Just a Moment
My senior year of high school had been the only one of those four years I had not wanted to jump off of the I-25 overpass that connected Los Lunas with the large Wal-Mart Supercenter and movie theater. The three previous years had been filled with mental breakdowns, getting off of drugs, and learning to deal with the loss of my mother. August through December had been wonderful; I was doing well in my classes, and had truly begun to flourish in both writing and singing. My English teacher frequently chose my writing to use as an example of exemplary work, and for the first time in choir my instructor used my voice as the example of what a true first soprano sounds like; I had no boyfriend drama. Even my somewhat tumultuous home life had settled enough for me to be almost comfortable at home; to me this was idyllic.
In true cliche fashion, this was the calm before the storm. Christmas break came and my parents decided rather than try to find each of us a present we actually wanted, they just gave us each some money, took us to the mall, and allowed us to choose what we wanted. It was one of those odd moments where we were reminded our parents weren’t as dumb as we thought they were.
We chose the day after New Years, January 2, 2005 to go to the Cottonwood Mall and spend our Christmas money. My cousin Quiana and I decided we were also going to take pictures while we were there to forever memorialize the genius of our parents. It was one of the few times I remember being at the mall with my step-dad where he wasn’t in a rush to get out, in fact he was almost happy to be there. When he thought we weren’t looking, I spotted a contended smile peaking out of his Hagrid-esque beard.
As we left the mall that evening we debated over going to Applebee’s and eating out, rather than making the long drive back to Los Lunas on empty stomachs. My need to do laundry before school the next day won out; the five of us piled into our GMC van and started the drive home. My brother Joshua sat in the captain’s chair behind the driver’s seat, Quiana and I sat in the back so we could talk on our cell phones uninterrupted, and my Step-Dad, Eddie and Aunt Trena were in the front with my Aunt driving.
It began to lightly rain as we entered Los Lunas, turning into a steady drizzle as we headed out of the small village and towards our home which lay about 10 miles outside of Los Lunas proper. As we passed the lone gas station that lay between Los Lunas and our home I decided to call my best friend Kim and talk about the things I had gotten. We wound our way past the Conoco station as I listened to the ringing, waiting for Kim to answer.
“Hola” I said, knowing she’d know it was me.
“Hey, how was shopping? Get anything cool?” she answered.
“Oh, yeah. I got a Nightmare Before Christmas calendar with a Halloween countdown thingy on it.” I said excitedly.
“You’re such a dork. Did you get any clothes?”
“Yeah, I went to Old Navy and got sweats that look like candy canes and another—hang on a sec.” I said, concern beginning to cloud the excitement.
Looking up towards the front of the van I heard my Aunt yell and I wondered if my parents were arguing, but the sounds of their voices didn’t seem angry; it sounded more like fear. It was then that I saw the lights, bright and blinding.
I heard my aunt yelling, “No, no, no, no, no.” and I began to scream, knowing the impact was inevitable. I don’t remember the impact, I’m sure there was a loud crunch as the front of our van was slammed into by the other car. I don’t remember being thrown from my seat in the back of the van, narrowly missing going head first through the windshield because my hip caught the captain’s chair in front of me. I don’t know how long I laid on the floor of the van unconscious, Quiana told me it was less than two minutes. I felt like I had lost hours.
I do remember waking up.
I didn’t know what had happened. I was on the floor of the van, disoriented and my entire body hurt. I heard moaning and crying, but it was like my ears were a bad two-way radio: the sound came and went with static crunching in my mind. I opened my eyes and looked up. I was confused, and it seemed the windshield was somehow on the ceiling. I laid on the floor looking at the strangely placed windshield for only about thirty seconds, but in that moment it seemed like time was frozen. As my mind cleared and my hearing became more normalized, I heard another sound, a wailing, keening scream and it brought me out of the fog my mind had been lurking in. It was my brother, my baby brother, and he was screaming in pain.
In that moment several things happened, my step-dad yanked his door open, mistaking the smoke coming from the deployed air bags as smoke from a fire. He pulled open the sliding door on the van, flooding the interior with light. I looked up towards my screaming brother and saw his 11-year old face covered in blood. I began screaming hysterically, unable to move and yet compelled to run to him. I was frozen with fear, terrified I would lose my brother. All I saw was the blood; terror crushed my thought processes. I was sitting on the floor unable to hear, move, or think. The only thing I could do was scream; tears streaking lines down my face.
“Get out of the van, hurry, get out of the van!” my step-dad screamed at us. Quiana climbed towards me trying to get me to move. I felt her put her hand on my shoulder and I knew she was encouraging me to move.
“I can’t find my shoes, I need my shoes, I can’t find them.” I kept repeating, I held one of my shoes in my hand uselessly looking for the other one. Quiana thrust my other shoe into my hand and helped me move towards the exit. My step-dad climbed into the van and pulled my brother out; as soon as he was out I grabbed a hold of him and held him close to me to make sure he was ok.
“Are you ok? Where does it hurt? Where are you bleeding from? Can you talk?” I barraged him with questions in between my sobs. I heard him muffle something in response but I couldn’t understand it.
“Point if you can’t talk, I didn’t hear you.”
“It’s my mouth.” He said pulling away enough to point to his mouth. I pulled him closer again and cried.
“Do you have all of your teeth? Move your tongue around to see.” I had calmed a little, feeling better he didn’t have a gaping head wound.
“No,” was his muddled response.
I began to cry harder: terrified and thankful at the same time. The front of my jacket was covered in his blood. The paramedics mistakenly assumed I was hurt worse and forced me to sit down. It was good they did, the adrenaline was all that was keeping me standing. My brother was the first taken to the Trauma Center and the University of New Mexico Hospital.
Ultimately, all of us were taken to the hospital. Most of our injuries were minor. Joshua was hurt the worst; he had suffered a fracture to the roof of his mouth, was missing four teeth, and had a cut from his lower lip extending across his chin that required 108 stitches. He spent three days in the hospital. The rest of us were able to leave that night: Quiana and I on crutches, my aunt with a walker, and Eddie with a back brace he was refusing to wear out of stubbornness.
Later we found out the driver was the 19-year old friend of my cousin Patrick. His name was also Joshua. He decided to drive to the store after drinking a fifth of vodka and doing some cocaine. We were lucky to have survived the accident.
As time went on I discovered I was very affected by what had happened. While I was in the Emergency Room that night the doctors determined I had gone into shock. They assured me I would be fine, but I wasn’t. I developed a severe phobia of driving and cars, I panicked frequently in the car, and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would often dissolve into tears and flashbacks in heavy traffic and sudden movements in the car caused me to have a panic attack. I would hyperventilate, usually end up crying and shaking. I felt weak and pathetic. No one else had been affected the way I was, they had brief moments of slight fear, but nothing compared to the all-out panic I experienced. The fear I felt in that moment when I saw my brother’s face stayed with me. I was unable to move past that moment even though we were all okay.
After the accident I began dating a close friend, he was the only one I could rely on to understand what I was going through. I relied on him to drive me everywhere, he often sacrificed his schedule to make sure I got where I needed to go. The cars we bought were always limited by my somewhat obsessive and irrational need for specific things in the cars, such as a large dashboard, and I needed to be able to see the hood of the car from the passenger seat. The more time passed the more pronounced my neurosis became, until it finally reached the point where I could not sit calmly in the car on deserted streets at three o’clock in the morning.
It took me three years to decide to face my fear and learn to drive. I spent several months in therapy talking about what happened and why I thought it affected me the way it did. I determined because of the loss of my mother I had a profound fear of losing anyone I loved, and when I saw my brother covered in blood, I was unable to process that he was hurt and may not survive. My therapist used what is called “de-sensitivity training” to help me learn to be calm in the car. I started small, just sitting in the driver’s seat with the car off and the door closed. Within two weeks I was able to drive around my neighborhood and a month after that I could drive around Los Lunas. Even though I was able to drive, I still had frequent moments of fear, though less and less frequently they ended with a full-fledged panic attack.
I had faced the tangible fear of driving I had, but I had yet to face the intangible fear of loss that was really the driving force (no pun intended) behind my PTSD. Every time I looked at my brother and saw the long thin scar he has on his chin I was pulled back into that moment and I would freeze inside.
It has been nearly six years since that night and I’ve yet to truly conquer my fear. It is an ongoing process. The fear of the tangible is gone and I no longer fear driving. Even after another accident this past August, I was able to get back into the car and drive. It was during the moment of impact where I mentally reverted to the fear; I flashed back to my fear of loss. I often wonder whether I’ll be able to learn not to fear the intangible and if I will ever truly heal from the loss of my mom, or if it will continue to snake its way into other parts of my life.