Last weekend, on Saturday, I was involved in a car accident. It could have been a bad one...but thankfully it wasn't.
I'd taken the dog with me that morning and she was sleeping on the passenger seat beside me. We were driving back towards home from an out-of-town errand, and we were on the highway. I'd barely seen any cars that morning, and I was enjoying the quiet drive home with my furry companion. I'd been singing songs, we'd listened to the radio for a while, and both Charlie and I were pretty relaxed. She'd eventually fallen asleep and I was enjoying a quiet peacefulness that doesn't happen too often in my day-to-day life.
Approaching an intersection of another highway, I noticed (likely because there'd been so few cars on the road), a white SUV slowing down for a stop sign. I wasn't really paying attention, until it registered somewhere in my brain that he wasn't actually stopping. It still didn't quite resonate though - after all, on these country highways, sometimes drivers inch their way forward from a stop sign set a little far back. But no, he really wasn't stopping and it became pretty clear in one jolted instant that an impact was going to be inevitable...it looked like he was going to crash right into my side of the van, right into my door. I still find it hard to comprehend how, in one split second, faster than one can snap one's fingers, things can change from quiet contentment to something that is sharp and completely aware and life threatening. That alone is jarring.
Even as I knew that this was going to be bad, even as I was processing what to do, it flitted through my brain that as I'd been leaving the city a couple of hours earlier, it had occurred to me to pray for road safety. I've made this particular errand many times, and I don't recall ever having had that thought previously, but on this occasion I did, and so I did pray. As I drove out of the city, I spoke aloud a prayer for travel safety - for myself and for other drivers on the road with me that morning.
Back to that split second when the worst seemed suddenly inevitable. In the moment that I slammed my foot down on the brake and my hand on the horn, somehow, and I'm inclined to think that God was answering my earlier prayer by giving me great clarity of thought, I knew what I needed to do.
First, without taking my eyes off the road or my foot off of the brake, I reached out with my right hand and, in one motion, scooped Charlie from her sleeping position onto the floor of the passenger seat - I hadn't bothered to harness her in that morning (silly me) and so I knew she was going to hit the windshield if I didn't get her onto the floor.
Second, I needed to reduce the severity of the impact by turning in the same direction that the other vehicle was travelling...to attempt to come alongside him rather than have him land on top of me through the driver's side door.
And that's what I did. While braking hard, while still moving Charlie to the floor, I wrenched the steering wheel to the right at that last moment, and came mostly alongside the other car...so that he hit the front left of my vehicle...about two feet forward of my door. The impact was so loud...so loud. Even now, eight days later, that sound is pretty easy to remember. I've been hearing it in my sleep a lot as well as remembering it during quiet moments during the day. The van ended up on the same road, in the same direction, as the other vehicle, on the gravel shoulder, just tipping slightly forwards towards the ditch.
I must have been in shock because I don't remember the first few seconds after coming to a stop. I remember noticing that I was shaking and I remember that I was crying and making strange noises, and I remember Charlie clambering back onto the seat and climbing on to me...she was whimpering, and trying desperately to lick my face. I pulled her close and we cried together, as we watched the driver of the other vehicle walk towards us. It was rather a stark contrast to our sense of quiet companionship just seconds earlier.
Oddly, the other driver had pulled way ahead of us before stopping...almost (though likely not) as if he hadn't actually planned to stop but decided to after all. He stopped so far ahead that when I later tried to take a picture of his license plate, I zoomed my iphone camera all the way in on his plate and still couldn't read the numbers and letters later, even when I expanded the picture as far as it would go.
I watched him walk towards me. He was wearing all black. Older than me by, perhaps, a decade. Gray hair and beard.
He came to the window and I opened it. Somehow I had the presence of mind to attach the leash to Charlie's harness and wrap it around the steering wheel; the last thing I needed now was a dog that escaped from the car when I got out.
He said to me, "So you're all right then?" I'm not sure that was a fair question, given that I was crying and shaking pretty obviously.
"I'm not sure...please just give me a moment. I think I'm ok...I just can't stop shaking."
"So you're ok then," he continued. A statement, not a question. He backed away from the car door. Almost as if he was on his way out of there.
"Wait!" I said. "Just wait. Give me a moment, please."
I got out of the car and closed the door so I could lean on it. The shaking was pretty bad. I was trying to collect my thoughts which, for some reason, were having a hard time being collected. I knew I needed something from him but the specifics, and my words, were elusive.
Again, he backed away and repeated what seemed to be his mantra. "You're ok then."
How could he not see.
"I need something from you," I said. "Just give me a second...yes, I need your information, your paperwork." Finally the thoughts came back.
"Really? Ok," he said. Again, as if he somehow expected he could just walk away and be done with it.
As he started walking quickly back towards his car, three other people got out of his vehicle and began walking in my direction. All teens. The girls were wearing head kerchiefs. Hutterites. That made sense now, given what the man was wearing. The three teens came most of the way towards me and stopped, I guess waiting for their father to return.
He brought me his license and I took a picture of it. Took several pictures, actually, because my shaking hand couldn't get clarity. I eventually leaned my arm up against the car to steady it and got the shot I needed. Then I sent him back for his insurance papers because he hadn't bothered to bring those. I took a picture of those, too.
I told him my name and asked if he and his family were ok. He did not offer me his name and he didn't answer my question about whether he/they were ok.
"I guess you didn't stop," he finally offered while I was taking the pictures.
"I didn't stop?" I asked, incredulous. This was somehow going to be my fault??
"You had the stop sign," I said, my voice a little heated. "A giant stop sign, in fact," I added. It was one of those giant country stop signs. "I didn't have to stop; I was driving with right of way on the highway," I blurted. "You didn't stop. If I hadn't seen you not stopping, we would likely all be in the hospital by now, or worse."
"I stopped," he said. I almost marvelled at his self-possession. He wasn't shaking at all. He was accusatory.
"No, you didn't," I countered. "I saw you slow down, but you did not stop."
"He just didn't see you," one of his daughters offered in a perky, sing-songy voice. "None of us saw you, I guess." She said it as it that made it ok, that he just hadn't seen me. I looked at her.
"I hope you have a great day," the same daughter said, looking at me with a smile from about 20 feet away where she'd stopped walking. She looked to be seventeen or eighteen.
I stared at her, still visibly shaking, still with tears on my cheeks, and didn't even know how to respond to that.
"The visibility wasn't great, I guess," the man said.
I gestured around at the gray, but perfectly visible day, and mumbled something about perfectly fine weather conditions.
"I will call in the accident and you need to as well," I said. He was starting to walk away. Quickly, back towards his car. As if I was about to pursue him or something.
The same daughter turned halfway back to their car and waved and, again, called "Have a good day!"
They couldn't wait to get out of there...it was as if they were running late for an appointment and I was a distraction from getting there on time.
I just stood there, shaking, leaning on the car, watching them go. I had my phone in my hand still and zoomed in on the licence plate of their vehicle as far as my camera would let me. The license plate would remain unreadable, though I could sort of make out the first letter, but it did let me see the Ford logo on the back.
"Have a good day," the daughter yelled, waving a third time as she climbed into their SUV. The man climbed in and, in a flurry of dust and gravel, took off down the road.
They had no idea if I was able to drive...no idea if my car would work. They just left in a flurry of denials and dust. Left me in the middle of the quiet country roads pointed towards the ditch.
I climbed back into the car and just sat there with the dog. Crying. Trying to make sense of it.
At some point I got back out of the car to take a few pictures of the intersection, and I called Geoff to let him know the situation. But mostly I just sat there, trying to clear my head until I felt I could safely drive.
In vast contrast to the indifference of this man, when another vehicle pulled alongside a while later, that driver was so kind - offering to make calls for me or to help me get back to the city. When I said that I was all right, he asked if I could please start my car and make sure it ran. I did that, and then thanked him and waved him along. I drove the last half hour home.
I phoned the insurance company, made plans to have them assess my vehicle two days later, and learned during the week that the insurance company called the other driver (who tried to say it was my fault) to tell him that he was 100% responsible.
Our van has been deemed a complete write-off and the insurance company has made their offer of what our vehicle is worth for parts. Although we can still drive it for now, the whole front end was shifted to one side by several inches as a result of the impact and it would cost so much for body repair that they didn't even bother to assess motor damage. It's a 13-year-old van with decent mileage on it. How much value could they possibly give it?
Of course, what they didn't factor in is how awesome that vehicle has been for our family over the past eleven years...how little we've had to spend on repairs and maintenance...how wonderful the memories are from it...how many trips to the cottage we've loaded it up for...that we brought our two younger children home from the airport in it when we were a brand new family....that we've got a history of amazing road trips that it's safely taken us on...and how many endless conversations we've had within its walls. It's silly, I know it as I write it - but I'm sad that our van is to be no more. It holds a lot of awesome memories.
It was a really scary moment and I'm ever so thankful to be alive and almost unscathed. It could have been so much worse. I'm still a little sore in one leg where the impact pushed my leg hard up against the door, and I'm reliving the moment of impact pretty often throughout the day and in my dreams.
But what's the hardest for me to process, what has shaken me perhaps the most, is the cavalier, offhand, indifferent attitude of that man - and his children. I've never been in an accident of that magnitude before, and I get that perhaps pride about being in the wrong may have impacted his attitude towards me...but really, I just cannot reconcile his attitude with what I believe about humanity....that deep down we live for, and within, relationship and community...that care for each other is foundational, even for the strangers amongst us. He just left me there. Granted I was going to be just fine and I didn't even have a broken limb to show for it. And of course I know there are so many, far more evil things in the world, and that we are a fallen, sinful manner of people.
I just cannot quite shake myself of the notion that we should expect more of each other; that we should be able to count on a little care from each other, even from a stranger; that we can be better than that. Also, though he didn't care for me, I prayed for him earlier that morning - I just couldn't put a name or a face to that prayer until a few hours later. Despite his actions, despite the shock of it all, despite the fact that we will now have to go into debt to buy another vehicle, I am glad that he and his children are ok; that I answered that quiet little nudge to pray for road safety. These are the things that I am choosing to take away from that moment.