When I was 17, I was in a car accident.
It was one of those horrific accidents you never want to see or be in. And it was, in hindsight, probably my fault in a more than merely legal sense. I was turning left on a grey day on a grey road with a grey corner in a grey mood and the grey car struck my little white VW dead amidships, just behind my left shoulder. I remember when I came to the radio was playing “You Wreck Me.” Thanks, Tom Petty, for that moment of weird synchronicity, and for letting everyone know how old I am every time I tell this story.
And everyone walked away from it. I was fine, the three people in the other car were fine. One girl had a dislocated shoulder. That’s it.
I was thinking about that today, and about death, and child deaths in particular and what a tragedy they always seem. Because at 17, you could be anything. You’re nothing, useless human silly putty run by hormones and emotions, but somehow you’re also at your peak. You haven’t begun to write your own story yet, even if there’s already stuff on your Permanent Record like they threatened in elementary school.
I feel like I should say that every day since that accident has been a gift, that knowing I should by rights be dead has made my life somehow better, more meaningful, more focused. But the truth is, it hasn’t. It didn’t change anything. There’s no redemption arc to this story, no positive resolution. Instead of dying, I lived. That’s all.
I can picture the obituaries clearly, if I’d died then. My smiling, awkward, half-formed face staring from the newspaper, backed by Filter>Render>Clouds. The list of school awards and the posthumous A’s for my final report card, because who’s going to flunk a dead girl? Then again, maybe they would have been F’s; I’d run afoul of the school’s mandatory attendance policy before. There would have been a little showing of my art in the high school lobby and someone would have said what a shame, what a bright young artist, surely she would have produced so much more work. Maybe she would have been President. A mathematician, an astronaut, a scientist. Maybe she would have turned her lifelong love of – lifelong, at 17 – something into…
Only here’s the thing: I didn’t.
Reading back through that imaginary obituary, all the things that everyone would have speculated that I’d be, and do, and become, I didn’t. What the world got instead was a slightly larger carbon footprint, a few more things in landfills. A mediocre painting or two and a novel or three.
Maybe I did die, then, and everything in between 17 and whatever they’ll put in my real obituary is just marking time, sloughing off those old possibilities like dead skin cells. Maybe I’m just waiting to wake up one day and realize I’ve finally shed the last layer of could-be and gotten down to the am. Maybe there is no am, and I’ll be able to just blow away like the snakeskin sheds I used to find in the woods before all that potential leaked out into wherever potential goes.
Maybe that’s what writing is, at the end of it. We’re all writing our own obituaries, screaming our could-have-beens and should-bes and would-bes into the dark. Mine can begin like this: When I was 17, I died in a car accident.