Tuesday, July 5th, just a few minutes past midnight. Somewhere on my computer is a detailed account of what happened right then. I started it to straighten out my own thoughts for a blog post I wrote about car seat safety before I began this blog, but I have no desire to dig it up and see how far I got or to recreate it. Here’s the short version: We were driving the mountain back roads of VT after leaving a 4th of July party in NH. A twenty-year-old kid fell asleep at the wheel as he came around a corner. I was driving with my husband, my three pups, and my 4-month-old daughter in the truck. I swerved, but there was a guard rail. Between the impact from him and the guard rail, the truck flipped on its side and skidded down the road. People stopped to help us out but didn’t stay. There was no cell phone service. They sent the ambulance from the wrong town. It took a really long time to find us. I watched two of my dogs running up and down the highway wondering if they were going to be run over in front of me too.
I know exactly how blessed I am to have each of the ones I hold most dear still with me and whole. In the seconds after the truck stopped sliding and my body stopped involuntarily screaming, the first thing I noticed was something hard rolling around in my mouth and I remember wondering angrily if some of my teeth were broken (it was glass). I knew this was a ridiculous thing to be upset about, but my alternative was wondering if there was anything left to the life I had had less than thirty seconds before. I didn’t know who was alive and how much of me was broken. It turned out that my foot was broken in roughly 5 places and left with a heap of internal scar tissue from the impact. Dale’s arm looked like a shark had mauled it. There wasn’t enough skin to sew together, so they just tacked it down. Aeryn, thank God, had nothing but the tiniest of scratches on her forehead. All three dogs were eventually recovered and with nothing worse than bruises, scrapes, and exhaustion. In the months that followed I learned that it is, in fact, possible to be agonizingly grateful for how something turned out and pissed off angry that it happened at all.
Just writing those paragraphs made me sick to my stomach and I had to stop. The visceral response still surprises me even though it’s been barely more than a month since I stopped replaying some or all of that night in my head every time I laid down with Aeryn for her nap, each time my mind wandered, or during every car ride. Shortly after the accident happened, a friend asked me if I was experiencing any PTSD. I gave an emphatic “no.” There weren’t disorienting flashbacks and the nightmares weren’t that bad and didn’t last long at all. My trouble was that since I didn’t have something as tough and overwhelming as PTSD that I thought I wasn’t experiencing trauma. Finally this spring I asked my husband if he still replayed the accident in his mind every single day. That was the first time I considered that the lingering pain was in more than just my foot.
When I went back to a group text recently as I was looking for something in my phone, I stumbled upon a picture of me holding Aeryn at the 4th of July bbq just before the accident happened. It might sound ridiculous, but I nearly started crying because I looked at the woman in the picture and she doesn’t know what’s coming. I want to tell her to leave for home right now. We talked about leaving the party earlier several times that night, but we eventually decided to stay for the end of the fireworks. At first it made me angry and then a little sick that a few seconds delay or speeding up of either of us could have changed all of it. When I finally started driving again, I noticed that I always sit with my non-driving foot tucked up against the seat and away from the pedals; I always have. That’s the only thing that saved me from having both feet broken by the impact of the floor boards being slammed into them. I could have stretched my leg right then, but I didn’t. There are some decisions whose consequences you just can’t fathom.
But about some decisions we have a much clearer idea of how they can end. There are probably hundreds to thousands of this type of warning post about what happens when you are a distracted driver. But sometimes it makes the difference when it is someone you know. We can’t believe it will ever happen to us, but maybe, just maybe, if it has happened to someone you know and you can see how much it has affected their life, you will think of that next time you want to do something you know isn’t the safest choice. So here it is:
- When you don’t seatbelt your dog in for the car ride, think about them as a flying projectile that crushes your child or breaks through your window and hits the pavement. Don’t like that picture? Neither will your dog. The absolute only reason that mine are still alive and my daughter wasn’t hurt by one of them was that all three were seat belted in. That’s it. Otherwise, there is the highest probably that all 4 would have been killed or severely injured when the vehicle flipped and the windows shattered.
- When you want to move your toddler forward facing or your child out of a booster before the safest (not law) recommendation because it will make them happier or scream and whine less, remember that if you’re in an accident you won’t care if they scream or whine at you every day for the next year as long as they are alive to do it. This is coming from someone whose kid has hated her car seat with a passion since birth. You don’t compromise on weapon safety or fire safety or swimming safety or whatever else is extremely dangerous – don’t compromise here.
- When you decide to “power through” when you’re tired or tell yourself “I’m fine” when you’ve been drinking or take “just a look” at your phone while driving, remember that that young man probably didn’t expect anything to happen either and it wasn’t him that paid the consequences. He literally walked away from his car and didn’t even go to the hospital. But me, my husband, our family, we paid his consequences. Someone else might pay yours with their life, and they won’t get any say in it.
I get it; I really do. We have a lot of reasons to do less than what is safest. I’m still tempted. Good choices are often tough choices and expensive and frustrating ones. I just have the advantage of reminders. Sometimes it’s the foot I’ve been limping on for two days because I decided to take a bike ride with my family. Sometimes it’s the involuntary way I try to slam on the brake when I’m not even driving. Sometimes it’s the scar still full of gravel that I see on my husband’s arm while he eats dinner. A lot of the time it’s just my girl’s screaming as I buckle her into her car seat when I tell her this one thing isn’t negotiable. I’m okay with being your reminder even if you’re annoyed or disagree with me every time you think of it. I can live with that, so hopefully you will too.