It’s been over two decades since that moment. The moment when a drunk driver came barreling towards us at over 100 miles per hour and hit us head on. The moment when time stopped. When everything was light and dark at the same time. When the sound of the crash was so loud it was almost silent. I remember the smoke and the fear and the wail of ambulances in the distance.
Climbing out of that totaled car with minor cuts and bruises was surreal. It felt like God had literally lifted me out of my life for those seconds and returned me back whole. In the days following the crash, we learned that the drunk driver had survived, but he had killed his best friend who had been in the passenger seat beside him. I wanted to speak to the driver, but I didn’t know why or what exactly I wanted to say.
Instead I found out his address and sent him a letter. I was in the car that you crashed into. I am sorry that you lost your best friend. I can’t imagine the pain you are in now. I hope you heal and find a different way to live.
I don’t know why I sent that letter. I didn’t know him and didn’t really want to know him. But he had changed my life. He had inadvertently divided my life into ‘before the crash’ and ‘after the crash.’ Before I had even begun to really grow up, I already knew what few teenagers know: I could die. It could happen in a second. It almost did. For whatever reason, my life would always be intertwined with the life of that driver just by the force of that moment in time. When my life and his life changed forever.
I thought about the accident recently when I heard Joshua Prager’s TED talk, “In Search of the Man Who Broke My Neck.” His story is leagues away from what I experienced. He has suffered far more than anyone should have to. But what he has done with that suffering teaches us all what courage is after life irrevocably changes. When Josh was 19, a tragic bus accident in Israel left him a hemiplegic. He had to learn how to breathe on his own again, and then he spent four years in a wheelchair. After he graduated college, he taught himself how to walk with a cane. He became a journalist and wrote hundreds of articles with just one finger. Twenty years after the accident, he went back to Israel to find the Arab driver who had broken his neck.
“Back on highway 1, I envisioned what awaited. Abed would hug me. Abed would spit at me. Abed would say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I then began to wonder, as I had many times before, how my life would have been different had this man not injured me…Who was I? Was I who I had been before the crash, before the road divided my life like the spine of an open book? Was I what had been done to me? Had Abed not injured me, I would now, in all likelihood, be a doctor and a husband and a father.
"I would be less mindful of time and of death, and oh, I would not be disabled, would not suffer the thousand slings and arrows of my fortune. The frequent furl of five fingers, the chips in my teeth come from biting at all the many things a solitary hand cannot open. The dancer and the dance were hopelessly entwined.”
What Josh really wanted was a simple apology. He wanted to hear the words: “I’m sorry.” Could those words make up for the thousands of losses since that awful spring crash? Could an apology repair his broken dreams? Could it heal his shattered bones or restore his limited mobility? No. But he wanted to hear it anyway. He wanted to look the man in the face. The man who had been driving recklessly on a road with 27 traffic violations already on his record. The man who had paralyzed two people and killed another.
Prager only knew his name and the town where he lived. So he picked up a potted yellow rose and a Turkish coffee and drove to the Arab town to find Abed. But when Josh finally sat down in Abed’s living room, he didn’t get the apology that he was seeking. Instead Abed spoke about his own suffering. He kept repeating how the accident wasn’t his fault. Josh realized that Abed was never going to apologize. He wasn’t going to even acknowledge Josh’s disability or pain.
But instead of anger, which would have been completely justified given the circumstances, Josh said that at that moment, when he was finally face to face with the man who had taken away so much from him, he realized that Abed was not a good or a bad person. He was just a limited person who was living an unexamined life. And that is when Josh was finally able to say good bye.
“There is much I wished to say to Abed,” Josh says in his TED talk. “I wished to tell him that, were he to acknowledge my disability, it would be okay. For people are wrong to marvel at those like me who smile as we limp. People don’t know that they have lived through worse, that problems of the heart hit with a force greater than a runaway truck, that problems of the mind are greater still, more injurious than a hundred broken necks. I wished to tell him that not only paralyzers and paralyzees must evolve, reconcile to reality, but we all must – the aging and the anxious and the divorced and the balding and the bankrupt and everyone.”
Many of us have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ An instant when life irrevocably changes. After my car accident, I kept thinking back to those milliseconds when the swerving headlights were colliding towards me. How I saw my life – its short past and its unknown future – contracted into that moment, like light being pulled back into itself. Sitting on the side of the road, beside the crumpled cars and the crowd of people who had come to help, I was grateful for the first time in my life just to be alive. I was no longer a teenager who thought that time had no limits. I saw the limit and felt it explode around me.
With the smoke-drenched air filling my eyes, I searched tirelessly for purpose.
I didn't know why God had saved me. I didn't know why I was able to extricate myself from a burning car with only cuts and bruises along my arms. But I knew there must be some reason. And beginning with that night, sitting beside the wreck with the smoke-drenched air filling my eyes, I searched tirelessly for purpose. Why was I here? What was I meant to do now?
I had to hold onto and renew that gratitude that I woke up with the morning after the accident. The way I stood beside the window and stared in wonder at my hands, my legs, my arms. I was so grateful for the sun and the clouds and the trees and my ability to see them. I was so grateful for life, for being given another chance.
But sometimes I forget that instant. I forget how precious time is. I forget what a gift life itself is. I don't want to live an unexamined, limited existence. I don't want to lose the clarity of that instant in time. One moment that held a lifetime of lessons. So I reach for it, hold it, and try to use its power to grow.