Every year around this time, I start my litany of things I'm grateful for. Not in anticipation of Thanksgiving, but in anticipation of November 17th. Back in 1988 I was in my boyfriend's car...without a seatbelt...on an icy road. How is that for foreshadowing?!
Because it was the 80's, I had just gotten a spiral perm and was going to grab some dinner with him before going home. Now, kids, here's where your parents are going to give you that look of "I told you so:" my parents had told me to come right home after the hairdo because it was a School Night. Me, being 16 and a seasoned litigator, figured that since they had not *expressly* forbidden dinner specifically (as in them saying, "Subsection three, paragraph eight of child/parent contract stipulates the following: No going to dinner, young lady. 'Dinner' being defined as a starch, protein and vegetable purchased for onsite consumption..."), that it was therefore not actually included under the "come right home" declaration. Besides, a girl's gotta eat, and what's the big deal, right?
Yeah. No big deal. Unless you count skidding around a corner on an icy road and slamming head-on into a very large vehicle that sustained minimal damage while the Renault Alliance you are riding in crumpled on impact with you as the passenger seat projectile. No big deal indeed.
What I remember of it is a patchwork of Fellini-esque scenes from someone else's Tuesday night. I can hear someone screaming to call my mom, please call my mom; I can hear her simultaneously reciting my home phone number three times in perfect succession to the girl who has run out of her house to offer help; I am aware of warm stuff running down my face and into my shirt, but I feel nothing. Not fear, not pain, nothing. I can tell the girl who is screaming is afraid, but I can't think of what to say to her to make her calm down. All I know is she is loud and she is messing with my dreamy reverie here. I see faces, flashing lights, some guy asking me questions I can't understand much less answer, and then I just kind of wonder what kind of dream this is, where you go from a dark street to a brightly-lit room in what seems like 5 seconds. Oh wow. There's my mom and dad. What's wrong, Dad? You look scared. Mom, is Dad okay? What could have happened to frighten my usually stoic father into a look of terror? But not to worry. Mom looks confident and calm. Mom? Is everything okay? Are you okay? Is my sister going to be mad that they I borrowed this shirt without asking and now they are cutting it open? She's gonna be so mad. I've got a paper due on Thursday; how will I finish it? Man, I wish they'd all stop shouting. I wish they'd remind me how to talk. I can't quite make my mouth form words. I wish my dad's eyes would dry up. My mom's eyes, however, are looking directly at me and saying telepathically "I am your mother and I am telling you that you are okay." So I'm locking my gaze onto my mom's. I am not taking my eyes off my mom's. My mom is telling me that everything is going to be okay, so everything must be okay. As they check me for internal bleeding, xray, catscans, shave parts of my head, remove a few car parts from my skull, start talking about "massive blood loss" and "broken nose" and "broken orbitals" and "skull fracture" and begin stitching me up with a huge freakin' needle, I am starting to feel aware of pain. But I feel a little less anxious looking at my mom, whose eyes have not left mine in all these many minutes. I still kind of wish they'd stop shouting, though, because I'd rather hear her voice than theirs.
Short Story Long: On November 17th, 1988, I learned that my mom is the strongest person in our family; that my mother's presence is as comforting at the age of 16 or 42 or 60 as it is at 3; that my mom saw me to my hospital bed, kissed me goodnight, and then cried sobbing for an hour at home as she could finally let down the armor that had gotten me through the ordeal. I learned that the love of a mother for her child trumps all fear and all pain. I also learned that kids are essentially ungrateful: I was somewhat ashamedly in awe of my mom for getting me through that night. Which of course, at 16, meant I acted resentfully toward her and my dad--for reminding me in a moment of fear that I did indeed need her more than I ever wanted to admit.
After November 17th, every day was a gift. Every person in my life was a gift. Every time my sister permitted me to wear her clothes was a gift. Every time I struggled in the following months to find a word that was on the tip of my tongue, every time I struggled to remember something that I just knew I knew before the accident, every time I went out with the huge scar across my face, my two black eyes and my stitched-up nose and got stared at, I felt lucky. I got a Christmas help job at The Gap because I was desperate to get back into the swing. I worked with a huge dressing on my forehead and half my head shaved, joking with staring customers that "I just recently learned that my head does not fit in a glove compartment," made a bunch of sales and got employee of the month for January, not to mention 50% off a bunch of new clothes for my sister...
Every day was, and is, a gift. And so is my mom.