“Be kind, you have no idea what he is going through,” I whispered gently to my boyfriend Chris as we waited to exit the plane. The clearly angry and vocally impatient older man practically shoved past me and huffed down the aisle, scowling and muttering under his breath as he went. Chris looked at me quizzically, then gave his head a slight shake, and once more focused his attention on helping me get up.
“Ouch!” I grimaced as I struggled to rise, the five-inch incision in my abdomen compressing as I leaned forward to push my body up. Chris kept his hand under the elbow of my good arm, the arm that wasn’t in a brace, and lifted me to my feet. I leaned on him, scooting forward to grasp the crutches he held up for me. The left crutch had a special armrest where I could place my wounded arm.
I made my way forward, surprised by how many people hurried off the plane in an effort to avoid getting stuck behind me, the injured young woman struggling slowly off the plane. Once off, I was helped into the wheelchair that was waiting for me just outside the aircraft door.
Bystanders watched as I was wheeled through the airport, the two visibly bandaged limbs the most minor of my injuries.
A 19-year-old college student, I was largely focused on myself. I had spent my first year away at school struggling to keep up with studies while simultaneously deeply longing to fit in. Somewhere. Anywhere. This desire to be popular had carried over from the latter half of high school when belonging trumped my studies, and the opinions of others mattered more than I now care to admit.
Raised in a Christian home with ethically-minded parents and having a fundamentally shy, conflict-averse nature, I had always considered myself a perfectly good person—nice, quiet, thoughtful. I enjoyed music and singing and participated in choir at church and swing choir in middle school.
At the first assembly of my freshman year in high school, sitting among other new students and feeling nervous and vulnerable, I watched the swing choir named “Goldrush” perform. I was captivated and impressed by their talent, beautiful voices, and exciting choreography. When the performance ended, I heard the students sitting behind me making fun of the singers. Throughout the rest of the week, the mocking of the performance continued. I did not want to set myself up to be made fun of right off the bat! I ceased to pursue activities that interested me, and for the remainder of my high school career, avoided anything that might make me appear anything but cool.
I was surprised and disappointed to discover that people could be so cruel, and I had no interest in being the target of even just one joke.
Despite getting into a quality university and having a supportive and loving family, friends, and boyfriend, I continued to feel lost when in college. I focused on having the right accessories to appear fashionable on campus. While unaware of my self-absorption, the truth is I gave relatively little thought to much of anything outside of my desires and my image.
Traveling to the rustic cabin built by my great grandparents in South Lake Tahoe, I bickered with my mother as we drove along the four-lane highway heading from Reno into California late one Saturday morning during the first summer break since college had begun. As we rounded a curve, a small car heading the opposite direction, and moving far too quickly, slammed head-on into us. The crash was deafening and ripped the other car into two. My ears were ringing and my eyes were burning from the powder released by the airbag.
In the stillness after the car stopped moving, I turned and looked over at my mother. She was unconscious, blood trickling out of her nose, slumped forward at the wheel. “Mom! Mom!” I screamed, for what seemed like many minutes. She awoke confused, but awoke, nonetheless. After I was cut from the car and airlifted to the closest hospital for emergency surgery to repair internal bleeding in my abdomen, I spent a week alone in the hospital. My mother had been driven to a different hospital, as her injuries, though serious, were not life-threatening.
It was a drunk driver who hit us I was told while still hospitalized. He was ejected from his car. He was alive, but barely. He, too, had been airlifted to the hospital. “Please don’t die,” I whispered to him, wherever he was, lying somewhere within the very same building. “Please, please don’t die.”
And so it was, that for the first time in a long time, I thought about the lives of others.
Of my mother, who I had seen unconscious, and who I knew was fortunate to have woken up. For the man who hit us who was, for some reason, intoxicated on a sunny Saturday morning and had made the bad decision to climb behind the wheel of a car. For my father, who had to receive the phone call informing him, “Your wife and daughter have been in a serious head-on collision. Your daughter has been airlifted to Reno. We don’t currently know where your wife is.” For my 16-year-old sister, who— waiting for us at the cabin in Tahoe—also had to hear this news, without even the comfort of the presence of either of her parents or her only sibling.
Years before, when my grandmother died, the doctor at the hospital reminded my grandfather to be careful when he was driving home. “No one on the road knows what just happened to you,” he reminded him. I had heard that story from my mother several times.
But when traveling home after “the car accident” as it became known in my family, I really began to understand. Perhaps the impatient man on the plane was reeling from a recent loss. Perhaps he was on his way to see someone who was ill and simply didn’t notice my broken body before shoving past. Perhaps, perhaps.