The warm and sunny February day was not to be denied. I left my computer and my phone and went for a walk today. I usually choose the rural direction from my house, quiet roads with no one to see me, but today I decided to walk toward the human race. I’ve driven Searsburg Road up from town a thousand times, heading to and from home, but realized I had never actually walked it.
One particular spot stopped me cold, I had stood there before. I was next to a low flat trailer home on the edge of a rise, I turned to take a picture of it. I didn’t notice a man standing on the porch until he spoke in that slightly defensive tone you reserve for strangers staring at your house.
“Can I help you?”
“I had an accident here a few years ago.”
I had always meant to knock on their door and explain the tire tracks in the snow that went right up to his front wall, so this was a small but welcome closure. I briefly recounted the accident, one where no one was seriously hurt and how it nearly ended with my Prius in his living room.
“Oh, yeah, I remember, geez we only left the house for a little while and when we came back we were like, what happened here?”
We laughed and shook hands. His name was Nick. “Now if you ever do find a car in your living room, you’ll know what happened.”
What happened was that as I was driving home on a very cold fifteen-degree day in January five years ago, black ice on the clear pavement and a wheel grabbing mealy slush on the shoulder, I saw the car in front of me, about a hundred yards away, suddenly swerve to miss an oncoming vehicle that had crossed into his lane. This Subaru station wagon now headed for me and began to fish-tail as the driver woke up and over-corrected.
As the car got closer, I could see that the driver was a woman, and alone. I watched her swerve back and forth across the road and my options dwindled quickly. A Prius is little more than a glorified golf cart, they don’t GO when they need to go and they do not STOP worth a god damn. There was no way I could slow down enough to lessen injury, if I braked too hard I’d spin myself. Our closing speed was about 80 mph. I tried to time my passage by her, between the swerves, but she fish-tailed with her driver’s side broadside right across my lane. Nowhere to go.
There were trees and a telephone pole off a four-foot embankment to my right—no escape there it seemed. To pull into the snowbank would clearly pull both wheels into the ditch and I would end up sideways headed straight into a large tree that would take the top of my car off, and my head along with it.
The only reasonable option was to hit the car. Cars crumple, airbags go off, this would easily be survivable and I might even walk away unhurt. I resolved to hit right behind her driver’s door square on her passenger door—the soft spot, don’t hit the wheels, don’t hit the driver. I had just totaled another Prius the year before, because, guess what, the brakes failed.
“Goddammit, I don’t want to total another God damn Prius! This idea makes sense, but it just feels wrong. I WILL NOT DO THIS.”
I glanced to my right and saw the last fleeting chance at a trajectory that MIGHT take me between the trees and the pole. It’s not an easy sell when your brain tries to tell your body, one that spent a lifetime learning to keep the car ON the road, to suddenly fly your car off an embankment and into the midst of big scary trees. In the fraction of a second left of my fleeting window of opportunity, my thoughts returned to hitting the Subaru’s passenger door.
( “GARY. DO. NOT. HIT. THAT. CAR!” )
Still going 45 mph, I yanked the wheel just past the passing bark of the last tree and aimed for the right side of the distant telephone pole, then felt the wheels leave the ground. There was a lot of snow, and I honestly thought it would cushion the fall. It did not. I lost both bumpers on my little sleigh ride and missed the pole by less than six inches. Next, I realized that there was no way my Prius was going to stop before going into the house. In the spirit of “I really don’t give a fuck anymore,” I turn the car sideways intending to stop like a downhill skier after the finish line. It actually worked. A Prius will stop…sideways.
The car still ran, and I walked away although my back was pretty messed up. The young woman, barely past twenty, was in a ditch by now on the other side of the road. I approached and asked if she was okay as she got out.
“Yeah, I’m fine… I was working late last night and I… I was so tired I…”
“Don’t worry about it (YOUR insurance will pay for everything) as long as you are okay, you need to sit down?”
“I’m okay, I just don’t know what’s supposed to happen now… my dad will be…”
“Don’t sweat it, I’ll call 911, they’ll send a police car, they’ll write up an accident report, you call your dad, he’ll call the insurance company, it will all be okay. They’ll fix your car, everything will be fine, okay?”
I peered through her dirty windows into her station wagon. I could see that one half of her back seat was down and could make out that there was junk all over.
“Hey, it could be worse, ” I said. “You could have a kid in the back there.”
“Oh, I think he’s alright. Just got jostled around a bit.”
She opened the rear driver’s side door, the one I was about to hit, and there was a seven-month-old little boy in a car seat right behind the driver’s seat. Right in the “sweet spot.”
“…umm… Let’s get him out of there and out of this cold.”
It was cold, but only then did I go numb. Neighbors came out to let her stay in their house to wait. I stayed out and directed traffic around her car which was partly in the road and just over a blind rise.
I can tell you, as sure as I am writing this, that I would have killed that baby, had I decided to hit the car rather than taking the harder choice.
Do you know how people who experience tragedies sometimes spend a lifetime asking themselves “Why did I do this”, “Why didn’t I do that?” They torture themselves with “what ifs” because they know that one tiny decision could have changed the course of their life or that of someone else. I know that this outcome was a happy one, but those what ifs still make my blood run cold, even five years later.
I never told the girl just how close she came to losing her child, or spending the rest of her life hating and questioning herself (or how close I came to it). I spared her that.
It makes me think, though, how easily we forget how incredibly powerful we are; how with every passing instant we can change the course of our destinies. I think about this most in relationships, especially these days, of how if our choices are not genuine and right, or if they are made out of panic and fear instead of love and compassion, how they can injure the lives of those around us, and perhaps rob us of our own best destiny.
Have you ever noticed that the decisions that are hardest, so often turn out to be the right ones?
Do we speak up or hide our feelings? Do we answer or remain silent? Do we stay or do we walk away? One quick turn of the wheel and our lives diverge forever. Or is there a way to circle around again? I’d like to think there is, but I am also a dreamer.
I’m glad I met Nick today, I’m glad I chose to walk toward people instead of away, I’m glad I solved his mystery, and I’m glad for my small closure. I’m glad I turned the wheel on that very cold day.
I can’t explain how connected I feel to that little boy, I think about him a lot. He would be as old now as my daughter is in this photo.
I would like to meet him someday.
Just to see how he’s doing.