Leaving the driveway this morning there was a thick batch of lake effect snow that was coming down at a good rate. Unaware that we were expecting significant snow, I commented to my 15-year old daughter that it was going to take a little longer to get her to school. She had a concert performance with her high school choir at St. Mary’s, and one thing I know about my daughter is that she hates to be late for anything. That is one trait she most definitely got from me.
As I backed out of the driveway, I was even more surprised to see how deep the ruts in the snow were. I slowly drove past my 17-year old son who was brushing the snow off his car and windshield, and I made sure to tell him to go really slow and not get in a rush to get to school. With that I rolled up the window and took off down the street like I have a thousand times. But, this was the first time I was driving with my daughter in the snow since he had gotten her permit.
My role in our family has always been to be the one that teaches the kids the basics of the road and driving. I give them their first lessons and gradually get them out on the road in the right situations. Once they’ve got the hang of it, they tend to want to drive more with mom because she’s a lot less critical of their driving than I am. Although, through my own experiences with each kid and reports from my wife, our daughter seems to be the most confident and natural driver of our three children. It probably comes naturally to the youngest, especially when you have nothing but older brothers, but she loves driving and does a really good job. Yet, learning to drive in the snow is the big equalizer for all drivers.
As we were heading down the main road of our subdivision, I took the opportunity to give her all of the “dad” driving tips in the snow. I told her that even I made driving in the snow look easy, it wasn’t, and that when you’re in the snow, you always have to be paying attention to everything around you.
My last tip was to use the subdivision as a good testing ground for just how bad and slick the roads might be. I told her to find a safe stretch with no other cars and people around and to slam on the brakes. How far and hard you slide at 25 MPH is a good indication of road conditions and how you’ll be able to control your car. I showed her this as we were approaching the entrance of the subdivision. When I hit the brakes, the car began to slide and fishtail quite a bit, so I told her that it was definitely going to be a slick ride, and that nothing can humble an over-confident driver like snow and ice.
As I finished sharing those words of wisdom and lessons, we came to a stop behind a car waiting to exit the subdivision. My eyes were focused forward, watching to see when we would be able to possibly get out onto the main road. I was already nervous for her because I knew we would be cutting it close to get her to school in time for her bus when we felt a big thud from behind.
In an instant we went from having a conversation about driving in snow to an accident. We were in no way injured, but if you have been in an accident you know those unmistakable sounds and moments when your mind is processing what just happened. The person who rear-ended me was a pair a 17-year old boys on their way to school. They were so nervous and apologetic, and while my rear bumper was damaged I couldn’t help but feel somewhat grateful for them and their family that this is how and where they learn about the hazards of driving in the snow. Nobody was injured, both cars had very minor damage, and worst case scenario we were all close to home. I was able to help them through the process, while showing my daughter what to do in the event of an accident. Ironically, my 17-year old son drove right by us. I couldn’t help but think that it could have been him that rear ended me or someone else. Within a few minutes we were all back on the road, and another instructional conversation awaited my daughter as she had lots of questions.
However, my mind shifted back to December 16, 2005. It was a Friday night, and I was headed out to meet some friends for drinks. I was headed towards the mall area in Mishawaka, and at that time State Road 23 was just two lanes. Being one of the last Fridays before Christmas and around 6 o’clock, it was bumper to bumper traffic. Cars were moving along as usual, and then suddenly I saw headlights headed right at me.
It’s crazy how all these years later I remember everything from that evening as vividly as if it happened last night. At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. For a moment, I truly thought, “My God, I’m going to die right now!” My only instinct was to brace for impact and try to veer to my right. Fortunately, by slightly veering the driver of the car that crossed over the center lane hit directly on the driver side tire area and not head on. Suddenly there was an absolute thud and explosion of sound. For those that have been in a serious accident, you know that sound. I survived the initial impact with keen awareness, but my heart began racing because I knew my car was now spinning. I had no idea in which direction I was spinning, but I quickly thought about the massive line of cars that had been coming at me and behind me. I knew we were all going about 50 MPH, so I braced for what I was certain would be the fatal impact of another car crushing into me. It is unreal how many thoughts can go through your mind and instincts you have in those instants.
Amazingly, there was no second impact. Once the car stopped spinning and I realized I was safe from another car barrelling into me, I sat and collected myself for a moment. I can honestly say there was a moment I asked myself if I was really still alive, or if somehow I was dead. Once I felt like I was alive, I forced myself to move my limbs to see if anything had been seriously injured. To my relief, I had escaped without any apparent injuries. I now became aware that my music which was blaring had gone silent, but my horn had taken its place. I looked around, and in that moment I had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see any cars at all, which made me wonder for a second if I was wrong when I assumed I was alive. I decided that I had to get out of the car, and I wondered if this would be where I would suddenly feel a sharp pain. I tried the driver door, but it wouldn’t open, so I had to crawl out passenger side.
When I hit the pavement it felt like there was no sound at all. I looked around and realized that my car had stopped in the oncoming lane of traffic. I had spun around one and a half times, but my assumption is that the car behind the one that hit me saw what was about to happen and either stopped or veered clear of me as I was spinning. All traffic in both directions had completely stopped on one of the busiest shopping nights of the year.
When I looked back at the lane I had been traveling in, I saw that the person behind me had not been so lucky. The car that hit me smashed the entire drive side of my vehicle and then plowed directly into the one behind me head on. As witnesses began to exit their vehicles to see if anyone needed assistance, I realized that despite my initial thoughts, I was lucky. The driver of the vehicle that hit me and the one behind me weren’t getting out of their cars. When emergency responders arrived at the scene they were quickly drawn to those two vehicles that were still entangled. I was given medical attention, but didn’t need to be taken to urgent care. My biggest issue was the shards of glass I would be picking out of my hair, face, and ear for the next couple of days. The paramedics told me that there would not be any fatalities, but the other drivers needed to be cut out of their vehicles.
While that accident was almost seventeen years ago, this morning helped bring it all back to the front of my mind. I can promise, if you have ever been hit head on, or nearly head on, there will never be another time in your life where you don’t flinch or think that the next car coming at you isn’t going to cross over that center line. I was extremely lucky that night to be able to walk away, but it changed me forever.
This morning’s minor accident really got me to stop and reflect. Seventeen years ago Brady was six months old. Carter was two and a half. He was a complete mama’s boy as a small child, and I was just getting to know Brady’s personality. Ava wasn’t around, nor would she exist if I didn’t walk away from my totaled vehicle that night. Here I was giving her driving instructions and my middle son reminders to be careful moments before we were rear-ended. Earlier this week he was headed to the gym late at night to workout, but he returned a few minutes later. When he walked back in he told me he tested the roads like I had instructed in the subdivision and determined they were too slick and it wasn’t worth heading out. While it would be overly dramatic to say that advise saved his life, it kept him off the roads that night where he would be putting himself and others at risk. Had that accident turned out differently, I wouldn’t have been around to give him those instructions that he still uses whenever he drives.
That’s the thing with kids, you never know what they really take from you. They always watch and listen, but it’s not until they hit different stages in life where you get to see and realize if you have made a positive impact on them. I let my mind wander back to those days when I wondered what if that accident had turned out differently. What if I hadn’t slightly veered, and that car hit me directly head on with both of us doing 50MPH? Would we both have been killed? Did him hitting my car in the tire well first slow him down enough to save his life and the driver behind me?
The only certainties I know is that I am forever changed because of that. I know how quickly things can change. I know that I’ll be forever grateful that I’m around to help shaped my kids lives and be present for them. So many kids have their parents taken away from them early in life for various reasons out of their control, and I was almost one of them. I think about all of the things I would have missed out on with my wife and kids.
It’s hard not to wonder how different the boys might have been without my presence in their lives. I have really been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately, and I think about the profound impact they had on my life. Being raised in the depression, they really imparted the value of hard work and always being appreciative for what you have, not focusing on what you want or don’t have. I know they would be proud of me, but I don’t know if I would fully be the man I am today without their influence, along with both of my parents always being in my life.
Life is prescious! I’m annoyed that I now have to deal with a smashed rear bumper, but today was a good reminder of how quickly things can change. I’m glad those boys that hit me got a safe lesson in those things that I know they’ll always apply when they hit the road in the snow moving forward. But, I’m even more grateful that my life wasn’t lost seventeen years ago and I’m here to see who my kids are becoming. It’s even more impactful to see them using the lessons I’ve been able to impart on them in all aspects of life. I love them and my wife more than anything, and I’m so glad I get to wake up every day with them in my life.