Friday, July 14, 2017

The Strangers Who Stick With You

I want to tell you a story.

A couple of years ago (I actually had to go check the news reports, it feels like it JUST happened still in my mind), a woman died in a car accident along my route to work.

I was running late that day at a job that was still fairly new to me. I dropped my not-quite-a-year-old daughter off in the baby room with her teachers and got back on the road. I was maybe ten minutes later than usual. I was distracted, driving fast, trying to make up for the time I'd lost.

There's a certain spot in my city where you cross a longish concrete bridge and then head immediately downhill, around a slight curve, and that's when you basically "enter" downtown.

Just off to the left at the bottom of that hill is a scrapyard, full of cars that have seen better days, many that have sort of become more landscape than vehicle, still sitting in the same spots they were in when we moved to the area five years ago.

On that day, I saw flashing lights before I even crested the hill on the bridge and slowed down to see what I can only call a full cavalry of ambulances, fire trucks, and cop cars surrounding an SUV that was fully overturned on top of a couple of those old scrapyard cars. The wrecked car had totally busted the fence on its way in and somehow kept sliding before finally stopping on an old truck.

I thought to myself that the upside-down vehicle looked familiar, but not in any way I could put a name or face to. Just that I knew I'd seen that car before. Honestly, in a city that often feels more like a small town, at least on our end, that's not uncommon.

"That looks awful," I remember thinking. "God, I hope they got out." I drove on to work.

Within a couple of hours, word began to spread — the driver of that SUV had been a woman, with a daughter who attended the same daycare as my own.

That's when I realized why I had thought that SUV looked familiar.

She and I had similar dropoff and pickup times for our kids. I'd seen her before. I'd seen her child before... she was older than my own, I remembered that much. When they put her photo in the news, I recognized her immediately.

We had similar routes and timelines for our mornings.

Had I been on time that day, we would have been on the same spot of road at almost exactly the same moment.

Here's the weird thing — it seemed like she had swerved to avoid something, had been going fast, and lost control of the car. It's a steep downhill slope and it's easy to go fast. We all do. Just part of the morning commute, trying to make up for those lost few minutes we spent trying to talk our stubborn children out the door or stopping to chat or grabbing a coffee on the way.

Obviously it could have been an animal, but I thought then — and I think now — that she swerved to avoid a person. That exact spot where her car crossed the center line is one of the worst places in town for people who just run blindly out into traffic to cross the street, steadfastly ignoring the clearly marked crosswalk less than a quarter-mile away. I honestly cannot count the number of times I've had to slam on my brakes or even swerve into another lane to avoid them.

I think that person ran off, not wanting to be known as the cause of that accident. I think about how utterly wretched it is to cause a wreck like that and run from it.

She did not survive the accident.

On any other day, I would have been right there, maybe a stoplight back or ahead, but basically in that exact part of the road. I know I've hit my brakes to avoid someone running out into the road at nearly exactly the same time of day as that accident occurred.

As it was, dropping Audra off a few minutes late (and spending a few minutes more chatting with her teachers) meant that I only saw a little of the aftermath.

Anyway, I tell this story because I think of her every single day.

Every time I pass that spot, the salvaged cars in the scrapyard that are still dented from the weight of her car, I think about her. I think about her fiance, and her daughter. I think about who had to pick that little girl up from daycare that day and how they had to try to explain to a very young child what had happened to her mother.

I think about them picking up this shattered life and having to build a new one around its absence.
I slow down my car going down that hill now. I take it slowly around that curve. I think very deliberately about her.

I didn't know her. I had never even met her, really, beyond the way you nod at someone in passing when you see them in the parking lot when you're both dropping off your children.

Still, she's on my mind every day, as is her family and how they're getting by.

I have wondered, before, if knowing that a total stranger thinks about this woman who was everything to them would be appreciated, or simply cause a well-intentioned misery.

They've gone through hell at it is. If it doesn't feel like two years to me, it definitely still feels like an open wound to them.

Still. Every day for two years I've slowed down driving past that scrapyard. I think about her, say a prayer for her daughter and her loved ones and for her, too.

It's funny how people we will never meet can affect our days so profoundly.


  1. Wow, how tragic :( I've passed (and nearly avoided) a lot of accidents on my commute to work (it's rare not to pass by at least one a week in my city, San Jose). It definitely sticks with you for a long time, but I couldn't imagine having crossed paths with the people in the accidents.

    1. Oh, yeah. I see a lot of accidents, the way you just do, you know? Fender benders or worse. But that accident - and the realization of how similar our lives were and how much just a couple of minutes changed everything - has really made me look at the whole thing differently.

  2. This gave me goosebumps! Her poor family. :( I work from home now, but last year, I was in the same boat - rushing off in the mornings to drop off my boys at before-care and starting my commute. All it takes is a second for something to happen and change your life and the lives of the people around you. Thank goodness she had already dropped off her daughter, but my heart aches for that little girl, growing up without her mama. :( I can absolutely understand why you still think about her every day. xo

    1. The women who work at the daycare still talk about the whole thing, too - I guess her daughter had been going since her own infancy. She was 3 when the accident happened, so I guess she'd be five now, and I just... I can't even imagine my husband having to totally take over everything all at once like that.


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