Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Joy

She and her husband were visiting their middle daughter when she went out one afternoon to run an errand.  She was seventy-six years old, active and in excellent health.  She was driving on the interstate when a teenage driver swerved without looking into her lane.

The cancer and chemo have made him more frail since the last time I saw him, but the twinkle in his eyes is exactly the same.  "Have I told you about the first time I saw her?" he asks.  "Have I ever told you that story?"

She swerved likewise, to avoid a certain collision.  Her car hit loose stone on the shoulder, skidded, and flew across the grass median, straight into the path of a semitrailer.

"I was at Yale Divinity School," he says.  "I had pretty much decided I was going to take a vow of celibacy.  But some of my friends didn't think that was such a good idea.  One of them had a sister at Cornell, so they talked me into going up to Cornell with them for a three-day weekend, for one last fling.

The horrified semi driver locked his brakes desperately, leaving a trail of smoke and rubber.  He couldn't swerve without jackknifing.  The vehicles collided head on.

"My friend's sister set me up with ten different dates for the weekend.  Ten.  Breakfast with one girl, lunch with another, all through every day.  It was humiliating.  The only time they left me for myself was a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon.

Her car was so damaged that later experts couldn't tell whether or not the airbags  had deployed. 

"I saw a sign for a student tea at the rectory of Cornell's Episcopal church, and I decided to go to that.

One of the first people to happen upon the scene was a surgeon.  He stopped his car, got out, reached into the wreckage and held her head and neck stable with his hands.  This turned out to be important, as she had broken two cervical vertebrae.  It took paramedics more than an hour to free her from the car.

"I was sitting on the floor of this room, having tea, when she walked into the front door.  She'd forgotten about the tea; she was president of the Altar Guild, and had just stopped by to return some linens she'd washed.

She had over fifty fractures.  Skull, spine, femur (two).  Right knee shattered; right foot badly broken.  Both clavicles.  Her left elbow in fragments, and over ten fractures from her left elbow down.  Only two ribs still intact; the rest in pieces.

"It was raining, and she was wearing this red raincoat and a red rain hat.  I looked up, through the doorways, and I just saw her face--

When she had her first surgery, a week after the accident, doctors told her family there was a ten to twenty percent chance she'd survive it.

"--it was like an arrow, a bolt of lightning.  I was just struck.  I thought, that's her, that's the woman I'm going to marry.  Of course, she had no idea.  All I could talk her into was just an hour's meeting the next day.  But I knew, I just knew."

They have been married over fifty years.

He laughs.  "So much for my vow of celibacy!"

Yesterday, almost three months since the accident, she walked again for the first time.