We are back from an incredible, wonderful trip to Paris and settling in. Doing laundry, getting food in the house, resting, and going through hundreds of emails (I decided to be completely internet-free for the week) and messages, editing pictures from the trip, etc. But it’s slow-going, because we had quite a time trying to get home.
First let me say: everyone is fine. But my nerves are shot and I have been on the verge of tears for the last two days. After a very long day of travel (we had to be up at 5am Paris-time to catch a train to the airport, then take separate 9-hour flights back to the states, where I then hopped on another plane to Columbus, then drove another 2 hours to Cincinnati to meet up with Andrew’s mom and the boys), I spent the night at my in-laws and awoke early the next morning to start our next day of travel: the 6-hour drive back to St. Louis with my boys where we would finally reunite as a whole family. I was feeling surprisingly well-rested, despite the previous day of craziness and a wakeful night. I had Andrew’s 14-year-old sister Katie with me, who I was planning to drop off on our way out of town, and Milo, Oliver, and Emil all tucked into carseats and a booster.
About 30 minutes into the drive, we got into a car accident. It was so sudden, so unexpected, like these things are, that it left me reeling. I was driving in the left lane on an interstate with two lanes going in each direction in a fairly rural part of Ohio, when the car in front of me braked hard. I then saw that directly in front of him was another car that appeared to be turning left, though her car was still fully in the fast lane of the road (I later found out through the police officer that she was a student driver who had missed her turn going to the DMV to take her driver’s test, and had decided to do a u-turn in the middle of heavy traffic). I braked hard, saying to Katie and the boys, “Hold on hold on hold on!” and then nearly let out my relieved breath when we stopped a foot away from the car…
But then I looked in the rearview mirror.
Three cars behind were careening toward our car. I heard the screeching of brakes and braced myself for the inevitable hit. The first car hit our van so hard, pieces of plastic, metal, and glass came flying toward the front of the van, seemingly in slow motion. We were hit again, and pushed into the car in front of us. Smoke and a loud hissing sound and complete quiet, then Milo screaming and crying. He kept screaming, “My head! My head!” and I remember turning off the engine, leaping out of the car and almost falling on the broken glass surrounding us as I ran to the other side, trying to open a door, any door, to get to him. I was screaming for someone to call 911 and saw the man of the small car who had crashed into the back of us stumble out, looking disoriented and in shock. Two cars behind him had also crashed, but the worst seemed to be in the middle, right where we were.
Out in the middle of the road, alone amidst all the glass and debris was Emil’s blue baby bottle, tipped onto its side.
I finally forced the back passenger door open as far as it would go with the help from a stranger who had stopped to help and quickly assessed that no one in the car was bleeding or unconscious, but Emil had started crying and Milo was confused and clearly in pain and just terrified. My head was swimming and pounding, my left lower leg was starting to really hurt, and the place where my seatbelt had restrained me was burning and angry red, but I was okay. I was shaking hard and trying not to cry, but the gravity of what had happened, what could have happened was hitting me like a freight train and I couldn’t help sobbing. I turned away so my boys and Katie wouldn’t see, and took a deep breath to try to get it together enough for them. I was the adult. I needed to take care of them. Do this later.
The paramedics came and carefully transferred Milo to a stretcher and onto the ambulance before taking a look at me and telling me that I didn’t look so good and would I lay back onto a stretcher too… I wasn’t too keen on the idea of relinquishing control of my kids and Katie and splitting up into two ambulances, but frankly there wasn’t much choice and I found myself staring at the ceiling of an ambulance into a bright light while tears involuntarily ran down my cheeks. I knew everyone was fine, including me. But all I could see, eyes open or closed, was the view I had seen in the rearview mirror only moments before. All I could feel was the dread of the inevitable impact. The view was nauseating: my two oldest boys, only 5 and 3, their unknowing faces framing what only I could see- a danger so great racing toward them and threatening to end every bit of happiness in my life- and I was helpless to stop it. They were back there, in the direct line of fire, and I was 6 feet away, completely unable to throw my body between them and death. They could have died.
After being checked and x-rayed and scanned at the hospital, we were given instructions to ice and rest and lightly medicate. Andrew’s oldest brother Billy drove us to the wrecking company where our van had been towed so that we could try to retrieve our luggage from the trunk and anything else that might be salvageable. Andrew’s mom picked up a very sore and shaken-up Katie, and we made plans to check up on each other later.
When we arrived at the wrecking company and spotted the van, I was floored. I hadn’t remembered it looking that bad at the scene, but there it was. Completely and utterly totaled. The entire back end was crushed into a v-shape, the undercarriage of the van jutting forward slightly and crookedly to one side. The back passenger door was still wide open, jammed that way forever, waiting for the rain to come wash away all the broken glass and jagged bits of plastic that covered every surface.
Above is a picture of the back of the van taken from the wrecking yard- you can see the back window of the van at the top of the photo, which shattered upon impact, and the bumper is completely crushed against the back seats of the car.
We climbed into the stifling hot car, crunching glass under our shoes, and did our best to clear a spot enough to lean down and see what we could find. All of our clothes, shoes, and personal belongings were pinned inside the wreckage. After several anguishing attempts to pull anything out, I cut my hand on a sliver of glass and shook my head, stepping back ready to give up. But Billy kept going, wiggling and pulling until he came up with a shoe from my bag. It was one from my very favorite pair of shoes: Rachel Comey clogs that I had coveted for months before finally selling enough clothing to be able to afford. Sadly, the impact cracked the wooden sole nearly in half. To care about such a thing after being spared nearly my entire immediate family seemed so stupid, but I did. It sucked.
But Billy kept at it. One shirt, one pair of underwear (how embarrassed would you be to have your brother-in-law hand you a pair of your own dirty underwear???), one broken, bent shoe (my beloved Hudson ankle boots are probably beyond saving as well) after another, he handed me my entire duffel bag full of clothing… including, to my amazement, an intact bottle of red wine I had brought back from France for my mom. I worked on the other side, pulling out Emil’s shirts, shorts, diapers, wipes, and shoes. But Milo and Oliver lost nearly their entire summer wardrobe, including underwear and new unopened toys their grandma had packed for them. Unlucky middle. Their bags were pinned completely between the steel, there was no wiggle room to free even a tee shirt. A few gifts were completely demolished, leaving the residue from chocolate truffles covering my hands every time I reached in. The souvenir suitcases Andrew and I had collected for the boys were completely crushed or smashed, their little metal handles and buckles in pieces. But.
Andrew arrived in Ohio exactly 6 hours after the accident, taking Emil in his arms and hugging him to his body while Emil looked curiously into his face. He had already forgotten.
I spent an hour on the phone with insurance agents and policemen. Then we celebrated being alive with Billy and Annie. Annie and I went out for a beer when we picked up food for our families that evening and I could have kissed her on the mouth I was so happy to be there with her.
After dinner, Andrew and I traded cars with his mom (he handed over our Civic for her van) and we headed for home, finally. Just before 10pm, Andrew appeared to be fading fast behind the wheel. He had spent the entire day worrying about us and driving toward us, and here he was back in the car, headed in the opposite direction. And so, though it was more terrifying than I can say, I got back behind the wheel of yet another vehicle, and drove us the rest of the way home. What do you do when you fall off the horse, after all?
I am slowly editing and weeding out Paris pictures, and hope to post them over the course of the next several days, but easing back into blogging is feeling like work. There is so much to do around here apart from this virtual world: aside from the rush to find and buy a new car, a huge tree limb fell onto our back fence hours before we left for our trip, and now we have to deal with that, plus mountains of yard work and tending to the garden and registering Milo for kindergarten and follow-up doctor’s appointments and vaccinations… all the things that make life so busy day to day, all the responsibilities we skirted in order to have this wonderful trip.
I am feeling lucky and watched over, and plan to revel in gratefulness that my family is intact. I know that so many others are not so lucky. Be safe, and hug those babies.