A week ago Friday, Emma and I went for a drive. The purpose was to get her on the freeway for the first time—on Saturday, we were heading to Bismarck to visit friends, and that long drive straight west is a great opportunity to get practice hours behind the wheel. We had planned to take the Suburban, but Emma had less experience and comfort with the Blue Beast, so we opted to take the minivan. It is getting older, but it’s my daily driver and a little easier for a new driver to manage.
Emma has been doing well in her driving thus far. She is focused and attentive and rarely gets rattled. She has driven 55 to 60 miles per hour on regular roads and has experience in town traffic, but this was to be her first time on the freeway. I drove us westward on I-94, away from the Cities and end-of-the-workday traffic, reminding her as we went of what she had learned in class: merging, moving over for entering traffic, blind spots, etc. She admitted she was nervous, but no more so than trying any other new thing behind the wheel. I offered that we should get off at the Hasty exit, and that she could drive toward Maple Lake on regular roads a bit before we looped back and got on the freeway. And so we did.
The sun was setting as we approached the freeway and turned right onto the eastbound ramp. Westbound traffic was still heavy; eastbound, not so much. So far so good. I talked her through the merge as we headed down the ramp, and she responded: Get up to speed. Signal. Check your blind spot…
A vehicle was in the near lane, closing on us. We both saw it; it was difficult to tell if they were letting us in, and Emma said so. We looked forward at roughly the same time and saw we were coming off the ramp and onto the shoulder, which was covered with a thin layer of slushy snow. The van began to fishtail.
In the first instant, I imagined steering out of it—but of course, I was not steering. In the next, I felt the rear tires break loose and knew we would not recover. I could hear Emma yelling, but as though at a distance. My body relaxed. I saw nothing. I felt us spin across traffic. I heard the crunch of the car that hit us, and the roar of the tires plowing sideways into the snowy median. I worried we would slide into the westbound lanes. I waited for the airbags to deploy and for us to come to stop. But my overriding thought was, Whenever we stop, wherever and however we stop, I need to make this okay for Emma. She needs to know that it’s okay. That she’s okay.
I knew that we had struck something else and that we weren’t heading back into traffic. We came to rest in the median, facing west. We looked around a long moment in silence, getting our bearings. I could see another wrecked vehicle in the median behind us, and a few other vehicles stopped on the shoulder to render aid. Traffic in both directions slowed to a crawl.
Emma appeared unhurt, but shaken. I rubbed her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. “It doesn’t seem real.”
“It’s okay, baby girl. It’s gonna be okay.”
People came and went, checking on us. We had struck the cable barrier in the median, and the top cable had stretched and slipped over the sloped front of the van and around the driver’s side, pinning all our doors shut. My phone wouldn’t work initially, but a nurse on his way to work assured us that the police and rescue were in route, and that the driver of the other vehicle was not seriously injured. Finally I reached Jodi to tell her what had happened and that we would not make it home for Mass to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I told her we would need a ride home, but not yet. I told her I would call again when I could. I told her we loved her.
The state trooper who arrived treated us with respect and sympathy; since we were unable to get out, he tended to the other driver first. We never met her. The fire and rescue workers worried aloud that the stretched cable could break and whip around, causing more injury and damage. Finally they managed to get the passenger-side slider open and we exited the minivan. It was dark, but there did not appear to be a body panel undamaged.
I was a little stiff and sore. Emma had a lump on the left side of her forehead. The rescue workers checked her for signs of concussion (all negative in the moment) and gave her ice for the bump. The trooper spoke briefly to us, gave us a self-reporting form for the crash, and arranged for the tow truck to give us a ride back up to the Hasty truck stop, where Jodi would pick us up. “You’re in Albertville?” he said. “You can probably get your wife started out this way. I hope you have a better night.”
That became the refrain: Hope you have a better night. I imagined what could have been and thought, Thank God it wasn’t worse.
* * * * *
We were just three minutes late to Mass. We went to Bismarck the next day, to see Brendan and watch his friends as Scrooge and Marley in a great production of A Christmas Carol. Emma did not drive, and I do not blame her. She discovered a bump on her left knee and a second, smaller bump on her head, and she had body aches and headaches on and off throughout the weekend. The swelling on her knee went down, but the headaches persisted when she returned to school, so we took her in to get checked. The doctor said she may have a mild concussion and to give her brain a break over the next few days. She is getting better.
The insurance company inspected the van and declared it a total loss; when we went to remove our personal items, my initial perception was confirmed—it was battered all around, with the deepest dent in the driver’s door. It looked to me as though the other car struck us there, perhaps cornering into us as we spun to face them. That would account for Emma’s bumps on the left knee and forehead. I guess we were all heading the same direction at the same speed, and that took a little off the impact. The airbags never fired, but if they had, perhaps we would have been hurt worse. We leveled about a dozen metal posts in the median, but the cables wrapped and held us.
It was hard to look too long at the driver’s door. It’s hard to write about it, but all’s well that ends well, they say.
* * * * *
How many times ought I to have wrecked, and this was my first. I hit a deer once, and I’ve gone into the ditch several times. I’ve taken a wet exit ramp too fast and spun out parallel to a hard-braking, inbound semi with only a tiny curb between us. I’ve failed to see a left-turning vehicle until the last moment and locked up the brakes on the old Ford pickup, howling to a stop just short of the back bumper. I’ve looked into the face of a frightened driver as his pickup pirouetted in front of me at highway speeds and spun into a snowy median.
Last weekend another friend was travelling with his wife—they had just installed a pellet stove in their new log home, and planned to be gone for the entire weekend. At some point, they decided to come to home earlier, and found their house filled with thick, acrid smoke from the overheating stove. Had they stayed another night, they may have lost their home.
We like to pretend that we are large and in charge in this life. But I know I should be dead several times over. Why God spares me and not others is the great mystery of His providence—and I believe the workings of His perfect love and justice will be revealed one day.
In the meantime, my mind returns again and again to that moment when I felt the rear tires let go, and when I let go—when the lights and noise and chaos faded; when the reality of resting entirely in God’s hands enveloped me in peace, and the clarity of my call to love my daughter was the only thing that mattered in all the world.
I love you, Rosebud. It’s okay. You’re okay.
Strange as it seems, this accident was a moment of grace. Thank you, Jesus, for knocking on my heart.
Thank you, as well, for not knocking harder.