By Jamie Walton
I was only about half a block from the corner when it happened, focused only on getting to the preschool in time to pick up our four-year-old. The baby was strapped happily in her car seat in the middle row and the radio was playing something–a podcast or NPR, something I would only have enough quiet to hear when the older kids were at school. It was the normal routine. A normal day.
And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
It’s a bit of a blur now, what exactly happened and when. I remember mostly images: the blur of a car speeding down a parallel street. The strange slow-motion collision as it met the side of another vehicle. The fountain of shattered glass that burst into the air above them, a horrible glittering confetti.
Time expanded to contain that moment, when so much happened in such close succession. It stretched out and I took it all in. One car spun around and landed against the curb. The other jumped the sidewalk and slammed into a tree on someone’s lawn. And then it was over.
At first I didn’t process that anyone could have been hurt.
I pulled over, still reeling, as my brain searched for something to do. Something to make sense of this.
I needed to give them my information for the insurance claim.
That was the only thought I could get my brain to stick on. The only thing that made sense. There was an accident. I saw it. I needed to be available as a witness for the insurance.
As I made my way to the closest car a woman tumbled out from the driver’s side door. She yanked the back door open and lunged in as I reached her.
“Can I help?” I asked.
The woman was shaking, trembling, her eyes wide and her voice tremulous. “My daughter is stuck!” she whimpered. “My daughter is stuck!”
People were gathering around the scene now. Several were on their phones, calling 911. A woman about my mother’s age pulled the hysterical mom away from her car and leaned in to assess the state of the kids in the back seat. She lifted a toddler–still strapped into his car seat–from the car and I stepped forward to take him.
“Don’t take him out of his car seat,” she said firmly, then turned her attention to his sister.
I put the car seat down on the sidewalk, away from the wreckage. Inside the car the boy’s older sister was crying. Her foot was caught between the seat and her door, which had crumpled like an empty soda can with the impact. But the little boy sat silently, eyes wide, body still, as if he couldn’t manage to take in what was happening. He had a cut on his forehead.
I bent down to comfort him. I don’t remember what I said, just that my voice was soft. I stroked his head and plucked shard after shard of safety glass from his dark curls. At one point his mother came to check on him, still crying.
“Is the other driver okay?” she asked. Her voice shook and she was trembling. She couldn’t keep still: her world was still spinning around her. So then I stroked her hair, too, and there were more people, and one of them checked on my own baby, who sat safely in our van.
We’d been so close to being in this ourselves, seconds away. We drove this route almost everyday.
It seemed like it took ages for the ambulance to arrive, but once it was there the EMS team made quick sense of the chaos. They worked open the door and retrieved the little girl. Laying her on the grass away from the car they began to treat her injuries, starting with the foot that had been pinned in the crash.
When one of the medics came to check on my little charge I knew my time there was done. I turned him over to their care, gave my statement to a policeman, and got back in my car to go pick up my preschooler.
Afterward, when the adrenaline wore off, I felt shaky and pale. I fumbled through the drive home, through the making of the kids’ lunch. I then called the hospital, where my husband was working a shift in the Pediatric ED. I was off-kilter and all rattled up inside. I just needed to talk to him, to hear his voice.
“He’s in a trauma,” the secretary said, when I finally got through. “There was a car accident, with two little kids.”
“I know,” I said. Tears stung my eyes. “I was there.”
It took a while for him to call me back, but that day I didn’t mind waiting. I’ve spent so many evenings, long nights, and holidays alone while he’s worked. But I’ve never done it after seeing the people he was working for.
For the past few months I’ve found myself thinking back on that day with a deep, solemn gratitude. There were so many people helping at that car accident, so many strangers coming together to help that little family. But even together, most of us were helpless to do more than simply be there.
I’ve found a new reverence for the work we give up our “dream” lifestyles to support. The nine-to-five lives with weekends and holidays, anniversaries and birthdays off. Maybe we don’t have that, but we have this:
We have the sweet relief I felt knowing that I was passing off the care of that dark-eyed toddler with glass in his hair to my husband and his team. There is no one I would rather have turned that little one over to. No one I could trust more.
We have the knowledge that there are other people, shaken and vulnerable, wounded and anxious, who feel that relief, too. Who see that white coat, hear a confident voice, and know what we all need to know when we’re hurt and afraid: that someone is there to look after them.
Jamie Walton is a writer, artist, full-time mom, and aspiring morning-person. She’s been married to her college sweetheart, a PGY3 in Emergency Medicine, for eight happy, busy, growth-filled years and wholeheartedly believes that life (even residency!) is what you make of it. Read more from Jamie at That Bright Light Forever Feeling, where she blogs about life-balance, parenting, and making time to play, create, dream–and maybe even take a nap.