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.

Fiction and Non

I was talking with Eden the other day about writing and the fire.

She is an accomplished writer. When she was in Kindergarten she wrote a book for her dad, a memoir, as a gift for Father’s Day. The plan was originally for it to be forty pages (each page being a chapter) but she settled for twelve, I believe. She went on to write many more books all of which I stacked on top of the bookcase in the hall outside our bedroom. I walked right past it that last morning and I have wished, more than once, that I grabbed them on my way.

The other day I told Eden that someone had asked me to write a short account of the fire but I was having a little trouble.

She sat up straight. “You need to write her back and tell her (the editor) that it’s impossible; it’s going to be long or nothing at all. It’s impossible for it to be short. I was going to write a book about it but I decided not to because it’s too long.”

“You were going to write a book about the fire? When?” I said.

“In second grade.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Cuz in a book you have to write your feelings and all that stuff, but in a story you don’t have to. It’s just a story, such as:  ‘Henry held the frog. Henry thought the frog felt nasty.’ That’s random, but it’s something.”

I agreed. It was.

“In a story,” she continued, “you don’t have to say, ‘But I was really scared.’

Building the Story

Today I’m working on a short account of someone setting fire to our home, of losing everything and rebuilding.

Long time readers and friends might have seen “short account” and registered a red flag.

I hear you.  I see it waving too. Short has never been my strong suit and I don’t feel ready to summarize the experience. We all know I can write about the fire and of losing everything, but when I think about trying to tell the story cogently and well my brain hurts and I imagine it looking like the picture above.

Because rebuilding was as much of the suffering as the fire, in some ways, I’ve only begun to mourn.  The story of everything isn’t finished.  I don’t know where I am exactly, maybe just breaking ground.

But someone wants me to tell the story. I’m being offered a wonderful opportunity and I don’t want to squander it.

Maybe I need to look at this “short account” as a blueprint. I don’t have to actually build a house today, just write the plan for what I want it to be.

One of Job’s Comforters Was Right

“Give in to God, come to terms with him 

and everything will turn out just fine.

Let him tell you what to do; 

take his words to heart.

Come back to God Almighty 

and he’ll rebuild your life.

Clean house of everything evil. 

Relax your grip on your money 

and abandon your gold-plated luxury.

God Almighty will be your treasure, 

more wealth than you can imagine.”

Job 22: 21 – 25 from The Message

This year has been one long haul of abandonment to God’s provision in every way and on every level. Paul and I have been stretched beyond ourselves in so many ways. As I stood and watched my house burn I thought “I can take this.” I was talking about the loss. And I was right. With the exception of my kids’ art, some journals, a few paintings and some books, I haven’t missed a thing and never looked back. If not for my children and trying to salvage things that were evocative of home I would have gladly walked away and never given most things a second thought.

What I could not understand as I watched the flames destroy all our possessions was that the rebuilding was where it would all come into play: all my beliefs, fears, trust, faith, doubt and strength.

The Bible compares life to a race that we are running. Watching my house burn, losing my possessions was like being dropped into a 5K. If we are speaking metaphorically I knew I could run that race and at the sound of the gun I started running. “This doesn’t hurt. I can take this.” I told myself. In a way I had already trained for that. Losing every thing? No problem.

What became difficult was as the months passed and the 5K became a marathon and then it turned into an Iron Man and then it was more like the Olympics and Paul and I were signed up for several simultaneous events. Making every single financial decision from how big of a house to build down to what type of spatula to buy while under mental and emotional duress has been so challenging. Making every single decision while waiting for insurance to come through and not really knowing how much every thing is going to cost has been excruciating. A rebuild is not a build; things have to be torn down.

God has been showing me the rickety structures that I have used for shelter: being fiscally prudent, careful, living within our means – all good practices, but God is a jealous God and he won’t let us settle for less than abandonment to him and his provision. I think I want grace but it seems risky, it involves too much trust. So I see now.

I have also been learning a lot about how we choose or refuse to comfort each other. It is uncomfortable to just be with someone. Our urge is to fix, to remove obstructions, to placate. But somethings cannot be fixed or removed or placated, they must be born, endured.

A true friend is one who will be with you in the uncertainty, who will sit with you in the mystery of and the suffering itself.

If someone glides in and blithely says “You’re going to be fine” we reject that. But isn’t that what we really want to know? Am I going to be alright? Is everything going to be OK?

We don’t need bland assurance – we see right through that – what we need is someone who has been through the fire and who can tell us everything is going to turn out just fine.

Eden crawled into bed with me this morning around 3:30. The thunder had awakened her and she was scared. She cuddled next to me and I held her. We prayed together though I was so tired my head hurt. She offered her fear and worry to God and then opened her arms to receive his love. Something I have prayed for years for our family is that our hearts would be so full of the love of God that there would be no room for fear.
The older two have always been good sleepers, but Eden has been the one to come crawling into our bed in the wee hours. The morning of the fire she awoke a little before four. Because of this I was awake when the alarms sounded.
“I’m so worried.” Eden told me the other day.
“What about?” I asked.
“So many things,” she said, “that our house might burn down again! Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes!”
She is aware of all the natural disasters that have occurred lately. We have talked about them and prayed for the people who have lost their homes. She knows the pain of losing her possessions and her sense of safety.
I hate that my eight year old is beset by fear. All I can do is hold her close and walk with her and pray with her one day, one night, one early morning at a time.
Please pray for her, for us.