“Are you sure you don’t want to do delivery?” My brother-in-law asked me while holding out his phone. “I have Walmart Plus, delivery is free.”
I pursed my lips in contemplation.
“Nah, that’s okay,” I decided. “I want to make sure I have it in time and it’s really not hard to pick it up.”
He shrugged and left me to revel in the post-pandemic convenience of loading a shopping cart from my phone. It was my first time as a mother slogging through the long list of back-to-school supplies. I had never even heard the word “Ticonderoga” before.
The order would be ready soon. I was scheduled to pick it up between four and five PM. I thoroughly distracted myself reading about a true crime on my phone until it was now-or-never. The boys were sitting on Jack’s bed playing a tablet together. In the back of my mind, I had already said ‘yes’ and buckled them in if they asked to come with me. They did not.
“Mommy’s running to the store to get Jack’s school stuff. It’ll be super quick and I’ll be right back.”
Brother-in-law was on the downstairs couch, binging Stranger Things and holding the baby.
“I’m picking up the Walmart order, I’ll be back in ten.”
“Sounds good,” he said through a big yawn.
I jangled keys, slid on flip flops and buckled myself into my silver Dodge Caravan. Mystery crumbs carpeted the floor mats and several Matchbox cars rattled to one side as I turned wide onto Higley. I scanned through the radio looking for that perfect Sunday afternoon classic rock song. My cruising speed was 45-50, the standard speed limit of the extra wide Arizona roads.
I was only a couple of minutes away from my destination when a VW crossover pulled up to the stop sign of a neighborhood side street. The gray VW began to roll forward and then stopped roughly. The hairs on my arms stood and a primal instinct inside of me sensed danger like a deer hearing a twig snap in the woods.
“Don’t pull out,” I said aloud to the car.
And then it did. That silver VW swung out directly in front of me. My hand slammed on the horn, and I stomped the pedal to the floor. My brakes gave a panicked squeal but there was no distance to save me. The side of the VW came into full view of my windshield and then cut to pure white like an instant transition in a movie.
Somehow, I didn’t feel the impact. I completely disassociated from my body in that split second, as if I were watching the accident from behind the eyes of a camera. I was vaguely aware of a jolt and pitch, not to mention the horrifying crunch that is unique to car wrecks. But I was helplessly out of my body.
The airbags deflated with a loud hiss, and I came to. Cracks webbed my windshield. The unique smell from the airbags was something I had never experienced before. It was a cross between fireworks and hot pavement.
A middle-aged man with glasses approached me. My hands were shaking as I undid my seat belt. I reached for my door handle and noticed that the airbags had skinned a chunk of my arm. The car door had to be opened with a bit of force on my part, but I was able to step out and meet the man in the middle of our two smashed cars.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think so, I just have a cut here.” I showed him the large friction burn on my arm. “But I’m okay.”
I didn’t dare look back at my car. My stunned expression gazed in every other direction.
“What do we do?” I asked the man.
“We call the police,” he said.
Right, yeah. I had never been in a situation like this before and felt completely out of my element.
“Okay. You call the police,” I said. “I’ll call my husband.”
He walked away from me putting his phone by his ear. I called Daniel who was working only a few blocks away.
“Baby, I just got into a very serious car accident.”
“… are you serious? Are you hurt?”
“Mostly just cuts and bruises I think,” I said. “But the car is done. The airbags went off and everything.”
“Where are you?”
“Um, a little way onto Southern. Like… Like a little past Higley. Like a couple of blocks.” I could hear the shakiness in my voice despite my best effort to stay calm.
“Okay, I’ll be right there.”
“Thank you.” I said with such a relief.
I met the man in the middle of the road, and he informed me that the police were on their way. He then walked to the driver’s side of the VW and opened the door.
“Alright. Come out,” he said.
A wiry, young girl slid from behind the deployed airbag of the driver’s seat. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. Her curly loose ponytail draped over a green volunteer shirt from a local Christian church. She kept her eyes on the road, not daring to look at me as I dared not to look at my car.
I had the strongest human urge to hug her. Not out of forgiveness or reassurance, or even for her at all, but for myself. I was so shaken that I needed an embrace from anybody, even the stranger who had caused my situation. Not hugging that student driver would later become a life regret to me.
“I don’t think either one of our cars are driveable,” the man said.
“Yeah,” I said even though I still refused to turn and see.
“Let’s get out of the road here.”
We shuffled onto the sidewalk.
As I stood there staring at the blinking hazard lights of the back of my car, I debated what to say. Due to my chronic apologizing, my husband had thoroughly trained me to never say the word ‘sorry’ at the scene of a crash as that would technically be admitting fault. I couldn’t think of a single other thing to say so I came out with:
“Wow, crazy how fast your whole day can change, huh?”
“Yup,” he responded with the irritated tone of a father.
The girl continued to stare at her feet. Her hands white-knuckle clasped in front of her.
“Here, let’s go over here,” he said to her, ushering her with a hand on her back.
As they walked away from me, I started to feel my foot. Pain. And a lot of it. I finally looked down and checked out the injuries on my body. Huge welts and bruises covered my shins and knees. More friction burns. My right foot that had floored the brake was beginning to swell.
I sat on the curb to take the pressure off, watching the traffic jam as cars slowly navigated around my van and its front bumper in the middle of the road. The VW looked mostly okay besides a bent back wheel and the airbags. I found that irritating. That their car would make it out better than mine.
The dad came back over to me as I re-examined the injuries on my legs.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“Uh…” I turned my foot. “I think so. My foot might be broken, I’m not sure. I can’t tell with the adrenaline.”
Dan’s black Honda pulled in, just before the cop cars did. The constant grief I give him about prioritizing work, and he had beaten the police to the scene.
The father left me to talk to the officers and I hobbled toward my husband. I threw my arms around his bright turquoise scrubs and broke down into tears.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I cried. He held me tight. Tight, tight.
“Hey,” he said softly. “You look pretty beat up. Come sit down.”
He jogged over to his car, opened the passenger side door and turned on the AC. I was grateful for the little added touch since the temperature was 113 degrees outside.
I sat in the car and could really feel myself shaking now. Dan jumped into the driver’s side. He had tears in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry about the car,” I choked out.
He shook his head. “I don’t care about that. I really don’t.”
By then an officer arrived at the window. He was a younger, nice-looking guy. He asked about my injuries first if I remember correctly. Which I reiterated that I thought I was okay but couldn’t tell because of the adrenaline. And then he asked for my side of the story.
As I listened to myself tell what happened to the cop, I realized that there was nothing I could have done differently. Nothing about it was my fault. And I had acted on the best-case scenario. If I had tried to dodge her rather than hit her head on, I could’ve swerved into oncoming traffic, a cement wall or even have seriously injured the teenage driver.
The officer and I bounced back and forth with questions and answers.
“How fast were you going?”
“45, 50? Whatever the speed limit on the road is.”
“So just your normal cruising speed. Were you in this near lane here?”
“Yeah, I was, because I was headed to Walmart so I wanted to be able to turn from there.”
“Okay.” He had a resolute sound in his voice, and I could see on his face that it was pretty clear who was at fault for the accident.
“Do you want us to call paramedics for you?”
“Uhhh…” I looked at my foot again. It was starting to turn purple already. “I don’t know,” I said hesitating.
“She just had a baby,” Dan said, his voice trembling. “She just had a baby a few weeks ago and I’m worried about internal bleeding.”
The cop nodded sympathetically. “Let’s just call them as a precaution. And if nothing is wrong then great. But at least we can get them here to take some vitals and check you out.”
“Alright,” I agreed, feeling sort of stressed out about not knowing whether I had an injury to warrant paramedics.
The firetruck arrived fast I remembered. I think Dan and I talked a little before they came. He told me that my brother-in-law had reacted very sweet to the whole thing. After we told him about the accident, he called my husband and told him NOT to chew me out if it were my fault. He wouldn’t have anyway. Well, not in the moment probably.
The firetruck arrived and a group of paramedics showed up at the side of my car. They took my blood pressure, asked me simple questions, and examined my injuries. They wanted to know if I could move my foot, if I walked away from the crash site, if I had any numbness or tingling. I also remember they asked me to pull down my shirt to check if the seatbelt or upper airbag did any damage to my chest. Thankfully there was nothing.
They told me I had “textbook blood pressure”. As in perfectly normal healthy blood pressure. Which was impressive considering that I was shaking like a freaking leaf. They said everything seemed fine, but they didn’t have the equipment to x-ray or check anything internally.
“Do you want us to call an ambulance for you?”
No. That sounds expensive as hell.
“I really think I’m okay. I was mostly worried about my foot.”
I felt like apologizing. Sorry for wasting your time with my mild injuries. Sorry I didn’t break a leg.
Dan leaned over. “I can take her to the hospital if she needs to go.”
The kind paramedic shifted his gaze to me. “Do you feel like you need to go?” he asked.
I groaned internally. I had just endured a sixty plus hour labor with my daughter and really had no interest in sitting in a crinkly hospital bed ever again.
“I think I’m okay,” I said. I really did feel okay.
The paramedic looked back at Daniel. “If things get worse, you can always take her in.”
They talked me through a few things. Icing my injuries and all that. I was warned that my injuries would feel even worse the next day. Oh goodie. And I was also told that my neck and back would probably be stiff and pained. I then had to sign something that stated they had offered an ambulance and I had said no.
Then it was a waiting game for the tow truck to take my lovely van away.
The firefighters asked me if there was anything valuable in the car that I needed. I said no at first but then they started listing off things. “No keys? Purse? Car seats?”
“Oh! Car seats! Yes!”
I watched as one by one, those firemen brought the car seats out of the car. And that turned out to be one of the most beautiful sights of my life. Three empty car seats. Three car seats that had no children in them during the accident. My children and my newborn baby were safe at home.
I suddenly was filled with a joy that is difficult to express. I realized what could have been and what was. My kids were safe. I was not going to the hospital. The young driver was alive and didn’t need the paramedics to look at her. I had been gifted a moment of a close call. Instead of having a smashed-up car and bruised legs, I had a deep appreciation for my life. For my children’s safety. For my husband’s profound care for me. For the strangers around me and their safety.
I had just been in a severe car wreck. But strangely so, after the firefighters removed the car seats, I smiled the entire trip home.