At 25, we’re at our most dangerous. With high school almost 10 years behind us and college rapidly fading into memory, we think we have all the education we’ll ever need. With a few years of work (hopefully) under our belts, we think we have real life experience. But we don’t, and we don’t.
I lay on Northern Boulevard’s blacktop, crushed and broken. And yet, in the immediate wake of my accident, I wasn’t the one in trouble. I didn’t have to make any tough decisions. I didn’t have to confront the reality that everything in the previous two-plus decades had left me totally unprepared for this challenge. That burden fell instead on my wife, who had turned 25 only a few months earlier. And who had just overheard the off-duty EMT who happened to be at the scene of the accident when I got hit say that I was dead. This is her story (albeit, in my words).
* * *
I just wanted to get home. It was late, almost midnight.
We had attended a Christmas party and then, on the way back, stopped at my parent’s where I watched my mom chase Dave around the center island in her kitchen. As she laughingly trailed him around the rectangular track, he fired snotty comments smugly over his shoulder. We had dated since high school, and somehow Dave had earned the right, he thought, to tease my mom in ways that would have resulted in other men getting rapped over the head with a steel pan. The fact that he had avoided this fate confirmed his theory.
It was a fun night. The holidays beckoned just a few weeks away, and we were oblivious to how fragile things always are.
We then drove back in our tiny Honda Civic towards the small house we rented, and the two mutts that Dave insisted on getting, even though we barely had room for one. We had gotten them from a local animal shelter, a collie mix and some kind of terrier. Dave named them both after Boston sports figures from his youth. Only a few more minutes until we walked in the door and Bird – yeah, he named a dog Bird, and then saddled her with the middle name, “Dog” – would wag her tail, looking like she’d unscrew her butt from the rest of her body. Dewey – Dave told me that was Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans’ nickname (I couldn’t care less) – on the other hand, would spring up and down as if she had pogo sticks for legs, squealing with excitement until one of us paid attention to her.
Dave drove. I remember his brown leather jacket, olive green pants, and the fedora-like hat he wore in cold weather. As we drove up to the final intersection before the turn-off to our house, Dave commented on the stranded vehicle barely visible in the night. And with barely any discussion, he ignored my request to continue home, and pulled the car into the parking lot of the Shell station at the corner. In the space of a minute, he was in the the middle of the street, telling me on his way out the door he’d be right back.
I could see the white Honda coming down the road towards the stranded sedan, not slowing down. The whole scene played out like a movie in slow motion. I could see the back of Dave’s head crash against the windshield of the car behind him and I then watched his body drift into the sky like a rag doll. More than 20 feet down the road he landed on the pavement. Head first.
Two men raced into the street, one yelling to the other, “Don’t work on him, he’s dead!” We’d been married less than four years, and it occurred to me that I was now a widow.
Somehow, I found myself inside the gas station, arguing with the attendant who insisted that I couldn’t use his phone. But I did. I called my dad and told him where I was and to get there because Dave had been killed. I hung up without hearing anything he said.
Between the time my father reached the intersection and threw up upon seeing the wrecked version of my husband lying in the street, Dave began convulsing, the first sign of life he showed after the collision. And then I was in the road with him, trying to keep him from moving. He was convinced that I had been in the accident as well. Nothing he said made any sense.
He ended up in an ambulance, and I was following him in my car with my mother, who was saying something about “What are we going to do?” over and over. I couldn’t stand it. Before I started driving to the hospital, I slapped her across the face and told her to get a grip. She became silent. And we then drove to the hospital together.
The emergency room was a blur. I had doctors who needed to speak to me, cops who wanted a description of the accident, and family members everywhere talking and talking and talking.
The doctor leading the trauma team gave me the details: head injuries, bleeding in the brain in the area controlling motor function. Oh yeah, and Dave’s mangled left leg.
We had options, sort of. Amputate above the knee and Dave would be in a prosthesis pretty soon, learning to walk again. Or save the knee, which would give Dave “higher upside” potentially, but which was complicated by the fact that he had suffered extensive burning almost up to the knee when the hot tailpipe of the car he was trying to push had impaled his leg at impact.
My father-in-law was now there, telling the doctor to save the knee, save the knee. He wanted a second opinion. Wasn’t he hearing what the doctor was saying? Extensive skin grafts. Multiple surgeries. High risk of infection. Possible loss of leg above the knee anyway. But he persisted. And I left.
I walked out of the room and to the front entrance of the ER, where I met, for the first time, my future brother-in-law’s dad, Skip, who happened to be visiting his son and my sister that weekend. (How’s that for a fun family weekend? Come to Long Island and you can . . . visit the ER!) He introduced himself, smiled at me, and offered me one of his cigarettes. I took it.
He asked me how I was doing and I tried to describe the insanity inside. I was only 25 and an hour ago I was a few hundred yards from my house with my husband. Now I was in an ER with people all around me deciding how we were going to hack off Dave’s body parts.
Skip reminded me that I was Dave’s wife. He told me I could make these decisions and that I would do what was right for Dave.
Thank God for Skip. A stranger only moments before, a kid from the Bronx who was for reasons I couldn’t understand now lived in Oklahoma, his comments allowed me to gather myself at exactly the moment when I needed to regain a grasp on sanity.
Yeah, I was only 25. Yeah, older and smarter people were everywhere telling me what I should do. But only I knew Dave the way I did, and like it or not, only I could make the decision that would change his life. If I made the wrong choice, would he be mad at me for the rest of his life? Would he second guess my decision a year, two years, 10 years after I made it?
It didn’t matter. Dave was conscious but still insisting to doctors that I had been involved in a car accident while also sharing with them that he had just passed the bar exam. So I had to step into the role of decision maker because Dave, if left on his own, was more likely to have a discussion with doctors about the ins and outs of insurance law’s crossroads with intellectual property litigation than a competent discussion of his shaky medical condition.
I walked back in and ordered everyone out of the room. My parents. My father in law. I wasn’t nice. I wasn’t polite. I reminded everyone that I was Dave’s wife and that only I had the legal right to decide how he should be treated. (Studying for the bar with Dave paid off in that respect, at least.) I told the doctor that he was to speak to me and only me from that point forward about Dave’s condition and treatment.
And when everyone had left, I told the doctors to cut my husband’s leg off. Above the knee. And they did.
After the surgery, they told me not to tell Dave when he woke up what had happened. They explained that the sudden disappearance of his leg might upset him when he regained consciousness, and it was critical that he remain calm. But of course, somehow, even though to this day he doesn’t remember anything between the time of the accident and the surgery, the first question Dave asked when he woke up in the ICU was, “Did they take my leg?”
I hesitated for a minute. The doctors had said . . . oh the hell with them. He needed to know and I had made the decision. I had made the call on amputation, and now I was going to make the call on whether my husband could handle an honest answer to a simple question.
And he smiled, said “OK.”, and went back to sleep.
* * *
At 25 we know just enough to be dangerous. And yet, on the precipice dividing youth from that wisdom that can only be forged by painful experience, my wife showed that remarkable events define who we are, no matter the age.
My father-in-law, whom I had always been close to, became an even better friend after the accident. Every year, without fail, he calls me on the anniversary to tell me he’s happy to still have me in his life. Sometimes I can’t pick up, so he leaves a message on my voicemail that poignantly reminds me how lucky I am to still be here.
My mother-in-law, who got a shot across her jaw from her oldest daughter the night of the accident, unwittingly set my wife on the course that ultimately allowed her to take control of a crazy situation. Ironically, by taking that blow, she gave my wife control. Control that my wife maintained like a thready pulse until the encounter with Skip, where it solidified into the force of conviction. Without that, my wife would never have asserted herself in the way I needed later on that morning. My mother-in-law laughs about it now, describing how her daughter took control with a hint of pride and amazement in her voice.
Skip died earlier this year of a rare and fatal brain disease. I never got to thank him myself even though I should have. Fortunately, my wife made sure he knew how important he was to her on that night. And though Skip and I only saw each other maybe once a year afterwards, he helped shape my life in a profound and positive way based on that single interaction with my wife in the sleet outside the ER.
My dad had lost his wife (my mom) just over a year before my accident after she succumbed to a long and painful battle with cancer. He fought in that hospital to make sure that I would have the best possible life that a person with one leg could have, a decision that led my wife to pull rank on him in the ER. The tension from that encounter, along with other historical baggage, strained our relationship for years, even though I never told him about it. And despite that, he worked his ass off over the ensuing decade to rebuild bridges between me and my wife. That required equal parts humility and courage.
And my wife . . . what can I say? I’ve put her through a lot, sometimes due to circumstances beyond my control, but other times because I’ve needed to chase what I selfishly needed to chase, even when it didn’t make the most sense for her or the rest of our family.
I owe her a debt I can never repay. She made the right call. Because of her, I live a complete and full life.
Two weeks ago, a prosthetist at a professional event asked me, “What can’t you do today that you’d like to do?” The question stopped me in my tracks, which is rare for someone who’s never at a loss for words. “I can’t think of anything.” I said. “So maybe you’re happy with your life?” he asked. I thought for only a second. “I am.” I said.
Cara – you’re an amazing woman. I’m lucky to have you as my wife and the mother of our kids.
And I’m lucky to be here. And to have (had) all of these people in my life. I love you all. Happy Thanksgiving.