My husband doesn't like to talk about the accident, but I do. Not because I enjoy re-living it, but because that was the night I learned that I matter.
Before that night, I was a hairdresser of mediocre talent at a salon with stylists of exceptional talent. I was a mom with two high-schoolers who only needed me for warm meals and chauffer services; wife to a man who found fulfillment in his job and his volunteer work as a firefighter. The only one who needed me was my three-year old, and even he seemed to prefer the company of others over time spent with me. In short, I had hit middle-age and stagnated.
Life wasn't good, and it wasn't bad.
It just was.
I had become invisible and unnecessary. I prayed for something – anything -to happen. Anything to make me visible again.
I didn't expect change to come in the form of a maple tree.
Every tiny detail of that day is unnaturally bright in my memory. Arguing with my husband over who would drive the older kids to their youth group meeting and who would pick them up. Inhaling a few bites of pork roast and potatoes that had simmered in the crock pot all day. Slipping out the door with the older two so their brother wouldn't come along and fall asleep in his car seat. Seeing the low-fuel light on my dashboard and making the decision to take a different route so I could get $10 in gas on the way.
I remember exactly which girl was working at Mr. Grocery when I handed over that day's tip money to pay for gas. I recall that my husband's friend Carl was in the parking lot, and I said a quick hello on my way back to my van.
"Gotta hurry," I told him. "I want to stay ahead of the storm."
He looked back at the black clouds rolling in from the west and grinned at me. "You ain't gonna make it, honey."
The sharpest image of the night is of that moment, when I looked back to my left and saw the rain and then looked to my right where the pavement was still dry. It was like racing ahead of a solid wall of rain as I dashed toward my van.
I drove less than a mile.
My last clear memory is of that damned maple tree, snapping off against the dark sky. I remember swearing and praying in the same breath and wondering if God was okay with that, and then the tree slammed the roof of the van into my skull before rolling forward through the windshield and landing on my chest.
I didn't lose consciousness, although I wished I had. At first, my only pain was across the top of my head. I knew it was bad because of the blood running into my eyes, but I kept assuring my kids that it was nothing. I'll never know how that tree hit my side of the van and managed to miss them.
I guess God listened to my prayers and gave me a pass on the swearing.
"Head wounds always bleed a lot," I lied. "I'm not hurt. I'm just trapped. Get out of the van and go to the nearest house or car. I want you out of this storm."
My daughter protested, but climbed out through the shattered side window and helped her brother out after her. By then, sirens were approaching and neighbors were running out of their warm, dry homes.
"That's the Goodwins' van," I heard one of them say.
"Ma'am, how many people are in the vehicle?" someone called in to me. I knew the First Responders from my husband's department; I recognized Chief Dan Johnston's voice.
"Just the two kids and me, Dan," I called back. I couldn't understand why he was so polite and kept calling me "ma'am". After all, I had made baby quilts when his children were born, and had handed down my children's clothes to his children. We certainly knew each other beyond the "ma'am" and "sir" stage.
Dan was peering in through the glass and branches, trying to see my face. "Who is that?" he asked.
"Amy. Ken's wife."
"Oh, God. No. Oh, no, no."
His reaction surprised me. They were trained, after all, to keep emotion at bay in all situations. Never look at the victim's face, Ken had told me during his training. Look for injuries, look at skin tone to assess their condition, but don't ever look at the face. This is a small town, and we're all going to recognize a victim at some point.
Behind me, another firefighter had made his way through the wreckage to place his hands on either side of my face. His hands shook. "My neck hurts," I told him. "Use my purse as a pillow. Which one are you?"
"The one who doesn't like coffee? You drink cocoa."
I thought about my husband, sitting at home with his two-way radio. Was he hearing the details and wondering if I was safe? He needed to hear from someone as soon as possible. "Dan, can you call Ken? He's probably listening to this on his radio."
"Want me to send someone to get him, Sweetheart?"
I could hear him on his cell phone: "No, Kenny, she's not dead. No, I'm not lying to you. She's alive and telling everyone what to do. I swear, if she was dead, I'd tell you. Yeah, it's bad, G. It's bad, but I promise you, she's alive and bitching."
G. I smiled at the nickname. In his early years on the department, my husband had been one of three firefighters named Ken. They called him Kenny G for a while, but that was soon shortened to G-Man, and finally to simply the letter G.
They all had nicknames: Lugnuts, Nipper, Chihuahua, T.O.K., Puff, Princess, Cheesecake and so on. I was Mrs. G, and our kids were Little G, G-Girl, and Baby G.
"I need you to stay with me, Mrs. G," Tony was saying. I blinked and realized that I drifted off.
Dan was asking me questions about my pain and whether or not I could move.
"Of course I can't move," I told him. "There's a tree on me. Or did you not notice that?"
"Can you move your toes?"
"Yup. Damn, my flip-flop just fell off."
He smiled. "What about your hands?"
"Left hand is tingly."
The smile vanished. "How far up? Elbow? Shoulder?"
"Um. . . Just the pinkie finger and ring finger. Oh, crap, don't let them cut off my wedding ring, Dan. I think we're still making payments on it."
Just beyond him, I could see a firefighter named Mike unrolling an orange extension cord and trying very hard not to look at me. He and my husband had quarreled a few months ago, and they were still not on good terms. For just a moment, he met my gaze and then looked away hurriedly. Weasel. Afraid to even look at me because he knows Ken was right.
"Any difficulty breathing?" Dan asked.
"Any chest pain?"
"No. What, a fat chick has some numbness in her left hand and you automatically assume heart attack?"
"Honey, it's just that, well, there's a . . . tree on your chest. A big tree."
He leaned back and squinted at the tree for a moment. "About four foot diameter. Maybe four and a half."
"So I should be having chest pain and difficulty breathing."
"Am I in shock?"
They covered me with a blue tarp and went to work with a chainsaw and the Jaws of Life. As the van shook and rocked with their efforts, the shouts of my husband's fellow firefighters rang out amid the roaring of motors. My entire world dwindled down to a lonely blue cocoon with only Tony's murmuring voice in my ear to keep me from collapsing in claustrophobic panic. I didn't know what he was saying, and I didn't care. His voice let me know that I wasn't alone under there.
Suddenly, the men shouted again. The tree moved.
My legs, my legs!
I didn't realize I had shouted until they stopped.
"We're lifting the tree now," Dan told me.
"I can feel it on my legs. Is it going to fall on my legs?"
"No. We're going to lift it forward and over the hood. Now, listen to me, Amy. Don't move. When we get the tree off, you have to stay very still. Do you understand? Let us do the work. Do not move."
Do not move. Whatever happens, Amy, no matter what. Do not move.
The words went around inside my head like a 1970's eight-track tape stuck in a loop. Do not move. The tree vanished and I took huge gasping gulps of fresh air, but I didn't move. I could see Ray, the assistant chief, snapping pictures of the scene and avoiding my eyes; he looked positively green. I wanted to reach out and squeeze his hand to let him know I was okay, but I didn't move.
I was a perfect statue while they slipped the collar around my neck and when they lifted me out and slid the backboard under me. Don't move, Amy.
All the way to the hospital, I didn't move. Not when they vacuumed the glass off my body before cutting off my clothes and removing my jewelry. Not in X-ray, not in the CT scans, not even when my husband arrived, red-eyed and trembling. He squeezed my right hand and called me "Wifey."
I squeezed back. "They told me not to move," I told him.
"Can you move?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. I wiggled my toes and lost my shoe, so I think so. I'm scared."
"Me, too, Wifey."
The X-rays and CT came back with the news: My neck was broken. In multiple places, with bone fragments everywhere. The ER doctor just shook his head and ordered them to put me back into the ambulance.
"I've never seen this much damage on someone who was still alive," he told us. "This is more than we can handle in a hospital this size. I'm sending you on to a bigger hospital. And Amy, even though you're on a backboard and in the collar, I need you to remember: Don't move. There is so much damage in there that the tiniest bit of movement could be catastrophic. Do you understand what I am telling you? Do not move. Hold perfectly still."
The corridor was crowded with firefighters and neighbors, who stepped forward one by one to smile down at me or squeeze my hand. I saw tear-streaked white faces and heard murmured prayers as I went past. Carl was there; he planted a wet kiss on my cheek but was crying too hard to speak.
"Ken?" I called. fighting down a sudden wave of panic. "Ken!"
"Right here, Wifey."
"What's wrong with them?" I demanded. "Why are they all crying? Who's hurt?"
Ken looked puzzled. "What do you mean, who's hurt? You are."
"Just you. They're all here for you."
For me. For me?
Not bad for an invisible woman.
To be continued . . .