Ten years ago I was a year out of college, working in the warehouse of the bike business my parents own, living in a drafty house in a bedroom with walls painted sloppily by the previous tenant in three amazing colors, paying impossibly low rent, enjoying my young relationship with the man who would eventually become my husband and then my ex-husband. Ten years ago today, I left work early and got on my bike to ride home. It was warm and sunny and bright, and I rode in a t-shirt, down Killingsworth and then south along whatever streets I rode on back then when my bike commute was relatively new and novel, until I reached NE 57th and Fremont.
I pedaled fast down the bike lane along 57th, and just as I reached the intersection, I saw that the black pick-up truck in the left turn lane facing me wasn’t stopping. I don’t remember what I did then. I don’t remember the impact, exactly. I remember sitting in the intersection with my world narrowed to a tiny circle. I remember the feet of bystanders around me. One of them helped me find my glasses, which were broken. I remember the driver of the pick-up truck getting out of her truck and asking, “oh my god, are you okay?” I remember telling her to call 911. I remember the EMTs trying to put a cervical collar on me, but I screamed at them when it touched my collarbone — the first pain I felt at all. They taped a rolled towel around my neck instead, and later the nurses at the ER yelled at them for it. I remember that, because I thought it was hilarious. The injected painkiller that one of the EMTs had given me in the ambulance made everything hilarious. I cracked jokes with the x-ray techs.
I didn’t start out writing this to reminisce, not really. I just think sometimes about how much has changed in me and my life in the ten years since I got hit by that truck, and I feel sort of overwhelmed and grateful.
The narrative fallacy is my favorite fallacy. I love to think about the things I’ve done since June 12th, 2008 — the things that maybe my accident somehow potentiated, allowed to happen — because if that day changed my life it means that there was meaning in the arbitrary intersection of my path and the driver’s path that day, meaning in the pain that followed. I got a bunch of money for my broken collarbone, my pain and suffering, and I used it to ride my bike across the country two years later and live for six months in a tent on a permaculture farm the summer after that. I’d be a different person without those experiences; they shaped all the stuff I’ve done since then. My relationship with my ex-husband would have followed a different trajectory without my accident, and every relationship after. I went to physical therapy for the first time to recover from my accident! Maybe that planted a seed, and now I’m starting PT school in August.
I still ride the bike I rode on June 12th, 2008. The collision that day snapped its fork but left the rest of the bike somehow mostly intact. Since then, though, pretty much every other part on it has been replaced. About the only thing that’s still the same is the stickered frame. That bike and me: still the same, but hugely different. Carrying our scars around. I guess I feel like humans are not a whole lot more or less than collections of accidents and collisions, walking around, affected by each other, broken and put back together again, weird vehicles moving through time and space, bumping into obstacles…
I could choose another day as the one that changed my life, probably. It makes sense that the past decade has been transformational: it was my first decade as an adult, really, after I graduated from college and the well-paved road I’d been traveling since birth petered out and I was forced to make my own grown-up decisions. But: this thing happened. A fulcrum, for better or worse.
Last fall I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Heavyweight, in which a young man who was hit by a car on his bike in 2013, when he was 21, sat down in a hotel room and talked to the young man who drove the car that hit and nearly killed him. I cried a lot when I listened to it. I cried a little more last night when I listened to it again. The two men in the episode are incredibly, impossibly gracious with one another. After I heard it the first time, I came home and thought about trying to find the woman who hit me. I filled out the form I found to order a copy of my police report, but I didn’t hit submit. Unlike the man in the Heavyweight episode, I remember everything from the day I was hit. I don’t need someone else’s version of the story. But like the man in the episode, I feel like that story is important. It’s the beginning point of what came after, or at least I find it useful to believe that. For a long time after it happened, I resisted that. I wrote long lists of things that had happened in my life, trying to convince myself that this awful thing was just one more item in the list. And, I mean, it is, but stories are powerful. I got hurt, and then I got better, and then I got better.
Things were pretty rough for a few months after I got hit, for both obvious and less-obvious reasons. But one of my friends recommended I read a book of short stories by Amy Hempel, and I stopped when I got to “The Man in Bogotá” and read it over and over and over:
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge–though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man in Bogotá. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then–that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
* * *
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogotá. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.
It took me a few months to ride my bike again. A year to ride through the intersection where I was hit. At least that long to stop feeling all-consuming irrational rage and despair at the least bit of misbehavior or inattention from drivers I encountered on the road. But just about two years to pack away all my stuff, load some panniers on my shiny new touring bike, and ride across the country to Virginia.
The narrative fallacy is my favorite fallacy. It allows me to be grateful to have suffered. I like my life. I make mistakes and I have regrets, but for the most part, I like who I am. I am the person who experienced the things I have experienced. The things that have happened to me and the things that I’ve done. I carry proof with me: the scar behind my hairline, from a pillow fight at age 6. The tattoo needled onto my wrist at age 18. My bumpy, healed collarbone, from the time I got hit by a pick-up truck at age 22.