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Chapter 1: Lucky
CHAPTER 1 LUCKY
When I woke up in my minivan, the first thing to register was the smell of Tim Hortons coffee. At the moment of the crash, my coffee had exploded out of the cup holder, hitting the windshield and the roof, raining dark roast everywhere.
A panicked face appeared at my car door. He was frantically banging on the door, and a horn—my horn—was blaring. I lifted my head up off the exploded steering wheel airbag slowly, disoriented. Automatically I reached over and unlocked my door, which he swung wide open. I groaned at the small movement. I could move my arm, though—that was a good sign.
“You okay?” he shouted over the horn blaring. “Are you okay? Ma’am? Miss? Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
I had no idea how to answer that question. Was I okay? I had no idea.
My whole body began to shake. I couldn’t seem to move on purpose. Everything hurt right up close to me, everywhere, especially on my left side, but my brain was still far away, wondering indignantly why I smelled coffee and smoke, why the horn wouldn’t stop screaming.
“Don’t move,” he said. “Don’t move at all.” I could hear sirens in the distance. Another car was crumpled on the side of the road; I was horizontal across the highway, facing the west even though I had been driving north. The sun was still somehow shining. I could smell hot tires, see black tire skid marks everywhere. Who knew that crashed metal had such a horrible smell? The airbags were still burning against my body; there was grit in my teeth.
“I saw the whole thing,” the man at my window shouted. “I saw it all. Good God, you’re a lucky girl. Holy hell. I saw that whole thing. Don’t move now; just wait for the guys. The guys are coming. Those are my guys—I’m a volunteer firefighter, miss. Hang in there, now. Jesus.”
“Bri, could you wipe the tears out of my ears?” I was lying flat on my back, strapped to a metal board, encased in a neck brace in the hallway of our emergency room triage. It was an out-of-the-ordinary night at our regional hospital. Maybe there was a full moon; I don’t really know—after all, I wasn’t near a window, and I wouldn’t see the sky for many hours still. All of the rooms were full, the beds were scarce, the doctors were scurrying, the nurses were triage efficient, reinforcements were being called, and I was entirely focused on enduring.
I wasn’t actively crying. I was just weeping quietly without intention. The tears kept coming, pooling in my ears, leaving me feeling like I was swimming underwater. I waited until I could barely hear the noise of the hospital before I asked Brian to wipe my ears out.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” he asked, sweeping a hospital-grade tissue into each of my ears.
“I didn’t want to be a bother,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I think that ship has sailed,” he said. “This whole mess is super inconvenient for me—bad timing, Styles. Could’ve planned this better, eh?”
He has always called me by my maiden name when he’s feeling tender. He placed his hand gently on my forehead and moved my hair back from my face, tucking it behind the collar of the neck brace, holding my gaze.
“Honestly, woman,” he gently scolded, shaking his head slightly. “Where else would I be?”
A while later, he said, “You’re still shaking, Sar. Are you cold? I heard they have heated blankets down by the nurses’ station. I’ll be right back with one. The nurse told me where to go.”
“Not cold, no,” I chattered. “Just still can’t stop shaking. I’m sorry.”
“I hate the smell of hospitals,” I whispered when he returned with the heavy, warm blanket. “I’ve had enough of hospitals this year. I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to go home.”
“You sound like your dad,” he said. “We just finally got him home, and now here you are. We’ll get through this—you’ll see.”
“I’m just so tired. I want to go home.”
We fell silent. Eventually a woman sat down near us, wrapped in crude bandages up her arms. “Wow, what are you in for?” my husband asked her sympathetically.
For twenty years now, I’ve watched my husband make friends everywhere he goes. Once we were in the checkout line at a Walmart Supercenter in Texas when I realized we had forgotten the milk. He said hello to the cashier and began unloading the groceries while I turned to run back to the dairy case. By the time I returned with a jug of milk in my hands, the cashier was wiping her eyes with a tissue and he was nodding sympathetically as she said, “And, of course, that just brought up all the feelings of when my dad left us....”
Brian turned to me and said, “Babe, this is Susan; she was just telling me about her Thanksgiving.”
Of course she was. I wasn’t even surprised by then. People trust him almost immediately. It was part of why I fell in love with him: he was so earnestly and unapologetically interested in people; he liked almost everyone, and they loved him for his unfussy genuine interest, his warmth and steadiness.
Me? I rejoiced when the grocery stores installed self-checkout lanes so I wouldn’t have to ask the Susans about Thanksgiving. My husband thinks self-checkout lanes are an abomination, taking jobs from decent working people: another symptom of disconnection in our society. There is an old adage that married people start to look like each other as the years go by: this is certainly true in my capacity to make small talk with strangers. I have grown from a girl who just wanted to get her milk without making eye contact to someone who is on a first-name basis with the checkout ladies at my corner store.
I often joke that he was born the best kind of grown-up: capable and kind, never in doubt to what is The Right Thing to Do, the kind who makes you relax because someone good is in charge. He’s the sort of man who started saving for university when our babies were all still in diapers, who knows how to fix drywall and plant gardens, who renews insurance and files taxes early by himself, who sticks with the credit union out of principle, who coaches middle school basketball because he genuinely loves to be there. And so, of course, he is here with me.
Back at the hospital, it turned out the lady across the hall from us had been on the wrong end of a pressure cooker explosion earlier. “That’ll teach me to cook a meal,” she said with a good-natured chortle. “Carryout meals from the White Spot from now on, that’s what I told my husband! How about you two?”
“Car accident,” he replied. “My wife was in a crash. We’re just waiting for the CT scan to open up. Busy night here.”
“Poor girl,” she said sympathetically. “Drivers these days. I hope it goes well for you both.”
I couldn’t turn my head to look at her, but she sounded kind.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I said to the ceiling.
“Of course you will be,” she said. “You were lucky.”
They kept chatting as the clock above my head ticked steadily. I felt relief that they had found each other in the hallway, because I could be silent and awake yet distracted by their conversation. Each time the minute hand moved, it sprang forward with a click and wavered from its new position in time. It was the only thing other than ceiling tiles that I could see from my strict vantage point.
It seemed impossible that just hours before I was out for a drive. I had been enjoying the peace of the moment when alongside the back highway, in the fields at the base of the mountains, I had caught a glimpse of a heron, swooping across a low pond in a field. It had felt like a good omen for the day.
I often see a heron at key moments in my life. It began one day when I went for a walk at the lake in our town. It was late spring but a pleasant cold, the kind that wakes you up a bit after a winter of too much coziness and too many candles. I stuffed my hands into my mittens and tucked the gray hair at my temples behind my ears. I hadn’t gotten my hair colored in a while and it showed, I hadn’t slept well and it showed, I hadn’t felt like myself in a while and it showed. I was tired and so I needed to walk in the fresh air to wake up; I was looking for something like a deep breath.
The sun was already low in the sky, and the trees were asleep with early spring cold. I stood on the edge of our little community lake and watched the geese beginning to swoop in after winter, the clouds resting like a gauze scarf on the mountains rising dark in the deep light.
I turned toward the reeds and there, standing still, staring right at me, was a blue heron, slender and regal, neck relaxed, her long legs in the water among the reeds. I’ve always loved blue herons: their blue-gray wings are like twilight, their elegance rooted in their ubiquitous domesticity. I remember hearing once long ago that herons were considered a good omen: when the First Nations indigenous to my homeland would head out on a fishing expedition, the sighting of the heron meant it would be a worthwhile hunt because the bird embodied patience and wisdom, both necessary for survival. They can be seen as protectors and guardians, sentinels. A friend once told me that this is because a heron is equally at home in the water, upon the land, and in the air—she goes with the flow and works with the elements around her rather than against them.
I stood silently, watching the great blue-gray bird caught between mud and cold water and a darkening sky. Herons are a regular sort of bird, ordinary and unspectacular and yet beautiful.
Someone just up the path exclaimed and pointed to the sky: an eagle. There is a nest way up high above the pines at the other end of the lake. Eagles are spectacular when you see them out in the wild, stern and beautiful and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Their stark white helmets, their golden beaks, their black feathers swooping through the sky are arresting. Their wing strength is economic and thunderous. Around me I could hear other people gasp as the predator dipped lower over us before gliding higher and then disappearing into a horizon I couldn’t imagine. She lived so far above the rest of us. Everyone looked up, yearning for a glimpse of her again.
It took me time to learn to love the heron’s lesson. Perhaps that is because my father has always been an eagle sort of man. My life’s rock, he was grounded and assured in his way of seeing God. His certainty was safety for me as a girl: he prayed with such confidence and spoke with steady conviction about God and life. And my father loved eagles, loved the image of the eagle, loved the references to eagles in the Bible.
Whenever any of us became ill or grew weary, my father would speak and pray the words of Psalm 103, a constant source of prayer and promises to him, over us—not as a magical incantation but almost to remind or reorient all of us toward what he saw as the promise of a good God for us... “who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”I
My parents became Christians in their thirties, welcomed and baptized into a subcommunity of Christianity descended from the Pentecostals and charismatic renewal movements in cultural expression and mode of worship. Our origin movement is sometimes called the prosperity gospel, but in my experience it was more accurate to call our branch the Word of Faith movement. There were prosperity gospel influences, of course, but the excesses weren’t as strong or obvious back then—not to me anyway. No, the emphasis was on the Bible and on our particular interpretation of it. There was always a strong emphasis on supernatural provision and healing for our bodies, our minds, our finances, our relationships, all of the pain points of being human. The reason why we emphasized it is because we were the ones who were often broke and sick and miserable; the ones attracted to prosperity gospel are there for a reason, and it’s rarely greed. In my experience, it’s desperate need. And we found goodness there. We learned God was good and so all of the things that steal, kill, and destroy life are not of God, not ever. We believed in the power of our words, we revered the Bible, we were convinced that faith was a muscle we could work to consistent results. There are gifts of such a way of understanding God, but there are shadow sides to this as well.II
The image of eagles has seemed like my father’s faith to me. The way he spoke of their soaring as metaphors for renewal and strength, for overcoming, was always part of our encounters with suffering and sickness and pain. On that day, the eagle reminded me of my father: its solitary strength and dignity, its certainty in flight. I’ve heard that the eagle is “the master of skies” in some cultures because it is believed to be the creature with the closest relationship to Creator, moving easily between the physical world and the spiritual world.
I’ve wanted to be more like my dad almost every day of my life, but I am still me: unable to be too certain because of my uncanny ability to see eight sides to every issue and my yearning for peace above all else, unable to be much more than on the outside edge of the inside, with an eye on the ones for whom the truth is perhaps not true.
My father would turn toward the prophet Isaiah’s words at moments of faltering or failure or exhaustion: “He [God] gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”III
Many years ago, I walked away from the Word of Faith movement. I deconstructed my own faith, and I am still in that middle place of figuring out how to rebuild something that will be worth dwelling in for the years ahead, something worth giving to my children as a legacy of faith.
On that day, my gaze returned to the blue heron still standing patiently in the mud and water, and something in me looked between the eagle and the heron and then said to the bird in the water, All right, then I see.
Perhaps my father encountered God in the promises and strengths of soaring eagles. While I still believe, deep in the core of my being, in the goodness and abundance of God, I also believe God is as present in the darkness as in the light, in the valley as in the mountaintops, in my suffering as in my victory. As I watched the heron, she swept her wide wings open and lifted up from the reeds, taking to the sky, the tips of her wings touching the water as she rose, creating ripples.
Standing on the ground between a heron and an eagle, I suddenly knew where I belonged: in the mud among the reeds in the water as well as in the sky. I can see God most clearly in the particularities of mundane unnoticed miracles now—small children dancing, the way my son prays, my girls piled in our striped hammock with their neighborhood friends, one wide table filled with food for the lonely, the proclamation of good news, kids in school uniforms in the dust of a deforested Haiti, sponsor families waiting with winter coats at the airport for Syrian refugee families staggering out of civil war into a Canadian cold, rejected or marginalized Christians singing about the wideness in God’s mercy, holding the hand of a beloved friend till her last breath, and one more candle burning on a lampstand to light up a whole room. It is angels on a hillside with common shepherds and kings in stables and virgins having babies. It’s uneducated Galileans as ambassadors for God and the eunuch asking, “What is to stop me from being baptized?” and Mary Magdalene hearing Jesus speak her name in the garden.
I need—then and now—the God who sits in the mud and in the cold wind, in the laundry pile and in the city park, who is as present in homework and nightly baths and homemade meals and hospital rooms and standing by caskets. I need a God with teeth and hunger, who embodies grief and joy; wisdom and patience; renewal with simplicity and a good, deep breath; and who even now shows up in the unlikeliest and homeliest of lives too, as a sacrament and a blessing for the ordinary incarnation of feet on the ground and baptism of the water and wings wide in the sky. I have come to love the mud and the reeds, the water and the quiet day, just as much as the feel of the wind in my hair as I take flight and soar.
I was driving about ten under the posted speed limit, traveling at seventy km/hr. It was a nice day for a drive—the highway was wide and practically empty, the day was dry and bright, the mountains standing guard around me, and I was in no hurry. I was listening to CBC Radio 2’s classical program, sipping my double-double,IV living my best life. There was a sedan parked on the side of the road up ahead just past the small bridge over the creek. As I crossed over, that car hit the gas and swung out in front of me, attempting a U-turn to go back the other way. The driver, assuming that the highway was as empty in that moment as it had been all day, didn’t bother to shoulder check to see if anyone was there behind him before swerving into oncoming traffic for his U-turn.
But I was there, hurtling toward him.
He swung almost parallel across the highway, just as I came up on him. I slammed on my brakes, pulling hard to the left to try to avoid the crash. I couldn’t.
I have heard from other people who have been in traumatic car crashes that time can feel like it slows down in that moment, like your senses are heightened and you notice everything, see everything, hear everything—your mind kicks into another plane of awareness for what is happening in that moment and even for what has come before. I can’t say that it happened that way for me—I had no life-flashing-before-my-eyes slideshow kick into gear with operatic overtones.
No, I stomped my right foot on the brake with all of my might, swinging the minivan left and away to avoid the impact. I slammed my left foot into the floorboard, using my foot to brace for impact. I remember sucking air into my lungs, like I was about to jump into a cold lake, pulling as much breath in as I could and then holding it.
There was this sickening awareness of inevitability; I remember that. I couldn’t stop this, and I knew it already. I knew that we would crash, and the instant sweep of drowning powerlessness hit me long before our vehicles collided. This was no close call I could avoid; this was happening no matter what I did next. The inescapability of this, the impossibility of any other outcome, gave rise to the only conscious thought that I can remember of that moment even now: So this is how I die.
And then we crashed.
The next things I remember are the smell of coffee, the horn blaring, smoke billowing, and one man shouting at my window.
A different nurse checked on us every thirty minutes throughout the night. The woman with the burns had been moved to another area a while ago. It was just me and Brian again.
“I have never seen the hospital like this ever,” said one nurse. “You picked the worst night for this, luv. We are crazy in here. You should have picked a nice Tuesday morning. Saturdays are no good for crashes.”
One nurse brought a bolster pillow for my knees and lifted up my legs to place them gently on the pillow. “This will help with the back pain from the brace,” she said. “I know it feels like it’s making everything worse, but we have to keep your spine straight. Hang in there. This will help a bit. Now, when was the last time we gave you morphine? Are you crying because of pain or because you can’t stop crying?”
“Both?” I said. “I can’t stop. I’m trying, I promise.”
“Good girl,” she said, gently touching my shoulder. “It’s the shock wearing off. Keep warm, stay awake, let’s get more morphine going.”
“I miss the kids,” I whispered to Brian. He told me that my parents were at our house and everyone was already in bed, sound asleep. I wanted to be in their bedrooms, standing over their beds, watching them breathe under their blankets in the quiet of our home. I wanted to tuck them in, pick up their socks from the floor.
The lady reappeared with fresh bandages from her hands to her biceps.
“I’m all set and heading home,” she said cheerfully. “I just came by to say good luck to you both before I go. Have a good night.” We waved her off with good wishes.
“What was the name of the guy who was at my window?” I asked Brian. “I can’t remember his name. It was Doug or Gary.”
“Oh, that narrows it down.” He grinned. “Only every other white guy in Canada over the age of forty is named Doug or Gary. The only thing that would make this easier would be if his buddy’s name was Gord. No problem.”
I tried to make my face smile but failed. “He was a volunteer firefighter,” I said. “We could probably find him. I need to thank him. He was so nice to me. He saw everything, he said. He saw the whole thing and he knew just what to do.”
“We’ll find him,” he said gently, no longer teasing to try to make me smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him. Right now let’s just worry about getting you fixed up.”
“He said I’m lucky,” I said to the ceiling. “He’s seen similar accidents, and he said I’m really lucky.”
“I guess that’s relative,” Brian said.
After a few initial tests and conversations, along with many painkillers, I was resting with my eyes closed still strapped to my board and encased in a neck brace when another nurse’s face appeared in my peripheral vision. She peered down at me and said, “Well, you look a hot mess. What happened to you, dearie?”
“Car accident,” I croaked—I hadn’t used my voice in a while. I felt Brian sit up from his sprawl in the plastic chair beside me. He had been dozing.
“How fast were you going?” she asked while she opened my eyelids wider and examined me quickly. My eyes filled with tears again; they wouldn’t be stopped.
“Seventy,” I said. “I was on the highway. In my minivan.”
“Whose fault was it?”
“The other guy. He pulled a U-turn on a highway without checking to see if someone was behind him. I was there.”
“What a jerk,” she said without sentimentality. “Well, let’s get this show on the road, eh?”
She called for the porter, and he soon appeared to wheel me to an unending parade of X-rays and CT scans.
“Helluva night here,” he said to Brian as I rolled beneath the ceiling tiles. We moved through the now nearly empty hallways briskly, Brian holding my right hand gently as he walked beside the stretcher. “What happened to the other guy?” he asked.
“He seemed okay at the scene. His teenage daughter was with him. They were both shook up but walking around. He kept apologizing, but the police charged him with the accident, I heard. I don’t know if he went to the hospital.”
“Buddy’s lucky,” he said, shaking his head.
After a full CT scan and examination, we found ourselves in a curtained cubicle with the coveted doctor. “Let’s run through what I have here and make sure everything was covered,” she said. “In addition to the head injury and concussion, we have the spinal injury through the thoracic spine, the neck—looks like bad whiplash—your left wrist, the left hip, left knee, your left foot, seems to be soft tissue damage with all this bruising everywhere, plus these nasty seat belt lacerations on your neck. Right?”
“Right,” Brian said. “That sounds like everything.”
“You have a long road ahead of you, but you’ll walk it,” she said. “You’re lucky.”
“Yes, so I hear,” I said.
“I’ll refer you out everywhere for the healing process, but your family doctor will be your hub for the physio, the neurologist, the soft tissue damage, all of it. There will likely be other injuries that surface over time, so prepare yourself for a long road. The concussion will heal with time and rest—ice, stay awake, no screens, that sort of thing. Now, we’re a little worried about this—see here on the scan?” She pointed to a dark circle in the image of my brain.
“This spot on the scan? It looks like there is bleeding on the brain. That’s the big worry—it could spread or do something, but given everything I think we’ll watch it but not panic yet. We’ll be sending you to a neurologist tomorrow and doing a follow-up scan. You can either sleep here in the cubicle or you can go home. It’s been an insane night here, and we’re at capacity for beds, so your call.”
“I want to go home,” I said. “I just want to go home. I want my house and my kids and my life.”
“Home it is, then,” she said. She turned to Brian: “You need to watch out for her tonight. If she throws up, if she seems foggy, if her face sags, if her speech starts slurring, if you have any reason to think she’s not doing good, you call an ambulance. Got it?”
He looked at me and his eyes softened.
“Got it,” he said. “Let’s get you home, Styles.” He lifted me into a wheelchair and began to wheel me toward his car.
I. Psalm 103:4–5, NIV.
II. I write about this much more in my second book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith (New York: Howard Books, 2015).
III. Isaiah 40:29–31, NIV.
IV. For the non-Canadians: a double-double is a large coffee with two creams and two sugars, usually from our national coffee chain Tim Hortons.