On warm, still, summer days, I sometimes get impressions and perceptions of my life before moving to Coral Creek. Only vaguely though, because after I came out of the coma, there wasn’t much of anything that I remembered, not even my name. It’s days like this though, sitting on the front porch alone, the distant hills shimmering blue-green in the sunlight, the occasional, soft “twit” of a bird in a tree, that bits and pieces come back to me.
I’m told by the person—the very kind person, who says she is my daughter, that I lived my whole life in Placerville, California, raised her and her brother there in fact, in a sturdy, two story, shingle-shake house, on a lovely, tree-lined street. She—her name is Dorothy—sometimes takes out a photo album and shows me pictures. I can see it’s me in them—a younger me by a Christmas tree with children I have no recollection of, me with my arms around an unfamiliar, but pretty blond woman, an unshaven me sitting around a campfire with three men I do not know, all of us raising cans of beer in a toast as we smile into the camera.
Dorothy always watches me closely as I flip the pages of the album and pretend that I’m concentrating in earnest on the photos, which I did at first, but I long ago lost interest in the unfamiliar scenes. I’ll look up at her though and nod thoughtfully as if I did have some inkling of who the strangers in the album are. I do that just to give her hope that my memory is returning and to make her feel like she’s helping me.
It’s days like these though—warm, quiet days alone on the porch, that I do get a caress of memory—a ghostly drift, often more sensed than seen, of what went before.
These impressions are getting stronger. Sometimes it’s a fragment of laughter or the sound of a disembodied, yet strangely familiar voice. Once, for a few seconds, I got the sight and smell of a gin and tonic in a noisy bar and grill I had no recollection of ever having been in. The aroma in the image was so strong it made my mouth water; I could even hear ice cubes clink in the glass.
I’m told I was a criminal attorney prior to the accident, and sometimes, I do indeed get an odd, brief, snapshot recall of things like bending to a water fountain outside a courtroom door, or of jury members, mid-step, filing into or out of a room.
The other day, I saw the image of a wavering, watery stretch of highway at night with the centre line bowing and bending like a yellow ribbon waving in the breeze.
These slivers of recall come and go like wisps of silk, while all my past hovers like a tidal wave, stilled in time like a stopped breath, waiting to break.
The doctor said it may be like that for awhile – said there was no brain damage – that the amnesia was a result of the overwhelming trauma: the death of loved ones, the horrors of the ravages, injuries, loss. He was a nice man – graying at the temples, black horn-rimmed glasses, kindly and impassive – as he stood by my bed, sometimes shining a narrow-beamed light into each of my eyes, sometimes just asking me questions.
Not long after I came out of the coma, in a gentle but direct manner, he gave me what information he had about the accident. My wife, a woman I’m told was named Ilene, had been driving us home late at night and probably fell asleep at the wheel. She had swerved over into the opposite lane going over eighty miles an hour and collided head on with an SUV. She was killed on impact. My twenty-two year old son, a boy named Dustin, had been in the back seat and died from internal injuries, even as the ambulance crew had been racing him on a stretcher through the emergency room doors. I had been in the front passenger seat, had been seriously injured, but an eight hour long operation saved my life. On my inquiry about the fate of the victims in the other car, the doctor paused, then relayed that two young children, along with their parents, died as a result of the crash. A third child survived, but had lost her right eye and part of the right side of her face from sharp-edged metal slicing through it.
Over the next months, Dorothy, and sometimes her husband Bill, made periodic trips to Marshall Medical Center in Placerville to visit me. When I was well enough to leave the hospital, they both showed up to drive me to their home in Coral Creek. Her and Bill were strangers to me, so it felt odd going to live with them, even on a temporary basis. She was insistent that I do, though. She said I had always been the most wonderful father anyone could ever wish for, and now, after such a tragedy, felt closer to me than she ever had before.
She made a point to never bring up the accident itself, but upon my questioning her directly and insistently about it, did later fill me in on additional details, supplied to her by investigators who had looked into the events surrounding the crash.
Dustin had just graduated collage. We’d been at a party at an upscale bar and grill with a number of other proud parents and graduating students. Witnesses stated that they observed Ilene having only a single drink, while both Dustin and I were four sheets to the wind. This is why, as Dorothy explained, Ilene, who always hated to drive in the dark, and almost never did so, ended up being the one behind the wheel that night when we left for home at 2:00AM. Forensic tests confirmed Ilene was well below the legal blood alcohol limit, and since no fault could be found with the vehicle itself, it was determined that the accident was due to her dozing off while she drove. The family she plowed into had been returning from an out-of-state visit with relatives and needed to arrive home that night; the husband had an important business meeting he needed to attend the following morning.
Fate met fate that night, and as Dorothy summed up, no one was really to blame.
I think she was just being kind when she said that. If this person Ilene, my wife and Dorothy’s mother normally didn’t drive at night, the fears and unfamiliarity with doing so, combined with the late hour and even the one alcoholic beverage, all together, likely contributed to the accident. If I hadn’t gotten drunk, it would have been me at the wheel. I have no memory of the incident, yet as I sit here now in the embrace of a quiet summer day, images loom into view like ghosts in a mirror.
If I hadn’t been drunk…
“Look – I am NOT kidding now. You need to either pull over and wait it out for a few hours, or else let me drive.”
“I said to leave me alone! You got that for Chrissake? I’m doing okay.”
Ilene shook her head and turned for just a moment to glance at Dustin in the back seat. I did too. He was out like a light. When I faced forward again, the entire road, for as far as I could see, rippled as though it was made out of sea and sand. There was a double nova of light rushing up at me—a twin sunrise at the beach? No, it would have to be a double moon because it’s—
“MY GOD! STOP!!”
It’s funny what strange things a person sometimes thinks of in situations like that. At first, absolutely nothing. When I regained consciousness and opened my eyes, I didn’t think a damned thing when I saw the mangled, smoking, metal heap of the other car practically in front of my face. It looked like it had scrambled up onto the front end of my car and clutched it in a bear hug, but turned partially sideways, so that even in the dark, I could see the top of a small face hanging partially out through the shattered rear seat window. I must have been deeply in shock, because oddly, the only thing that hurt just then were my eyes. It hurt when I rolled them dazedly toward the front seat window of the other car and saw the two motionless bodies that were crushed into each other on the left side of it; a protruding bulge of metal was pressing down on them, pinning them together in death.
I turned back again, facing the front, and looked at the other car. Nobody there had moved either. It’s funny the crazy things people think of sometimes in situations like that. I guess that happens when you’re in shock, or when you’ve been stripped down to some primeval part of yourself.
I thought, right at that moment, as I sat in my car with my dead and dying family in it, and looked out at the other car, with its dead family in it, about a client of mine—Eric Michaelson—an overall decent guy. I was genuinely sorry when I lost the case. I did what I could, but it was open and shut. I remembered the faces of the jury when they filed back in – or at least some of them: an elderly lady with a facial tic, in a black and white polka dot blouse, twisting a pink handkerchief in her hands, a man in a blue polyester suit who had a five o’clock shadow, a brown eyed, Goth-looking girl with a small, green bead skewered into the right side of her nose.
Eric was sentenced to fifteen years. He had been driving drunk, ran a red light, and hit and killed a seven year old girl who was crossing the street. He was already fifty-seven and would now spend most of the remainder of his life in jail. I counted right then – two in my car, and three that I could see in the other car.
I looked again at dead Ilene in the passenger seat. I undid my seat belt, and since I couldn’t get my legs to move, used my arms to pull myself over to her side of the car. I then somehow dragged myself across the top of her to the other side. The door on her side was bowed outwards making a pocket of space for me next to her. I undid her seatbelt, and used the weight of my body and what little strength I had left in my arms to muscle and shove her over into the driver’s seat. I fastened the seat belt around her, then clawed back into the passenger seat and fastened that seatbelt around my own waist. I felt myself falling and opened my eyes two weeks later in the hospital.
I guess now the rest of my memory will come back to me as well. I guess also that what goes around comes around. The doctor said the amputations were necessary—couldn’t be avoided, from almost the top of my thighs down. He said some violent movement of my legs after the accident—maybe by the firemen hastily trying to extract me from the vehicle—caused irreversible damage beyond that caused by the accident itself. Strangely though, I’m okay on it now. I can look down at the nubs left of what used to be my legs and not get emotional about it, and after all, I did avoid spending what could have been many years in prison.
“Dorothy! I didn’t even hear you come out. I’d love some. Thanks, dear.”