Thursday, August 25, 2022

Traumatic Memory Shows Life Is Uncertain

 Please beware: This post contains graphic descriptions that might upset some people.

The squirrel bounded onto the freeway, and I stopped breathing. The car in front of us sped onward despite its tiny obstacle, and when the squirrel resurfaced again its back half had turned into a pile of goo while its front paws frantically clawed at the ground. In that terrible moment, the creature faced me as if staring directly into my soul.

“Oh, my…” I clutched the car’s dashboard as Mike and I drove over the squirrel too. 

Mike looked horrified. “Is it…?” I asked.

“I think so,” Mike said. We both stared into the rear-view mirror. “I couldn’t dodge it. It was too late.”

The words hit me. “Too late,” I repeated. It’s odd the situations that strike me now—things that normally wouldn’t have haunted me before my cancer diagnosis—they plague me for days, weeks, even months now.

I thought of the squirrel, now glued by death to the unforgiving freeway, and for some reason it brought back a traumatic memory from 10 years ago.

I drove down I-15 in Salt Lake City. The day seemed bland, and I definitely didn’t expect something irrevocable to happen. Then, out of nowhere, a distant car—a Cadillac—in the fast lane swerved, slamming into the median. It pinballed across the lanes a couple of times miraculously dodging traffic. 

At 80 mph, I approached at an alarming rate and seemed to be the one who “wouldn’t get away.” Within moments, the Cadillac slid sideways as if floating across the freeway—facing the wrong way! Then time stopped.

An elderly couple sat in the car directly in front of me. The woman’s shoulder-length gray hair drifted out a bit to the side as if she performed in some odd, underwater ballet, and the man’s eyes flew open so wide he looked like a grasshopper. They both stared at me as my eyes darted from one to the other. And instantly, the terrifying thought came to me that one of them would die that day.

I slammed on my brakes, hoping to get far away from their car. And I’m still not sure how, but we must’ve missed each other by inches—so close in fact that I felt a suction-like wind pulling my vehicle just as their front bumper cleared mine.

My foot shook as I shoved the gas pedal completely to the floor and somehow got away when their car lurched into the next lane. 

Within seconds a gut-wrenching smash seemed to jolt everything, and I turned to witness the worst wreck imaginable. The elderly couple who’d been driving the blue Cadillac hit an SUV head-on. Metal flew everywhere and glass crunched.

All of the traffic behind them screeched still, and the accident became a broken cog binding every gear of an intricate clock. 

I’d pulled over in the distance, and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even get out of the car. I just rubbernecked, completely shocked. And then I couldn’t stand the grisly nature of such an accident. Others were getting out—people who had been behind the wreck—heroes far more capable of handling gore than I am. So, I put on my blinker, got back into the fast lane, and sped away.

That night when I watched the news, a peppy newscaster talked about a horrible accident on I-15. “One fatality has been reported,” she said, her blonde hair staying perfectly hair-sprayed in place despite her flippantly animated motions. “And another person is still in critical condition.”

I wondered then about the two people in the blue Cadillac. Catastrophe had seared their faces into my mind. And I kept thinking how strange it was that I might’ve been the last person one of them ever saw. Or how I might’ve been the one to hit them head-on instead of the SUV. I could’ve died. And how sad that someone had. It was beyond sobering.

So that’s what I thought about after the squirrel ran onto the freeway the other day. Everyone says how life is short. Hell, I’ve even said it. But on some days life feels long. I guess what I’d really like to keep in the forefront of my mind is that life is unexpected—and it’s definitely not guaranteed. 

I hope whoever died in that accident realized what’s important BEFORE that horrific day…. After what I’ve gone through with cancer, I can’t imagine death without a warning. Doctors keep telling me that despite my good news, I still know what I’ll die from; I just don’t know when.

When people tell me how sorry they are that I’m fighting and facing death in my 30s, I always think about how grateful I am that I didn’t die in a car accident. At least I’ve had a warning and time to tell the people closest to me how much I love them.

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