Just the other day I found myself being reminded about important dates, and how I couldn’t remember some dates over others. It made me realize what the nature of “important” was. I used to think I knew what was important, but it’s kind of changed for me now. You figure that there are dates in your life that are important – you know, like your high school graduation, or your first date, your prom, shit like that. But for me – I can’t seem to remember any of the dates.
I can’t remember the first time I drank alcohol. Or the first time I drove a car. I can’t remember the day I lost my virginity or the day I had my first kiss… all these things that I previously might have thought were important, things that “changed my life forever”…
I didn’t know what that meant. Not until Tuesday, December 20th, 1994 at around 1:30pm on Route 12 about a quarter-mile away from the Auburn Mall. That day, that moment – that event is burned so firmly into my head that I am never going to forget it.
I was driving with a friend to pick up my girlfriend’s locket, a Christmas present that I had engraved at the Mall. We had just stopped at Dragon’s Lair East, a local game and hobby store near Webster Square, and I was reading the comics and gaming materials I had bought there.
The world stopped. Or rather, was jarred off its foundations. It was like a movie, taking the camera and shaking it so hard that the whole image was completely vibrating. And the sound… like nothing I ever heard before, or ever hope to hear again. Crashing, tearing, twisting… I can barely describe it. Like a tornado, like a train rushing past. I think I must have screamed, but I sure didn’t hear it. I looked around, got my bearings, and realized that the car was a smoking wreck.
We had hit a semi head on. My friend’s face slumped over the steering wheel, covered with bleeding lacerations. I checked myself and noticed that I was intact, not cut badly anywhere… but an ominous warmth in my leg signaled what I knew to be true, that I had broken it.
“My leg’s broken. I can tell.”
“Jesus,” said the paramedic. “Left leg, lower, it’s… Jesus… mangulated,” he moaned and coughed.
Mangulated. My left foot and ankle had broken to the right, pushed aside by the engine block as it sloughed its way through the underbelly of the car. I didn’t feel any pain then, nor could I see what had happened to my foot. Gotta love those endorphins.
I know my immediate family’s birthdays: Dad, January 30th. Mom, April 13th. Sis, February 1. I know what day my paternal grandfather died, but that’s because it was on New Year’s Eve. I can’t remember when my great-grandfather died, even though I can say I loved him more.
Maybe the dates aren’t that important. Maybe what’s important are the feelings that I associate with the events, and not the events themselves – the dead moments of the past, rustling like old parchment in my head. They’re only subjective memories though, they’re not even close to what truly happened. What difference does a day make? Maybe a bigger one than anybody thinks. Everything can change in a day. You could go from being happy to being depressed, being rich to being destitute, sane to insane, married to divorced, young to old…
Or from being alive to sucking dirt.
It’s amazing how you can turn a negative experience around if you really want to. I could look back on what happened to me and think – “If I had been driving, it wouldn’t have happened.” or “Maybe if I was paying attention I could have stopped it.” or simply “Why me?” But I don’t. I don’t blame anyone for what happened (actually I blame Willard K. Weist, 69, of Pennsylvania – the driver of the truck, but let’s not dwell on it).
I look back on it now and recall that I wasn’t panicked. After some futile attempts to crawl out the broken window I realized I had to wait. I tried to help my friend, I held his bleeding hand, tried to talk to him. I gave all the firemen and paramedics all the information I could. I stayed conscious the whole time.
Looking back at that tells me that I have the strength to survive a disaster. That I can go through a catastrophe without panic, that I can have a clear mind even with a broken leg. A worthy prize, but a pretty steep cost.
I still have a bum leg. I still have the lump/dent that reminds me of how far away from my tibia that chunk of bone is. I still ache on the hot humid days and the rainy days and the cold damp days. I still have the flashbacks occasionally, and I’m right back in that steaming mass of rended Honda Civic waiting to be burned alive or saved, and they throw the blanket over me and saw the top of the car off and oh god please don’t let this thing blow up and they pull me out and Jesus Christ it hurts so bad grinding bones and yes they really do grind isn’t it interesting that I’ve never felt quite this much in pain before holy shit it hurts. [insert screaming here]
Still… it could be worse. I’m still here. I can still walk. I still have a future.
I’m not a hedonist now, nor do I think I will ever become one. If I hadn’t thought material things were insignificant before, I sure do now. But neither am I spiritual. People are always telling me I’m going to end up believing in God someday, but you know, I was a hair’s breadth away from death, and it hasn’t changed me in that way. Christ, my whole family’s faith has been practically reaffirmed by my survival – “Boy, you sure had somebody looking out for you!” and so forth – and I couldn’t have reacted less.
I guess it all comes back to what’s important. And what is that, you say? What is the sacred mystery that I learned from staring death in the face? What secrets were revealed to me?
Take it as it comes. Live every moment to the fullest. Love with every ounce of your being. How many more clichés do you need?
Let me just put it this way… mortality has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it, so you better make damn sure you’re prepared to face it when it comes. Life is what’s important, and living it is the hardest thing you’re ever going to do.
It sure beats the alternative though.