Survival Diary: The Accident

 Photo: Tanner Wolfe

I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will  gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. 

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I was in the front passenger seat, asleep. It was some time between four and five in the morning—dark.

Paul’s yell, and probably the jerk of the van as it hit the rumble strips, woke me and I was plunged into a tunnel of movement, force and terrible sound.

“JESUS!” I screamed.

This is a prayer.  When I was very young my mother taught me, when in trouble, to call on the name of Jesus and I always have—literally.

Underneath it all is the question. I am not awake enough, and it’s all going too quickly for me to actually form the thoughts “Where are we? What is happening? Or to wonder about the future: are we going to be OK? As we are hurtling through I am living completely in the moment, in utter uncertainty. I am not loving the question but I am living it, fully.

And then it all stops and I find I have lived my way into the answer too.

Oh. This.

I am upside down. My head is jammed against the roof and I can hardly breathe.  My ankle is wedged and my head is bleeding. I’m bleeding so much and everything hurts. I want to get out now, but I’m jammed in. Stuck. I fumble for the clasp of the seatbelt but it’s just beyond my reach. I think I will need to be cut out which means I will have to wait for help to arrive and I don’t know how I’m going to bear staying here one more second. I’m panicking  I know I have to stay calm. I try to breathe.

Paul is already out. I can hear him moving around the van. I call to him softly because I’m staying calm, “Paul…I can’t get out…Paul.”

He doesn’t hear me or, if he does, he doesn’t answer. I don’t know why he isn’t checking on me and helping the kids. I don’t know what he is doing and am annoyed by his priorities.

I don’t know we have landed in the middle of the highway. The moment the van came to a stop Paul grabbed my pillow and crawled out his window, jumped to his feet and began waving his arms above his head to stop oncoming traffic. I don’t know he is probably saving our lives.

This is what I know: crash, stuck, pain, blood, fear—I know Paul. I know Christopher and Lydia—I hear their voices—but I don’t hear Eden’s—

“Eden! Eden! WHERE’S EDEN?”

“She’s right here. I’ve got her.” Lydia said and that panic subsides.

I’m in so much pain. My body is wedged in my seat so tightly. I am hanging upside down, my head pressed into the roof. I can barely breathe. How long will it take to get me out? I am trying to stay calm, trying to stay calm, trying to stay calm. The blood is pouring down my face.

I feel movement behind me, somehow I know it’s Lydia. I hear the click of my belt and then I fall over, free and I’m scrabbling between the seats on my hands and knees.

All the windows have blown out. Glass is everywhere, but I’m not thinking about that. I’m making for the side window. There is blood in my eyes but I see Lydia cradling Eden to her chest, hiding her face, protecting her. I see smoke curling billowing out and up, curling towards the sky and I panic.

“GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” I scream at the girls.

“Stop yelling at us!” Lydia screams back but I don’t hear her. I’m scuttling out the window, crawling onto the highway and pulling myself to my feet.  I see the smoke and hear the dripping of fluids. We need to get out and away. Out and away.

Paul is there with Christopher who he has just helped out. I take the pillow he is still holding. It is huge, large and puffy with real feathers. My head was resting on it minutes before but that is a lifetime ago. I press it to my head to staunch the blood.

Cars have stopped. I see headlights lining up in the distance. I’m having trouble holding my head up. It hurts so much. With the pillow pressed to my forehead I can barely see. A man is there.

“Are we in Canada?” I ask him. We were driving through the night. We were on our way to Rochester, New York but through Ontario. We were going to have breakfast in Niagara.

“Yes, you are.” He says and I hear his accent.

Oh no, I think. This is going to complicate things. Part of my brain is running logistics. This is not my first disaster.

Out and away. I want to get as far as I can from the van and away from traffic which is slowly beginning to creep by.

We are on a bridge but I don’t know it. We make our way to the edge of the highway and Paul looks down, sees the river and feels sick. I need to sit down on the ground and I lean against the guardrail. I can feel my children around me. I am doing an inventory: Paul, Christopher, Lydia, Eden. I need to touch each one of them.

I am whimpering. I can’t keep it in. Eden is beside me and I put my arm around her, clutch her to my side with one arm and hold the pillow against my head with the other. I see Paul’s legs. He is standing in front of us. He is only wearing one sandal. He is holding one of his arms which is streaming with blood. He looks like an extra in a horror movie.

“I’m so sorry.” He says. His face is terrible with regret.

I reach for his leg and touch it. “It was an accident.”

After a while a fire truck arrives and then the ambulances. They strap me to a board and carry me away from my family. I don’t like this. I want my children.  I know I’m going to be OK, but that I’m not much help right now. I know I need to get fixed up, but first this evacuation needs arranging.

“I think it would be best if you kept my little girl with her Dad. And please put my older daughter with my son. He’s deaf and he doesn’t have his processor. He can’t hear right now. I know my daughter will help him.”

“We’re going to be taking you all in separate ambulances,” the paramedic informs me.

“I think it would be best—” I begin again, gesturing back towards the bridge. Separate ambulances don’t work for me.

“You and your husband will be taken to the E.R. and the children will be taken to the pediatric hospital.”

My heart stops. I do not like the way this car accident is going. The day an arsonist burned our house down we ran out of the house together and we stayed together. Separate hospitals do not work for me one bit.

But I am strapped to a board. They slide me into the ambulance and shut the doors, the paramedic says we’re ready and we drive away.


The first couple of days home the major task on our agenda was taking our medicine and trying to keep ahead of the pain. That’s decreasing and our number one activity now is changing our bandages twice a day. Since Paul’s entire forearm is a mess and Eden and I have two wounds a piece, it’s quite the production.  Eden is a child and I’m squeamish, so it’s entirely Paul’s show.

Ever since I looked in the mirror at the hospital and instantly burst into tears, I’ve averted my gaze. I don’t like any gore, and certainly not a mess of it on my face. Eden’s being a little toughie and other than being a little bored, she’s cheerful and in good spirits.
I’m sad our vacation was co-opted. It’s no fun being tired and in pain and missing out on all the fun things we were going to do. I’m still incredibly thankful to be alive: it’s not either/or; it’s a both/and.
I’m thankful for several refunds on hotels, tickets and programs. One, the largest—hundreds and hundreds of dollars—we didn’t even have to ask about, they just quietly credited our account.
I’m thankful for arnica. My eyes seem to be settling into a sallow yellow. They still may turn into black and blue, perhaps green, but today they’re a light mustard and I’m grateful for that.
And I’m so thankful for family and friends. This accident is a small thing. I’m not minimizing it, I just believe we’re going to recover soon, and it’s not going to dominate our lives once the bandages are removed. We may have some scarring, but we won’t be scarred, if that makes sense. And yet, in the short term at least, it’s a very big thing and the kindness of people who care about us has helped so much.

Witness: Seen and Unseen

I haven’t told you this: I almost certainly saw the arsonist that morning.

I qualify that because of my own sense of fair play. Our fire was not officially linked to the series of fires set in the summer and fall of 2010. Ours was the first and on a different side of town from the rest, but fit the m.o., exactly. I don’t know why ours was not tied to the others and haven’t had the energy to find out. I didn’t think it mattered as long as he was caught and convicted, but I found it did matter to me when he did not confess to ours.

I’m writing about it privately for now, but I’ll tell you this, he had already set our house on fire when he looked me right in the eye and asked a question. I was busy getting my children to safety and thought he was just a knucklehead, a random gawker. I was running from my burning house but couldn’t really believe it was on fire. I had no idea someone set it; I still can’t believe that.

After the bombings in Boston I read about Jeff Bauman, the young man who lost both his legs and is in the wheelchair in that infamous picture. When he woke up at the hospital he asked for a pen and paper and wrote, “Bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.” One of the backpacks had been dropped at his feet.

While still in the ICU, Bauman helped the FBI identify the suspects.

This week I have found myself thinking about him and wondering what must run through his mind, the image he remembers and how he must feel knowing this man looked right at him and still dropped the bag. It makes it so cold-blooded and strangely personal. I have been thinking about what we look at and do not realize we’re seeing.

I’ve also been thinking about Carlos Arrendondo, the man who helped save Jeff’s life. He’s the man in the cowboy hat in the the picture helping push the wheelchair and pinching shut the artery in Jeff’s right leg. He was in the bleachers near the finish line handing out flags and cheering on members of the National Guard and a suicide prevention group who were running in honor of his two deceased sons, one of whom died in Iraq in 2004. When the bomb went off he ran right towards it to help people and realized right away that Jeff needed him most.

This picture holds so much: violence, loss, terror, compassion, heroism, fearlessness and horror, and that’s only what’s visible.

Arrendondo visited Bauman in the hospital the other day and this is what he said, “The picture that you see, that’s what it is and that’s how it happened, you know, I was just trying to help him in every way I could, and thank God he gave me the opportunity to help this beautiful young man.”

For his part, Bauman has a great attitude and has told his family he’s going to walk again. I pray he will and that he never knows despair. This journey has just begun.

When something terrible happens there is that continuing sense of surreality, even if you have accepted what is and have mourned and healed. Time passes and this deep disbelief mingles with years of hard reality: the endless both and.

Each of us has our sorrows and losses, many of us carry memories of unutterable heartache. Jeff Bauman isn’t ready to walk just yet, his wounds need to heal. Too often we rush this and trauma, physical or mental, slows you down. When you are learning how to walk without legs, a good attitude isn’t everything, but it is so much.

I’ve been so ashamed by how long it has taken me to heal since the fire after starting so strong. It is what it is, though and today I can’t tell you what I should have/could have done differently. I’ll tell you though, Carlos Arrendondo’s behavior before and after the bombing pretty much personifies what I want to do going forward: while everything was peaceful he was handing out flags and cheering for others, but as soon as the bomb went off, he ran right for the wounded, found the person whose need was greatest, did what he could, and afterwards thanked God he had been able to help him.

We Get to Carry Each Other

“I’m almost stopped by your house this morning to cry.” A friend told me the other day as we waited to pick up our daughters after school.

“You should have,” I said without thinking, “what’s going on?”

My friend has another child with a multiplicity of special needs who is struggling to make a big transition at school. My friend had a meeting scheduled that day with the principal, but right before it she discovered something else that concerned her and decided to schedule a meeting with the school counselor too.

After these back-to-back meetings she was exhausted and feeling overwhelmed. Raising a kid with special needs can be so arduous. The school is just around the corner from my house and she thought about stopping by to tell me all about it and have a good cry.

“Why didn’t you?” I asked.

The short story is she talked herself out of it because she wanted to save me for a real emergency. I mean you can’t just show up at your friend’s fixing to cry willy nilly, can you?

The funny thing is, with me you can and I’m really good at it.

Years ago a friend stopped by and I winced when I saw her car because her home is always immaculate and mine is not but I opened the door with a smile and was surprised to see her face wet with tears.

“What’s wrong!” I asked.

“I GAINED TEN POUNDS!” She was in the later days of her first pregnancy and had just been to the O.B.

Without a word I opened my arms wide and she fell into them, sobbing.

I was pregnant too, with our second child, Lydia, and managing to keep my weight gain at the lower end of normal. But with my firstborn, Christopher, I gained more than 50 pounds and had one devastating month towards the end where I gained nine pounds alone. This was the month after I told my midwife I was probably going to have this baby early because I couldn’t imagine getting any bigger.

She just smiled and nodded but now I know she was almost certainly thinking, “You sweet, simple thing.”

I was aghast when I gained nine pounds the next month and my friend remembered this when confronted by her own horrific weigh-in two years later. She knew I would understand. And, of course, I did. Soon I had her laughing and she went back to work feeling so much better.

I don’t want to simplify this: my house may not be perfect, but I’m open and friendly: so there! I’m not always open and I struggle with keeping my house as tidy as I’d like, although it’s not the burden that it was. I have some projects I need to do, but most of the time my house is organized and clean “enough.”

Our new house is beautiful and pretty much in shape, but I’m tired.   Except with family and friends I find the hospitality part of the equation to be the heavier one right now. I’m thinking about this summer and what I want to do. Paul has a lot of travel coming up so that needs to be taken into consideration.

But drive-by crying? Yeah, I’m up for that.

This week on Houzz, I’m talking about not allowing the imperfections of your home hold you back from opening it to others.

Where do you fall on the entertaining/hospitality/good times spectrum?

What NOT to Say After a House Fire: “At Least You Got a New House!”

photo: Sandi Gunnett

It is so strange to see your life frozen in time.

Last week I was featured on with the article  “10 Real Ways You Can Help After a House Fire.” Houzz was a helpful resource throughout the rebuild, especially during the planning stage. I’m delighted to write for them.

If you are a long time reader you might remember the struggle I was having trying to write a concise account of the fire. Only recently has the “story” felt over and how long it has gone on has been a source of sorrow and—if I’m honest—shame.  I could never have imagined how painful this entire experience would be nor how long it would take, even after everything was “back to normal” although I can’t tell you exactly what that means now.

As I was reading about the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, I came across an interview with a woman who evacuated her home in Colorado Springs and had already gone through the Hayman Fire of 2002 in which she and her husband lost their business and livelihood. Regarding the Waldo Canyon fire she said, “It’s not the fear of losing stuff. It’s the fear of starting over.

When I read that I sighed. She knew. From what I can tell, most people who lose all their possessions—in one way or another—tend to hold more loosely to things afterwards. You know what you can live without and it’s practically everything. Our old house was more than 2500 square feet and the things I have wept over could fit into a small closet with room to spare. And yet, just the thought of going through the process of rebuilding again makes me want to climb into any closet and never come out.

A peculiar aspect of a house fire is, in most cases, there is a brand new house at the end of the story, so you know, happy ending. I know someone whose 100 year old farmhouse burned. She is grateful for her new house and she misses her old one. I do not miss my old house, but my nine year old daughter does. She has wept many tears for her home.

Unless we pay it, we can’t ever know the full cost, can we? I’m still paying the price for our fire, literally: our mortgage increased and figuratively when I get up at night and walk by any of the windows on the north side and reflexively glance out and scan the yard for a dark figure. I’m not consciously afraid, just assessing conditions, making sure another arsonist isn’t out there.

When someone has experienced a grave loss, it’s not the responsibility of those of us on the outside to extract the possible benefits of the situation.  When we preface anything with “At least” we are ignoring the loss and that doesn’t make it go away. For a sorrow to heal it needs to be acknowledged and mourned.

And for those inside the tragedy, “at least” comes from such a weak place. When I’m looking for a lifeline to pull me through the pain, I prefer the strength of gratitude.

In the early days after our fire, I was only thankful. As time and trauma wore on, this seemed to slip and I was so ashamed. What helped me in the middle of everything was when people asked, “How is it going?” When I told them, with perhaps a little too much detail, but then caught myself and apologized for going on and on…or didn’t and just went and went…or started to cry, they were gracious and kind, tolerant and forgiving. They were curious and listened. They taught me so well and I’m forever grateful.