The impact came from behind, bright lights and a crack like lightning striking the earth as our small station wagon was shoved along the dark residential street. “Oh Bob,” I heard my mother cry. Someone fly over my shoulder. And then the car stopped as we jolted forward and back and forward again. “Where’s Karlene?” I scrambled up on my knees to look over the seat behind me. She was there, the youngest, covered in pebbles of glass. “I have ice in my eyes! I have ice in my eyes!” she sobbed.
My sister Kari and I haven’t talked in a long time about The Accident that happened in 1972 when we were in grade school but it’s always been a backdrop to our lives. It came up recently when we were discussing car seats and how they’ve improved since we were children and even more so from my parents’ time, when car seats didn’t even exist. My father has the scar on his forehead to prove what happens when a child’s head hits the windshield of a car—and he was lucky.
“I remember Karlene flying over the seat from where she’d been sitting in the back of the station wagon with no seat belt, of course.”
“No, that was me,” Kari said. “I somersaulted over the seat and was knocked unconscious.”
The minute she said it, I knew she was right. It couldn’t have been Karlene because we looked for her in the back. We found her sitting in a pile of safety glass rubble and were scared that she had glass splinters in her eyes. I thought I remembered Kari sitting next to me in the backseat, along with my cousin, but it had been my brother in the middle instead. Kari was in the back with Karlene; she had just laid down to sleep when a car smashed into the back of us as we turned left onto a dimly lit residential street. That car had been speeding; my dad couldn’t see it as he’d stopped at a stop sign and the other driver hadn’t seen us making the turn.
We were in Denver all those years ago to pick up my cousin who had flown from North Dakota to Denver for band camp. We were taking her to her friend’s family’s house in a residential area of the city when we were hit. Good thing we’d been going slowly. Good thing we were on a street and not a highway.
Our car came to a rutty stop in the grass of someone’s front yard and the people ran out to help. They hurried us inside, holding towels to the gashes in my mother’s and sister’s heads. I felt bad about the blood seeping into their carpet as we waited for the ambulance that quickly arrived. Because I wasn’t hurt, I became the designated seventh-grade spokesperson for our family, giving the EMTs our names, ages, and addresses and explaining why we were in Denver.
At the hospital, Karlene’s eyes were flushed, my mother’s and sister’s heads were stitched, and everyone else was checked and bandaged as needed. We were all alive and, other than gashes and bruises that would heal, we weren’t seriously hurt. In my childish attempt at optimism, I told my dad that at least Kari and I wouldn’t have to compete in the music contest the next day. “I’d rather have you do that than this,” he said.
My mother’s cousins picked us up at the hospital and took us to their house and, the next day, home. This time I had to sit in the back of their station wagon; I cringed at every car that that drove up behind us , waiting for the impact I was sure would come.
Forty years later, I’m still waiting for it. Every time I see a car rush to a stop sign or approach too quickly from behind, I flinch. I’m sure they’re going to hit me. It can happen. It did.
Not all our injuries were addressed at the hospital that night. My mother developed back trouble that lead to difficult surgeries over the years. And lately, my sister Kari is revisiting The Accident as the source of many of her health problems. We’re both relieved that children must ride in car seats until they’re eight years old and that cars have better seat belts and better protection all around. Thank you, Ralph Nader.
Many of my college writing students over the years chose accidents to write about. I call these paper topics “the thin line” because they represent a moment when one realizes the thin line between life and death. I don’t remember thinking at the moment of the crash that we might all die; it happened so quickly, I don’t think I had time to make conscious that fear. But for anyone looking back, we all know what could have been. That’s the secondary trauma, the one we live with the rest of our lives. The one that changes us in ways we’ll never really know.