The moment after the initial car crash is what haunts me. It haunts me to the point where I have to write it down, catch the shiver of it, the tremble, the way I suppose everyone within an ear shot of the wreck stopped whatever momentous, or thoughtless, or normal thing they were doing and focused on what could or might have happened. It wasn’t the crash itself, which occurred (I later learned) because of a fight between a young woman and her male passenger, which bothered me as much as the impact this accident had on my own personal life then and now, four years later.
Ten or fifteen minutes after my husband left to pick up dinner at a nearby restaurant, I heard a thunderous noise. Was it a motor vehicle accident? I wasn’t sure. The impact sounded close, as if it might be a few doors down or a short block away. It was loud enough for me to stop tapping the keys on my computer and gasp. I listened for the sound of fire trucks, ambulances, screaming voices, or chaos at the scene, but none of that was heard. Instead, a deafening silence followed; it was eerie, prayer-like.
I replayed the sound over and over in my head; it was as if a ton of metal hit the cement highway or a pick-up truck had lost its load on the nearby State Route 51, or maybe a collision between two semi-trucks, tipping over their contents. But where were the sirens? What happened to the drivers? What were the consequences?
A quiet surrounded the neighborhood. I opened the screen door, looked around, but saw nothing. I stood staring out the window, watching for clues: police cars, screams of panic, anything that mirrored the shattering noise I had heard moments before.
I thought about my husband, hoping he wasn’t involved in the accident, knowing he should be home soon. I wondered if I should call him on his cell phone or drive to the restaurant and check on him. I did none of those things. The accident couldn’t have involved him; after all, we don’t allow tragedy to slip into our lives. We have our routine, a tight daily schedule that leaves no room for setbacks. Maybe because I’m a nurse, I believe that horrific events happen to other people, not us. But that belief proved false–we were never immune to having our lives changed overnight. Though this accident occurred before our own misfortunes and involved my husband indirectly, it was as if it was an omen, a prerequisite to a series of losses we were about to experience.
This tragic event came four years before the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, before the immediate surgical removal of three-quarters of my husband’s esophagus and the pulling up vertically of his stomach and reattaching it to his remaining esophagus. It occurred before he received chemotherapy, before his six week radiation treatment, and before the disease rendered him a paraplegic. It was four years, almost to the day of the accident that my husband died.
I remember how on the day of the accident, I stood staring at the black-and-white clock in our kitchen, listening to the soft ticking away of time. I watched the second hand as if I was hypnotized. Perhaps if a certain block of time passed without hearing emergency vehicles, it might alleviate my fears and allow me to relax. Three, five, then six minutes passed and still utter silence in this normally bustling neighborhood. Even the familiar voices of children playing in nearby yards were mute.
After a couple of minutes, the faint echo of a far-a-way siren was heard. First one, then another, until a series of sirens blended together. The sound continued to heighten much like an orchestra preparing for a concert. I paced the room thinking about possible outcomes. In a flash of a second, I thought about my husband and whether or not he might be involved in the crash—a coincidence of time, place, and errors resulting in crisis.
The harrowing noise stopped as abruptly as it began, as if the musicians forgot the tune or lost their place on the page. Everything went silent.
The rumbling noise of our electric garage door replaced the stillness. I heard myself exhale and I felt my heart flutter.
My husband walked in carrying a large bag containing our dinners. I studied his face for signs of shock. “What happened?” I asked him. “Did you see the accident? He set the food down on the kitchen counter, sat on a barstool rubbing his forehead with two fingers as if he was soothing himself. He put his arms around me and hugged me so tight that I felt short-winded, but I let him all the same.
“Tell me what you witnessed,” I said.
“I passed three cars involved in an accident at the end our block. Everything was quiet. I heard the sirens in the distance, but I never looked at the scene of the accident. I couldn’t.”
We stood facing each other saying nothing.
I suddenly had this urge to walk over to the accident to see if I could help. It must have been the nurse in me that triggered that type of response. Thinking back, I wonder why I didn’t stay at home; get down on my hands and knees to thank GOD for keeping my husband safe. Why didn’t I kiss his cheeks, chin, forehead, and lips and inhale his familiar scent? Instead, I watched firemen drill into metal and drag bodies out from the wreckage. I witnessed flashing lights and smoking cars; the smell of burnt rubber and flesh all around me; a tall, calm guy on his cell phone relating the story to a friend and the endless approaching of cop cars and ambulances.
The loss of life on this street became my loss. Magnified and greater than any pain I’ve witnessed as a nurse. Looking back, it might have been a way to prepare me for the anticipatory grief I would experience two years later. A momentary stopping of time, two lovers unaware of the gift of time they were to receive.
The day after the accident, our lives returned to us, only slightly altered. Then would have been the time to say, “Look, I might have lost you last night. I love you. I’m so grateful that I am married to you.” But the words didn’t quite come. There is so much to say in a marriage, too much is left unsaid. We assume there will be other times for intimate conversation, other occasions for such talk. Years.