February 4, 2012
I'm standing on the side of a hot desert highway near Boron, California, a place to which I've been drawn like a return home or to the womb. I've imagined coming back here for almost two decades but am glad I waited until now, at 36, to make this trip, to stand quietly, the drama of my youth behind me and the need to find meaning no longer an imperative. I want all of this to mean something, or nothing, on its own.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was returning home to New Mexico from a two week vacation in the Napa Valley with my foster family when we took an ill-fated side jog off the I-5 and over to Barstow, California. On our way back to I-5, traveling northwest on highway 58, on the outskirts of Boron, a southeast-bound driver with a .28 blood alcohol level struck our vehicle head on, killing my foster mom immediately. The drunk and his passenger also died instantly, either on impact or as a result of their truck exploding. I was sitting behind my foster mom, unrestrained, and was thrown into her seat as it came crashing back onto me. I was wedged between my seat and hers, and the side of the van folded in on me. I was a Glasgow Coma Scale of 3 when emergency crews arrived, which means that I could open my eyes in response to voice, utter inappropriate words, and my arms were bent inward on my chest, my hands were clenched into fists, my legs were extended, and my feet turned inward. Emergency crews had to remove me with the Jaws of Life.
A medevac helicopter air lifted me to Loma Linda University Medical Center about 80 miles away. On the helicopter, they discovered that my lung was collapsed. At one point my heart stopped beating and the medics had to use the defibrillator. When I arrived at the hospital, I opened my eyes spontaneously, at times yelling of pain in my left leg. I was oriented to person but I was disoriented to time and place and repeated what happened and where am I over and over. The initial assessment was concussion, possible post traumatic seizure, and laceration to the scalp.
I suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident, a fact that I ignored or played down until I started psychotherapy eleven years later. But while my head injury was the least of the trauma doctors' concerns in the days immediately following the accident, it has proven to be the injury that's caused the longest lasting and most damaging side effects. Though my disorientation to time and place was no more than a side note in the admitting paperwork at the hospital, the questions Where am I?
and What happened?
continued to dominate my thinking and my life for more than a decade. They were joined by other questions: Who am I? What is this? How do I do this? What's wrong with me? Why? Why me?
My life ended and began that day. Not in a church tent revival kind of way — there were no hands lain on me. No hallelujah. My head was split open with a thousand pounds of force and, rather than the Holy Ghost entering my body and filling me with a new life, my old life and my spirit poured out of the hole in my scalp along with all the blood and I was left emptied.
When I say that I died, I mean that I had to be given six liters of someone else's blood because so much of mine had run out of my ruptured head and guts. I mean that without the intervention of other humans — people whose names and faces I'll never know — I would have expired on a helicopter that day in June 1993 when I was 17.
But I also mean that I lost myself. Whoever I was before that moment in time — the moment when a drunk driver careened into my foster family's van at 65 miles per hour in the middle of a hot afternoon in the Mojave Desert — I've never been her since. I mean that for many years, I was no one. I didn't begin to find myself, to truly inhabit my body, until many years later.
Where I'm standing now, Highway 58 is a four lane highway separated by a 20 foot-wide, deep ditch. Farther down the road, about a mile from Boron, the ditch disappears and the two lanes join together. I figure the accident probably happened where the highway splits. The drunk driver probably mistakenly continued on into the wrong lane, driving into oncoming traffic. I don't know for sure, but this is where I decide to park my car, since it's close to where the accident report said it occurred.
The first thing I notice as I stand on the side of the road is that nothing looks familiar. The landscape is flat and brown and dotted with tumbleweed bushes, scrub sage, Russian thistle — dark brown spots on tanned earth. It's desolate and windy. I'm within ten miles, probably much less, in one direction or the other of where it happened. Saddle Back Mountain is to the north, as is Boron Correction Facility. Haystack Butte is to the south.
I feel nothing. I think: what an ugly place for it to happen.
I try to mentally reconstruct the events, but my memory of that day and many of the days and months afterwards are like disconnected scenes in a movie I saw once, years ago, while intoxicated. Between accident reports, conversations with others, and tiny, memory-like vignettes, I've been able to piece together most of what I experienced. Still, I want to get the minutiae right. It's important to me somehow to understand the scene exactly. I wonder how hot it was that day. How long did it take the EMTs to get here? Did they come from Boron or Barstow?
I notice that it's a busy highway and am curious if other drivers stopped when the accident occurred. Were there big rigs? Did they have to slam on their brakes? I wonder if the man who hit us crossed the grassy median that divides the two sides of the highway or if the accident occurred where the highway splits and merges farther down. If he crossed the median, why didn't my foster mom have time to veer away? I count about four seconds between two opposing vehicles as they pass — from the time they're about 50 feet away until they're parallel. It's like an SAT question: how long would it take to jump the median, accounting for the ditch, which is about 20 feet wide, and end up in the other lane? I do a quick mental calculation and guess it would probably take no more than ten seconds. I wait for more questions, more mathematical equations that can make the nebulous word Catastrophe more precise, but none come.
The traffic rushes by in screams and whooshes. I wonder how loud the crash was and if anyone was around to hear it.
I begin to catalog the debris on the side of the highway: broken tires, an Igloo cooler, gift wrapping, food wrappers, a floor mat. I worry that our van went crashing into the barbed wire fence about 20 feet off the shoulder. Did we break it down? Did a farmer have to cover the cost of the repairs? For a long moment, I'm concerned about the farmer and I begin a new calculation: what was the exact monetary cost of the accident, including all incidental and unconsidered expenditures?
I wonder what I'm trying to figure out. I've imagined being here countless times in the last 19 years and what did I expect? To find myself lying in the road, I suppose. To walk up and collect me off the highway and resume the life I was living. I had been a 17 year old girl exiting an apocalyptic childhood who had just put a baby up for adoption, but who was on the road to graduate high school and go to college. I was still going to be someone, maybe an artist. I was going to live in New York or Los Angeles. I'd had a perfectly beautiful body free of scars and metal holding bones together, and then in mere seconds none of that was true anymore. And it happened so suddenly, so unexpectedly that it took me eleven years to figure out what just
happened. It's taken me another eight to try to put the details together into a coherent picture.
Here's the picture: a shitty wasteland of a desert highway with garbage strewn along the shoulder of the road. That's it. That's all I find.
The accident hollowed me out, leaving a space free to fill with something new. It's taken me nearly twenty years to build a new life as someone else, someone other than who I was about to become the day some guy who'd spent the afternoon drinking at a bar with his buddy decided to make the long haul home, killing himself, his friend, my foster mom, and some girl I share a name with but who walked, talked, thought, and sounded different than I ever have. A girl whose memories I can still access and whose heart still beats in my chest. I don't spend my days as the girl who was in the accident anymore. Now I'm a mother, a writer, and a friend to people who only know me as the person I am now. I've graduated college. I've been through a marriage and a divorce. I'm a grandma. I've moved on.