"... for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again..." - Luke 15:24
On Saturday morning my daughter Ellen and her friend Ciara drove our Honda Fit to visit friends at the University of Vermont, a roughly three hour trip from our home here north of Boston.
At about 10:45, my wife, sitting next to me, received a call on her cell phone, and I heard the hysterical voice of a young woman on the other end. Tricia's eyes opened wide and without a word she handed me the cell phone. It was Ciara. [ For what I was about to hear I in no way blame Ciara. Given what had just happened to her a few minutes before it is amazing she could even operate a phone at all.]
In the old days they would have called her "hysterical." Between sobs I could hear phrases like "the car swerved" and "I'm so sorry" several times. It took about 10 seconds of soothing talk for me to get her to calm down enough to answer the one question I needed answered - was anyone hurt? In those 10 seconds I tried to push away from my mind the implications of the fact that it was Ciara calling me and not Ellen, that Ciara was saying how sorry she was - and that Ellen's was not one of the voices I could hear in the background. But I could not ignore those implications and I was convinced I was about to be told that my daughter was dead.
I thank God and the engineers at Honda that this wasn't what I heard. Ellen, Ciara said, had a bloody nose but did not otherwise seem seriously injured, and was at that point lying on the ground covered in blankets waiting for the police and firemen to arrive. [It turns out that Ellen also endured a minor fracture of her lower back, from snapping forward over the seatbelt. There is no spinal cord danger in the injury, and no explicit treatment. She will be sore for several days and it should heal itself over a few weeks.] Ciara said she herself was uninjured. [And it turns out she had broken her left thumb, which indicates the state of mind she was in at the time of the call.] After a few more minutes of conversation I told Ciara I would be driving up immediately and would also try to contact her parents. I left a message on her home answering machine telling the story as I knew it - leading with the fact that there did not appear to be any serious injuries.
At the time, and during the drive up to Vermont, I didn't feel anything one way or the other about what had happened. It was just as though I were driving up for one of the many pickup/dropoff runs to college. I even continued listening to the audiobook I've been enjoying while running. That may sound callous, but it is something I have become used to as the way I naturally respond to stress. When I was younger this emotional distancing worried me. Was I some sort of monster? Doesn't a normal person feel something in such situations? I've reflected on this many times since and concluded that, yes, in some of the cases where this emotional distancing has occurred to me - indifference might be a better word - it is worrying and I should be worried about it. (I may write a post on this sometime, for it was through this that I learned the distinction between the spiritual and the emotional.) But at other times it is in fact a good thing, for it has allowed me to keep a level head in times of crisis. I take no credit for that because it's nothing I consciously developed; it just happens. It could have just as easily been that I fall to pieces in a crisis.
I didn't actually start to feel anything until I saw Ellen lying in bed in the hospital room. And the feeling was elation or rather joy. The words of the Gospel at the top of this post came to my mind. While she was out of sight behind a closed door getting a CAT scan, I also began to feel the emotions I should have felt during Ciara's original phone call. A sick feeling at the pit of my stomach like I had just been punched. The hope that what you are in is merely a nightmare from which you can wake up, fighting with the knowledge that this was indeed no nightmare.
But for me it was merely a nightmare, and when the door opened up and I saw her again, I woke up from the nightmare and experienced again the joy of seeing her talk and smile. These emotions alternated for the next few hours, along with emotions that are true enough to have become clichés: Feeling like you had a reprieve from a death sentence, feeling like you are truly appreciating someone for the first time. And there was also a deep pity for the mothers and fathers that weren't as fortunate as I was, and for whom the nightmare was not merely a nightmare. All these emotions finally began fading away in the drive back home. Maybe fading away because Ellen was simply sitting next to me.
The particulars: It appears that Ellen overcorrected from a drift, then overcorrected from the correction and ended up rolling the car on the interstate in Vermont. The Fit tumbled and, we think, also impacted some large boulders in the median that tore off the front end. Neither Ciara nor Ellen remember the accident itself, only the moments before and then finding themselves upside down in the car off the highway (the Fit ended up on its roof). The car was a comprehensive wreck but the passenger compartment remained intact. I've still got a daughter (and a daughter's friend) because they wore their seatbelts and Honda knows how to design a car. And there is always the rosary I kept in the cupholder.