As much as I talk about myself, I know I don’t always often tell people much about my past. I don’t usually get down to the nitty-gritty especially when it’s a sensitive topic. I think I feel especially sensitive about a lot of my past. So today’s post may be a bit unusual, but I’m drawn to write it out anyway.
Today marks the 19-year anniversary of a car accident that claimed the lives of my parents. I was 17, nearly 18, so this particular anniversary means more of my life has now been lived without my parents, than with them.
Here is the story of that day:
We were visiting University of North Carolina, Greensboro. (I had applied based in part on an areal view of the campus- all that green drew me in.) I’d been accepted and offered an academic scholarship, so we were going through the motions of making the final decision. But it had really been made, because without a scholarship, I knew we couldn’t afford college.
We had toured the campus with our separate groups (kids with kids, parents with parents) and then run into each other in the quad- when each of us were supposed to be listening to some lecture inside and instead decided to duck out and explore. This apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, I guess. We wandered around together, and all knew it was the right place. We went out to dinner to celebrate.
On the way back from dinner, after getting off the interstate, my dad made a wrong turn at a confusing intersection. He incorrectly turned across another lane exiting from the highway. Our car was broadsided by the rig of a tractor-trailer. I remember seeing the headlights and then waking up with a blooming Forsythia coming in my window. The car had been catapulted across the road and down an embankment.
When emergency personnel arrived, they asked me to wiggle my fingers and toes. Neither of my parents were conscious. My mother died in the car. I remember the EMT checking her pulse and speaking with someone outside the car, saying she had died. I don’t think they were going to tell me. I started to scream and cry. It just couldn’t be happening! How could this be happening? (I still wonder sometimes.)
My dad and I were transported to a local hospital. He died within a couple of hours. I was badly injured but was able to give the emergency phone number that had been drilled into me since I was a little kid (our neighbors, who were also my parents best friends.) My brother and sister were at home in Pennsylvania. Someone had to tell them what had happened. My sister was 19, my brother 22.
It took a long time to really absorb that they had died. I was in denial for a long time, a really long time- with occasional breakdowns in between. I made it look like I was moving on. Appearances were very important to me back then. Everyone else’s life went on and I felt like mine had been irreparably broken. After 6 months people stopped asking how I was- so I figured I was supposed to be ok by then. I didn’t want people to know I wasn’t ok. I didn’t want them to think there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t better yet. And I wasn’t anywhere even close to better. I was broken.
It took years to get my life on the inside shaped like a life I wanted to live. Even after I met and married my husband, I hadn’t healed completely. But when my daughter was born, something inside me shifted. I realized the love I felt for her, how powerful it was. I knew in a way no one could have explained that love was more powerful than anything else- even death.
Becoming a wife with my parents absent, becoming a mother without my mom around to help- these were bigger challenges than I knew going in. I still find it hard to explain sometimes when people tell us we should get away for the weekend & leave the kids with our parents. (Jim’s mom died shortly after we were married.)
Every day is not a struggle like it once was. But some days, and some milestones, are hard- even after all these years.
What I am most grateful for within this experience is that I know better than to let issues with friends go unresolved, thinking to take care of it later. I don’t wait for the right time to apologize. And although I do wonder and worry sometimes about what people think, I know there isn’t enough time to please everyone- so I listen to my heart.
I’m glad to have found my heart again. I’m glad it wasn’t broken beyond repair. I’m amazed at how much love is birthed with such a tiny baby. And I’m more than grateful to understand the gift I’ve received.