Memoir

I Was Crushed By an 18-Wheeler. But I Wouldn’t Change a Thing About That Day.

How a gruesome brush with death made me wake up to the world.

I Was Crushed By an 18-Wheeler. But I Wouldn’t Change a Thing About That Day.

October 2, 2007 was an unbelievably beautiful day. The smell of fall was in the air, the sky a deep blue, and there was no one on the streets. It was so quiet I could almost hear the terrible things said during the fight I had with my boyfriend the night before echoing through my head. I gripped my handlebars tightly and tried to outrun the negativity I felt.

I hated myself for getting into a screaming match about something as insignificant as dinner, but I hadn’t been able to control myself. I was so stressed because of my new job in finance. I had sweet-talked my way into a position I was pretty sure I wasn’t qualified for, and lived in constant fear of my boss finding out I was a fraud. My pedals felt as heavy as my heart as I circled my Brooklyn neighborhood, but they got lighter with each block. About a half hour into my ride, the sun was starting to rise over the low buildings on Vandervoort Avenue. I decided that watching the sunrise as I rode out the last fifteen minutes would be a perfect conclusion to my morning workout. I needed to see something beautiful, and hoped that the bright sunbeams would melt off what was left of my fight hangover.

Stopping at the light on the corner of Maspeth and Vandervoort, I looked back at the black Mazda sedan behind me. I waved at the driver and pointed to the right, letting them know which way I was going to turn. The truck next to me didn’t have its indicator on, so I assumed the driver was going straight. Just in case he wasn’t, I waved in his side-view mirror anyway. I pointed to myself and then to the right. I always communicated with truck drivers via their side-view mirrors. I spent a lot of time behind trucks on Interstate 80 on my trips back from college. Every one of them had a sign that specifically read, “IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS, I CAN’T SEE YOU.” My assumption was that the opposite was also true: “If you can see my mirrors, I can see you.” I was wrong.

When the light turned green, I took my right turn wide and easy, without a thought about the eighteen-wheeler to my left – because it wasn’t turning, and for that matter the Mazda wasn’t either. I thought I had tons of room.

I didn’t.

The truck driver hadn’t seen my indication that I was going to turn right. He hadn’t seen me at all. All he saw was a green light, and he turned.

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The last thing I remember before actually being run over was the hollow sound of my fist banging the side of the truck, and then I felt as though I was tumbling. I didn’t know where my bike had gone. I knew I was on the road, and there was this moment when I thought, Am I in an action movie? This is the kind of shit that happens in action movies. What would Bruce Willis do? What can I do to stop this?!

The answer was nothing. There was nothing I could do.

Before I even really realized what was happening, I felt pressure and then heard a cracking sound. The realization that the cracking was my bones shocked me. I squeezed my eyes shut, and I felt the first four wheels of the truck run over my body. I didn’t have time to process the pain. All I could think was, Sweet Jesus, please let this man stop before the second set of wheels comes for me.

“No, no, no, please God no,” I shrieked before the second set of wheels rolled over my already crushed middle.

This time I kept my eyes open. I watched this second set of giant wheels run over my body. I heard more cracking and felt the grooves in the tires on my skin. I heard the mud flaps thwack over me. I felt gravel in my back. I was a sparrow that had lingered too long in the road, no different from every slow bird, every irresponsible squirrel, every wayward dog that just wasn’t fast enough.

Then there was the sound of a horn – a one-note beep that didn’t stop. This was the kind of horn-blowing you hear on the BQE during rush hour, the kind where you know the horn is being punched out of frustration. Hearing something meant I was still alive. I was still here and – as long as I stayed awake – I was alive. As long as my eyes were open, I was awake. So I barely blinked.

I lay there waiting for something to change, to get better or worse. I waited for a break in the silence that kept ringing in my ears. I remember looking up as the early morning sky went from that deep blue to a sunlight-pale blue – the clouds looked as if they were whipped out of cotton candy.

I screamed out for someone to call my mother. If my mom was there, she could fix it. As soon as she was notified, all this could be undone. Because this was not reality. Reality was the fact that I had to get back to my apartment and iron my button-down shirt. Reality was that I had a big day at work, and I was nervous about getting sweaty in my new suit. Reality was not that I was on the precipice of losing my life – that was not happening. I refused to close my eyes.

As the initial shock of impact began to wear off, my body reacted with crushing pain. It was unlike anything I could have imagined. I was confused by it. I couldn’t believe there could be a sensation so horrible and intense or that it would continue to radiate out of my body – usually the pain of dropping something on your foot or running your knee into a door fades, even if just a little. This excruciating pain stayed right where it was, doing relay races up and down the length of my body.

A young woman who was about my age came over and said she would call my mom. She asked if I knew her phone number. I did. I remembered it as a song that my mom had taught my siblings and me to help us learn all the numbers. This young woman had been in the black Mazda. Her boyfriend had been driving. He was directing traffic around me, around the accident scene. They were saving me.

He put up orange cones, and flares were lit around me. Everything changed. I watched as this woman took responsibility for calling a perfect stranger’s mother to tell her that her daughter’s body had just been crushed by an eighteen-wheeler. I watched her as she dialed the phone, she was beautiful and tall with dark hair, and kind deep brown eyes. I heard her say that her name was Gisele; she sounded scared. Her voice shook as she told my family’s answering machine that I had been in an accident and that whoever got this should call her back as soon as possible.

I knew then that I was broken. My mom wasn’t home. She had been called and nothing was better. Plus, Gisele was so frightened – she couldn’t even feign calm as she left that message. I was stricken with terror, but I couldn’t give in to it. I thought that if I let myself fall into it – fall into the fear, the loneliness, the hurt – I would be lost forever.

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My one job was to stay awake. I needed to stay awake.

“Please, can you hold my hand?” I asked Gisele. “I’m scared.” I didn’t want to say it. I wanted to be strong and funny and to let this just roll off me. I wanted to believe that this wasn’t a big deal – that I could put a Band-Aid on this one, all by myself. But after telling another person I was frightened, it became clear to me that I wasn’t tough enough to do this on my own.

As I held desperately on to the hand of my new best friend, a man in khaki cargo shorts, a plaid short-sleeve shirt, and a New York Yankees hat stepped out of his Toyota Camry and walked toward my spot on the asphalt.

With no hesitation he slipped his rough hand into mine, looked into my eyes, and with a Spanish accent and a confident tone said, “Listen to me, I am a pastor – I have spoken to God, and he has told me you are not going to die today. Okay?”

I needed for him to be right. “Do you promise?” I asked, with the sincerity of a six-year-old.

“Yes,” he promised. If I could have lifted my hand, I would have made him pinkie swear.

He took Gisele’s hand and said, “Let us say the Lord’s Prayer,” and I said the Our Father with my new congregation of three. I realize now that I had never said the Our Father with such fear – I really prayed that God would forgive me my trespasses! I had trespassed a lot. I prayed for God to know that I didn’t want to die, that I didn’t want to go to hell, that I didn’t want to even go to heaven, for that matter. I just wanted out of this situation. But the fact that my legs weren’t working, and I didn’t have a flux capacitor to turn back time left me totally screwed. So I just made sure I didn’t close my eyes.

The only thing I could control just then was my eyes. They were the only part of my body that wasn’t hurting. I kept them open for my mother, for my father, for my sister, for my brothers, for my boyfriend, for my friends – I knew if I closed them I would be giving up on ever seeing those people again, on seeing anything else in my life again. I would never see a little kid with an ice cream cone or a leaf blowing like a confused butterfly in the wind. If I closed my eyes, I would never see the way someone looks right after you hug them. If I closed my eyes, I would be in darkness forever. So I stared unblinking into the sunlight, fearfully gulping up as much light as I could. Plus, if God was going to take me, I wanted to see Him coming.

Weeks later, in the hospital with a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, a shark-bite scar where the gearshift had taken out my flesh, my vital organs torn but healing, my body connected to tubes, pulsating with pain that the morphine couldn’t dull, I wondered, if I could turn back time, would I have undone this accident? Would I have just gone running? Or gone back to bed? Even then, I knew that I would still have gone out on that ride.

I hadn’t realized how precious or beautiful my tiny little life was to me. Now, I delight in every moment of my life, the good ones and the terrible ones, because I know that these moments were not promised to me – they are a gift. I still get into arguments with my boyfriend, and find myself freaking out about where to go to dinner, but instead of being angry at these stressors, I find myself grateful for them. For that reason and that reason alone, I know given the choice, I would always make that right turn on Vandervoort to try to catch that sunrise.

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This essay is an excerpt from her memoir, “How to Get Run Over by a Truck,” which will be published by Inkshares on October 4, 2016 and can be preordered here.