30 June 2010. Seven years ago today.
I had just gotten my driver's license a month and a half earlier. My parents had graciously bought me a (used) car, and on the 30th, my sister and I were on our way to our friends' house.
To get to their house, we had to make a left turn onto a bi-directional secondary highway. We had the stop sign, so I stopped. We were in prairie Alberta -- the land is flat and fairly clear as far as the eye can see. We were about a five-minute drive from the nearest town, and you can almost see that town from that intersection.
I was still a fairly cautious new driver, so I looked both ways twice. It had just been raining. My sister had been keeping the passenger window clear of fog with her sleeve so I could see out her window just fine, but I had to actually open my window to see down the road. Seeing no one in either direction, I began to make my turn.
Then I saw headlights coming from the opposite direction.
At first I wasn't too concerned. If I was quick enough I could continue into my lane and the truck would pass by me. I would be cutting it much closer than I would have liked, but it was doable...
As I pressed the accelerator to complete the turn more quickly, I suddenly realised that the truck was on the wrong side of the centre line. If I continued into the lane, I would hit it head on.
Something from the driving manual flashed through my head: If you must hit something and the ditch or something stationary isn't an option, try to hit something going the same direction as you are rather than head-on. I wrenched the wheel to the right, hoping I was still far enough back from the truck's path to get away with a sideswipe going the same direction. I kept my foot on the gas to accelerate my attempt to swing around. There was a flash of red in my windshield... a tremendous whoosh... the car whipped around...
We stopped moving. Without thinking, I told my sister to get out of the car and I turned to do the same. My lungs were burning. There was something in between me and the door. I pulled at it blindly, trying to get at the door handle. As I did so I realised my obstacle was the air bag.
I knew from an accident my mother had been in years before that the air bag meant the car was totalled.
Finally I managed to get out. I didn't have the heart to even look back at the car as I ran to the side of the road where some of the witnesses were beckoning. A few seconds later I realised I had left my cell phone and ran back to the car to get it.
The car was filled with smoke and dust, but somehow I knew it wasn't on fire. I dug around between the front seats looking for the phone before finally finding it on the floor on the passenger side. The dust was irritating my eyes and it was getting harder and harder to breathe... The dust was like chalk -- thick and dry, but sticky when breathed in. After a failed attempt at getting the key out of the ignition, I merely grabbed my water bottle and went back to the side of the road.
I began to dial my dad's number, but one of the witnesses saw me with a phone in my hand and told me to call 9-1-1. I initially refused: "I have to call my dad." The witness insisted that I call 9-1-1 first. Lacking the presence of mind to formulate an argument, I punched in 9-1-1 and then handed my phone to the witness -- I had no earthly idea what I would say to the operator. From the moment I had realised that the air bag had gone off, every conscious thought had disappeared from my mind. I saw things and heard things and I reacted to them and remember them clearly even now, seven years later, but I could not formulate my own thoughts. And I was aware of that. It was one of the strangest experiences I've ever had. I remember trying to get myself to think a conscious thought, but I couldn't. Even the idea of calling my dad was coming from some internal unconscious autopilot.
I borrowed a phone from a bystander and dictated my dad's cell number to her. Years of hearing my mother quote it to customers over the phone had internalised it to such a point that even in a state of shock I could rattle it off. The witness sent the call and handed the phone to me.
He picked up, but there was a long pause before he spoke. Somewhere in my subconscious I realised that he wouldn't recognise this number on his caller ID. "Dad, it's Kate," I said as quickly as possible to prevent him hanging up. "I've been in an accident."
There was a reason I called my dad. My mother would have absolutely lost her mind -- she had just filled the car up with gas the previous night. She would have lectured me about the money I'd just wasted by totalling the car -- not to mention the inevitable increase in insurance costs.
My dad, however, is a little more able to focus on important things in an emergency. "Where are you?" he asked.
...And I couldn't remember.
I still remember sitting on the passenger seat in the witnesses' car (she had insisted my sister and I sit because we were both clearly rattled), staring straight at the highway sign, knowing it contained the information I needed, but not able to read the numbers. I struggled in vain to translate the shapes on the sign into words that my dad would be able to understand.
Finally I said, "The turn Mom told me to take." I hadn't wanted to say it like that -- it would only awaken even more of her ire because then she would think I was blaming her for this and she's HIGHLY sensitive about being blamed for anything -- but it was all I could come up with that he would understand.
"I'll be there in ten minutes," he said, and hung up. I handed the phone back to the witness and told my sister he was coming. She was freaking completely out and it was all that the witness could do to keep her seated and wait for the police. Meanwhile, the dust I'd inhaled from the air bag was beginning to burn in the back of my throat and my lungs began to feel sticky inside. I was coughing more and more in a vain effort to try and clear it, and no amount of water would take the burning away. (To this day, I suffer from a chronic cough and breathing issues.)
At some point, somebody had pushed my car to the side of the road not far from where I sat in the witness' car. It was the first proper look I'd gotten of it and I gasped.
When you draw a car, you draw the hood, then go up a bit for the cab, then down a bit for the trunk. Now imagine erasing the entire hood, or imagine cutting off the hood of the car in line with the windshield. That was what I saw. The entire front of my car was gone.
"Where's the engine?" I asked the witness.
"It's in pieces in the intersection," she said.
I half-stood and looked over the roof of the witness' car. I expected to see semi-recognisable car parts -- you know, part of a fluid tank here, hoses there, maybe jagged chunks of plastic or a few gears.
Instead, I saw shards.
Millions of shards, like shattered glass, catching the light and throwing it across the damp pavement. That was all that was left of the engine.
My dad and the police arrived around the same time. The ambulance arrived shortly afterward and checked the occupants of the truck (there had been a baby in the truck, who was the higher priority) (the baby survived -- actually they all did), then came over to my sister and me. My sister outright refused to let the paramedics check her, but my breathing was so laboured by now that I insisted they check me. I felt like I was suffocating.
They took me to the ambulance and began checking me all over: "Does this hurt?" they asked, pressing on various parts of my body. Nothing did, until they got to my throat.
"Does this hurt?" the paramedic asked, touching his fingertips lightly on my throat. It was the lightest of brushes, but with my breathing restricted already, he may as well have closed his fist around my windpipe. I recoiled instinctively, with a gasp for good measure as I tried to keep breathing.
Without another word they had me lie down and strapped me down on a back board.
"Are you taking me to the hospital?" I asked.
"Yes, for x-rays."
"Can you tell my dad where I'm going?" I asked.
"Sure." They swung the ambulance around and opened the back door. I heard them talking...
"Do you want to talk to him?" one of the paramedics called to me.
"I just want him to know where I'll be," I said.
They drove me to the hospital, no sirens, asking me questions the whole way. Name, address, date of birth, contact information, next-of-kin... then at the end of all this, they asked me what province I was in and what year it was, to establish that everything they'd just spent ten minutes taking detailed notes on had a reasonable chance of being accurate.
They took me to the hospital, but the x-ray room was in use, so they wheeled me into a room in the emergency department and left me there for the better part of two hours, with oxygen because I had been complaining this entire time that I couldn't breathe (though their instruments showed I was at 98% saturation). Strapped to a back board, completely immoblised, with the events of the previous half-hour playing on an infinite loop through my head, I had no choice but to consider what might have been -- what I'd just escaped. My dad and sister arrived and talked quietly with each other as they waited. My sister was still freaking out and my dad and the nursing staff were both trying to assure her that I was not actually dying, that these x-rays were only a precaution.
I, meanwhile, was being shocked by the brevity and frailty of my own life. Even as I lay immobile on a hospital bed, feeling whiplash set into my neck muscles, I was acutely aware that I had been given a second chance. Every second I was experiencing now was a bonus second -- one that I may not have had. I pictured what it would have been like if I had died: seeing the truck's headlights and maybe the flash of red -- and then immediately seeing the 'lights of Glory.' I realised, suddenly, that I was not done on earth. I still had a purpose to fulfil here. And there on a hospital bed, staring at the pocked ceiling because I had no other choice, I vowed I would find that purpose and pursue it with every ounce of drive I possessed. Time was short, and a long life was not guaranteed.
They took x-rays of my neck, then, as there were no fractures, let me go. My dad actually dropped us off at our friends' house anyway. Life continued. I was sore and stiff and coughing violently nearly 24/7, but otherwise it was as if nothing had happened.
Several days -- perhaps a week -- later, my parents and I went to the impound lot to look at the car and retrieve the cassettes from it (because priorities). With a few days distance from the event and now able to think in clear sentences again, I was still shocked at the state of it. One detail that particularly caught my attention was the driver's side -- the side of the initial impact.
One of the witnesses had told my dad after I had left in the ambulance that day, "At the last second, she tried to swing the other way -- that probably saved her."
This was borne out by the car itself. There were five inches between the sheared-off edge of where the front of the car had been and the hinge of the driver's door, and gradually more of the car remained the further one looked toward the passenger side. I remember thinking, my legs would have been in that space -- the space that had been torn open by the truck. Yet my legs were preserved. It was not lost on me that I might never have walked again, yet here I was, still able to walk and dance as if nothing had happened.
For a long time that catalysed my fire to keep dancing. To me it was a sign that dance was still in my future. If God had wanted me to stop dancing, He would likely have taken my legs away right there -- if not my life. But I had remained. There was still something more for me. And I determined to devote my life to finding what it was and doing it.