I can’t remember why it was just my mother and I going to Grand Rapids that time. I think now, looking back on it that my mother must have had to do more work on my Uncle’s estate, and had to deliver documents in person. But none of my other siblings were with us; my brother stayed with my father and my sister was old enough to be left home alone. My mother and I trekked the three hours west in the late winter.
It didn’t seem that strange to me at all to be surrounded by adults when we visited. In fact, I really loved it. My elderly great aunts and uncles always talked to me with great interest in whatever it was I was doing or interested in. They wanted to share things with me too; my Aunt Maurine always showed me her photo albums full of old photos and told stories of when she was younger. Aunt Katie was always baking, and she taught me how to make her brownies and pie crust. Uncle Dave was the writer in the family, and he eagerly talked to me about my own writing and how he got started. I listened with interest to their dinner table debates on the Irish Republican Army or the death penalty.
We were coming home on Sunday afternoon. The weather was horrible; lake effect snow was falling hard and fast and it was slow going in the car. I was seated behind my mother, even though I was the only passenger. We had the dog with us, and my mother and I both agreed that it simply wasn’t safe to have the dog in the front seat. So I was in the back with the dog.
It was slow going, but I wasn’t worried. We had driven in a similar snow storm on the same route going up to Grand Rapids before. My mother just drove slowly and stayed in the ruts made from the 18 wheelers that always were on the interstate, no matter the weather. Slowly, slowly the miles peeled away…first we hit Lowell, then Grand Ledge, then Lansing, then Okemos. My mother was tense but sure.
And then suddenly, we saw a car on the side of the road. Inexplicably, the car started pulling out from the shoulder, even though we were approaching in the right lane. Silently, I could see my mother gauge what to do; swerving into the unplowed snow of the next lane was not an option. She eased up on the gas but it wouldn’t be enough to avoid hitting the car. She tapped the brake to slow the car just enough to avoid hitting the car.
But it was too much. The pressure was just enough to cause the car to lose control and start fishtailing. As if we were in slow motion, I watched as the car came to a stop at a 90 degree angle to oncoming traffic. I watched my mother, again, still silent, try to move us out of the position that put us directly in the path of any cars that might be behind us. I looked out the window and saw a single pair of headlights coming directly towards us. Without thinking, I leaned forward and put my arms around our dog in a protective grip and waited.
The impact didn’t seem that bad. The car that hit us hit right in the spot where I was crouched forward, where the car door met the frame of my mother’s small car. It didn’t hurt; I don’t remember it hurting at all right away. My mother’s voice came from the front seat: “Are you OK? Are you OK?” I answered that I was, so was the dog, was she OK? She said she was.
I don’t remember getting out of the car, though I suppose we must have. In those days before cell phones, I have no idea how long it was before the police came, and how much longer after that, the ambulance. I do remember being loaded into the ambulance and the paramedics having to ask my mother and I to stop holding hands so that they could walk between us. We were both in shock. No tears, no hysterics, just discussions on which hospital to take us to. We didn’t know exactly where we were on the interstate, and we weren’t familiar at all with the hospitals in the area.
My mother had broken ribs and I suffered a broken collarbone. It could have been much, much worse. The paramedics played with our dog while we were examined and x rayed in the ER. Finally, they helped us find a dog friendly hotel and set us up with a cab to get there after we were discharged.
It wasn’t until we were holed up in our tiny hotel room in Lansing, with the dog curled up on my mother’s bed, that it finally hit us. “Mom, I have stuff in my hair,” I told her, confused. She reached over to me.
“It’s broken glass,” she said as she pulled a tiny, round bit of it out from my scalp. Her voice was thick, and the tears that had waited for hours to come dripped onto the hotel blanket.
It was in that moment, when we both realized how lucky we were to be alive. Neither of us slept well that night.