It wasn’t the way I expected it might happen; in fact, I didn’t expect it at all.
In the back seat the boys were eating peanuts and chocolate graham crackers, on the way home from picking Bean up at kindergarten. I was thinking absently about school projects; about this book that we are reading this week, and about how it’s maybe true: you do know. Yes you.
And then we were on the dirt road, going around the corner and I could feel the way the mud grabbed at the tires of the car. I wasn’t driving fast. Slow enough that I could slam on the breaks and the tousled maple-syrup scented head of Sprout barely tugged forward at all.
“What, mommy, what?” Bean asked.
But I was already out of the car. Like that: like instinct, my body moving before I could think about what to do next.
In front of me: a car entirely flipped over, roof to the ground, in a ditch, on a rock, windows shattered. Smoke threaded its way from the broken windows.
There was a girl inside, alive, and I felt my heart want to explode with relief. Alive, and secondly, her neck wasn’t broken. She was dangling from her seatbelt, her feet were stuck, her face smooshed into the roof of the car. She had already called 911 (I am guessing here—but I am pretty sure she was on her cell or texting when she crashed—because she wouldn’t have been able to locate her cell phone if it hadn’t have been in her hand—everything was strewn everywhere among the broken glass.)
She was shaking, and I could feel my own body quiver with adrenaline and empathy. I asked her if she could move. I asked her if her head hurt. And then I carefully, carefully pulled her legs free. And she was totally unable to help me—she just shook and sobbed. She hung upside down until I reached around her and unclipped her seatbelt and then she collapsed into my arms.
She was 17. Gorgeous pale skin, freckles, smudged mascara. I held her until she could stand.
And all she could say over and over again was: “My parents are going to kill me.”
No, sweetie. They will be happy you are alive. I wrapped her in an animal print blanket we keep in our trunk for impromptu picnics and I brought her to my car. Other people stopped. One man had stopped while I helped her to get out. He was too scared to help. Afterwards he said, "You should have a medal." But it’s really not like that at all: I am a mother. There wasn’t anything else I could do.
So I kept her warm and kept her from hyperventilating, which she was slipping towards several times as she panicked about her parents. She called her work first. Then her mom, lastly her dad, who came, tall, thin, without a smile and stood beside the state trooper answering questions before he finally turned to me and said, “thank you for stopping.”
He didn’t hug his daughter. He didn’t reach for her or stroke her hair or tell her he was happy she was alive.
How does this happen? How?
My boys meanwhile were so good. They sat in their carseats for 45 minutes—because the first responders and then the EMTs treated her in my car before finally taking her to the hospital. Bean watched everything quietly, unafraid, wide eyed. He was in heaven watching the firemen come and clear the way for the car to be towed. (The smoke was from the airbag, thankfully.)
One fireman, seeing Bean, went and got both boys Junior Firefighter medals from their truck. Bean was over the moon proud.
I drove home slowly, grateful, grateful. And it was a peaceful, mellow afternoon of story books and me doing design work and Bean drawing next to me at my big long desk (while Sprout slept.) Oh how I love them, my sweet, sweet boys.
Also: What is with texting while driving? Why do people—and particularly teenagers do it? Also: her seatbelt saved her life. I have no doubt about that at all. If you have teens or know some, tell them.