I’ve been debating whether or not to write this for a few weeks. Writing helps me work out how I’m feeling about something, but this is a sad subject. Almost two months ago, I sat with a young lady on a road in Chandler, Arizona and held her hand while she took her last breaths. But this story really starts over 17 years ago, on the side of the I-15 freeway on the way to Pocatello, Idaho at sunset on June 30, 2000.
My (then) husband and I were traveling with our three young children to a Fourth of July, town-wide, school reunion in my small hometown in Montana. We were driving up a hill, headed north on the I-15 freeway just south of Pocatello. It was that time of the evening, at sunset, when the light and the heat from the sun makes the road look like a mirror, and it disappears in front of you. We were driving along, and I saw a cloud of dust and grass a few cars ahead of us, and my husband said, “There’s an accident up there.” We pulled our car over to the shoulder, put on the hazards, and I told the kids “Stay here. Don’t get out. “ I knew they wouldn’t. Then and my husband and I ran down the embankment between the north and south lanes of the freeway to where the van rested, upside down, in a ditch near the southbound lanes. On the way down to the vehicle, I noticed Barbie dolls, Legos, sleeping bags, shoes and other family items. There were kids in this van.
I was not at all ready for what I saw that day. I was not ready for the crying children, the broken bones, the scrapes, the blood, the smell of gasoline and grass and the noise of the fire trucks. There was a family of eight in that van, and that day they lost their 13-year-old daughter. Thankfully she went quickly, but I will never forget that day as long as I live. I think of that family every year during the Fourth of July weekend. The holiday must mark the time for them even more profoundly than it does for me.
Fast forward to Mexico this year, and we take another detour on the way to my Arizona experience. My husband and I were sightseeing outside of Cancun. We usually rent a car where ever we go, because we like the freedom to be able to do what we want when we want to. We were about 15 minutes outside of Tulum on the way back from Coba. We were driving back on a Mexican highway (read two-lane road through the jungle) to our hotel when we spotted a gas station. It was the only building out there, and we decided to stop here instead of fighting the traffic on the bigger highway.
Just as we gave the man at the gas station our credit card, we hear a loud pop and then saw a sedan flying along the edge of the highway, taking out the jungle brush as it flew. Then the car popped out onto the road and jerked and flipped over flying upside down into the jungle with a huge thud. It’s like the jungle just sucked that car in.
My husband looked at me and said “Holy Shit!” And he wasn’t wrong. I thought to myself, no one could have survived that, and I instantly thought back to the Idaho accident. I looked at that car in the Mexican jungle, and I didn’t think I was strong enough to see anything like that again. My husband ran across the highway, and I went with him. I was terrified, but I knew that if there were people in there that needed our help, I had to help. He leaned into the car and the next thing I know he is pulling a baby out of the vehicle. He handed the baby to another man helping and that man handed that baby boy to me. And so on October 13, 2017, I found myself on the side of a small Mexican highway holding a baby saying things like “It’s OK. “
“There’s your mama.”
My husband helped that baby’s parents out of the car and besides adrenaline and a few cuts, this family was, miraculously, just fine. We went back to our car, and we drove to our hotel in silence. I started shaking at some point, but I kept telling myself they were fine. They were just fine.
And so that finally brings me around to November 10, 2017, in Chandler Arizona. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It was Veteran’s Day, and we’d been to a presentation at my nephew’s school that morning. We were out running errands and headed to the mall when we heard a pop behind our car. I knew what that sound was as soon as I heard it. My brother-in-law said, “Oh, that was an accident.”
I said, “Yep.”
But I couldn’t see where it happened. My brother-in-law said to my sister, ”I gotta get out and help, Honey Bee.” And he jumped out the car. He is a retired police officer.
I looked out the back window and saw a woman lying on the road behind my sister’s car. She was alone, and I just couldn’t let her lay there by herself. I told my sister to call 911 and on put her hazard lights, and I jumped out of the car, too. As I was running back to the woman, I thought, “No matter how bad this is, you’ve got to keep it together, Jennifer. You can’t fall apart.“
It was really bad.
This young woman had been riding a moped with no helmet, and she accidentally rear-ended the car in front of her (the car to the left of my sister’s) and flew into that car, up into the air and onto the road behind my sister’s car. When I got to her and leaned down, I could see her eyes were open, and she was breathing, and her left leg was moving, but she couldn’t talk. I don’t even know if she knew I was there with her. My brother-in-law was trying to direct cars around the accident and getting traffic moving along. He yelled at me, “Is she breathing?” And I nodded.
The young man whose car she hit was on the phone with 911. My brother-in-law told him to tell the operator that it was a 962, which I later found out means an injury auto accident in Arizona. I looked at that young man, and I said, “You have to tell them to hurry.” And then I sat down on the road.
I looked down at this young woman, struggling to move, her breaths shallow and I saw her hand. She had a silver bracelet and a hair band around her wrist. I grabbed her hand and squeezed. I put my other hand on her shoulder and just kept saying over and over again, “You’re going to be OK.”
“You got this.”
“Hang on. You’re going to be fine.”
There was another woman there, too. She was in the SUV behind the moped, and she stopped her car and got out. My brother-in-law asked her to move her vehicle to block more lanes of traffic, and she did. She and I talked briefly about trying to adjust the young woman’s head to see if that would make breathing easier, but we were afraid to move her neck.
And so we both sat there, one on each side, offering words of comfort.
I watched the young woman struggling to breathe. I saw her shoe across the road, her broken sunglasses about six feet away and her moped all bent and broken. She was wearing striped socks and white high-top tennis shoes. She had on a t-shirt, and I could see her stomach. She had scrapes and bruises coming up on her belly, and they were getting worse as I watched her breathe. She didn’t look 20 years old. She tried to move a few times; maybe her body was reflexively trying to make it easier for her to breath. I just kept saying, “You’re going to be fine.”
“You’re doing great.”
“You got this.”
And I would look at the young man on the phone with 911 and say quietly to him, “You’ve got to tell them to hurry.” He nodded and finally said to me, “They know, they’re on their way.”
And just then I could hear the fire trucks and the sirens wailing, and I knew the paramedics were on their way.
“Hang on. They’re almost here,” I said to the young woman.
“Just hang on.”
And I know she tried.
Just before the fire trucks got there, another woman pulled up in an SUV. She jumped out of her vehicle, ran to the back and opened the door and grabbed surgical gloves. She had those gloves on in no time and was suddenly up by the girl’s head, steadying her neck and helping her breath. We were afraid to move her neck, but this lady knew what she was doing. As soon as the paramedic jumped out the fire truck, she started yelling at him, letting him know what to get and what to do and that this young woman had stopped breathing. I just kept holding her hand saying “You’re going to be ok. They’re here.”
But she’d stopped breathing. Her chest stopped moving up and down, and her leg stopped twitching. I squeezed her hand, hoping that somehow she knew I was still there with her.
A paramedic came up behind me and said, “I need you to move.” And that was it. I squeezed her hand one more time and let go.
My brother-in-law helped me get through the mass of cars and across the road. Once safely on the sidewalk, I leaned down and put my hands on my knees and broke down crying.
I ended up sitting on the sidewalk with my head in my hands. My nephew was in my sister’s car, and I didn’t want to scare him by sobbing in the car, so I just sat there. Eventually, I had to stand up and answer a few questions the police had for me.
“No, I didn’t see it happen. I just heard the pop, but she was already on the road when I got to her.”
We drove away and went home. Our trip to the mall was not so important anymore. That mascara I wanted from the MAC counter would wait a few more days. My brother-in-law told me they were able to revive her long enough to get her in an ambulance and that he would check up on her tomorrow.
I sat in the back seat of the car, lost in thought, thinking about this young woman’s parents, her siblings (if she had any), her friends and how their lives were changing, and they didn’t even know it yet. If she lived, she might have a long road of recovery ahead of her, and if she didn’t, I was there with her near the end.
Two months after this accident, it is still with me every day. I think about it most when I’m alone in my car. We drive around every day in little gas ignited, metal rockets and don’t know the power we have under our pedal foot or what real damage the cars we drive can do. I think about this young woman and I wonder where she is and I think about her family. Christmas Day was particularly poignant.
One thing I learned is not to be afraid to run and help. It is scary, but I know now that I’m capable of keeping it together and being there for someone. I didn’t know that about myself before.
Another thing I learned from that day, I already knew, but I didn’t take to heart in a way that made a change. There is the platitude that “life is short.” I knew that, but I didn’t really KNOW that. Now it is right there pressing on my heart and guiding me every moment.
My heart says, “Do it.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
“Don’t hold back.”
“Because life is short!”
What I learned is that my life could be over any second, in the blink of an eye (as they say), and I want to live more. I want to do more. I want to love more, and I don’t want my kids, my husband, my mom, or any of my family and friends to doubt that I loved them or loved my life.
I used to say “no” to things. My husband would ask if I wanted to take a day trip out to the beach.
“No, I don’t want to always be on the go,” I’d say.
But now I wonder why I didn’t do that. Why the hell not! I might never get a chance to go to the beach ever again because my life could be over any second. One of the first things I did when I got back home from Arizona was take a spur of the moment trip with my husband. It felt good.
This young woman got on her moped and headed out. She might have been going to work or school or even to the store to get some milk. I’m sure she didn’t head out that day thinking she was never coming home. She didn’t know.
None of us know.
Fundamentally, I knew my life was short. But I shoved that off thinking it REALLY wasn’t that important. But it is that important. This young woman taught me to live every single day like it is my very last day.
Because it just might be.
PS – The photo of the tattoo in this post is mine. I got this tattoo one week after the accident in Arizona. Every day I am reminded that life is happening, now, and I need to get out there and live it. Because it truly is “never or now.”