[Warning: The following column involves a description of a serious car accident.]
Two sounds in quick succession, so close together that, as I remember them now, I cannot tell which came first – the sound of the front right tire digging into the mud and gravel shoulder of the two-lane highway, or the sound of my wife seizing up in anticipation. I am driving, for the next few seconds, anyway. I turn the wheel, only thinking to escape the shoulder, but my turn is too hard. I try another. Too hard, but in the other direction. We leave the road; our ascent is brief, but dramatic. We land in the grass hard on the driver’s side, and the momentum carries us tumbling, onto the side, onto the roof, onto the side, onto the roof again.
And there we stop. The fury of the ten seconds past rises out of us, like mist against the dawn. We unbuckle our seatbelts, drop onto the floor that was so recently a ceiling, and crawl out through the windows of the set-piece that was our car. Air hisses from a tire. My wife’s duffel bag sits out on the wet turf right side up, as though she had set it there on purpose. Her forehead is bloody – a gash, right on her hairline. Neither of us have our glasses – they were thrown off while we spun against the earth, and we never do find them again.
So we wait, bloody and half-blind, until an ambulance and an Appanoose County sheriff’s deputy appear. They fit my wife with a backboard and a neck brace; me, they leave alone. We ride to a tiny hospital that’s little more than a garage for the ambulance to pull into. They put us in separate rooms – they want to run a CT scan on her, to make sure she hasn’t injured her spine or skull. They insist I stay in the room next door, able to hear but not see her, so that they can occasionally check on my blood pressure. The deputy comes by. Where were you going?, he asks.
To a wedding, I tell him. Up in Chaska, Minnesota.
Are you still planning to get up there today? he asks, and I wonder if that question sounds as insane to him as it does to me.
He writes me a ticket for failure to maintain control, then hands me a bag of soggy documents from the glove compartment and a note saying where we can pick through the car. He leaves, and again I am alone in the room with the blood pressure cuff and the sound of doctors talking to my wife in the other room. The adrenaline has mostly worn off; in the ongoing critique of consciousness that is my inner monologue, I note how quickly shock and fear has turned into irritated boredom.
The CT scan eventually comes back: clean. My wife has a pulled muscle in her neck and some bruises, but is otherwise unharmed. I have some scrapes on my hands from the broken glass where I crawled through the window, and, as I will discover two days later, a half-dozen wicked patches of poison ivy – but that’s all. We walk out of the ER with our friends and, after making three complete passes through the town of Centerville, Iowa, we locate the lot where our car was towed. It’s more like an eight-slot driveway than anything; the cars sit out in front of a garage next to the tow driver’s home, only a few dozen yards away from his flower garden.
I stop for a moment while we are picking through the husk. The car’s roof folds down into a sharp crease that runs the entire length of it, an indented line in the metal that marks the point of collapse. The sharp edge of that point is about three inches away from where my skull would have been. I run my fingers across the bent angle, caked with mud. Three inches.
We eat sandwiches pulled from the wreck for dinner. My wife finds a forgotten set of glasses hidden in the car. We report it to the insurance, and we sleep in our own bed that night.
That was on Sunday. It’s three days later now – Wednesday, prayer night – and I am sitting on the sheepskin prayer rug set out in front of my altar and wondering what to say. When I think back to the moment of the crash – what I remember feeling as the tidal forces in my gut jerked against the pitch and yaw of the rolling car – I do not remember any thought of religion. I didn’t see the face of Odin, nor did I hear any Valkyrie songs. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I remember distance, and annoyance, and no real fear of death. Mostly, I remember rolling, and crawling out, and wishing that I had my glasses. It was only later, lying in bed next to wife, my wife, with nothing but a pulled muscle in her neck, that the enormity of it came to me.
What does a person say to the gods – these personal saviors, these mythic undercurrents, these names we give to the wind and the sea and the rolls of the dice that make up reality – what does one say to them in a moment like this?
I pour a glass of aquavit for myself and for them. I feel it burn its way down my throat, into my stomach. I think of my uncle, who died in a car accident not much different from mine. I think of the three inches between my head and the bend in the steel. I think of my wife, with whom I was angry the night before the wreck, who was strapped to a backboard out of my sight in the hospital. I think – I think of fear, hope, gratitude, wonder, the troubling revelation of life, life, life.
But I don’t say anything. If the gods can understand our tongues, they can understand their inadequacy; if the gods can hear at all, they can hear the breadth of our silence.