Yesterday Jo Jo and I ended up in a major car accident.
It was around 3:15, and I had just picked Jo Jo up from pre-school. She’d resisted letting me buckle her into her car seat, and while I’d managed to fasten her lap belt she kept wiggling out of her shoulder straps, shouting “No No No!” She was so adamant and fighting me so hard that for a moment I debated just letting her ride home with her arms out—it was only a few miles, after all, and maybe not worth all this hassle. But for some reason I had this weird nagging sensation she should be securely strapped in. So I tightened her shoulder straps even more—much to her chagrin—and drove off.
We were driving north down Long Ridge when all of a sudden I saw a Jeep that was driving south start careening straight towards us. This can’t be happening I thought as I instinctively got into the right lane. Then the next few moments happened at lightning speed. The other car hit my back rear driver’s side with an ear splitting thump and then sped away. I felt the Sienna lurch forwards, and watched as we smashed against the guard rail on the right side of the street. Then our van turned and spun right into oncoming traffic.
I was panicking. The smell of smoke was all around me. I hit the brake, and then realized that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. Was I supposed to steer into the spin? Steer away? Cars were coming towards us. I tried moving the steering wheel, which didn’t seem to be working. I saw Jo Jo in the rear view mirror, frantically flapping her arms, wide-eyed. The car was slowing down, but I couldn’t get it to stop.
Then all of a sudden I smelled a scent I’d known from childhood: a combo of Dove soap and Downy fabric softener. It was the smell of my dad in his last couple years of life, when he wasn’t working anymore and had given up his suits for his khakis and wool sweaters. I heard his voice, calm, gentle, reassuring: “put the car in park.”
I did it without thinking, and the car jerked forward and then ground to a complete halt. I blinked. We were right in the middle of the road, facing south. The scent was gone, replaced by the acrid odor of burning metal. Smoke was pouring out of the steering wheel. I stared at a sorry mess of yellowish fabric coming out of it and realized it was my airbag, now deflated.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. I know I got out of the car, legs trembling, feeling as battered and drained as when I’d ran my first marathon. A few people stopped their cars to check on us; someone called 911. I checked Jo Jo, who seemed unharmed, “whoa,” she said to me, shaking her head. “Whoa”. The paramedics came. The police came. The other driver—a woman in her 70s—had apparently kept driving on the wrong side of the road until her tire blew out and she was forced to pull over. She insisted I’d swerved into her. The police kept demanding my version. Meanwhile my husband showed up, racing down Long Ridge Road at about 100 miles an hour. I saw him pull up, saw the police freak out and order him to move his car, at which point he jumped out and shouted, “I’m not doing anything until I’ve checked on my wife and daughter!” He ran up to me and hugged me, and when I felt him trembling and the moistness of his shirt I realized yet again what a close call we’d had.
Ultimately, the police agreed that my story checked out—given the location of the damage on both cars, and where the skid marks on the road were, there was no possible explanation other than she’d driven straight into my lane. While we were both shaken up, it was clear that Jo Jo and I had emerged unscathed. The minivan, however, was totaled. A tow truck came to take it away. As we unstrapped car seats and removed registration info from our Sienna, I started shaking again. The paramedic came over. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, then added once again what I’d been repeating over and over for the last hour, “we could have died.”
“You’re lucky,” he said gently, and then, “someone was looking out for you.”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Someone was.”
And that was it. We got in the car and drove home. The other driver, as far as I know, is fine. She also didn’t suffer any injuries. I’m not sure if she ever changed her story, if she was actually fleeing the accident scene, why she swerved into oncoming traffic, right into my lane. We’ll see the police report next week, which hopefully will help sort some of these mysteries out.
I’ve always been agnostic. I’m skeptical what I thought happened in the car during the spin really happened. The rational part of me says that my subconscious mind conjured my father up, as a way to cope during an incredibly stressful, life-threatening situation. I don’t want to become the almost-40 year old fruitcake obsessed with visitations from her Dear Departed Dad.
But for a moment, I did feel like he was in the car with me, and I felt secure, and I felt his strength. And I was able to do what I needed to do to stop the Sienna and get my daughter and me to safety.
And I guess ultimately that’s all that matters.