In early December in Snowstorm Region, car accidents happen pretty often. The beginning of winter creates black ice on roads that haven't yet been heavily salted. You can't see black ice, especially at night. It happens to every driver sooner or later: you hit a patch of ice, and your car spins out of control. It's a frightening, helpless feeling because there is nothing you can do once the car starts spinning. It's scariest when you have passengers in the car and can do nothing to protect them.
It's been fifteen years, exactly fifteen years today, since the car accident that changed my life, but I can remember the details vividly. It began as a lovely winter night, full of anticipation. My sister-in-law was in labor, and we were driving to the hospital so she could give birth. She and my brother had not been married very long, but she had four kids from a previous marriage, and she had asked me to come along to be a support person for the four kids. We were all excited to watch the baby being born. It was late at night and just beginning to snow as we left their driveway in two vehicles, and we all thought that was a good omen: the first snow of the year is special snow.
Things were fine until we were on the highway. Then my brother, just ahead of me, hit a patch of black ice and his van went into the median, sliding to a stop in the snow. He and his wife, who was in active labor, got into my station wagon along with the four kids. We didn’t have enough seatbelts for everyone, but we crammed everyone in. We came to the next bridge, and then my car hit another patch of black ice. The car spun out of control and crashed into the guard rail.
It was a nightmare. My niece, sitting behind me, was screaming so loud that I thought her legs had been cut off. My sister-in-law, in the seat next to me, was silent. The horn kept blaring. I’d broken something in the steering column when my face smashed against the steering wheel. Cars zoomed by us as I gathered the children, pulling them away from the dangerous traffic, checking them to see if they were okay. My brother yanked my sister-in-law from the front seat, and a passing car took them on to the hospital.
When the ambulance arrived, I was angry at the driver because he barely glanced at the children, who were standing around me in a circle, and instead focused on me. He kept telling me that the only way he would transport me to the hospital would be if I let him strap me to a board. I kept trying to explain to him that I was supposed to be taking care of the children. "I’m fine," I kept saying, "I didn’t get hurt."
He put his hands to my face and then pulled them away. He held them out to show me that they were filled with blood.
It was a long night in the hospital, all of us huddled in the emergency room, the kids dazed but okay, me bleeding profusely all over everything, leaving bloodstains on the kids when I hugged them, and trailing drops of blood when I would make the trek up to the other floor where my sister-in-law was laboring, with packs of ice on her injuries. My right hand was broken but I didn't know it yet because I had refused X-rays, and I was still in some kind of shock that made everything seem unreal.
When morning came, my niece, Drama Niece, was born, healthy and beautiful.
The injuries healed over the next few months. Well, at least the physical ones did. The only physical reminder I have from that night is the throbbing I get in my right hand just before it rains. But that night somehow stirred up a stew of emotional issues for my sister-in-law and brother, leading to all kinds of crazy behavior: a lawsuit, angry words, and eight years of silence from both her and my brother. My right hand healed after six weeks in a cast; the emotional healing from the pain that began that night took considerable longer.
Every year, I dread this anniversary. It's a scab that gets ripped off, smaller each year but still present. I have to remind myself that the car accident is in the past: the children with me that night have grown to adulthood, the lawsuit settled out of court because they had no case, my sister-in-law died of breast cancer a few years ago, and my brother, after his wife's funeral, began speaking to the family again.
Over the last year, I've come to see the role thanksgiving plays in healing. As some of my readers know, I have been participating in a year-long dialogue between native and white people in this area. During the year of discussions, lectures, performances, and talking circles, one of the things that has impressed me the most is the way that the native elders, the People of the Longhouse, have kept stressing this need for thanksgiving. The words that come before all else.
So this year on this anniversary, I am going to try to be thankful. Not for the car accident that happened fifteen years ago, but for all the people in my life who helped me deal with everything that happened after that. That painful period of my life led to all kinds of awareness and realizations: I learned to take better care of myself, I began dealing with emotional issues I had avoided, I began to understand the need to confide in close friends. I began writing poetry as a way to heal. I learned reiki. I grew up.
Yes, it still seems unfair that I hit black ice that night. I don't believe in the stupid cliche that "things happen for a reason." I think sometimes weather patterns leave black ice on the highway, and the average station wagon is not designed to deal with it.
But growth and richness can come from painful situations, and I have come to think that one role pain can play in our lives is to emphasize the ways in which humans need each other. I have shared the painful details of that period with close friends, and my pain has deepened those friendships. The car accident was a catalyst that led to growth, to healing. I am thankful for patient friends and a supportive husband who helped me deal with the emotional chaos that began on a dark highway fifteen years ago.