we can't really do anything about that. We'll give you a sling, that should help, and you'll get pain medication, but other than that it just has to heal. I broke mine skiing once, hurt like hell!" Great, thanks.

I had other injuries, too -- my legs had taken a lot of the impact, and had each turned into one massive splotchy purple-black bruise from ankle to hip. But apart from that, a deep scrape on my left elbow, and the collarbone, I'd emerged from a pretty catastrophic wreck mostly unscathed -- I was in pain and addled, but nothing that wouldn't heal. My mother had a big job helping me get dressed -- it took three tries just to sit up, much less pull on the clothes she'd brought for me -- and then there was the wheelchair ride to the car, the drive home, the struggle into the house, the wait while mom got the bed ready, and finally finding my way towards something resembling comfort. And there I stayed for the next two weeks.

I got flowers, I got phone calls, my boyfriend visited, I slept a lot and ate very little. I couldn't bear to watch television -- some little boy had his face chewed off by a vicious dog the same day, and my capacity for empathy was off the charts so I couldn't cope with it. I wavered between anger, frustration, stoicism, peaceful gratitude, alarming flashbacks, and other assorted emotional episodes -- my boyfriend brought me one of his favorite books to read, and having gotten through about half of it I rejected it as the most horrific, repulsive thing I'd ever read. I quit taking my pain medication because I was starting to look forward to it too much, and did the rest my time with plain aspirin. One afternoon, while trying to sit up, I felt a pop in my broken collarbone and though, "this is going to hurt." The thought was chased away by a wave of intense, mind-boggling pain: my chest constricted, my vision went white, and I'm sure I nearly passed out. My mother, who'd been helping me, just stood there helplessly while I gasped my way through it; once it passed, I was too exhausted by it to do anything but lay back down.

Anyway, after two weeks I was up and around a little bit; after four I was getting back to normal. That pop in my shoulder was the sound of the splintered, broken ends of the bone grinding against each other as the break flicked out of alignment; the osteopath who did my after-care said it was "borderline," but would probably still heal okay. The alternative was surgery to re-break the bone and insert some pins to hold it still while it healed; I said no thanks, I'd had quite enough pain already. The bruising everywhere else gradually subsided; I woke one afternoon to the sensation of the skin on my legs being melting away -- my mother looked, but saw nothing wrong. It passed, but ever since I've been slightly numb to the touch in those places; I can only assume it was the last gasp of some damaged superficial nerves. The knee that was bent around the car door took an eternity to heal, but eventually did -- even now it sometimes moves around in ways I don't think it's supposed to, and it can get a little sore, but it's mostly okay. Ocassionally my collarbone feels as though it doesn't quite fit -- and it doesn't, quite, so that makes sense -- and it's a little lumpy and odd-shaped. I'm very proud of it.

That all happened four years ago tonight. Laying in my bed at home in the days after the accident, I remember being convinced that at the moment of impact, two different realities had split away from each other: one -- this one -- in which I survived and recovered; another in which I died. It seems likely that that was partly the opiates talking, but I still think about it from time to time. And I still have minor flashbacks in the semi-consciousness before sleep -- visions of unavoidable collisions shake me awake but don't frighten me. Whenever I drive by a bad crash on the road, I feel a rush of sympathy, followed by a tiny little prayer of gratitude -- thank god today's not my day -- and remember seeing faces staring at me from moving cars.

The fourth anniversary is maybe a strange one on which to go back over the event, but these numbers are so arbitrary. I've just shrugged off the previous anniversaries; this year I felt like getting some of it out of my system. I guess it must seem a little morbid, but for me it's all very matter-of-fact; it didn't change my life, although it did somewhat change my attitude towards death. Still, it was a major event just the same. If nothing else, I'm happy to be here to write about it four years later.

Oh, and wear your seatbelts, kids.
11:20 PM ::
Amy :: permalink