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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why Accidents Will Happen

I am a driver.  A road warrior.  I once drove from Rhode Island to DC to visit with a relative in the hospital then on to Wilmington, N.C. in one day with a 7 year old in tow.  Distances don’t faze me; heavy traffic is an annoyance, not a phobia.  The 95 corridor is my well-beaten path but my son and I have regularly taken other 6 to 10 hour drives on roads less travelled.  I have driven in Boston, New York City (and the boroughs) and drove the mean streets (and meaner highways) of L.A. for nine long years.

And I have never had an accident.  Or even been ticketed with a moving violation.  Until last weekend.
It was a routine, 6 hour trip from my Mom’s (once my grandparent’s) summer cottage (cottage too grand a word, so we refer to it as a “camp”) on Lake Ontario.  I have made this exact same trip every summer for the past 7 years with my son.  This year we were heading home to celebrate his 11th birthday the next day.

I was tired from our week away and deliberately made several stops; gas, Costco, restrooms, even some ice cream for the almost-birthday boy.  We were about an hour and 15 minutes from home when it happened.  In a flash.  A flash that left me shaking uncontrollably while whispering, “Oh my God, I just had an accident” over and over.
Once the helpful and courteous police and paramedics had done their jobs and the most badly damaged car had been towed away, the kid and I were on the road again.  Seatbelts locked in the crash position, airbag light blinking (although no airbag deployed), glove compartment askew.  But most of all the surreal sense that life was changed, that I was changed, forever.  And not in a good way, either.

Once I got home and unloaded a week’s worth of luggage and laundry and treasures from the vehicle, the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s began in full force. 
If ONLY we had left 15 minutes earlier.  Or later.  If ONLY we hadn’t stopped for ice cream.  Or gone to Costco.  If only I had done just one little thing differently, I would not have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and all of this chaos and destruction could have been avoided.  So many situations that if they had taken a few seconds less or more would have gotten my son and me out of harm’s way.  Instead, we found ourselves quite squarely the victims of a horrible machination of fate.

And I had never had an accident before.  After the hundreds of thousands of miles I had driven, NOW I realized the bizarre and statistically improbable glorious good luck of it.  How suddenly an accident happens, with no warning, in that flash; I had certainly experienced near-misses in the past and although I had appreciated those moments of grace, they had instantly been elevated to the miraculous. 
So many tiny things that can go wrong, so many tiny decisions that can influence a devastating impact (literally and figuratively)… “Hey, accidents happen”….those parting words from the State Trooper have taken on a mythic quality.

I have heard a lot of people say that the words “Everything happens for a reason” are an absolute punch in the stomach when grieving a loss, enduring an illness or recovering from a trauma, and I understand those feelings.  But I am the sort who does search for meaning in everything and I find comfort in doing that. 
The relative I visited in DC at the hospital on that marathon drive day was a young cousin of mine who would later succumb to her illness at just 27 years old, leaving a tiny daughter behind.  I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with her when I was living in Charlottesville and she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia; she and I were in many ways “birds of a feather”.  After her untimely death, a local newspaper printed a story about her called “The Meaning of Life”.

The article discussed, among other things, a video she had made for her father’s birthday with the same title.  A video depicting people from all demographics and walks of life that emphasized we are all “in this thing together”.   In my travels, this has always been a point that impresses me.  Highway service areas are such a fascinating cultural phenomenon, even more so than airports, because the road weary are so courteous to each other.  We hold doors open and make eye-contact and share “moments” because we have literally walked a mile in each other’s shoes that very day and want to show some kind of support.
At highway service (rest) areas we all know that the “other” has been driving too, at least long enough to require a break and probably a lot longer than that.  We are hungry, tired and need to pee.  We are “fellow travelers to the grave” as Dickens so poignantly put it, and we take comfort in each other and whatever niceties we can extend.  We are all “in this thing together” and for a moment we remember how a smile can make a difference.

I thought I had never had an accident before.  But then I had an accident and realized that (to paraphrase something Einstein may or may not have said) either all of life is an “accident” or all of life is NOT…in other words, I have either had millions of accidents or else every little thing about my life, every moment has impacted and built on others in deeply meaningful ways I may or may not ever fully comprehend. 
I am choosing to believe the latter.    I have always been in awe of people who face personal tragedy and trauma with courage and grace…they stand in such sharp contrast to those of us who allow ourselves to be undermined and overwhelmed by daily nuisances and inconveniences.  But now I understand:  to survive anything is to know grace.  When we are confronted with our fallibility, our vulnerability and our mortality in an undeniable way, it ironically makes us stronger.  And more humble.  Much, much more humble.

My “accident” has changed me forever; I realize above all that while every decision I make has some kind of influence on the world, I am not in charge or “in control”.  Accidents will happen.  In a split second, life will be changed.  We will lose people we love too soon. 
The best we can do is to consider that we are all "in this thing together”, as my wise young cousin put it, and make decisions that reflect that knowledge.  Like the butterfly that flaps its wings, we can never know how far-reaching our influence truly is…so we become ever mindful that “all for one and one for all” is the best approach. 

To everything, really.


  1. You're both OK. I'm grateful for that. It's a wonder we make it through those road trips without more carnage and blood. And now you know something new.

  2. So glad you were okay, Kara. I know how those things can shake you up. Nice essay on what we can take away from such events. :O)

  3. This sounds very scary. I love what you are taking away from this. Beautifully done.

  4. I hear you. Although I'm a klutz and the "accidents happen" mantra is something I have needed throughout my life. Fortunately no accident I have ever been or participated in has resulted in physical injury to another person... to my knowledge. But "we are all in this together" is probably the most important takeaway in each and every experience we have, whether we feel in control of it or not.