25 January 2007
It’s Just the Way They Say It Is
by Michele Weldon
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It’s just the way they say it is.
Your life does flash before your eyes. It was just as it seems in the movies, or the emergency room doctor television shows. It was just like the commercial, the one for the insurance company where the two women are sitting in the front seat of a car talking calmly about an auto insurance commercial when you see the other car
broadside them, dark and menacing on the attack, like the shark in “Jaws.” And you hear the crash, the shattering of glass, the rumpling of metal and steel, so quick and complete you would swear the car was made of paper. On impact, it was cymbals crashing, like the soundtrack of the car chase scenes in the movies I never want to see.
And all I could think about were my kids.
I’m fine now, extremely lucky, no broken bones, no long term side effects. It’s the mother panic I can’t shake. My three boys showed up in my head as a slide show. In one excruciating minute—maybe less—all I could see and feel within me were my three boys. This can’t happen to their mother because they would be hurt. This can’t happen, because this would make them cry.
Lew, the man I’ve been seeing for almost three years, was driving me to dinner at his house on the Friday of a particularly bad week at work for both of us. A soft rain fell from gray autumn skies. He had left the pasta on the stove in a pot of water, fire off, the cauliflower, tomatoes and onions in a sauté pan, coils off. Driving west in the far right lane of the expressway we hadn’t seen him, the teenager speeding in what we later learned was a 2007 Cadillac, until he hit us from behind.
And then we started to spin, to the left, across three lanes, in slow motion, while I watched the background swing, the rain shined concrete swirl, feeling suspended in mid-air. And then we spun back again, a second time completely around, landing on the side of the road, the same side where we started. “Please God help us,” was all I said aloud.
But inside my head it struck me as strange how silly it would be to end like this, on the way to sautéed cauliflower, chatting peacefully. And I wasn’t scared to die—oddly that was fine. I didn’t feel remorse, fear, regret, rage about dying at 48 with so many big plans. All I had were screaming silent questions serving as the voice over to my boys’ faces, rotating counter clockwise in my mind’s eye.
“What will happen to them? Who will take care of them?” I thought of meals and laundry and college and weddings, everything I knew about them and everything it would take a lifetime to explain to someone else. I thought how sad it was that they would have no one now. As a single mother and sole support, I felt pain beyond measure they got such a raw deal. I worried about who would know Weldon needs all the blankets on his bed just so and how Brendan likes the fan in his room on high and how Colin was only 12 and now, who would help him become a man? I thought about the football banquet and the state tournament for wrestling, the proms, the history homework, teaching Brendan to drive, the trophies on the dressers. I thought about their hats and gloves in the blue bin in the basement, and wondered if someone else would find them when it turned cold? I thought about birthday cakes, first days of school, Christmas morning, how they love roasted chicken with oranges and lemons squeezed on top, how they drink milk from the plastic jug. I thought about all the things I could have done better. I shouldn’t have yelled. I should not have lost my temper, ever. They should never have been grounded. This will be hard for them.
Was I a good mother? Did I do my best to make their lives sing? Do they know I loved them more than anything and anyone in the world? Was I a good enough mother?
When the car came to a stop and the ambulance arrived, I called Weldon on the cell phone and between tears told him not to take the car out tonight. “Please stay home until I get there.” Because I wanted to hold them, if not forever, at least for tonight. I wanted to be sure that I told them how scared I was. I wanted to tell
them that it’s true your life does pass before your eyes.
And all I could see were them.
Michele Weldon is an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Author of two books (I Closed My Eyes and Writing to Save Your Life) plus the upcoming book, Everyman News. She is working on a new book. She has three sons and lives in Chicago. You can read all about her at http://www.micheleweldon.com.