On June 13, 2013, I collided head-on with a pick-up truck.
In the midst of making a right turn, I noticed a traffic sign, and hoping that it didn’t say, “No turn on red,” looked back to read it. I was relieved that it said, “Do not block intersection.” But when I turned my attention to the road in front of me, all I saw were the grill and front headlights of a black vehicle. And before I could process anything further, my airbags deployed, leaving a “pppssshhhh” sound and an awful smell in their wake. My arms and my face burned, and I immediately checked the rear-view mirror to see if I had been maimed.
I actually don’t remember many more of the details, like the face of the truck driver or the act of calling 911. But I remember disbelief, quietness, loneliness, and strength. I remember shock and strange, eerie silence in the immediate aftermath of the collision. I remember realizing that I would have to deal with the repercussions on my own. I remember that when my door would not open, I thought, “I am not going to be cut out of this car,” and pushed hard enough to squeeze out of the vehicle. I remember being attended to in the back of an ambulance and asking if the police officers had found my insurance information, if a tow truck had been called, if the other driver and his young daughter were still okay. That’s just every bit of who I am: I give everything I have to what I have a say in, what I can control or change, regardless of the circumstances.
Unfortunately, in order to do that, I must think—a lot and through every scenario I can imagine. And for a long time, I thought of that day as a personal failure; unlike other challenges I had faced and overcome, this was a hardship I had created. I needed to analyze and make sense of the trauma, to give it a proper, meaningful place in the trajectory of my life as a perfectionist. In the process, I utilized my full cognitive ability to question critically: Did looking left cause me to drift into the other lane? Did I subconsciously think I was farther ahead in the road and, therefore, enter the turn lane too soon? Had I started to make the turn too wide to begin with? My meeting was originally scheduled for the day before. What if it had not been rescheduled? I had awoken to a terrible storm during the early-morning hours and thought “I really don’t want to drive in this today.” What if I had cancelled the meeting? As I was getting ready that morning, I knocked over my face toner, which had arrived in the mail the previous day. What if the toner had not arrived, and I, therefore, would not have been 6 minutes late for my meeting? Perhaps then I would have left the coffee shop six minutes earlier; and any number of circumstances can change in six minutes. Likewise, what if I had just not spilled the toner? When I left my meeting, I sat in the car for a moment, checking my makeup. How would the traffic have been different if I had not done that? When I started to back out of the parking space, I thought, “Maybe I should go left instead of right.” What if I had gone left? What if another car had been in front of me when I stopped at the red light? I probably would not have questioned my right turn on red and, therefore, not turned to double check the traffic sign. What if I had just ignored the sign? What if the light had just been green when I got to it? What if there had been no vehicle in the lane I accidentally entered? What if someone—anyone—had honked their horn at me when they saw I was headed for danger?
At night, with all these questions in mind, I relived that quiet gray moment in the car after the crash. At the time, I wanted out of the car so badly, to assess and take control of the situation. But looking back, it was the only time after the crash that I had experienced stillness. For months afterward, I fought anxiety attacks; and when I remembered the words of my grandmother, “This too shall pass,” I wondered, “but into what?”
Six years later, I have recovered to the point that I no longer realize the anniversary of the accident or have nightmares about it. But I have not recovered to the point that, with the possibility of having a child in the near future, I don’t get anxiety over the thought of my baby being in a car. I purchased another vehicle and drove for about a year after the accident, though not without apprehension. Eventually, however, circumstances caused me to give up my vehicle, and I have not purchased one since. While I miss the independence that driving afforded me, I am relieved to be shielded from my fears.
All these years later, the accident is the one misfortune to which I just can’t seem to subscribe purpose. Despite its tragic effect on me, it remains somehow meaningless. Some would say that the answers to my questions, and therefore, the purpose of the incident, exist, even if they will remain unknown. In fact, we spend a lot of time and effort encouraging people to find and create and accept ‘the meaning’ behind their misfortunes. And perhaps, just like my collision, meaning will come on a random, rainy Thursday morning, on the way to the library, planning my dinner of a Subway BLT salad with fat-free ranch dressing, when I cannot fathom that it is about to meet me head-on. Or maybe not. Maybe things just sometimes happen to us, and life is not always a text to be explicated. That notion is frustrating, and terrifying, but also liberating and soothing. Because we still end up okay. We give everything we have to what we have a say in, what we might be able to control or change, and we let the rest go. Maybe sometimes the way we persevere, take a step toward personal growth and emotional healing, come to terms with our misfortunes, and get back in the car is to strip the circumstance—whatever it is—of its meaning. Maybe sometimes the ‘secret to life’ is in choosing to not concoct or solve a mystery, to not give credit to circumstances as tests or as omens, and instead to give meaning by denying meaning.