I’ve surrendered. Officially. Fate has worn me down, and I have conceded. I’ve finally realized I cannot hold the tsunami back any longer, and so I have just parked it and let it come. But as I look up at the size of the wave, at the the sheer enormity of what has happened to me, I’m suddenly overwhelmed. It’s happened. The unspeakable, unknowable horror of a serious and life-changing injury has happened. A tragedy that we dread, that we comfort ourselves could never happen to one of us, that we cannot peel our eyes from when we see it in someone else, has happened. To me.
I was in my first major car accident when I was fourteen years old. Momma Ape was pulling out of a fast food restaurant in the late afternoon. Another driver had motioned to let her in, and then, out of nowhere, a speeding commuter came flying up the lane – probably trying to make the light – and plowed right into my mother’s car, totaling it and I think his own, too.
I did not take it well. I still do not actually remember the impact. I have a snapshot of his car as a blur, coming into our line of sight, and then I’m sitting on the sidewalk while my mom talks to the police officer. I had gotten a little blue matchbox car from somewhere, and I busied myself with it like a small child, dismantling it a piece at a time, first the wheels, then the body, followed by the windows one by one. I gently worked the wheels off of the axles, and then the seating compartment out of the chassis. I remember taking that car apart more clearly than I remember anything else that happened that day. That year, even.
I remember the numbness. I had never understood what someone meant when he said it felt like he was at the end of a tunnel, colors bright but indistinct, voices and noise suddenly tiny, collapsed. That day, I suddenly realized how apt the description was.
I wish I could find that numbness now. Even tears seem a shallow response to the terror that has overtaken me. My stomach is physically upset. I have to keep stopping as I type this to sit down on the floor and wait for the nausea to pass. It’s happening. This is really happening. What in God’s name am I going to do now?
Relatively early in this process, I had accepted the fact that we don’t have much control over what goes on in our lives. (I couldn’t not accept it, considering the circumstances.) Or at least, I thought I had accepted it. Certainly, I had performed the necessary mental acrobatics. But it hadn’t reached my soul. Until now. Until this very moment.
I need to sit down again.
I feel like my entire life’s journey up to this point has been traveled inside a litter, only glimpsing the world outside through gauzy curtains, protected from sudden sights and sounds, smells and the weather. And now, it’s as if I’ve suddenly fallen out of it and am blinking into the hard, white light of a bare and desolate street. Lying on the ground, looking up, the buildings seem impossibly tall, the wind is rough and cold, and the sun is cruel and harsh. There is no-one else here, or at least, no-one else close enough for me to feel them. The world is so big, and I am so very, very small. How could I have possibly thought that my tiny, fluttering ministrations could have had any influence whatsoever on this endless, wild place?
Is this what a panic attack feels like? I don’t think that’s what’s happening. My heart rate is up, but not alarmingly so. And even as I write this, something inside me backs away from the realization of it, aware that this is too big to process all at once, not right now, perhaps not ever. I can’t stay here; I need to get up and get myself inside one of those buildings, any of them, out of the wind, out of the sun that is already starting to burn.
Is this why, when I stared at myself in the mirror today – my whole self, not just my thighs or my zits – I didn’t recognize the woman? I used to take such care in my appearance. But instead of the polished (or at least presentable), put-together person I used to portray, a loose, unfettered creature stares back at me. I’ve become one of those people who doesn’t really care. It’s never seemed less important. Particularly when compared to the tsunami that has just washed away almost everything I thought I knew about the world. About myself. About anything at all.
We don’t know anything, really. We collect facts and experiences and arrange them in our minds and call them the world, stringing them together, making connections where none should be, imposing a pattern where none existed. We live behind the gauze and it filters the information coming at us in ways specific to how we think the world is. We are shielded from the winds and the sun, the freezes and droughts; they come to us tempered, like gentle waves lapping the shore, all evidence of the undersea volcanoes that set them off long since fallen away.
It is only when are confronted with a crisis, a great and inexplicable loss, that the curtains are pulled aside and we see what is really out there, all around us. We see it cares for us not at all, so insignificant are we to its rumblings and storms, its tectonic shifts. It is not even alive, in the sense that the misguided proponents of the Gaia theory purport it to be. It simply is. Like my irrevocably damaged right wing is. Not a who. A what.
The tendency to anthropomorphize the world we interact with and its events may be a misguided coping mechanism, but it is a gentle one. Whether or not the world has meaning, in most circumstances, it hurts us not at all to ascribe one. Until something like this happens, and then we are left with only two choices: the first, that the world is a masochistic menace, or the second, that the world has no sense of being, good or bad, at all.
Most of us choose the second; it is more comfortable, and has the benefit of being the more likely of the two. I can take some relief in finally understanding that the world is not out to get me, I just got caught up in one of its tornados. Wrong place, wrong time. Nothing personal, Ape, just the weather. It seems an unlikely source of solace, but once you’ve realized that the outcome has so little to do with you, it’s actually a load off, releasing you from the obligation to handle something the “right” way.
Not that we handle much of anything, really. Usually all we can do is react to it. That’s what all of my fighting and wailing and carrying on has been; a reaction, if perfectly normal one. But it seems I’ve finally exhausted my supply of angst, at least for now. I’ve found shelter in an empty building, a place I’ve never been before, a place in which I may not be allowed to stay. But for this moment, I’m OK. I’m alive and breathing, and strangely free of dread. How this happened, I don’t know.
But I can’t know. And that will have to be OK, too.
“Well I’m a napalm bomb for you baby
Stone guaranteed to blow your mind
I’m a napalm bomb for you babe got to tell you one more time
To sit down, stand up, go home, back to Raleigh
Stone guaranteed to blow your mind momma, yeah…”
-James Taylor “Steamroller”