Last Christmas Eve started out like any other: I got off work at 5:00 (government employees don’t generally get the luxury of leaving early on holidays, contrary to popular belief) and rushed home to change before my fiancé and I drove up the winding roads to my dad’s house where our annual Christmas party was in full swing. It’s always just family, but it’s special because there are many we only see that one time every year. It was a full house last year, family pouring in, a few new babies and step children swelling our numbers in the previous 12 months.
My cousin’s boyfriend had a new car- and it happened to be my fiancée dream car at the time. A white Subaru wrx (very sporty, for those- like myself- who don’t get the whole car thing). So naturally, three of the boys decided to take a little joy ride down to a nearby house. They were gone a long time. And the rest of us started to get mad; we had fussy babies who needed to get home and into their pajamas for Santa, we had presents to open. We needed them to stop playing and come home.
I didn’t think much of it when my fiancé appeared at the sliding glass door and asked me to step outside. But the moment that I did, I knew something was wrong. “Something happened,” was all he managed to say. “There was an accident. It’s bad.” The world stood still and spun all at the same time. I remember asking him if everyone was okay. I remember that he didn’t answer me. I still feel that jolt in my heart thinking back to the moment he said my cousin’s name, and then stopped. I physically stopped breathing. Please, oh please God, tell me Alex is still alive. Please, oh please God, don’t make me step back into that room and have to look at his scared parents who still have no idea what is going on. It took a while before he was able to finally tell me Alex was hurt. Hurt meant not dead, there was a wave of guilty relief that washed over me. For once, ‘hurt’ was the acceptable alternative.
I ran inside to get my dad, a firefighter- he knows how to handle these situations. We all ran to our cars to go to the scene. On the drive there, I was able to find out from Zach what happened.
My dad lives on the top of a hill, well, a small mountain really. It’s out in the middle of nowhere on a long stretch of winding roads. That night it had been snowing, though not enough to be of any concern. The driver had been showing off his car- he lived out there too and knew those roads like the back of his hand. They were driving up, heading back to the house, when he hit the gas right before a corner. He turned the wheel with the curve of the road, but they were going too fast. The car slid to the edge and hit a little patch of gravel before it fell down the steep drop-off that is less than a foot from the road. There were no guardrails. The car flipped one and a half times as it slid down the embankment. It landed on its passenger side door, held up by three spindly little trees that were growing on that steep decline. To this day I am still not sure how those three tooth-pick sized trees were able to hold firm with the force of the impact caused from a full sized sedan carrying three grown men crashing into them at high speed. If they hadn’t, or if the car had slid another foot forward, it would have rolled all of the way down. There would have been no survivors after a crash like that. But miracles happen, their guardian angels were strong that night. When the car stopped rolling, they didn’t know what was holding them up, though they were aware that they toppled all the way down the side of the cliff. All they knew was that they had to get out before whatever it was gave way.
They had to climb straight up and lifted themselves out to get out through the driver’s side door. Zach and the driver were dazed, but able to get out. My cousin had been sitting in the back seat. He had been knocked unconscious and had to be coaxed and pulled out of the car, though he didn’t want to leave. They climbed up the embankment and made it to the side of the road where they were able to flag down a single car- there was no cell service where they went off the road. Zach went to get help while they waited. That car almost hit another on their way to my dad’s house to drop him off. For the second time that night, a deadly crisis was averted.
I will never forget the moment that we drove to the scene, the headlights from my uncle’s car lighting the road and down the cliff to that car. I will never forget the way they had to convince my cousin to get up off the ground where he was laying when they first got there. I will never forget that crumpled white car propped up against the trees, the marks of the tires in the gravel, people running between headlights as we stared down an embankment at crumpled steel and injured family.
When you live out that far, an ambulance takes a while. So we decided to drive them to the hospital. In hindsight, that was probably not our best idea, but we didn’t know what else to do. In times like that when everything feels so far out of your control, sometimes action is the only thing that will make you feel better. My brother drove, Zach sat in the front seat, and Alex lay across the back seat with his head on my lap. That was the longest car ride of my entire life, trying to keep Alex awake, fighting the panic that would rise when I would have to repeat his name several times before he would respond to me.
I stepped into the emergency room with two injured men, Alex’s arm draped over my shoulder. He threw up the moment we stepped through the doors. When he was whisked back, I went with him, even though the last thing I wanted to do was leave my fiancé. They were both hurt, but Alex was worse and the doctors needed information that I wasn’t sure he would be able to give, as he had been in and out of lucidity for the entire drive in. Zach said he’d be okay, his own parents were on their way, he wouldn’t be alone for long. I sat in the back room as they worked on Alex, the doctors and nurses peppering me with questions, some of which I didn’t know how to answer- as we waited for his parents to arrive.
I found out later that he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, which wound up being bittersweet. Looking at the damage later, if he’d been strapped in where he had been sitting, he might have been just as badly injured- the tree smashed the spot he would have been. But because he wasn’t wearing it, he went flying like a rag doll when the car flipped. The front of his head hit the back of my fiancée. Zach was released from the hospital with some abrasions and a mild concussion. Alex’s was a more severe concussion, and it would take him a few months to get back to his normal self, it was a scary few months as we all kept updated on his status. But they were both okay.
The next morning we woke up, shaken and thankful. Zach was still sore, but we drove over to his brother’s house to be there when our niece and nephews opened their Christmas presents. We got to watch the light grow in their eyes as the pile of wrapping paper created mountains beside them. I got to watch Zach take his oldest nephew to the backyard to try out his new experiment (coke and mentos), I got to watch him laugh and play with them, and for once, I was able to fully appreciate the memories we were making.
As Zach and I were helping the boys build their lego forts (they decided to make us race- I lost), I kept watching him as he teasingly snuck gummy lifesavers from the kids, helping them search for the right pieces for their lego creations, and I realize how unbelievably lucky we were. Everything could have ended that night. We could have been that cautionary holiday tale that feels so distant, even while it pours ice into the soul. One weak little tree, one foot forward- and we could have spent our Christmas in mourning; instead we were watching this amazing man play with his nephews like nothing had happened, smiling through the headache he still had.
Moments like this shake you to your foundation, when you realize how close you were to losing everything. I couldn’t stop thinking how they were sitting in that crumpled car and we had been warm in the house and angry with them for being late. So many things could have gone so very wrong. But I like to believe in fate, in miracles, in a reason for the things that happen to us. I had taken the people in my life for granted, perhaps Zach most of all. We had built our lives together, and in a single moment it could have all come crumbling to the ground.
I will forever be thankful for those three spindly trees. I look for them every time we drive up to my dad’s house, my eyes resting momentarily on the turn that almost changed our lives completely, almost ended the lives of people we love with everything that we have inside.
This was a reminder for me- a reminder of what is truly important, a reminder to be patient and kind with those we love. A reminder that your life can turn upside down in the fraction of a second, with one innocent mistake; because that’s all it had been. So take the time to appreciate the people in your life. Don’t let the stress of the everyday color your time together. Be thankful for every second you have, and thank whatever force you believe in when you are granted the priveledge of one more day with them. Last year I learned something that I thought I already knew; life is precious and is not guaranteed to any of us. It is a fragile gift that should be treated with the reverence it deserves. Be thankful for every moment that you have, and when the sand in that hourglass is spent, look back on that time fondly with the love that it deserves.