Cheating Death

This afternoon I clicked on one of those facebook links. You know, one of the amazing wonderous groupings of incredible things.  It was a “near misses” compilation; dozens of people seemingly cheating sudden death, walking away from accidents that should have destroyed them.  There were people that froze as a car tumbled toward them, only to have it hit a tree, or a car, and careen in the other direction.  One guy got out of a car and seconds later a massive sign fell on it.  In one of the more stunning ones, after being hit on by another truck, a driver swings out of the missing front window of his truck by hanging onto the steering wheel as if he’s dismounting off of a pommel horse in the gym.  He nails the landing and walks away.  There was something about the video that made me feel hopeful.

This evening, I had a rushed dinner with my wife and kids and headed out of the house to meet my mother at a college basketball game.  I now live in the house I grew up in, the same one she recently left to move into a retirement community.  It’s odd to move back to one’s childhood home, but I’m getting used to it.  It’s even stranger with kids, though in some ways the internal intersection of childhood and parenthood connects me to the different perspectives.  I know that my mother gets anxious about being on time so I left early enough to walk to the game, about a mile and half away.  However, I stopped along the way to take some pictures.  For the past year I have shot almost exclusively with my iphone, but last week a friend sold me a small camera.  I can’t shoot in low light with the iphone so I wanted to make images that I had been seeing as I walked at night.

The basketball arena lies just outside our neighborhood, on the other side of a small highway bypass called 15-501. A few weeks shy of 8 years ago, my father was hit by a car crossing the highway while on his way to a game. He died pretty much instantly, I was told. As I approached the intersection I thought about taking pictures there. Though I’ve been down to the intersection many times, I think this was the first time I’ve been through there by myself on the way to a game. I’m a filmmaker, and a photographer, and I make a lot of images.

The highway is quite a bit higher than the neighborhood. Where I was walking, there was a steeply sloping, tree covered hill, that was held back by a cement wall at the bottom. It was about 20 feet higher than the road. A ribbon of metal fence stood at the top. Just as I made the decision to forgo the picture making, in order to get to the game on time, I heard the unmistakable sound of metal meeting metal. This was followed by the hot squeal of brake locked tires skidding and then a much louder, more terrifying, sound of metal grinding against metal. The first sound was a crash, and the second almost sounded like an explosion. Instinctively, I darted across the road, afraid that a car might come careening down the hill. I realized I was ducking, and I felt silly when no car appeared. I thought of the video I had seen that morning. I thought about the fact that I was thinking about my father.

Then there was an eerie sense of quiet, made even stranger by the fact that cars kept moving on the road. For a moment I almost thought I had imagined it. I expected shouting and a sense of urgency from above, but I didn’t experience it. As I said, the hill was too steep and covered with trees for me to climb so I hustled towards the intersection ahead where the highway meets the neighborhood, and the road to the arena. Before I reached the crossing, I got to a point where I could climb the hill to the highway. I wasn’t rushing, and I was almost undecided about whether or not I should go up to the accident site.

I thought about my mother as I climbed up to the roadway. When my father died, my mother had dropped him off at the intersection and drove back into our neighborhood to park. My father was hit but my mother didn’t know it and went to the game. When he didn’t show up at the game, she went back to look for him at halftime. At the intersection she saw that there was commotion ahead. As she approached she saw a former Social Work student of hers. When he said her name she knew. Later that night she called me and, with too much vigor, she barked, “Are you sitting down”. It was almost like a code for, “something horrific has happened”. I knew before she said it what it was.

I had called him at dinner time that evening, but no one answered, because they were on their way to the game. My message was still on the machine when I got there the next day. It was followed by her message from the arena, wondering why he hadn’t shown up.

As I moved up the highway, I tried to stay on the far side of the metal railing, but the drop off was too steep, almost like a cliff, so I stepped over it and carefully moved along, afraid in the dark night as cars rushed past. About 100 meters ahead I could see that one car was in the slower traffic lane where it had been rear-ended and the other, a station wagon, had smashed in to protective metal barrier, its back end barely peeking into the one passable lane, causing a snarl of cars to back up into the distance. The driver had cheated death. If the metal barrier had not been there, and she had gone over the hill its likely that she would not have survived, and just as likely that she would have come crashing down on me. I could see that the accident had sounded so loud because it had happened directly above where I was walking.

I quickly called 911 and described what I saw as I moved forward.  Approaching the scene and I could see that everyone seemed ok. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if they weren’t ok, so the sense of relief was strong.  A man in hunting camos stood by the truck, which actually looked almost drivable.  A woman was on the phone near the station wagon which was totalled.  In the chaos of the moment I had trouble making sense of who was with the cars and when a man emerged from the other side of the station wagon I asked if he was ok.  He replied that he was and then moved towards the truck.  I asked the woman, who was trying to dial her phone.  She said she was, but she was almost hyperventilating.  I had thought the man was with her but I realized that she was alone, and that she was young.  I asked if there was anything I could do to help.

“I’m ok I think… but I’ve never been in an accident.. I don’t know what to do.  I’m trying to call my mom… I was trying to call my mom, I can’t reach her.  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

She was clearly freaked out so I placed a hand on her arm to calm her.  I asked her again, “Are you sure you’re ok?”

She said that she was but I could see that she was scared, and in an anxiety spiral.  I have an 11 year old daughter who sometimes gets anxious and focuses on all the bad possibilities that might happen.  This girl wasn’t that much older really, and I could see her doing the same thing.  “Ok, listen to me.  You’re ok.  The other people are ok.  It’s just a car, and you have insurance, so it’s going to be ok.”

She shook her head as if to say that she understood, and started to talk, “I’m trying to reach my mom,” she gasped, struggling to get air.

“Ok, I think the first thing you need to do is try to breathe.  You’re not really breathing.  Let’s take some slow breathes together.  The police are on their way.”

Her eyes were both frozen and darting.  There was so much being processed that very little was being processed.  I noticed that the air bags had deployed.  When I was a kid, about 11 years old, my sister had an accident while driving my brother and I to a road race.  I broke my nose on either the dashboard or the ceiling.  I didn’t realize it was broken till later that day.  “The air bags deployed.  Did that save you?”


“It must have been terrifying too?  That must be why you didn’t really get hurt.” She nodded.  When I was even younger we had a little fender bender.  It was very minor.  However, my father got whiplash and it plagued him for years.  I’m working on a film about Dr. John Sarno, who believes that whiplash is emotion based rather than structurally so.  That is to say, the impact doesn’t cause it as much as our reaction to the impact.  Thinking about this I said, “You’re ok now, and you’re going to be ok tomorrow.  You’re lucky that you’re not hurt and you’re not going to be hurt from this.” I didn’t try to explain, I just tried to counteract the other ideas that people might unknowingly impart.  Ideas are so much more powerful that we want to believe.

This seemed to help.  I felt fatherly.  I asked if she needed a hug.  She didn’t.  The game traffic was piling up, and I got nervous about my mother being nervous.  I texted her but she didn’t respond.  She only got a smartphone a couple of weeks ago but she has been learning to text.  The girl and I talked about how long it was taking for the cops to come.  I quietly took a picture of the girl.  I asked her if she was a student.  She was, but not at the local University.  She was home for Christmas break and on her way to see her boyfriend.  I felt a lot of empathy for her, and for her parents.  When I was her age I wrecked my parents car. “It’s gonna be a tough holiday, huh?” I asked with a smile.  She almost laughed.  She was calming down, but it was still clear that her mind was racing and calculating all the bad that could come of this.  I thought about the guy in Colorado who went to shoot his debate teacher.  He didn’t find him but he shot another girl and killed himself.  He felt that his life was over because the suspension would probably keep him out of the navy.  I didn’t want her to feel that kind of stress. I’ve been meditating some, and I knew this was helping me to be present and calm in the situation.  She was really stressed because she knew it was her fault.

“Listen, it’s just a car accident,” I reminded her.  “Your parents will be mad, but they’ll get over it.  I know it feels like your life is over, but in the end, you’ll learn a lesson, and in a couple of months it won’t seem like such a big deal.”  I’m not sure why, but then I told her about my father.  I think it was just so weird that I had been thinking about him, and the near misses video, and then I had the near miss that she was a part of and I just felt like maybe it would put the whole thing in perspective.  She said she was sorry about my dad, but I explained that this wasn’t the point.  “What I really meant was, in the scheme of things, this is minor, everyone’s ok, and you’re going to be ok”.  I was getting through, but I could tell that she was still thinking about all the bad that was going to come.  I knew that it would be bad and expensive, but I also knew that it was going to get better, and that focusing so anxiously on the bad wasn’t going to help at all.  I explained this in some short hand.  Thoughts about the way we change as people as we age kept floating into my head.  I remembered my sense of panic when I had a wreck at her age.  I was going way too fast up a friend’s dirt driveway and the rear end fishtailed into a tree.  I remembered how well my father dealt with situations like this.  He could express rage at small transgressions, but was most often a rock when things were really bad, like a car wreck.  I knew that I was channeling that energy, but it didn’t feel like I was copying him.  It didn’t even feel like I was being him, but instead that I had finally become a parent rather than trying out the role of one.

I started to get worried about my mom being worried about me.  She’s anxious to begin with, but I knew that the game would make it worse, because of the association with my father, and because games make her nervous.  I couldn’t believe that no cops had shown up.  It had been almost 15 minutes already, and I felt the stirrings of a familiar sense of frustration.  I realized I felt this frustrated because I was caught between the need to get to the game for my mother’s sake and the sense that I needed to stay until the police arrived.  A few minutes later, when the girl was clearly calmed down I told her that I needed to get to my mother.  She seemed ok, but I paused, and then finally walked away.  I didn’t get her name and I had failed to give her mine.

I started back down the hill towards the intersection, and the game. I felt terrible, like I should have stayed till the cops came, but I had to balance out the competing needs. As I got to the intersection I saw two cops sitting in a van. I asked them if they knew there had been an accident 100 yards away. They did. I was annoyed. They assured me that cops were on their way as they had just heard it on the radio.

I crossed the intersection without really thinking about it. Now it’s all lit up when there’s a game, but when my father was trying to cross there was no light. The driver who hit him told me it was dark and he never even saw him till he came crashing through the front window. As he pulled over to side of the road he thought he had it a deer. As I walked up the hill to the game I finally got my mom on the phone. She was more nervous about the game than she was about me. Our team was losing. I felt even worse about leaving the girl, but I was far enough away at that point that it didn’t make sense for me to go back. I took a deep breath and let it go.

When I got to the game our team started to catch back up. My mom was so nervous she couldn’t face the court. She sat on the stairs, she moved around. We got within five points but then fell to eleven points down. Still the team fought back and tied it despite missing free throws, and getting terrible calls by the refs. It was a nail biter.

The last minute took forever.  In the end we lost, missing a last second shot that would have tied the game.  I almost didn’t mind losing by one shot because the tension was more exciting than a blow out, and not as depressing as a big loss.

As I walked back to my neighborhood, I stopped and took some pictures of the David Galinsky memorial light, as we like to call it.

There used to be no streetlights there at all.  Now they truck in a big light for games, and station officers there to help people cross.  Accidents will still happen though.  Hopefully, more often than not, we’ll continue to cheat death.

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