An accident ends one life and begins another.
|It was just another day. A day like any other day. That’s the tricky thing about death – we think it isn’t present. We think it’s not a normal thing. It’s something far away – something not here.
But it is here.
The possibility of death is in everything we do. We just push it away – put it out of our minds and carry on, as if life were a continuous thing with no end.
But life does end.
It’s ending all around us, all the time. The universe is expanding, but it’s not growing – one by one, the stars are winking out in spectacular explosions. Little by little, the sky grows dark.
We like to think that the world will somehow save itself – that there will be a Big Crunch, and the world will once again explode with life. That humans will find a way to survive and escape their dying star, somehow living in the void of empty space.
But let’s be realistic – everything dies.
We are dying every day. One by one. Little by little. All the while, telling ourselves that everything will be okay.
And maybe it will be… for a while.
Maybe that’s all we can ask for.
We were driving to the grocery store when it happened. My boyfriend Dave wanted to pick up some Cherry Pepsi – he had a weakness for soda, and despite by best efforts, I could never get him to give it up. If I didn’t buy it for him, he would only go to the convenience store and buy the much more expensive convenience store sodas.
So there we were, sitting at the traffic light, on our way to the local Wegmans in his 20-year-old rusty blue Dodge Ram van. The light turned green and I accelerated. Just as we entered the intersection, a pickup truck slammed into us in a perfect T-bone.
I only know this from the report. At the time, all I remember is a loud crash and delayed panic as the van jolted and skidded, finally crashing into a traffic light pole and coming to a stop.
I was jarred, not yet realizing what had happened. My heart was pounding with adrenaline. The seat belt had cut into my skin, but otherwise, I was uninjured. I looked up and saw the truck that had hit us. The front of it was crunched, and the driver was struggling against an airbag.
Shakily, I unbuckled my seat belt and turned. My heart stopped.
A scream choked in my throat. I struggled to climb over my seat into the back, getting stuck on the steering wheel. Tears were running down my face.
My boyfriend had not been buckled in when the truck hit. He owned an electric wheelchair, so to strap him in, I had to climb over the lift, duck my head, and attend to each strap. It was a pain, so if we weren’t going far, we often agreed that it was okay to leave him unbuckled.
When the truck hit, it had slammed directly into my boyfriend’s several-hundred-pound wheelchair, sending it flying into the metal lift, crushing my boyfriend’s frail body.
My boyfriend has – had – OI: Osteogenesis Imperfecta. Otherwise known as brittle bone disease. He was disabled for life, his twisted legs and hips rendering him unable to walk. He often broke bones doing ordinary things like coughing too hard or accidentally jamming his toe against something. A friend would lean too hard on him and break his arm. However, he wasn’t made of glass – he could and did live a fairly normal life. But there’s no way he could have survived that impact, even if he had been strapped in. I was always extra careful driving him, aware that even a fender bender could be disastrous.
The crash itself hadn’t been that bad. Everyone else involved had walked away relatively unscathed. Jarred, but not hurt. The crash had had no effect on me, physically.
But inside, I was breaking. Shattering into a thousand pieces, just like boyfriend’s bones had during impact.
I couldn’t bear to look at him. I got a glimpse of his overturned wheelchair, and turned away. I scrambled back over the driver’s seat, opened the door, fell to my knees on the asphalt, and threw up, my body shaking uncontrollably.
I heard a man yell – the pickup truck driver had escaped his air bag and was running over to help my boyfriend. I knew without a doubt that there was no help to give.
Sirens blared as the first emergency vehicles arrived. I let someone in a uniform pick me up and load me into an ambulance. As they shut the door, I looked out the window and saw them trying to pry open the back doors of the van. I turned away, not wanting to see my boyfriend’s broken body.
They took me to the hospital, even though there was nothing wrong with me. I let them run all the tests they wanted. When the police arrived, I answered all their questions in a monotone, stating the facts without actually processing them in my mind. I stared at the floor in a state of denial, my mind blank.
“…Miss? Are you awake?”
Startled, I looked up at the police man.
“Is there anyone you’d like us to call for you? A family member, maybe? Someone who can pick you up?”
“I-…I guess… my boyfriend’s aunt…. I don’t have any family here,” I said. “Her number is in my phone…” I started to get up, but he put his hand on my shoulder.
“We’ll call her. You just stay here and rest. Try not to sleep in case you have a concussion. I’ll be right back.”
My boyfriend’s aunt Lana arrived half an hour later, tears already soaking her face. Seeing her, I couldn’t take it anymore – I started bawling uncontrollably, the kind of deep cry that prevents you from breathing and gives you hiccups. As I gasped and sniffed, Lana hugged me, allowing me to cry into her shoulder.
I don’t remember much of what happened after that. Lana must have taken me home because I found myself on the bed in her guestroom. I cried for days. People came and went, mostly relatives of Dave’s. Lana must have gone to my boyfriend’s apartment because I found a suitcase full of my own clothes at the end of the bed, including a phone charger – my boyfriend’s. She also rescued our cats. They cuddled with me on the bed as I cried myself in and out of sleep.
When I finally got around to charging my phone, there were many missed calls, most from my best friend. I dialed her number and spent hours crying on the phone, listening to her voice. By the time I hung up, I still wasn’t done crying, but I was ready to leave the room.
I took a long, hot shower, staring at the walls, washing away the layers of dried tears. I got dressed and went into the kitchen, where Lana gave me a hug and offered to make me something to eat. As I ate, she told me that the funeral would be held the next day.
That night, I called all of my boyfriend’s friends and told them what had happened. I also called my parents. They offered to fly out, but I told them not to.
The next day, we went to the funeral. It was held at the local church, though my boyfriend had not been religious. We had recently gone to a funeral for one of his distant family members, so I was familiar with the place.
All of Dave’s friends were there. They had driven down to say goodbye. Every one of them was shocked by his death.
I had had no hand in the arrangements, so it surprised me to see the urn where his remains were stored. No doubt there had been no other option – his body has not been great when it was functional, and after the crash, it would have been unrecognizably awful. I was thankful I had not seen it. It was bad enough imagining.
After the service, everyone went to Lana’s to eat and comfort each other. I didn't say much, as anything I said made me cry. I could barely hold in tears as it was. I stayed as long as it was polite and then ducked into my room, where I lay on the bed and stared at the walls, thinking about my boyfriend and crying. I thought of all the things we had done together. All the things I had loved about him. All the things we had planned and could now never do.
The next day, I asked Lana to take me to the apartment.
It was exactly as we had left it – in a slight disarray, dirty paper plates from our lunch still on the table, computer on standby. It was quiet and lonely there, with no one next to me. The room was dark.
I got on my boyfriend’s computer and started looking through his Facebook – all the pictures, all the posts. The silly statuses, the videos. I poured over everything, crying. Missing him.
Finally I dared myself to answer the question I had been ignoring: What next?
I had dropped my entire life on the West Coast to be with my boyfriend in Maryland. I had packed up some clothes and my laptop, bought a one-way plane ticket, and left my friends and my family to spend my life with this person. And now he was gone.
Whatever I did now, I would do it alone. There would be no one there make important life decisions with. I no longer had to worry about the places I go being handicap accessible. I could do anything I wanted. Start over. Move to the West Coast. Get a job. I no longer had to wait for another person to agree to make these choices. There was nothing stopping me.
But somehow, it wasn't better. If I got an apartment, I would spend my nights lonely, awake, with no body next to me to snuggle. There would be no person in the room, keeping me company. There’d be no dinner companion. There’d be no partner.
My boyfriend had been like an extension of me – an appendage, like an arm or a leg. Always there. Something I never even had to think about. He was part of me. We went everywhere together, did everything together. If I had a thought, he would hear it. If there was something to do, he would do it with me. If he wasn't next to me in bed, I couldn't sleep. If we weren't together, it felt wrong.
I thought hard and finally called my parents.
My dad flew in the next day. He helped me pack all my things into boxes. There wasn't much that was mine. Just books, mostly. And the cats. The rest was my boyfriend’s – or things like furniture, electronics, and appliances – things I wouldn't take with me. I would leave it for his cousin, or some other family member to divvy up as they felt best.
Then we flew home – back to California, where my mom and best friend were waiting to comfort me. There was nothing left in Maryland to stay for. I had never liked Maryland. My reason for being there was gone.
I lived with my mom and my dad for a while until I could find a job. Then I moved into a cheap apartment with my brother.
In the end, life continued on as if I had never left California. Strange. To think I had traveled so far, only to end up right back where I started. So much had happened, and yet, my hometown had remained relatively unchanged, waiting for me to fall back into its arms. It felt like I had taken a giant step backwards in life and erased the last three years. I was, once more, just a useless college graduate with no life.
At least I had family to fill my time. If I hadn't, I might never have continued living. But there it was, the comfortable routine from my high school days – parents working, coming home, having dinner – watching TV or playing a game before bed – reading a book – occasionally going out on the weekends.
I saw my best friend nearly every day, which was the best part. I had missed her terribly when I had moved to the East coast, and having her was the best thing I could ask for.
Nighttime was the worst. In my room alone, I was back to being that sad, lonely person, reduced to talking to people on the internet, hungering for human companionship. When I had found my boyfriend, I thought I would never need to be that way again. No matter what happened, I was never lonely the entire time I was with him. But he was gone, and here it was – the loneliness, back to haunt me.
But loneliness is good for a writer, and my work flourished. I wrote every day, pouring out all my grief, loneliness, and sorrow into my computer as stories. I wrote about my life, letting it fall onto the page, as if writing it could help get it out of the way so that I could turn the page and start the next chapter – the unwritten chapter.
Eventually, I published a memoir, became an author, and wrote for a living. I moved to Portland, Oregon, like I had always planned with my boyfriend – except, I did it by myself. I found new friends, started a new life. I had boyfriends - most of them were awful in some way, as fleeting relationships so often are. When I finally did settle down with someone again, it was different from what I had with Dave. No one would ever be the same.
But I could and did continue living. It wasn’t all good… but it wasn’t all bad. I came to realize that nothing could last long…good things would eventually go bad, one way or another. And the best I could do was accept it: be okay with death. Be okay with life, short as it may be.
Everything ends. We can’t escape it. Life is not eternal.
We can only accept what we have and be grateful.
And that, in the end, is what life is about: enjoying what little it gives you while it lasts.