Chapter Three

"The Car That Hit Me Sent Me Flying"

Flashback to 1989

 

I remember that day clearer than I was probably intended to remember it. It was a school day and I was six years old and walking home from school with a friend of mine. We had to cross a street to get to the apartment housing complex, so I went first and was successful halfway across the street. And then it hit me. The car that hit me sent me flying.

 

Gena and I awoke that morning to a gentle tap on the door of an unfamiliar bedroom. I rolled to the edge of the bed, wondering where the light switch was. It took a few moments for my mind to register that I was not in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was serving in the army. I was in my father’s home thousands of miles away in the seaside town of Oak Harbor, Washington.

I was dying to sleep in. I’d dreamt of sleeping in. For the past several years, I’d been forced to wake up at zero dark thirty and drive west out of Frankfurt to the suburb of Höchst in order to stand in the morning formation outside my company headquarters. Besides, Gena and I were on vacation. We were even on vacation from our children, who remained with my mother back in Frankfurt. After flying into Seattle the night before and driving to Oak Harbor, I was looking forward to spending a relaxing week with my father and stepmother.

I heard my father’s house slippers pacing in the hallway just outside our door and remembered why I had asked him to wake us up. We had a long-awaited expedition ahead of us. A year earlier, I’d corresponded with a realtor in Montana and purchased twenty acres of mountain property in Helena. Gena and I intended to move to Montana after my tour in the army ended. Although we’d seen photos of the land and topographical maps, we needed to drive up and see the property to plot out the potential of the place. After a quick breakfast, we all jumped into my father’s Mazda and traveled as far as Seattle before the sun even dawned. Other than the faint glow of the rising sun, there was nothing looming on the horizon, no impending sensation of doom in the forecast. By early afternoon, we’d driven as far as a rest stop outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Fall had peaked. The aspens in the surrounding hills were blooming brilliant yellowish hues. The sting of approaching winter pricked my skin. 

I would later conclude that David had stepped onto a busy street near our apartment in Frankfurt while walking home from school shortly before I awoke that morning. A few hours later, while he was fighting for his life, I was on a road trip bursting with excitement and thoughts of change. 

Why it would be important for me to take a yellow highlighter and strike a line between these two juxtaposed turn of events is one of those brain twists that I still cannot reconcile. The best analogy I can think of is the death of John Lennon. People can tell you exactly where they were the moment Lennon was shot in New York City. In a similar way, I place the time of David’s accident in the early morning hours while I slept and his fight for survival during our trek east out of Washington State. But the analogy runs deeper than me just trying to remember what I was doing and how I was feeling when David was nearly killed. The memory stings, because someone—some supernatural agency—should have whispered in my ear and informed me that the beast of misfortune was standing right behind me getting ready to pounce.

At the moment when David was hit and thrown fifteen meters into another parked car, was I dreaming about the times my father drove me out to Dillingham Airfield on Oahu so I could learn how to fly sailplanes? When David bounced off the hood of the parked car and his head slammed against the pavement, was I smiling in my sleep shortly before dawn at one of the many jokes my father used to tell me? Was I gazing out the window when we whizzed through the panhandle of Idaho later that day, daydreaming of a log cabin in the woods, while physicians were drilling a hole in David’s skull to relieve the mounting pressure building in his head that would inevitably lead to his brain damage?

Something magical or spiritual should be taking place when these kinds of events are transpiring in your life, when in fact nothing happens. Nada. Nichts. The reality is, parents can be thinking all kinds of frivolous thoughts at the precise moment their child is struck by a car, without a clue in the world it’s happening and not a prayer of stopping it. This is a bizarre and cruel trick of life, especially if you’re religious. Why? Because you have been praying hard all your life that such a thing would not happen. And, you have been walking diligently in the faith in exchange for the assurances of God that you and your family would be protected from this kind of thing from happening. Then it happens . . . and how you react to this fact-check can completely alter your religious outlook on life.

 

I don’t recall feeling anything. It was a fast moment in my life, but when I look back it wasn’t as fast as it seemed. Since the car accident I’ve become aware of the first person/third person viewing. At the time it happened I remember seeing myself in the third person view like I was watching it happen. This doesn’t sound realistic, but my only explanation for seeing it in the third person is maybe that I was aware of what was happening, although I can’t recall anything. 

I remember the walk home with my friend. I remember seeing my friend at one side of the street and me telling him to wait until I crossed the road. After getting halfway across the street, I remember being hit and at that point everything became like a blinking white light. It was like an old film where everything was filmed in black and white with the exception of the area between my neck and the top of my head. In this area I became aware of colors being dispersed like a loony-toon affect, but that’s how it happened. At the time I felt like I was in a dream-like state, as though it was like something I was thinking about and not something that was actually happening. I’m told I almost died.

 

The sun was setting behind us as we drove east on Highway 12 through the last mountain pass at Forest Heights and down into the wide prairie where Helena is located. Low, watermelon-colored clouds stretched across the indigo sky as though pulled like cotton candy at both ends. I was disappointed by my first impression. Helena wasn’t set in the mountains as I’d hoped. The city lies in the middle of a sunken valley with large, expansive slopes leading up into distant hills. Once we got out of the car to check in at the motel, I remember thinking the place looked colder than it felt.

We ate at a nearby diner. It felt good to stop rolling and have a decent meal. We’d traveled from Frankfurt, Germany, to Oak Harbor, Washington, the day before, and then from Oak Harbor to Helena, Montana. Since I was on vacation and my mind was still in a jet-lag fog, I’d given little thought about my mom, who was watching the kids, and the demands of my position as a tactical satellite systems operator. It was nice to see my dad again. Since moving with my mother in my early teens from the Hawaiian Islands to what the islanders call the mainland, I’d seen him only a half dozen times. Our last visit had been five years prior. I don’t remember what we talked about while dining—likely just chitchat—but we were still having a great time catching up on missed memories. 

Since my father and I rarely saw each other, I’d become accustomed to thinking of him as though he were a familiar stranger. I can still remember his soft-spoken voice, his handshake, and the warmth of a rare hug that we could only exchange between years of separation. We were not close, and may never have been close even if I’d lived with him after my parents divorced when I was nine. Still, there were things he’d do for me that reminded me that I was his son. Why he personally drove us out to Helena, I can’t say. Being retired, maybe he was bored and had free time. Maybe he felt like taking a drive and getting out of town. But I’d like to believe he wanted to spend time with Gena and me. Whatever his reason, I’m glad he was with me, because when we got back to the motel, my world changed forever. 

The motel clerk notified me that I was to call the sheriff’s office in Helena immediately. The sheriff informed me there had been an accident in Germany, and I was to call my army company. The noncommissioned officer on desk duty at Company C, Thirty-Second Signal Battalion, reported that my son had been hit by a car while walking home from school and gave me the number to the hospital. Through my broken German and the hospital staff’s broken English, I was passed on to several German medical personnel and finally reached the physician who had been monitoring David in the hospital’s critical care unit. David had suffered a massive head injury. He’d fractured his left femur. He was in a coma and was not expected to survive the next twenty-four hours. 

Even now, the words I heard sound unbelievable. They are words that fall deafly, as though mouthed in a silent, black-and-white, slow-motion film sequence. These kinds of words are as implausible as they are unimaginable. No parent is prepared to hear such words, even less inclined to spend time worrying that such words would ever be uttered in reference to their child. Perhaps if I’d been in Frankfurt, maybe then could I have dared to believe what was happening. But I was halfway across the world, in a state I’d never traveled through, in a city I’d never visited, leaning against a pay phone with a sweaty black receiver dangling from my ear, hearing an obscene fable that only happens to other children and other parents. Surreal would not even begin to describe the world of confusion I found myself in.

How the army pulled it off I’ll never know. But then again, in times of crisis, the armed forces are masters at logistics. When working as a team for a noble purpose, its personnel will sacrifice everything to render aid to those in conflict. Not surprisingly, then, at three o’clock in the morning, there was a knock on our motel door. I opened it to a member of the Red Cross. The elderly lady, donned in a white overcoat with a red cross stitched on the front pocket, handed me a one-way ticket to Frankfurt out of Great Falls, Montana, early that morning. She wished Gena and me well, was sorry she could not have done more, then departed mysteriously in the darkness of the early morning chill.

Just hours later I would be jarred out of my mental stupor and ushered back into reality at one of the airport’s departing gates. Around me stood Gena, my father, and my stepmother, trying to comfort one another within our inconsolable circle of despair. I instinctively moved toward my father and began hugging him like I’d never hugged him before. I don’t recall ever crying so profusely in my life. I’ve never cried that hard since. Somehow the good-byes got all rolled up into one. I knew it would be years before I’d see my father again, but when I hugged him, it was as though I was saying good-bye to my son—forever. And it was one of those body-convulsing, quaking, uncontrollable, and relentless cries of anguish that comes from deep down in the pit of your being, unleashing a grief you never thought humanly possible. 

Gena was a watery blur when I stumbled over to her. She would not be traveling with me. We had left our passports and the rest of our baggage in Oak Harbor. As a member of the military, I could pass through customs with my military identification card. Gena would need her passport to get back to Germany. From the time we learned about David’s accident, we were hedging our feelings. As a nurse, she’d seen a lot of pain and broken bodies through the years. I wondered what she knew that she wasn’t telling me. If she thought the worst, I couldn’t tell. Her professional, curative attitude had engaged, and her words of encouragement were preventing me from thinking the worst. She resembled the pillar of motherhood—resilient and emotionally restrained—but I’m sure she was falling apart on the inside. We said our good-byes.

I was grateful to get a window seat on the plane. This way, I only had to engage a minimal number of flight attendants and passengers. By peering out the tiny window into the heavens, I became fixated on what became my shrunken universe of troubled thoughts and oppressive doubts. I’d been taught from early childhood that God dwells in the heavens somewhere above the blue. I could not have been physically closer to His presence than I was at that moment. If He was out there, He was evading my gaze. Since I couldn’t see Him, I certainly expected to at least find Him in my thoughts. But there were no words of comfort or encouragement, no explanation for why He decided to allow this calamity to happen to my son.

When tragedy strikes someone you love, it invokes a radical shifting of one’s spiritual perspective. It’s as if your brain too were suddenly smacked and your hardened hypotheses were sent shattering into a kaleidoscope of prism-like reflections. What you have been taught about God is suddenly open for debate, and what you discover is that the excuses explaining why God allows suffering ring hollow.

Since the accident, people have told me, “God allowed this to happen to your son to teach you patience.” Others have said, “God allowed this to happen to your son so that you and your family would learn to trust God.” And not a few have implied, “God allows human suffering to continue because it is necessary to give people free will.” And perhaps the most nonsensical, “God will not permit you or your son to suffer beyond what you can personally handle.” Such proverbial clichés are found wanton of wisdom. For when you are in the moment, it’s as if a line has been crossed. By virtue of being a participant in suffering, you earn the right to challenge these long-held assumptions about why God permits and condones human suffering. And not one explanation resonates as sensible, much less a soothing kernel of spiritual truth to ease the troubled soul.

Consider this: a good God would not allow these kinds of things to happen, because supreme compassion would empower Him to prevent and end all human suffering. I have settled this as a fact in my own mind. Because if I had the power to end human suffering, I would, and I certainly expect no less from a god. So if I could and would, and He cannot or will not, then His existence begins to tip in the direction of improbable. Given this twist of lucidity, the simple laws of cause and effect—at times so crude and at other times so fortuitous (yet so randomly metered out as to affect everyone impartially no matter what their position in life)—are natural laws that begin to sound harmonious. 

It would be years before my remonstrations to God would strike the final deathblow to my allegiance to religious dogma, and later, to bloom to fruition into a magnificent period of spiritual discovery. At the moment, however, I was absorbed with how much pain David was enduring and whether he was going to die. Even though I had the courage to ask the blasphemous questions, I was still trusting that God was in control, and I kept telling myself over and over again (as though by mere repetition my faith would be honored) that I could find a purpose for this accident lurking somewhere amid the moonlit luminescent clouds.

I also prayed for the worst! What else can a hopeless parent, with nothing but the wishful notion of ending his child’s suffering, do? For I asked God to take my son and be done with it. My motivation for bothering Him with such a mortal entreaty was clear: I didn’t want my son to be a vegetable and live for decades hooked up to wires and tubes. I didn’t want my son to be physically handicapped to the point that he couldn’t enjoy life. I didn’t want David to be mentally incompetent to the point where he was unable to think and act normally. All of these options would mean that David would be merely existing, which was far less than actually living. The last time I saw David, he was a healthy, vibrant young boy with a world of opportunity ahead of him. 

Anything short of this perfection was unacceptable.

© 2020 by Scott Stahlecker