Like many young writers who play the professional game I picked up a part time job for some extra cash and experience to keep my resume flowing while I still look for the door to kick in and put my foot. I started canvassing for rent control in the city of Sacramento and felt wonderful about it. The hours were flexible, I was working with friends from the DSA, BLM and the other organizations as a part of a cause I whole heartedly believe in. I was getting a work out from walking door to door, it was everything a young writer needed.
Then, on Wednesday March 21, 2018 at approximately 945pm, as I drove home from a normal shift, it all happened.
A sedan in front of me was going 30 mph in a 40mph zone, both of us were in the right hand lane. I merged into the left lane and raised my speed to somewhere between 40-50 mph to pass the car, who I see in my mirror has slowed down because they were texting. I merge back into the right lane, then within ten seconds my windshield shatters, my airbags explode, and a loud series of thuds batters my car into a circle off the road like the Hell’s Angles stomping a narc.
Somehow I had lost control, spun out, and hit a tree on the side of the road. Within ten seconds, my leisurely drive home was to turn into one of the most traumatic ordeals of my life. Within ten seconds my right hand was full of glass, my neck throbbing with whiplash, and my legs trapped under the dash.
Yet I never hit my head, I never lost consciousness, I never went into a panic, at least not until I realized I was trapped and my door would not open.
The impact had shattered my drivers side window, when I realized I was stuck and that the smoke from the engine was growing I bellowed out onto the street. “Help! I was just in a major car accident and I’m trapped! Can somebody help me, please!?”
Within seconds, a man in a blue sweatshirt caring the mascot of a sports team, I cannot remember if it was pro or college, was by my window.
“Hey, are you okay?” he said.
“I think so.” I knew it was only because of the shock, but at this point I felt no pain, and could not think about anything else except getting out of that car.
He proceeded to ask me what happened and while trying to suppress my panic I told him the details as I told you. He assured me I was okay, and he also assured me that I seem pretty cognizant so he didn’t think I was drunk, which I wasn’t. He kept me calm, and called the paramedics, and stayed with me until they arrived.
While we waited he introduced himself to me, “What is your name?”
“James,” I told him, my voice cracking because I felt like a frightened child who just needed an adult, any adult.
“Hi James, I’m Philipe, you’re going to be okay, I’m right here and the paramedics are on their way.”
Philipe, you are a total stranger and you might have saved my life. If you are reading this, contact me. Needless to say I owe you one.
Soon after three cars had stopped and pulled over. One stayed on the corner by the street with flashers on to keep other cars from hitting me. The two other people stayed by me to keep me calm. I never screamed in agony or hyperventilated, I never did anything accept breath and trust my life to these strangers, I felt there was no other way I could survive the situation.
The paramedics and fire department arrived. They shattered the glass on the passenger side to get the car unlocked, but still the jaws of life were needed to pry open the door to get me out.
Once out, I realized I could put no weight on my ankle, so I was immediately put on the gurney and taken to UC Davis Trauma Center. Of course once your on the gurney they could be taking you to Mexico for all you know.
Once you are on the gurney, all you can do is look up, you can see nothing from side to side or even your own feet. I have no idea what roads they took to get me to the trauma center and once there I had no idea where I was going when escorted from room to room. The blood on my hands had dried to a horror film prop crust. The neck brace was chaffing to say the least. I had no control over anything, I do not like that.
The intake nurse made an insulting joke about how I was lucky I only had one beer, and next time I should “use uber.” The paramedics reassured me that I was fine, that they knew I wasn’t drunk, and that nurse was an asshole. I do not want to obsess over it, but I will say that I hope this nurse gets fired, you do not make jokes to patients in the trauma intake center.
I do not want to relive the rest of that night, I do not want to go into all the details because the details are the hell that traumatized me and I just don’t want to relive it, not now or ever again. I will say that all the other staff at UC Davis trauma center were very kind, very understanding, very tender, all of which I needed at the time.
The night was a series of tests, and waiting, and tests, and waiting. Waiting, alone in cold sterile rooms warmed only by a set of blankets haphazardly stacked on me. Waiting. Locked in a position unable to sit up because you aren’t allowed. Waiting, stuck looking only at the lights and ceiling tile because of a neck brace, then more x-rays and tests. All getting wheeled to an from, never knowing exactly where or for what test. Waiting.
When I first arrived and the doctors started their first tests, just after stripping me of my clothes, a social worker asked who they should call. I gave them my mother’s name and both phone numbers. I did everything I could to share every detail I could whenever I was asked a question, no matter what the question was.
I went into detail with the paramedics about Sacramento’s Rent Control Movement that I had been working on when they asked about my job in the ambulance. I told the nurses about the Irish Socialist themed birthday party I had on St. Patrick’s day when they asked me about what I did on St Patty’s, and when it came to the important stuff, my name my address and phone number I made sure to give as stringently and calmly as I could. I think I was doing that to prove that I was still cognizant, still aware of the situation, still myself. I do not know if it was to prove it to them or myself, but I think maybe I just wanted to prove to myself that I was still here, as if knowing that I was conscious would remind me that I can get better. That I will get better.
My parents arrived after my first x-rays, all I could do was cry when I saw my mother. A cry like a child cries when he wants his mom to make all the pain go away. “I just want to go home.” I told her as she took my hand with tears flooding my face, “I just want to go home.”
I was not released until 5am. My poor mother had to call in a substitute teacher for her class that morning and my father was passed out until 10am the next morning. My poor father, a disabled person himself and he compensates his nerves with humor, he is the kind of person to laugh when he is anxious. The whole time in the ER where he had a lot of time just waiting he was fidgety, making comments he should not have, but he knew no other way to process the situation. He has a bad history with car wrecks, at my age he was in a similar situation, he was hit on his motorcycle by a drunk driver near Torrance, CA. He almost lost his leg and because it was poor working class hippie versus rich Cadillac drunk driving estate agent, CHP wanted to cite my dad for being in his way. Not twenty years later, my father lost his own father in an auto accident that is shrouded in mystery. My grandfather had issues, so many issues that some of us wonder if this death was actually an accident. The point is between my grandpa, my dad, and myself we are three for three for car wrecks. I do not think that was an easy thing to process and a legacy I hope ends with me.
My mother has been in Mom-mode ever since. Like when I was sick as a boy, she has been doing everything to make me comfortable, but not only that, she is keeping my father grounded because I know this traumatizes him in a way the rest of the family just will never get.
Then there was my sister, my poor sister. She loves and supports me so dearly, for her to see me in that state in the ER, for her to think she might have lost me that night, I cannot imagine what she felt. My sister is an Empath, yes like in Star Trek, she can just look at someone and feel what they are feeling, I know she felt my pain that night and I wish I wasn’t in pain, because then she wouldn’t be either. Later, she was not pleased because the day after the accident I made a point of showing up to city hall and the outskirts of the Golden 1 arena for the Stephon Clark protest. Yes, I was there even with a broken ankle, a bruised lung, and whiplash. We all have our own ways to heal, mine is to keep going. My wounds will heal, Stephon Clark won’t.
My road to recovery could be long or short, I am still not sure. All I know is that in a matter of seconds everything about who I was was taken from me, and that I never realized how dependent on being an able bodied person I was for my identity. I know I will recover, be it weeks or months I will walk again and march again. I did not get the word “Invictus” tattooed on my arm just because it looks cool, I got it to remind myself that I am strong, that I am unconquerable. Yes, I am traumatized. When I am alone for too long I have flashbacks to the accident, to the total loss of control and the moment that the thuds came thundering onto my van. But I will not let this trauma define me. I know this passage has been mostly about pain, fear, and a loss of control that I had never experienced before, but I am not despairing over a few boo boos. I will not let a simple twist of sad and painful fate rob me of who I am. I will recover, I will be fine. But what I will never understand is the how, or the why I survived.
All the paramedics said I was lucky. That when they saw the car they “expected the worst,” and were amazed I was conscious. The doctors and nurses all said the same thing. I do feel lucky. I don’t when the cast on my ankle itches or when the pain meds where off and it throbs but I do feel lucky, and curious.
How the hell did I survive that? How the hell did I not hit my head on the air bag? And why? Is there a why to my survival? Is the God that I do not believe in telling me my life really does have a purpose? Do I just have enough good karma that when the bad things happen to me they aren’t as bad as they could be? Or am I just so lucky that I ought to take a road trip to Reno or Vegas when I recover? I do not know, and to be honest I do not want to care. I do not want to care about the, “Why did I survive?” but I do. Every time I close my eyes and relive the crash, whether I want to think about it or not, I always come back to that question, “Why the hell did I live? Is there even a why?”
I firmly believe in Occam’s razor, that the simplest solution is probably the correct one. What is the simplest answer to my question, “Why did I survive?” Well in my opinion it’s “Because you still have work to do.” I will not trifle myself with questions about meaning or God, the way I see it I survived. Yes, I need to slow down, to recover, but I survived, so I can keep going, because like I said I have work to do.