The Accident

May 2001 

I’d been out all day, first on a date with my new boyfriend Dave, then to a pickup softball game to see my brother John—where I noticed how much more he looked like a man than my kid brother—and then to a late-night coffee house with some friends. We’d spent the evening hours on their patio, taking in the mild pre-summer weather, talking and arguing and drinking too many Vietnamese iced coffees.

Just before 9:30 pm, I suddenly became dizzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t track the voices swirling around me. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes, but when I opened them everything was worse. My vision was blurry. All the street lights had halos.

“I don’t feel so well,” I slurred. I stood up and grabbed my purse. “I’m gonna go home.”

“You okay hon?” someone asked.

“Bye,” I said.

“Whoa, whoa, hey,” I heard.

“I’m okay,” I said and I started walking, consciously telling my legs to carry me.

I don’t remember getting in my car. I don’t remember driving home some 12 miles. I don’t remember getting out of my car or going into my mom’s house—where I was living alone—and I don’t remember going to bed.

——

Ring ring

Beep beep beep 

Tap tap tap

You’re dreaming, I tell myself in my dream.

Tap tap tap

I open my eyes.

Tap tap tap

I sit straight up in bed. The tapping is coming from—

Tap tap tap

—my bedroom window, right near my bed.

“Spants, it’s Dave. Can you let me in?”

I push my blinds aside and see a shadowed Dave, the moonlight bouncing off his glasses.

“What are you doing here? What time is it?” I ask.

“Just let me inside, and we can talk.”

I think about how weird it is that he’s here in the middle of the night, tapping on my window. We haven’t even had sex. Is this a weird booty call?

“Um…” I say, nervous, “Why? Why are—”

Ring ring, says the landline in the kitchen.

“What the hell?” I say, grabbing my cell phone from my nightstand and swinging my feet to the floor.

11:32 pm, eighteen missed calls.

Eighteen missed calls?

Ring ring

I get up, rush unsteadily to the kitchen, and grab the handset off the wall. “Hello?”

“Spants, it’s Heather. I’m on your front porch. Can you let me in?”

“Heather, what the hell is going on? Dave is in the backyard knocking on my window. It’s the middle of the night,” I say.

“We can talk if you open the door.”

“I just woke up.” I rub my eyes. “I had a bunch of missed calls on my cell phone and—”

“Spants, it’s okay. A few people have been trying to call you. They called me when they couldn’t reach you. Open the door and we’ll talk.”

“Is this some sort of prank? Because this is fucking weird,” I say.

“No. It’s not a prank. You’re my best friend and I love you.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Look, John was in an accident. He broke his leg and he’s at the hospital.”

“Oh.” I say. “I’ll come let you in.”

I walk to the front door, turning light switches on as I go: dining room, living room, porch. When I open the door, Heather is standing on the porch, wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt. Over her shoulder near the street I see Dave and Heather’s boyfriend Paul.

“Hi,” she says in her warm, Heather way, and steps past me. I close the door behind us.

“So what’s going on?” I ask.

“John was putting gas in his van and a car hit him. He’s at the hospital. His leg is broken. John’s friends have been trying to reach you and your mom for the last couple hours.”

“Shit.”

“I’m here to take you to the hospital to see him, and maybe to pick up your mom if we can’t get ahold of her. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I’ll get dressed.”

I walk to my bedroom, playing with the details Heather gave me. His friends know about the accident, so he wasn’t alone. It was while he was getting gas, so the driver probably wasn’t driving at a high speed. Broken leg.

——

Heather offers to drive my car while Dave and Paul followed behind in theirs. After a few minutes, I turn off the radio.

“You’re not telling me everything,” I say. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“It’s not good,” she says.

I look out the window. I have to ask.

“Is he dead?”

“No! No. I wouldn’t have been able to keep it together.”

“That’s a relief,” I say, sighing.

“But the accident was slightly different than I led you to believe,” she says.

“Okay…”

“He was putting gas in his van, and he did break his leg. But he was not at a gas station. He was on the side of the highway.”

“Oh my god,” I say. I pull my cell phone out of my purse and dial my Grandma’s house. I hear myself sob.

“He was on I-270. His friends Mike and Mike were with him. One of them was almost hit, too.”

“Was the driver drunk?”

“I don’t know,” she says.

I cry a little.

“You okay?”

“Thanks for telling me before we get there, and for getting me.”

“I didn’t want you to panic before I could get you in the car,” she says.

I laugh. “Heather, I can’t think of a more perfect way to handle this than how you did.”

“Thanks,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say. “I’m not sure I would’ve listened to Dave.”

I hit ‘Send’ on my phone. John and Mom have been staying at Grandma’s for years. Until a couple years ago, I lived there, too. The phone rings four times and goes to the answering machine. Hi, we can’t come to the phone right now… my recorded voice says to me. I hang up and call back. Same thing.

“No answer,” I say.

We drive in silence.

—-

When we pull up to the emergency room parking lot, there are roughly a dozen of John’s friends outside the door, milling about the ambulance bay. One of the Mikes walks up to me and gives me an uncomfortably long hug.

“He’s in surgery,” he says to my shoulder.

“Okay. How long?” I pat his arm and step back.

“An hour? Two? I don’t know. I called you a bunch and called Dave when I couldn’t reach you. I’ve been calling your mom, too. I got ahold of her a few minutes ago. She’s on her way.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“I’m so, so sorry,” he says. His face is all screwed up like he’s going to cry.

I squeeze his shoulder and walk toward the sliding doors.

The other Mike is walking around in a daze. A few people try to talk to me, but I hurry inside.

John’s mentor Tom is waiting at the desk.

“Spants, he just got out of surgery,” he says. “I’m waiting for the surgeon to come out.”

“Thanks,” I say. I don’t know Tom, not really. “My mom is almost here.”

“Is it okay if I sit in when the surgeon comes to talk to you guys?” he asks.

“Uh…” I don’t know how to answer this.

“Let’s just wait for your mom,” he says.

I walk back outside to wait. Everyone is smoking cigarettes. I quit in November, but damn I want a cigarette. I sit on the curb for a minute, but decide to go back inside.

Suddenly, I hear loud sobs. I turn around. Mike. He’s hugging my tiny mom and weeping. Her eyes are closed and she’s patting his back. I get up and walk over to her. I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Mom. We need to go inside. The surgeon will be out soon.”

“Okay, dolly,” she says, letting go of Mike and giving him a genuine look of sympathy. “Are you okay?” she says to me.

“Kind of. I don’t really know what’s going on. I was home asleep.”

“Me too,” she says. She holds my hand as we walk inside.

Tom is still waiting.

“Lynn,” he says, hugging my mom. When they let go he says, “The desk nurse said the surgeon will meet you in the consultation room in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” she says, starting to cry.

I cannot handle my mom crying, so I start to cry. Mom grabs my hand.

“Mom, Tom wants to be in the room when the surgeon talks to us.”

“Only if that’s okay with both of you,” says Tom.

“That’s fine,” says Mom.

They both look at me. I don’t really want Tom there. What if they come out and tell us that John is dead? But Tom really cares about John, so I nod.

The three of us head to the consultation room and sit at a small table. After a few minutes, there’s a knock on the door. A middle-aged woman wearing dark blue scrubs comes in.

“Hi,” she says. “I’m Dr. Carp. You’re John’s immediate family?”

“Family friend,” says Tom.

“We’re immediate family. He can be here,” says Mom. I set my jaw and prepare for the worst.

“So, as you know, John was hit by a truck.”

“A truck?” I ask.

“I believe so. He arrived here in critical condition because his spleen ruptured. We removed the spleen and stabilized him. He’s alive. Not out of the woods, but stable.”

We all breathe.

“What about his leg?” I ask.

“John suffered a broken right leg, a broken left arm, a severe nose injury. All of these were compound fractures with a lot of blood loss. He needed to be stitched up so I could get him stable. His nose… The skin of his nose was nearly ripped completely off his face. His, uh, his head went through the truck’s windshield. But I was able to clean it up and reattach the skin. He may want to have plastic surgery later. It’s not my finest cosmetic work, but again, my job is to keep him alive.”

“I presume he’s in the ICU?” asked Mom.

“He’s in recovery right now, but he will be sent to the ICU. He’s got lacerations on much of his body, some burns to his legs. Apparently the gas can exploded on him.”

Mom and I gasp. Tom winces.

“I’m very sorry this happened, but you should know John had some very good things working in his favor. First, his accident was not far from this hospital, and we run an excellent trauma center. The ambulance got to him in only a few minutes. And second, a good samaritan stopped and assisted John with his injuries.”

I start crying.

“He was a retired EMT. He applied tourniquets to help slow the bleeding. Probably saved his life. John was really quite lucky,” says the doctor. “All things considered, that is.”

“When can we see him?” I ask between sobs. Mom squeezes my hand.

“Once he’s set up in the ICU, they should let you see him. It might be an hour or two.”

We thank Dr. Carp and after she shakes our hands and wishes us luck, she leaves. After my mom and I cry and hug for a few moments, we all head outside.

John’s friends swarm us, asking us if he’s made it. I nod. Heather hurries over to me.

“How is he?” she asks. I let her usher me away from John’s friends and I relay to her all of Dr. Carp’s information.

“Do you want to give me your cell phone?” she says.

“Why?” I ask.

“Let me deal with people here and when they call. If it’s a family member, I’ll take a message and get it to you. Then you can just be with your mom.”

I hug her and thank her and go find my mom.

———

Mom and I talk and it’s decided that I’ll go wake up Grandma and tell her while Mom stays at the hospital and deals with John’s friends. I don’t want anything to do with them. Their neediness right now reminds me of the perpetual, clamoring hunger of the giant Koi at the Botanical Gardens.

I get my keys from Heather and make the short drive to Grandma’s. I let myself in and it’s dark. I turn on the lights and start gently calling for Grandma. I don’t want to alarm her, but obviously I need her to wake up. She doesn’t respond, so I go to the answering machine. There are new messages. I press play and listen.

“Lynn, it’s John’s friend Mike. I’ve been trying to reach you for about an hour and—”

“Hello?” says Mom.

“Lynn. I need to talk to you about John.”

“Okay,” says Mom.

“He was in a car accident and he’s at the hospital.”

“I see,” says Mom, her voice eerily calm.

“You should probably come up here.”

“Is Spants there?” she asks.

“Not yet. She’s on her way,” he says.

BEEEEEEP. The message stops.

“Lynn?” calls Grandma.

“Hi, Grandma,” I say.

“Honey, what are you doing here in the middle of the night?”

“Grandma, John was in a car accident. He’s at the hospital. Mom asked me to come get you.”

“Heavens to Betsy! Why didn’t she wake me up?” she asks, buttoning her housecoat.

“She probably didn’t want to worry you.”

“You okay, dollbaby?” she asks.

“Yes. But you need to get dressed now, Grandma,” I say.

“Okay,” she says, and she shuffles down the hallway, into the dark.

I sit in a big red velour arm chair and wait.

On the way to the hospital, I follow Heather’s playbook and break the news gently.

——-

When we get back to the hospital, John has been moved to the ICU. We have to figure out where to go. It’s mostly dark in the ICU waiting room, except for two floor lamps on either end of the couch where Mom is sitting. A few of John’s friends are inside, but most have gone home. Tom is there. Heather is there with Paul and Dave. No one is talking. I wish none of them were here.

I lead Grandma over to the couch to sit by Mom.

“Hi, dolly.” Mom says. She seems so peaceful. “They’re getting him ready for us to see him.”

“Okay,” I say. I sit down in an ugly, uncomfortable chair and try not to burst out of my skin.

Someone offers to get us sodas and snacks. No one is hungry. Someone else says they have to work in the morning, but to let him know how John is doing later in the day. He leaves. Eventually Paul leaves to get some sleep. I pull Dave aside and tell him he can go home, but he insists he’s staying in case I need him.

“Mom, what about Dad?” I ask.

“Do you want me to call him?” she asks.

“One of us should.”

“I’ll need his number from you,” she says.

I think about who he’d rather get this call from, and I decide it should be me.

“If you call, he’ll think one of us is dead as soon as he hears your voice.”

“You’re probably right. But I’ll call him if you want,” she says.

“No, this is better,” I say.

I get up, get my phone from Heather, and walk outside. There’s no one in the courtyard except me, in the middle of the night, getting ready to call my dad. I’ve never called my dad in the middle of the night. I rarely call him at all. I pace the sidewalk as I make the call.

The answering machine picks up.

“Dad, it’s Spants. Uh, when you get this, please call me. It’s urgent.”

BEEEEEP

“Honey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Yes. But John was in a bad car accident.”

“How bad? Is he alive?”

“Yes,” I say, and I tell him the limited details that I have.

“Sweet Jesus. Okay. I’ll book a flight for today. Maybe tomorrow.”

Right, take your time! I think.

“I’ll have to fly your step-mom’s sister in to watch the boys. I’ll call you back in a few hours, but my plan is to fly there today.”

“Okay, Dad.”

“Phew! I thought the worst when I heard your voice.”

“I know.”

“I love you, sugar. Hang in there.”

“Love you, too, Dad.”

I hang up, sit on a bench, and cry.

——

When I get back inside, my mom’s sister E, a retired registered nurse, is there. She’s pontificating on medical matters. I didn’t even know my mom called her.

Heather and Dave have gotten me a bottle of water and a bag of Famous Amos cookies, which I greedily devour. I didn’t even know I was hungry.

Mostly, we all sit in silence. After a while, a nurse comes into the waiting room.

“John’s family? Three of you can come back at once,” she says.

Mom, Grandma, and I stand up and follow the nurse into the hallway.

“He’s under a cooling blanket, so you won’t be able to see his body,” she says. “He’s hooked up to monitors, so there are a lot of wires and sounds. He’s also got a breathing tube right now. If all goes well, it might come out later today.”

“Will he be able to hear us?” Mom asks.

“Possibly, so try to keep your comments positive. Don’t get agitated or loud,” the nurse says. “He’s heavily sedated—in an induced coma—to keep him from moving and thrashing. He thrashed quite a bit in recovery.”

“Okay,” Mom says.

“Please be very quiet,” says the nurse, and we follow her through the dim hallways.

We come to a corner room. It’s all windows on two sides, but there are blackout drapes and I can see the light creep underneath them. The nurse opens the door and we follow her in.

The cooling blanket sounds like a fan. Machines beep and whir and click. John’s face is swollen, probably three times larger than when I saw him earlier. A haphazard criss cross of cuts cover his face. His nose is heavily stitched up one side, across the bridge, and down the other. His chin has a bloody, stitched gash. His eyelids are so stretched and puffy that there’s only a whisper of dark eyelashes visible between them.

Mom and Grandma approach his bed.

I’m gonna puke, I think.

I run out of the room, down the hallway to the women’s restroom, bang through the door, and vomit in the sink. I cry. I dry heave. I cry. I run the water and clean the sink. I sit on the floor.

Aunt E comes in.

“You okay?” she asks.

“His face,” I cry. “It looks like someone tortured him with a razor. He’s so swollen.”

“Trauma patients usually don’t look like themselves.”

“I didn’t know,” I say. “I wasn’t prepared.”

“The nurses should’ve warned you. I wish I would’ve thought to.” She hands me some toilet paper so I can blow my nose, and then dampens a paper towel for my face.

“He’ll get better. He’ll look better soon,” she says. “Not very soon. But soon.”

I nod and close my eyes and breathe slowly.

“Do you want to go back in?” she asks.

“Okay,” I say. I stand up, we hug, and I walk back to the ICU.

———————-

The facts of the accident were revealed through disparate sources, including the police report, and are as follows:

John ran out of gas on I-270. He left his hazard lights on and walked back to my Grandma’s house. While there, he called his friend Mike and asked him to meet at a nearby gas station. Then he walked to the gas station. Walking down Grandma’s driveway is the last memory John has from that night.

Mike and Mike met John at the gas station where John had already bought and filled a gas can. Mike drove John to his van, which was on the shoulder of I-270. Mike parked his car behind John’s van and turned his hazards on.

Mike the passenger stayed in the car. Mike the driver got out and stood lookout while John put gas in the tank. A 16 year old boy driving his dad’s Yukon veered out of his lane. Mike jumped out of the way just before getting hit. John never saw it coming.

The Yukon pinned John against the van. We know this because there were almost no scrapes on the van, but it was heavily dented in along the length of the van. After his arm or chest took out the side mirror, John got flipped up onto the hood of the Yukon. His face went through the windshield. Then he was launched 20-30 feet away from the Yukon where he landed in the brush along the highway. The gas can—which was on fire—was launched over 50 feet. John’s shoes flew off. One of them was never found.

The fire started while John was holding the can, so John caught on fire, too. Mike and Mike ran over to John and not only was he conscious, but he was trying to stand up. They managed to put out John’s fire, and kept him from standing up. He kept telling them, “I just need to blow my nose. Please. Please. Help me blow my nose.”

The retired EMT saw the accident or the fire or something and stopped to help. He had clean shirts in his car which he used to tie off the wounds on John’s arm and leg, and held a cloth to John’s nose. His actions slowed the bleeding and helped calm John, who was clearly in shock.

I still have no idea who called 911.

The ambulance got to John about 5 minutes after the accident.

The approximate time of the accident? About 9:30 pm.

—-

Three or four years later, I was watching the noon news before going to work. There had been a high-speed, head-on collision on a bridge. The driver and his passenger—who was the driver’s best friend—were ejected from the car. One landed on the bridge, and one landed in the river. Neither was wearing a seatbelt, and both died.

The driver who died was the boy who nearly killed my brother. He’d been driving over 90 miles an hour. Remarkably, the truck driver they hit head-on suffered no injury.

—-

My brother survived getting hit by a Yukon traveling at least 60 mph. He survived a severe concussion, several open wounds, a ruptured spleen—which surely would’ve killed him had his accident been much further away from the hospital—a staph infection, and many, many surgeries. After he woke up and was moved out of the ICU, his eyes were crossed from his head trauma. He had to have rods and pins and skin grafts and a custom arm brace. There was talk that he might lose part of his leg or part of his arm, but in the end, everything slowly got better.

He turned 19 while in the hospital, and when he woke up that day, his eyes had straightened themselves in his sleep and his double vision was gone. His first trip outside again was a beautiful thing to witness. He wept at the fresh air and the sound of birds. He had to have physical and occupational therapy, hating every second of it and earning quite a potty-mouth reputation among the nurses. He had to learn how to use a walker with one bad leg and one bad arm before he could go home. He was in the hospital for exactly one month.

—-

When John had been home about a week, a friend who’d recently moved away came back into town to visit. I stuck around and visited with him, mostly so I could help John if he needed anything. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard his friend say, “When I heard about your accident—that you’d run out of gas again—I couldn’t believe it.”

“What do you mean?” John asked.

“Maybe a week before your accident, you called me and said you’d run out of gas,” the friend said.

“Really?” John asked.

“I picked you up! Don’t you remember?”

John stared off into space.

“I took you to the gas station? Your van was at the pool hall?” the friend said.

“Oh yeah!” said John, and they both started laughing.

“You did what?” I shouted.

“Spants, calm down,” said John.

“What kind of idiot runs out of gas twice in a week? And you think this is funny?”

“It’s not my fault I got hit by a car!” he yelled.

Even though it was pointless and cruel of me, I resented him for this for longer than I’d like to admit.

—-

WHATEVER ELSE, NEVER RUN OUT OF GAS is basically our family motto now.

—-

John spent time in a wheelchair, time with a walker, a long time on crutches. His leg wouldn’t heal until he had a bone marrow graft over a year after the accident. They took the graft from his hip. When he came home from that surgery, his best friend and I made him laugh so hard he nearly cried from the pain. “Fuck you guys!” he laughed. I was never so happy to have him mad at me.

—-

Tiny bits of gravel have surfaced over the years. Many years later, he had a minor procedure to remove a shard of windshield glass that had begun to surface in his forearm. It pressed up through his grafted skin and glinted in the light.

—-

Most of John’s facial scars have faded to near invisibility. You’d probably have to really study his face to see them. His arm and leg are different. His ankle isn’t right, but he is reluctant to have any more surgeries, ever, and I can’t blame him for that. The accident that could’ve—and probably should’ve—killed him mostly doesn’t keep him from leading a normal life. It’s stunning.

Still, there was a toll on everyone. For the first time in a few years, we all lived together under one roof. It was chaotic. My mom’s anxiety skyrocketed. John had mood swings. He had some really bad days. I felt a complete lack of privacy and near total frustration at being stuck living with them again. John took himself off Paxil without telling anyone and was absolutely miserable to be around until he told us what he did. During his withdrawal, he frequently contemplated suicide. He became pretty obsessed with money, among other personality and value shifts, and our relationship suffered for it. It took a long time for me to get used to the new John, and to accept that the boy I knew was never coming back. It was made harder by the fact that he didn’t think he’d changed. We’re not as close as we were then, and we’ve had our share of difficulties as adults. But that’s okay.

John’s memory is atrocious. He will text me a picture from out of town and I’m like “When did you go out of town?” and he’s like “Remember? I called you and told you we were leaving?” and I’m like “Nope. That definitely didn’t happen.” and he’s like “Are you sure? I coulda sworn…” And I’m like “I’m sure.” and he’s like “Oops.” I have no idea how his wife manages that aspect of their marriage.

He insists I call him on the anniversary of his accident to tell him I’m glad he’s alive. I am very, very glad he’s alive, but I would rather tell him that organically. And I do tell him that when I think about it, but the accident is something I think of less often as time goes on.

I don’t see that as a bad thing.

—-

Addendum:

  • The kid who nearly killed my brother went to high school with one of my Starbucks coworkers. Because of course. It’s St. Louis.
  • While John was recovering, he watched pretty much every movie at the nearby Blockbuster. This is why I’ve seen bits and pieces of so many movies.
  • I told Dave that I didn’t really have time for a relationship, and he became very interested in a serious relationship. Instead of getting serious, I should’ve broken it off. Do not attempt a relationship when you are involved in a family crisis. Trust me.
  • I had loose plans to study abroad in England the following semester, but I chose to stay home and help with John. I regret this and wish I would’ve been more selfish.
  • The week John was in the ICU, Josh would hang out in the waiting room with my mom late at night. Josh and John had recently become buddies. Though I knew Josh from long before, I definitely saw him in a different light afterward.
  • My Dad flew up the next evening. (He hates flying.) After I took him to see John, he cried and hugged me for a long time. He actually picked me up and spun around with me in the hospital parking lot. It was the only moment in my life that I believed and felt he loved me.
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