I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon cleaning out my closet, and much to my dismay the closet still appears full. Better organized, but not exactly the progress I had hoped for. My girlfriend told me she gets rid of everything that she hasn’t worn in two years. I’m not that disciplined. In part, my friend is trying to motivate me because her daughters are collecting items for a huge charity yard sale, and I did manage to fill several bags worthy of donation for the event. In the process, I also stumbled upon several violations of her two-year rule, including a festive Nicole Miller silk vest. I know precisely the last time I wore it: December 13, 1997.
I have a cousin who remembers pretty much everything she’s ever worn, not just for significant events, but the mundane as well. The crazy part is that she remembers everything everybody else wore too. My mind doesn’t work that way. But I do remember when I wore this particular item of clothing because that day topped my short list of bad days back then. It was a traumatic day, it would require months and years to recover physically and emotionally, but in retrospect it wasn’t an altogether bad day, because that was the day Sam lived.
It was a Friday, and my firm’s Christmas party was scheduled for the afternoon. Thus the festive vest. Sam left the house about 20 minutes before I did, as his commute was a bit longer than mine. When I got in my car, I popped in a favorite CD, Mi Tierra by Gloria Estefan. My Cuban husband was bilingual, but I was not. This CD was as close as I could get. Sam and I as a pair were a little like Ricky and Lucy, except that Sam couldn’t sing. Anyway, Gloria was singing Con Los Anos Que Me Quedan, and even if (like Lucy and me) you don’t e-speak e-Spanish, it’s a beautiful love song. The chorus translates approximately: “With however many years I have left to live, I am going to show you how much I love you.”
Our life wasn’t perfect, but it was a good day. Sam and I were happy, Gloria and I were singing, and I was looking forward to an abbreviated work day and a holiday party to kick-start the weekend. But I never made it to the party.
I was just barely up to speed on the freeway when the traffic slowed back down, which was unusual at that hour. Traffic is always an issue in Los Angeles, of course, but we left the house early because in those days we didn’t have children, only a mismatched pair of rescued cats.
I have never had the stomach for rubber-necking at car wrecks, but I felt something pulling me closer to the flashing lights ahead. It was odd. As I approached what I could now see was a car accident, I saw a line of flares, several police cars, a firetruck, a red suburban and a pale blue late model sedan, the entire front of which was crumpled. The hood appeared to have flown open on impact, shattering the windshield. The back was also open, revealing a spotless trunk. I knew only one person with a car that shade of blue who kept the trunk of his car perfectly clean, probably because we didn’t have kids yet. I tried frantically to remember Sam’s license plate, but I couldn’t. My cousin remembers fashion. I remember license plates. It’s really not fair. At that moment I could not think of a single letter or number, but I knew it was his car. He was gone.
I was 29 years old and I was a widow. I heard Gloria singing, ”con los anos que me quedan,” and I thought I don’t have any years left. Shaking uncontrollably from head to toe, tears streaming down my face, I pulled my car in between the flares and stopped. A firefighter approached me, and I rolled down the window, but before he could direct me to move, I blurted out “Is that Sam’s car?” I’m not really sure why I asked that question. I already knew the answer. I suppose I simply could not have articulated the words, “Is he still alive?”
I didn’t need the answer to that question either. I had seen the car.
The firefighter instructed me to wait a minute, and he walked away. That minute lasted forever. When he came back to my car, he told me what I already knew. It was Sam’s car. And then he told me what I hardly dared believe. “Your husband is alive. He told us you would be driving by. He hoped we would have all this cleaned up before you saw the mess.” It would have been typical of Sam to protect me. There’s a scene in Reservoir Dogs that I’ve never seen because he fast-forwarded through it when we watched the movie.
I remember walking through the hospital corridors, lost and feeling completely out of place in my party attire. I imagine this is common in the ER — shocked, unprepared people dressed inappropriately. I found the emergency room and walked through the double doors. My husband was covered in blood, mostly from the gash above his eye, his right hand was swollen to about the size of a grapefruit, his right knee to the size of a large cantaloupe, but he was breathing and he smiled when he saw me. And at that moment, he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Based on the wreckage left on the highway, I could not believe he was still alive. Neither could any of the doctors who saw him that day. But he was. Tears of relief erased any mascara I might have had left.
He later told me that as the ambulance tech was cutting off his shirt en route to the hospital, Sam said “Oh man, that was my lucky shirt!” To which the tech replied, “Well, it looks like it worked.” Friday the thirteenth turned out not to be so unlucky after all.
Even in the midst of everything that was broken, and so much was, we were grateful. For seat belts, for each other, for another day.
It took reconstructive knee surgery, hours of physical therapy and six months for Sam to drive again. It took longer for me to recover from the trauma of witnessing the scene; for years, the sight of ER vehicles on the freeway would make me shake and cry. It took even longer for us to forgive the woman who left her suburban in the middle of the freeway. After that car accident we reevaluated our career paths and made some changes. We continued to be grateful for what didn’t happen that day.
Ten years later, he would be pronounced dead in this same ER, having died suddenly, violently, intentionally. Strangely, one of the few thoughts that gave me comfort after Sam’s suicide was thinking about that car accident in 1997. I had thought I was widowed that day, but I wasn’t. I got ten more years and two wonderful children.
That car accident taught me a lot. I learned that the road to healing is hard work and includes wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches of all kinds. Healing may require surgeries and often involves setbacks. The days are long, and the nights are very dark. Tears and laughter are essential. Forgiveness is key to the process. It is sometimes harder to witness the healing of a loved one than to be the one healing. Healing may include physical therapy, talk therapy and retail therapy (which might explain a few of those donations). Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing does take time, often more than we would think or hope. For years, I would remove little shards of glass from Sam’s hands. In fact, just three weeks before his death, I had pulled one from one of his knuckles, a tangible reminder of survival and healing.
Perhaps the most important lesson from that day and the months that followed was to fall in love again. To learn to live and to love whole-heartedly despite my fear of loss and death. I almost didn’t want to love Sam again after his not-death. And I certainly didn’t want to love again after his actual death. I had no intention of risking that kind of heartbreak.
And then I met a wonderful man, one whose heart had also been broken by life. It takes courage to fall in love in the face of death. Tim and I fell in love anyway. That having been said, the only thing Tim and I argue about consistently is who gets to die first next time. Well, that and which one of us gets to run our defective hunting dog. We do not know how many years we will have together, but we have been blessed with today. So I will love and laugh and hold Tim’s hand.
I think about these lessons as I hold the vest. It reminds me that we do heal after the traumatic and unexpected. It reminds me that scars need not be a sign of weakness, but instead the evidence of resilience, strength and tenacity. It reminds me to buckle up.
I place it carefully back in the closet.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And reminders — a vest, a scar, a little glass splinter— of your own resilience.