“God save us,” my spirit cried out as my mind was sure of the fact that I would die.
From time to time I’ve pondered how I would face the moment of death.
I don’t think about it often, but every now and then the thought does come to me. Sometimes softly as in a moment of reflection like a bird that flies in unexpectedly through an open window and perches on a piece of furniture in the house.
And there it is. You marvel at the unexpected site for a moment then shoo it away.
Sometimes the thought is thrust upon me, most often when I am witness to a tragic event broadcast on the evening news, or a grievous story retold by a friend, or a soul-piercing photo published on the Internet, in a newspaper, or magazine. I mourn for the heartbreaking passing of someone whom I did not know and I am again reminded of my own mortality.
And then I lived it on the evening of January 30, 2004.
Hannah and I were returning home from an evening at the American Airlines Center after taking in a Dallas Stars game and hanging around a bit to chat with a friend who works for the Stars.
We had merged onto Central Expressway South and Hannah had turned up the radio. We were both singing along to a country song she liked, “Chicks Dig It,” by Chris Cagle. Good or bad, I’ll never forget that song.
Then I caught an erratic flash of headlights in my rearview mirror.
“Oh, my God,” I cried out loud and pressed on the accelerator. Although at the time I couldn’t have explained what was happening behind me, instantly I knew it wasn’t good. My first thought was that a car behind me was spinning out of control. Perhaps if I went faster I could avoid a collision.
Then there was a deafening boom. This was followed by an incredible surge in speed like when an airline pilot thrusts the engines for takeoff.
For a brief moment my 2000 4-Runner was airborne with my back wheels leaving the pavement and the body of the car lifting up and to the left.
Hannah and I began what felt like a slow motion, weightless ballet, our bodies and arms rising from the seats and to the left.
The car landed first on the driver’s side with the majority of the force unleashed on the cargo area scattering its contents into traffic. Then the back end rose up and forward flipping over the top catching just enough of the roof to crush the top edge of the windshield, releasing bits and pieces of glass into the passenger compartment. The car performed a small pirouette on the hood and came crashing down a final time on the passenger side, spinning like a top down the freeway.
I had entered a dimension of time and space that was completely unfamiliar.
While I was never unconscious I lost a second, or two, or three of time.
There was brief break from reality, a skipping forward in time.
I imagine this phenomenon as a type of brain processing error. Having been overwhelmed with input, the brain goes through some sort of reset routine to adjust to the current reality: we were singing then we were upside down. Then I wished I was unconscious because I was certain that I was going to die.
It’s interesting as I reflect on my thought of death in that moment: it was singular, not plural. Even though Hannah was in the car with me death was something I faced alone.
The flight from our seats was short-lived. With a sudden snap of the seat belts we were secured.
As the car flipped, tumbled, and skidded down the freeway horror gripped me and I accepted the fact that I was going to die. Simultaneously to this thought I wished it were not so.
“Please keep us safe! Please keep us safe!” was the simple cry of my soul. I didn’t even speak it, I thought it. And that thought, unlike the death thought was for both of us.
It was a plea for help beyond what I was able to do for myself or my child. Never in my life had I felt so utterly helpless and hopeless. I could in no way rely on my own genius or devices to extract me from this terrifying situation.
As soon as the cry was made, the answer came.
In an instant I felt an incredible peace and a presence in the car complete with an assurance that we would live. Amidst the darkness, overwhelming noise, wind, dirt, glass, sparks from the concrete-to-metal contact, a foul smell, and Hannah’s terrified screams my heart was at peace.
I reached over and looped my arm under hers and tried to pull her as far away from the concrete as I could.
Then we stopped skidding and it was quiet.
The wheels of my car had come to a gentle rest against the guardrail of the elevated freeway with the headlights pointing back into traffic. I paused for a moment anticipating a second collision then scrambled to get out.
I unclicked my seatbelt and fell to the center console. I extended my leg across and past Hannah onto her car door. In one fluid motion I lifted myself out of my seat, freed Hannah from her seatbelt, and hunkered down to step through the windshield, the only way out. I turned to Hannah with an extended hand and commanded that she give me hers. I felt a supernatural confidence and resolve to get her out and away safely. She emerged from the car onto the pavement and we walked a good 15-20 yards away before anyone reached us.
I put my arms around her as she sobbed and held her tight giving God thanks over and over and over.
The police and paramedics arrived and we had a couple of x-rays at Baylor Hospital to make sure nothing was broken. Hannah had a bump on her head and some road rash on her elbow that had torn through two or three layers of clothing. Two weeks prior to the wreck she had had surgery to repair a torn ACL in her left knee. Her knee was fine having been protected by the knee brace she was wearing at the time.
My back hurt, I think more from the backboard that the paramedics strapped me to than the wreck, my right hip hurt when I walked, and my neck was sore. Something had hit me in the head during our tumble, but it didn’t leave a visible bump or bruise. All were very minor injuries.
The other driver did not stop. My car was totaled, but had performed amazingly well for a tumble down the freeway at 60 mph.
One of the witnesses told me the hit-and-run driver had been weaving in and out of traffic traveling between 80 and 100 mph and had been passing people on the shoulder of the road. He had rear-ended me when he had reentered the lane.
The “what ifs” kept me from sleeping that night even with powerful pain medication in my system.
What if a car had been in the lane next to me? What if we had flipped on top of another car? What if we had flipped off the bridge? What if another car had hit us while we were flipping? What if Hannah’s arm had been pinned under the car as it flipped on its side?
There seemed to be no end to the number of what ifs I could come up with. I would barely drift off to sleep only to awaken with a jerk and the continuous rolling of what ifs through my head.
What I eventually realized about that night is there were no what ifs. Only “what was.” And “what was” was a miracle.
Lying in the hallway of the emergency room the policeman had who worked my wrecked leaned over me and said, “You know you’d be dead if you hadn’t been wearing your seatbelt.”
I was in too much of a state of shock to disagree, but I knew I could have easily died that night even wearing a seat belt. I often hear of rollover accidents where passengers are not ejected and yet die from their injuries. Those are the stories that make the evening news.
I know why I am alive today. In an instant I had had an answer to prayer.
So on this Thanksgiving Day I am thankful that while life is both precious and precarious, God is sovereign and good. And I marvel at his mercy in my life and my daughter’s life that night.
It's been harder to shake the memory of this experience than I thought it would be. Every now and then my mind flashes back and it takes my breath away. But those moments are fewer as more time passes. And it helps to write about it.
I know one day I will face death for the last time. It is a certainty. But even at that moment I will know that God is sovereign and good, and I will give thanks just as I do today.