My teenaged niece was visiting for a week this summer. We were heading to the beach one day for a lazy afternoon and early dinner. I was driving, my boyfriend Antonio was in the passenger seat, my daughter and niece in the back. We were only ten minutes or so from my house, on the freeway where traffic was stop and go. At one point, I saw in the rear-view mirror that the girls didn’t have their seat belts on. I was shocked but wrote it off as hold-over from the slow, country car rides back east, where we had just been vacationing the week before. I said somewhat sternly, “Girls, put on your seat belts!” They did… and not thirty seconds later, BOOM! We were rear ended on the freeway, completely out of nowhere. No screeching breaks to warn us, no way of knowing that our beach plans would be shut down in such a violent and unexpected way.
All of us were stunned, momentarily unsure of what had just happened. I somehow pulled over to the shoulder of the road, my daughter noticing “There’s our bumper!” in the middle of passing traffic. It was a bad accident. It could have been tragic. If I hadn’t noticed that the girls weren’t buckled up, an ambulance surely would have been on the scene, and my car being totaled would be the least of my concerns.
I believe without question that Joel, my husband who died of West Nile Virus less than two years ago, is the one who told the girls to buckle up. An angel looking over us, for sure. My daughter is entirely sick of me telling her all of the ways in which Daddy is still with us. She rolls her eyes, is often dismissive of my belief system. At the scene of the accident, where by now the police had shown up, a fire and tow truck, I leaned against my car, the shock settling in. I replayed the entire thing in my head. It didn’t take long — “stopped traffic — ‘put on your seat belts’ — boom!” — and I started to cry. My daughter came closer, we hugged and I told her, “That was daddy. Daddy’s the one who told you to wear your seatbelt.” In her gentle, diplomatic, but typical teenage way, she said, “Well I’m glad you think that.”
Joel would be 52 this month. He died just three months after turning 50. It seems so unfair but I have to believe that 50 years is all he needed of his human experience to complete his soul’s journey this time around. (I understand that this idea may seem trippy dippy, but I do live in California!) I take comfort in the idea that he was “mission accomplished” when he died — whatever that may have been for him. Of course, I take greater comfort in the fact that he is no longer suffering. Watching him in a coma, doctors performing test after test after invasive procedure, trying to ascertain a diagnosis, that was brutal. I am forever grateful that Joel and I had those tough, worst-case scenario discussions about quality of life. It made the end easier in a way. I never questioned what Joel would want because I knew how he wanted to live, and die.
When I went to the collision repair shop to sign some papers, the repair guy, whose stomach hung over his belt buckle and shirt had a button missing, helped me get the last of my things out of what was left of my trunk. The broken glass of the hatchback was brushed aside so I could retrieve my cloth grocery bags, spare sneakers and jacket, the blankets we would have used at the beach that afternoon. Taking in the damage, seeing the broken tail lights, back tires askew, I thought of how lucky we were to walk away from the accident fairly unscathed. The interior of the car had not a scratch or dent or anything that would indicate a crash. It all seemed miraculous to me. I started to cry. Really cry. The “ugly cry” as Oprah calls it. The repair guy was standing next to me. I looked at him, “I’m sorry,” I said. He nodded expressionless, has probably seen this kind of emotional outburst a lot in his line of work. “I’m just overwhelmed,” I cried. “My house is falling apart. My car may be totaled.” And then, because I really can’t help myself when it comes to my “widow’s tourette’s,” I added, “My husband died.” His kind eyes widened. I got the feeling he wanted to hug me or put his hand on my shoulder or reach out in some way. Instead, he simply said, “It’s important then, to just let it all out.” …So I did.
In my rental car a few days later, I was dropping my niece off at the airport. Parking was difficult and I was getting nervous about getting her inside and to the gate on time. But when we did find a spot, it literally just appeared, and it was the “best” spot in the lot — directly across from the bridge that is sort of a security line short cut. As we piled out of the car, rolling her luggage behind us, I said, “I was getting nervous, we’re cutting it close.” My niece commented, “I wasn’t worried. I knew Joel would take care of us.”
I thought I would cry again. But instead, I just smiled.