An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

Lucinda’s Thirst

 

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Lucinda positioned the flower and snapped several photos. She eyed other bright Gerber daisies in crackled vases, fighting an impulse to grab a half-dozen. She was thinking of lining them up on the coffee shop’s open air ledge and shooting them in different clusters, then taking them home. She liked flowers in the same way she liked cats–glad to see them, happy to house them, nice to admire them and even feed them, but then they’d leave her alone. Why didn’t that work with people? The daisies cheered her more than her older brother, Linc, did so far today.

“What are you doing with that?” he asked, nostrils flaring, a quirk of the family aquiline nose. His iced mocha beaded up in the heat; he wiped it dry with a napkin.

“Uh, taking pictures of it?”

“Must you always have that camera at the ready? It’s not as if you’re a photojournalist for a thriving daily paper or opening a show at a gallery. I mean, it’s a hobby, just a hobby.”

He said things without hesitation, as if his pronoucements had a heft that others’ did not. She’d stopped taking seriously every sentence he spouted long ago. She knew he seldom meant any harm. His thoughts liked the limelight is all.

Still, Lucinda withdrew her hand from the second vase she’d been ready to snatch from an empty table. She would get the shot sometime. Linc bent over The New York Times, slurped the coffee. She sat on a folded leg, propped her chin in hand. How to survive endless sun and her brother for the remainder of summer, maybe much longer. When their grandfather left them a charming house on a hill he’d been excited. Linc could do consulting from any place. She was between college commitments–she’d dropped out last March and wasn’t ready to return–and their mother wasn’t interested in further subsidizing her needs, good cameras and photography, mostly, and cycling, some hiking, reading. This town could be it for a while, so long as they lived together without serious regrets.

He leaned forward; his dry fingers grazed her hand. “Oh, Luce, I just wish you’d try acting less downcast. Look at that sky and be happy. We both need happy. We’ll be here awhile, or at least I will.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, then at the sky. You couldn’t miss the sunshine blaring good will all over blueness and baked buildings. Heat held dominion here, it skewered vegetation, chastened the fragile skin of her lips, ransacked shadows. It forced people into the mighty river or indoors. If there wasn’t water it would have morphed into desert and mountains entirely and the town would never have been built. Which sounded more pleasant to her. But there was not any place she longed to be. This was good enough for now.

Her brother was searching her face with enhanced hazel eyes (courtesy of contact lenses), looking for the chink in her natural reserve. She’d agreed to get off the couch and come to the coffee shop just to see people milling about. It hadn’t occurred to her that East Canyon, despite being a tourist town, would be so devoid of the lovely crush of humans during the weekdays. Where was everybody? People more her age? Didn’t it used to be different here once, before they grew up?

“Define ‘awhile’,” she said. “Like for the fall and winter or are we looking at a twelve month deal?”

“So far it suits me. I’m considering making this my home base. It can be yours, too, until you’re ready to move on…like we already told mom. Right?” He looked at her as if the situation was a contract signed and sealed. “Or you didn’t understand that part of it?”

She thought, didn’t he understand her part? The one about her life being ruined last spring, how much she wanted to live like a slug, hidden and undisturbed? The part about not wanting to be his maid service while he made oodles of money? She had been informed she had to get a job at a grocery store or somewhere. No free rides. When had she and her brother last tried to live together? Seven years ago, when she was just thirteen. Her part was complicated. He just had work, adult obligations, his little dramas.

Of course, Lucinda allowed that Jeffrey had recently left him, so there was that; Linc obviously had his own miseries. She accepted him without fail but didn’t profess to deeply understand. He spoke little of the “whos” or “whys” of his life. They lived such opposite directions on any scale. He was chatty; she was introverted. He loved flashy objects money bought him; she appreciated second-hand things. Linc was always all-in while she waited, watched, pondered. Still, they had too much history not to mention shared blood; there wouldn’t be serious battles.

“I’m not thrilled to live where things die if left unattended for more than ten minutes without liquid hydration.” She sucked on an ice cube from her water for demonstration.

“Do you always think of life as a series of dire conditions? Like it is something that needs immediate saving? Lighten up.” Then he pressed fingertips to his lips. “I’m sorry, Luce, I don’t think. I see that things still seem that way at times. I’m here for you–you know that.”

She looked away. She resisted reference to difficult topics, found it gauche in public. The newspaper rustled and he fell silent, too. Then as if on cue, she felt her heart race and a shiver run up her sweaty back. The heat suffocated her. She wanted to get up and leap over tables and run like hell.

Eyes were on her, she could feel them. It was what happened: she knew what was going on around her without thinking.

She peered into, then swung her camera to the courtyard. First she saw the Australian bush hat, is that what that was? A fancy hat. Then the shoulders. How much could you tell about a man by his shoulders? These were broad and still. As if he could sit there for hours and not move but go into action as a moment’s notice. He was deeply tanned, older than Linc, wore jeans and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. He raised his head a  bit and she held the camera steady and snapped once. The second time he held up his hand, either a salute or a warning–she would study it later. She took one more to let him know she had recorded all details and she knew he had seen her.

She turned back to the interior, bit her lip. Linc folded the paper and picked up his wallet, stood and stuffed it in a back pocket.

“Ready?” Linc asked her. He looked fresh and calm, a smile easy on his face.

Lucinda got up and they left.

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The next day when they roamed the streets, it was cloudy, not so much cooler as variable. This was cause for celebration and Lucinda brought her better camera, started taking photos as soon as they walked. The differing light was much more interesting, gave more depth to things, allowed colors to vibrate which full-on sunshine did not. What looked flat and unappealing to her yesterday was fascinating today. She hummed as she shot.

“Nothing can be that interesting here. Wait until we get to the river. I’ve work to do on my PC so you’ll be on your own.”

Linc stayed close as they walked. He knew that something had again awakened her in the night, had heard her footsteps on the ancient wood floors, felt her anxiety permeate darkness and float down the hall to his room. He’d sat up, listening but she closed her bedroom door and that was that. It was a change for them both, yes, but a good one. They had spent many glorious summers here before the family had moved too far away. If only she would remember. He desperately wanted her to remember life when she felt secure and right with the world.

“Good,” she said, then snapped a picture of him before he settled his visor on his blond head. He looked abashed in photos if he was unprepared. When readied, he might be called dashing as well as a confident businessman. He put his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t shrug it off for a block.

They were passing the coffee shop. Lucinda saw the hat man again and kept on walking. The same daisies were vivid against a grayed interior. She wanted to put them in one big clear vase and shoot them against the shadows and a few lounging people, a soft blur behind them. Life in East Canyon, a long summer breeze, the caption would say.

The man stood. Lucinda sped up. Was he tracking her daily movements? Did he know where they lived?

“Wait up!” Linc hurried after her.

“To the river!” she commanded. She didn’t want to look over her shoulder but she did. She couldn’t tell if the man was watching her or not. Then he waved, and his gold watch flashed like a signal. Lucinda held her breath but another man ran across the street to join him. She felt her chest and throat loosen. Stinging air pressed into her lungs.

The legendary river was deep, steel-blue and broad. It always had scared her but in a way that moved her, filled her with wonder. This was one river that could carry people all the way to the ocean. She wasn’t the sort of swimmer that ever made a team, but she was still drawn to water. Linc settled on a picnic table under the shade of a large tree, water bottle in hand. He put his sunglasses back on after following her path a moment.

She’d worn a swim suit under her jean shorts and t-shirt but she didn’t plan to take the clothes off. Linc had encouraged her, even wore his old swim trunks with a polo shirt just in case. It made her laugh. He preferred sleek boats in water, his body dry. He was at his best languishing with a drink in his hand as he glided along.

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The waterfront was filling up with people. Windsurfers and kiteboarders zig-zagged the Columbia’s choppy waters. Kayakers and paddle boarders maneuvered away from land. Her camera was busy as she edged forward, focusing, framing, zooming in and out, finding scenes that spoke to her. In time her heart quieted, her hands steadied, the views cooperated with her eye and everything slowed. The clamorous sounds of life diminished as her brain engaged and instincts were given full rein. She was at ease. Peace stirred and filled her like a dream that carried her body and soul. If only she could feel this way every minute of every day. Her eyes focused on the distant mountain peaks, their gradations of browns and greens, the intricate textures.

And then she stepped off a ridge of land she had been following that meandered beside the river.

It was a fast descent but before she hit water she threw the camera back to land. She felt the magnet of gravity as she entered the massive volume of liquid, held her breath as feet and legs and trunk and head submerged. It wasn’t as dark there as she expected, but bright blue-green to silvered teal, then darker blue. Eyelids stunned, they fluttered, defenseless against thickening murk. Her lungs wanted to expand but she could not let that happen so she pushed out and down with her hands, kicked her feet as hard as she could against the current. The river’s will was so strong. She imagined this was like Eden where everything started, and she opened her mouth a little to it. Thought of mermaids and fishes and snakes and bugs, how they adored this place that held their life and death. This river was legendary, victorious in beauty and strength. But Lucinda had failed to overcome and her own beauty–had she not obscured it well? did the night enrage him? had he been taught to hate?–had been erased.

Why here and now? Why this river? After she had found things to love a little again. Photographs, of all things. And her grandfather had adored his grandchildren. Surely he wouldn’t lead her to such a finale, not after an already monstrous end to her happiness. That assault on all her hope, the taking of her power, the leaching of her small but only life: she had been perfect prey to a predator who got away as she was cycling to school one jewel-toned spring evening. One suspended span of time. Things shattered. Most pieces still seemed lost.

She thought these things but without words, without the meddling mind of the living but with the soul of the nearly dying. She knew what she knew and grasped for more. The river flowed and brought her with a starry sense of everything. She was drifting toward sleep. Things were different under the surface, in this netherworld of other kingdoms. Nothing…hurt.

Breathe, Lucinda heard from the depths, a flickering echo in her head. Breathe even when you think you have no breath left. You can live through anything. She breathed a tiny breath, enough that it tasted of mud, plant life, a strange pureness. She saw emerald, indigo and gold, a deep bowl of golden light held by hands of lightning in the waters of life. Lucinda breathed a whole breath, and it was well and good.

There was yanking and screaming as she was grabbed, pulled, pushed until her weight was gathered up and placed upon the earth. Her chest pummelled, air propelled into her. She tried to slip back.

“Luce! Luuuce! Open your eyes, breathe, breathe, breathe damnit!” he screamed.

Linc called; Lucinda returned.

She felt the river cruising in her veins. It slid up her throat as she hacked and coughed. She felt it clothing her, then falling away from her. Leaving her gently, her flesh so cold beyond the warmth, so soft yet like stone.

Lucinda opened her eyes and through the blur she could make out Linc’s scrunched face and behind him, the man with the broad-rimmed hat. He altered the view, was like a hole in the shining sky.

“Luce, this man, Al, he found you! We were talking about our work and things and we saw you go down so we ran and he spotted you in the water, Luce, he got you out. Can you hear me? Luce, I could have lost you!”

The sirens blotted out his voice, then more faces and hands but Lucinda felt the gurney sway like the river, holding her, lifting her higher. The sun was like a dancing flower, sweet, vivid. She reached out, found Linc.

“What?” he said. “What, Luce?”

“I know how to breathe underwater,” she whispered.

“No, Luce, no, you nearly drowned.”

“Linc.” She felt the blanket snugged around her, the blood pressure cuff pulled tight. “I breathed underwater. I’ll be okay now. Grandpa said so.”

They took her then. Linc climbed in bedside her, put her camera safely into one of her hands, held the other in his. He peered out the door windows for that man, for Al. Linc had to get his number, thank him, meet up with him, introduce him to Luce. They pulled away while Linc looked and looked. But he was not there, nor anywhere. His hat sailed over the river, gone.

 

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