Tonight, I have a true story to tell. I am also not sure if I have the words to express all the things I wish to have others understand. This particular moment in my life is tough to grasp out of memory even though I think of it every time I drive through Delaware.
22 years ago — 1997. It was 2 years before I became a parent, but my wife and I had already been together for a few years. There was an engagement party for one of my cousins at my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Baltimore. I don’t recall exactly why any longer, but I had a smaller window of availability then my parents.
I needed to drive there myself – arriving earlier and leaving earlier than requested. Meanwhile, my parents were in a separate car with my grandmother and my great aunt. When the time came, I made the drive home with clear skis and speedy timing and eventually settled in for the night.
At some point, I was awakened by a phone call from my mother. She called from the hospital in Delaware. My mother, father, grandmother, and great aunt had all left about an hour after me and been part of a large multi-car accident in Delaware.
It was late at night. It had begun to snow. I needed to drive back down. I was exhausted and now anxious. I’d already driven about 8 hours back and forth earlier in the day. I couldn’t get a lot of details from my mother, but I knew that she thought that at least my father and my Great Aunt were in really bad shape. They’d been hit at an angle from behind the rear passenger side causing the car to do a 360 and then hit a third car in the driver’s side front. Apparently, it was a mess of many many cars and they’d been somewhere in the middle of all of it.
My wonderful wife drove us both back south because I was too would up while also wiped out to be safe. We found some cheap motel near the hospital where and went to see what we could find out in the middle of the night. Everyone was in bad shape and the doctors were very worried about all four of them.
In the end, everyone recovered and although there were long hospitalizations for some, no one from our family died as a result of the accident. That is not exactly what this memory is about. . . and yet it is also about the fragility of it all.
It was the first time in my adult life that I truly felt my parents’ mortality. It was the first time that I can remember having to be the adult that took care of adult-like things for them.
Not just at the hospital in conversations with doctors. . . I also had to go find where the car had been towed. I contacted insurance for more info. I did all the things that one does in these situations.
It is a visceral memory about mortality and how quickly life has the capacity to dramatically change. It is also about stepping up. About having a life partner who has got your back and helps you figure out how to step up when needed.
I knew I needed to write about this because I drove down to Washington last night. I think about that night back in 1997 every time I drive past the big blue “H for Hospital” sign about halfway through Delaware. The drive. That highway exit. That cheap motel. The entranceway to that hospital. They are all moments etched clearly into my psyche that resurface every time I take this drive.
In some ways, the extent of that accident is all a stroke of pure luck.
My guess? 5 or 10 miles faster from any one of the three cars directly involved in the crash and I’d have been given 22 less years with my parents. 20 years less with my grandmother. My kids would have never had the experience of my parents in their lives. I would have never had the experience of chatting mother to mother with my own mother and grandmother.
There is an alternate universe me who has a life dramatically changed on March 9, 1997.
Cherish the people you love. Life can change quickly and irreversibly.
347 Days to go.