It was on a dark Sunday night: winter, February, in Maine. We skidded on black ice, shot to the left, then to the right, hitting a guardrail head on. We launched into the air, spinning and flipping, skidded along the guardrail, landing on the driver’s side, stopping, hanging half off and half on the road. I remember a moment of silence, and then the sight of the windshield shattering into a thousand pieces, and landing, quiet, and we stopped.
I remember asking my friend if he was ok and he asking our other friend if she was ok. Our driver, our fourth friend, stayed quiet for a minute and we worried, but then she too spoke to us. Somehow that first friend opened a car door, pushing himself upward. He unhooked our second friend from her seatbelt, she fell, and he helped her climb out. Our fourth friend climbed out, too, and then I stood up from my crumpled position, fell once, and clambered out onto the road. We all looked back at the truck, on its side, hanging, and all said something to the effect of: “Look at the truck!”
Standing there in the cold we were accompanied by two strangers who had stopped to help us. They called 911 as we stood, dumbstruck. A policeman and an ambulance arrived, and both skidded to a stop in the ice. We were asked if we were all okay, and we said,”yes.” “How are you all okay?” asked the EMTs, random strangers, our kind policeman, the firemen. One of them said to my friend who had been driving, “Here you’ve been having a go of it.” She nodded.
My friend and I who had been sitting in the backseat were not wearing our seatbelts, and were surrounded by the tools of a long-standing landscaping and stone business: wrenches, saws, a chainsaw sharpener. None of them had flown and hit us, and even the careening of the truck had not shaken us too badly. Somehow we made it out onto highway 198 with not even a scratch, despite the glass that we kept shaking out of our clothes.
I have had a bit of a go of it in terms of driving in winter this year: this was my second accident in two weeks, both due to icy roads. I now consider my first wreck a fender bender, and not serious at all, despite my hitting two trees at low speed. This crash, this tumble, was a big one.
For the last two or three days, we have been talking about it a lot together. It seems as if we were given a new lease on life, or at least an illustration of how it can all be taken away so fast. The accident took, probably, less than ten seconds to happen.
As an ex-science teacher and avid lifelong lover of anything science-related, I can explain a couple of things that happened in terms of survival and physics. I believe that the spinning action of the truck kept enough centrifugal force (the spinning force that keeps our planets in orbit, and our bodies in place on that crazy carnival ride with no floor or ceiling) to glue myself and my backseat companion almost still, and also held the tools that could have hurt us against the walls of the truck. This “sticky” force was probably what kept us from hurtling all over the inside of the truck and becoming seriously injured. The moment of silence is explained by our fight-or-flight survival response that causes us, in times of serious threat, to feel as if time slows down or stops. This is because our brain is seeking any and all possible escape route and our awareness is heightened to recognize a way to survive. There is a wonderful Radiolab episode on falling that explains this much better than I can here. I believe we were all silent at that time because we were attempting to process what was happening, not knowing the outcome, and preparing ourselves for all those potential results.
This huge, intimidating, frightening, and death-defying tumble was the scariest experience of my life, and I think my friends would agree with that. It is hard to imagine a large truck like the Tundra being launched into the air, spinning and flipping, by something as simple as a patch of ice, but that is what happened.
When events like this happen to us, traumatic ones, they often cause us to re-evaluate our lives at the moment and what we are doing with life at any given time. For myself, this accident made me think about things that I have put off, problems I am ignoring, goals that I am not 100% engaged with. I have, unfortunately or fortunately, had quite a few traumatic events over the past couple of years. I have had my house broken into, wrecked my car, and then a horrific accident with three of my closest friends here. We are neighbors and friends in a very small town: we have been, for a time, each other’s close social group due to living in this very tiny and quiet place. This drive was our last drive back to the Northeasy, our neighborhood, because three of the four are moving out in the next few days. When we left the party, it felt warm and as if everything was melting in the short thaw of a few days previous. Never did we think that it was cold enough to freeze all the water on the road, but, it was.
I have spent three days wondering what this accident means to me, what the other accident also meant, and then remembering my home invasion. I find that all three events make me very tired when I think of them too much, and that they make me feel confused as far as what they “mean” in terms of my life. I know that the events themselves mean nothing in and of themselves, but the effect on my life has been profound. When my house was broken into, almost two years ago, I decided to sell most of my possessions, my houseful of furniture and accoutrements, and move to Maine. The last two are too recent to really understand what the effects will be, but all I can say, as I have discovered during times of duress before, that the only thing that crossed my mind was how much I care for the people in my life, and that love is the strongest human emotion. Everyone that helped us was so kind, and so delicate with us on that roadside. There was nothing but smiles and care and quiet jokes. I remember thinking, in Philadelphia after the break-in, how thankful I was for my friends and coworkers at that time, who simply came over and helped and brought pizza and tried to be understanding and giving my roommate and I time to mull it all over. She chose to sell everything and go to South America, where she is still is, somewhere, living an amazing and colorful and educated life. I chose to move to my childhood summer home, went through some hardships, and now, also live an amazing and colorful and educated life. Clearly, the benefits of the break-in greatly outweighed the costs.
I am choosing to try to look at trauma as an opportunity to live the attempts at a realized life that I have been cultivating since moving here. Trauma is physically and mentally painful to us all, and can take quite a while to process, digest, and release. But holding on to it like a crutch is the wrong way to deal with it, and I know I have been guilty of that in the past. The reality, to me, is that I am quite a sensitive person who is highly emotive. I can choose to let things affect me personally quite deeply, but am beginning to discover that if you make it out in one piece, with just a few bruises for the experience, trauma is like a window into the universe, and it can help you hone your thoughts, sharpen the blade of your approach to living in a highly beneficial way.
I wonder, oh readers, whether any of you have had experiences like this one and how those experiences changed you? Did a “new lease on life” inspire you to greatness? How did you manage the upheaval of it all?
If we choose to see them this way, do all of our tumbles manifest great and good changes in our lives, or do we just recognize them as moments passing in time?