The day my life changed

There are moments in everyone’s life where a single event has far-reaching consequences. Things like “if I hadn’t gone to that party, I never would have met so-and-so.” As I think back on my own experience in life, I can point to one event that changed me like no other. It altered my body ever so slightly, but it also fundamentally changed my outlook on life and the way that I live it.

It was a sunny spring day in 1985. I was a junior in high school, and was a few months short of my 17th birthday. I was scheduled to take the ACT on the upcoming Saturday, and I hadn’t yet determined what I was going to after graduating from high school. I was like most 16 year olds in that regard.

I was in my third year of taking Spanish classes, and we were traveling that day to Western Illinois University, to participate in a statewide Spanish competition. I had gone to the competition at Western the previous year, and it was the first time I had been on a college campus before. So I sort of knew what to expect, and it was mostly a day to get way from the typical high school routine.

One of the guys in my class had driven to school that day, and he and two of my other classmates  and I were going to drive over to Macomb–the city where Western is located–by ourselves. Driving was still a new thing for all of us, and when you’re 16 or 17, you haven’t got too much road experience under your belt. And you think you’re invincible, and that nothing can ever happen to you. It’s a dangerous mix.

We got outside of town OK, and weren’t on an interstate as much as a big road of some type. I was in the back seat, on the passenger’s side, and wasn’t wearing a seat belt. I don’t think any of us were. Seat belt laws were being contemplated back then, but the idea of forcing someone to put a seat belt on seemed unAmerican on some level. Such was the thinking back in those days.

At some point, I remember the driver of the car (I won’t be using any names here) reaching toward the tape deck (nobody knew about CDs back then). As he was doing this, the road curved to the left. He went off the road, and to compensate he jerked the steering wheel violently in the other direction. And that’s when I blacked out.

When I came to, I don’t know how many minutes later, I was in an ambulance on my way to a hospital. I could feel an intense pain in my right leg, and the paramedics had cut my pantleg open and couldn’t find any wound there. I remember asking what happened, and they told me the car had gone off the road and crashed into a tree. I asked what happened to the others in the car, and was told everybody was all right. And they were telling me the truth, too. Of the four of us in the car, I was the one who was injured the most.

We got to the hospital, and I was taken to the emergency room for treatment. The doctor who came in, along with an assistant, noticed that I had a piece of glass lodged in my neck. The paramedics apparently hadn’t seen it, or didn’t remove it if they did. I remember the doctor pointing the glass out to another doctor, or possibly it was a medical student, and saying “Look at that. It didn’t miss by much.” They removed the glass, stitched me up, and sent me home with the directions to take it easy for a few days.

The shirt I was wearing that day–a “baseball jersey” with blue sleeves–had lots of blood on it, and had to be thrown out. Same thing with the pants I wore. I hurt more than I ever had before, but I had a job as a grocery bagger and I was scheduled to work for a few hours after school. I didn’t want to lose the job, so I went to work and did the best I could. I came home and read through the latest issue of Rolling Stone that had come in the mail that day. I remember that Madonna was on the cover, for some reason.

When I went to school the next day–no convalescing for me!–I was greeted by questions about what had happened. I didn’t have too much to offer, but I remember very clearly one of my classmates telling me he had seen the wreckage of the car, and was amazed that we had all lived. Whether he was exaggerating or not, it was the first time I considered that wrapping a car around a tree could have deadly consequences. And yet–thankfully–all of us had avoided this fate. But how many others aren’t so lucky?

The postscript is that I took the ACT that weekend, and started out well enough but was really in a lot of pain for the second two sections of the test. I never considered taking it again, though, and as it turns out I still did reasonably well. I came home from the test, and my family had prepared a special lunch for me. My dad said that I had almost “checked out” (I still remember that phrase), but he was glad that I didn’t. For someone who always kept his emotions close to the vest, it was about as much as I was going to get. But it was enough for me.

When the car went off the road that day, I was instinctively afraid of things. I couldn’t take swimming classes for fear that I was going to drown. I avoided dogs at all costs, for fear that one of them would attack me. I had never flown in a plane before, but the fear of crashing would have made for a terrible experience. All of that changed in the wake of that day.

I realized on that day that it wasn’t my time–or anyone else in that car’s time–to leave yet. There was something I was meant to do in my life, and once that was accomplished, then it would be my time to go. I don’t know what that thing will be, and when that time will come, but I can’t do anything to control it, either. So I’m not afraid of things anymore. And I have a raging sense of fatalism, which I’m reminded of every time I run my fingers over the scar on my neck.

There are always stories about the person who jumps into a river and lives to tell about it. Or the person who was run over by a car and killed on their way to buy some milk. Whenever somebody lives, it’s for a reason. Conversely, whenever somebody dies, it’s also for a reason. People have created religion to wrap their minds around it, calling this sort of thing “providence” or “God’s will.” I’m not religious, so I don’t subscribe to that part of it. But I can understand the appeal that it has.

Who lives, and who dies? And how is it determined? I don’t know, but I am willing to go with it for as long as I’m allowed to. And the realization that these things are random, and completely out of my control, has shaped my life ever since. I didn’t physically die that day, but the forever-afraid person that I was did die, and a different person has inhabited his body ever since. And I’m certainly happy about that.

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