When Life Gives You Lessons
You should probably heed them
Ihadn’t even intended to leave with them.
Only here we are: me and three of my good friends, heading back from work at the same time. It transpired that she had a spare seat and wouldn’t let me turn the lift down despite my timid protests that I didn’t want to be a bother, so I soon find myself bundled up in the back seat. All four of us are psyched to be done with work and heading to a house party. The music’s blasting at evelenty stupid and before long the car is screeching around the dark, rural roads with a unwarranted sense of security. I’m vaguely aware that we’re going too fast, but I’m not about to say anything. At this point I’m still too shy to speak up and be a buzz kill, and too naive to think anything will ever actually happen.
Perhaps to foolishly distract from that voice of caution, I busy myself with texting (there wasn’t much else to do on phones back then) and chatting away with my friend next to me while head-bopping to the music. Now I hear a scream. It comes from the front seat, and it’s a scream unlike any I’ve heard before. It’s a scream that changes everything in an instant and turns my blood cold, before I’ve even realised what’s happening.
I look up and it’s my friend in the passenger seat screaming the driver’s name. Our car is barreling towards a tree at roughly 80mph. And not just any tree; the trunk is huge, thick, intimidating, a bit like those ancient, solid Redwoods in California. In that moment, that brief, everlasting moment, it looks like death itself, beckoning us to our fates.
The next few moments are something of a blur. I’m suddenly rocking savagely and time has slowed down. Every second feels like an hour. Without being overtly aware that we’re crashing, I’m still able to repeat to myself: “try not to die, try not to die, try not to die” over and over and over. Because time has lost its fabric, it feels like I’m in this moment forever. Up, down, side to side. Try not to break a leg. Try not to hit your head. Try not to die.
But finally it stops, and I’m back in the real world, hanging sideways from my seat-belt. Somehow she must have swerved away from the tree at the last second. I try not to imagine how close we were.
The first thing I note is that the music is still blasting at a sickening volume. But the worst part isn’t the noise — it’s that it’s still just on, as if nothing has happened. Its obliviousness is unnerving. Its lack of compassion insulting. One of us could be dead and it doesn’t care. Life never stops.
To incredible relief, my friends gradually come to and start crawling through the sunroof (which the car thankfully has considering its position, several rolls into the opposite field). I grapple with the latch on my seat-belt which won’t break free. I give up and decide to start feeling around the glassy floor for my phone which has been flung from my hands. Somehow I find it in the dark, perfectly in tact, which really is miraculous because this phone has a habit of powering down when it’s hit too hard. I don’t consider how strange it is that these inconsequential thoughts still run through my head at a time like this.
Even in chaos, our minds have a mind of their own.
It’s at this point I’m suddenly overcome with fear that the car is going to explode. I don’t know why — maybe I’ve watched too many movies — but I’m absolutely sure of it. I’ve just survived a car crash only to die in an explosion.
In panic I finally get the seat-belt undone and squirm my way through the sunroof and onto the glass-riddled road. When I’m out, I run towards my friends but try to make it look as if I’m not running — even now I’m still somehow anxious about appearances. I don’t want to look foolish. Once I’m out of the ‘blast zone’, I check to make sure everyone’s okay. Amazingly, they are. The driver is hysterical, of course, and the passenger has a fractured collar bone, but otherwise we escape with cuts and bruises and hopefully no psychological trauma.
Some time has passed — I can’t tell how much — when a car appears from a little road which leads down into the village. The first thing I see is a guy stepping out with a smug grin on his face, which pisses me off. He doesn’t know we’re all okay. He doesn’t know if someone’s dead. But I don’t let it bother me for long.
I step away from the wreck to make a call. I think about calling my mum or dad, but the latter is at an event which I don’t want to interrupt with bad news, and the former is visiting my granddad who isn’t so well. So I call my brother. He’s out with friends and I probably wreck his night, but I tell him I’m okay. At least I think I tell him that. The shock hasn’t worn off.
Some more time passes — I still don’t know how much — and the ambulance and police have arrived. I’m taken into their car for questioning, but I don’t really have much to say. It’s the only time I’ve been in a police car. Once I’m back outside I remember about the party and text a friend to say I can’t make it. It’s the most nonchalant text ever. Something like: ‘Can’t make the party, sorry. In a car crash’.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I said “sorry”.
Then I’m back home, shaken, but in some way a new person. The friend I’d been texting has come around for support, but I’m getting all existential and contemplating everything. Life, death, what everything means. It’s weird coming so close. It’s weird how I felt sure I was going to die but always knew I was going to be okay. It’s weird knowing I’ll never be quite the same again.
This all happened nine years ago. November 2008. It’s not something I think about often, but occasionally it comes flooding back with visceral lucidity, and I remember the importance of the lesson. To this day, every time I get into a car, I hear that little voice of caution — and I never ignore it.
I’d urge you to do the same.