When I was writing my memoir about the ripple effects of a terrible car accident, I found myself curious about the role of time in absorbing a physically traumatic event.
I looked it up and found that it takes years for heart disease, cancer or diabetes to make their presence known in the human body. Stroke or respiratory disease can show up in a few weeks. Viruses or bacteria-based illnesses can take just a few days after exposure.
But for a collision between two moving vehicles like the one I experienced, it takes about three seconds.
Certainly there’s immediate shock from the news of any life-threatening medical condition. A diagnosis of any serious illness can feel like it comes out of the blue.
When he was 47, my husband wasn’t completely surprised to learn that his heart suffered from lack of blood flow, although five blockages was jolting given his high level of activity and age. But David knew that a disease of the heart was a possibility for him because so many of his relatives had faced it.
In that scenario, there is the possibility of a chance to prepare.
But a metal-against-metal collision that changes a life within a matter of a few seconds is different. There’s no time to prepare, let alone think. In the case of the crash I experienced, in one moment I was merrily chattering with my friend and in the next, I was bleeding and disoriented.
Caroline, my friend’s sister who was in the Volkswagen station wagon that day, expressed it well:
“I have spent a life wondering what my family would have been like if that Volkswagen and truck hadn’t met that afternoon when I was in ninth grade, thinking about a solo I had just been given in Trial by Jury as we took you home…One minute you’re driving home from school with your mom, and the next your whole world is turned completely upside down and inside out.” pages 79-80 of Seven Springs
It’s a challenge to talk about a mess made by chance; a trauma that’s unexpected. I’ve read that it can take years for symptoms of post-traumatic stress to show up, which can make it challenging to face it or find language for it.
And yet, we try.
In the final verse of his poem, “Auto Wreck” Karl Shapiro writes,
For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.
Shapiro captures the mystery of an accident. The sudden, physics-cancelling, out-of-nowhereness of it. How it can shapeshift a life’s trajectory, in an instant.
As a young accident survivor, I absorbed the physical shock in my body and my soul, but didn’t get a chance to intellectually integrate it as someone with the news of a diagnosis might. I didn’t get the chance to learn more about my condition in real time as it was happening. To let it sink in. To listen to stories from others who experienced it. To hear “you’ll be okay.” Or get a pre-surgery or pre-treatment hug.
But what I did get, thankfully, was through it. And years later, when the symptoms were clear and I was ready, I was able to return, reflect and release the experience by putting my fingers to the keys.
I’m committed now to facilitating this for others. Writing can build a safe, stable house with a strong foundation, offering a window into our past storylines and a door enabling us to step out of our pain.
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Photo by Ellen Blum Barish
“From Brokenness to Healing: Making Meaning through Memoir: A Book Discussion”
Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, Monday, October 11 at 7:30 pm (CT). This is a free event. Register here.