Headlights & Airbags

Twelve years ago I could have died.  I was broadsided by a truck when my friend was driving me home from the movies.  I say I rather than we because the car door was the only barrier between my body and the pickup’s front end.  The window glass shattered, with bits spraying into my hair and clothes.  The door was crushed, causing the paramedics to have to inch me out of the car through the driver’s side.  They strapped me onto the backboard at an odd angle, which while uncomfortable thankfully took some of my mental focus away from what was happening to the rest of my body.

Everything hurt.  I was covered in bruises.  And while I wasn’t sure if I’d blacked out in the ordeal, ended up having my third concussion (the others had come over years of playing lacrosse).  That night we happened to be in my friend’s father’s Lexus instead of her flimsy Nissan Sentra, which was in the shop having been rear-ended only a few days before.  The Lexus had side airbags, and even though the airbag scraped and bruised my face, it most likely kept it from getting smashed on impact.  Being in the sturdier car was really all that kept me from much more serious bodily harm.

The night’s activities were intended as a going away celebration for me.  We had just graduated from high school and I was due to leave for a summer in Italy in a couple of days.  After the accident, I spent the weeks visiting doctors’ offices instead of ruins.  Resting and recovering instead of exploring.  On some level it was fitting that neither the friend who was driving nor the friend who we’d just dropped off at home ever came to visit me.  They didn’t call or email.  I was supposed to be across an ocean after all, and I guess they just weren’t any kind of real friends.

As with many traumatic events, the brain builds associations with random details.  I know that I was wearing melon pink J. Crew pants with matching flip flops.  We had just seen Swordfish, which was not at all enjoyable.  The image of the one red traffic light and two white headlights coming right for me kept replaying whenever I closed my eyes.  Even years later, approaching the intersection induced the visceral reaction of a panic attack.

By the end of the summer, the doctors pronounced me well enough to stop treatment and the therapist sent me off with a cassette tape to continue the meditation that helped calm my nightmares.  When I finally got to college in the fall, I was fully ready to begin the new chapter of my life.  New friends, new social opportunities, new chances to define who it was I wanted to be.  I enjoyed myself.  I felt like the world was falling into place for me.  I found a different kind of confidence and I was happy for quite some time.

When that feeling started to fade in my marriage, I knew I was at another turning point in my life.  What’s strange is that I don’t really have those momentary associations from the day I moved out of the house this past September.  I know that we watched Top Chef the night before only because I wrote it in my journal.  I do remember that I made the call that morning asking my mom to come help me pack up the house, only to start bawling before I could get out a single word.  I remember waiting for him to come home as the evening wore on so I could finally say the words I’d been holding in for two years.  But that’s all.  No outfits.  No senses.  No looking back.

And yet this moving on doesn’t feel all that different from the last one.  It’s a chance to take an active role in my life.  An opportunity to build the next stage from my passions and dreams.  I have already made a choice to embark on something new, yet I am older now and bear more responsibility for what I do.  As a teenager, I was a passenger in the car and the truck hit us at full speed.  As a twenty-something, I had become the truck and I made the impact.  As far as traumas go, narrowly missing death is not the same as grabbing a hold of life.

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