If You Can’t See Where You’re Going, Slow Down

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Twenty-seven years ago today, my mother died.

She was 43 years old.

She was killed in a car accident. She was traveling a dark country highway. Approaching an intersection with another road, she had the right of way. The driver of the car to the right had stopped for the red light. The driver of the car to the left was “distracted” by the lights of the car on the right, and was looking down into her lap because of the brightness.  She didn’t see my mother’s car, or the red light. She ran the red light at 65 miles an hour, and hit my mother’s car at a perfect 90 degree impact. My mother’s car spun, bounced off the car on the right, and rolled into a ditch. She died before the ambulance arrived.

Yes, she was wearing a seatbelt. As the highway patrol officer explained, it didn’t matter – the impact and spinning threw her head against the driver’s side window (which smashed), and the seatbelt doesn’t help in that situation.

Her car was totaled.

The other two drivers and their passengers were uninjured. Their vehicles sustained some damage, but were driveable.

Prior to the accident, in the two and a half years since my father had abruptly exited the planet (having chosen death as the option preferable to life without my mother after 24 years of marriage), my mom had shed a lot of responsibilities – their marriage, their house, and me among them.

She’d reinvented herself, and made up for the time she’d lost in her youth, having been a wife and mother of two when she graduated from high school. She went on dates, calling me for advice on what to wear. She came home drunk one night, and I took care of her while she threw up. She drove across the state with some of her friends to see a Neil Diamond concert, and back the same night, and then was back at work in the morning. She took a cruise with the same friends, and bought a see-through spaghetti strap sundress and the world’s smallest bikini. This, from the woman who embodied Dress for Success phenomenon and who had once lectured me that my ballet class gear was insufficiently modest.

Shortly after my father’s death, she enrolled in a Grief Recovery class, where she met a man who’d recently lost his wife to cancer. He was named Philip – just like my father. (This is a pseudonym.) He had the same birthdate – even the year – as my father. After 18 months, they decided to marry. I can’t speak for the rest of my family, but I was less than thrilled. It wasn’t the usual “I don’t want a stepfather” issue – no danger of that, he was completely fixated on my mother, and the rest of the family was an inconvenience he’d accepted as something he’d have to deal with in order to have my mother in his life.

In those less eco-conscious times, no one thought much about all the driving we did. The night before Thanksgiving, I drove the hour from my place to my mother’s house to spend the night. She and I drove the three hours to my grandmother’s for Thanksgiving, and Philip drove his car, as well as my brothers, cousins, etc., all in their cars. Mom and Philip were staying the night at my grandmother’s and driving home on Friday, but I was heading back on Thanksgiving night for a concert, so I needed my own wheels. Besides, Philip had a two seater, so the three of us couldn’t have gone in his car anyway.

Driving to my grandmother’s on Thanksgiving, I had three uninterrupted hours with my mother, for the first time in – well, possibly, ever. We talked about all kinds of things, although I don’t remember specifics. The last thing I said to her when I left my grandmother’s house for the concert was “I love you, mom.” Her telling me she loved me is the last thing she ever said to me.

The wedding was to be the Sunday after Thanksgiving at her mother’s house, necessitating that we all drive the three hours each way – again – just three days after we’d done so for Thanksgiving. She and Philip were doing the romantic thing of not seeing each other before the wedding, so she was driving by herself down to her mother’s house on Saturday. The accident happened less than a half hour from her intended destination.

I was a college student, working Saturday night at my pizza place job. It was an incredibly quiet night, and I had to be up early the next day to drive to my grandmother’s for the wedding. My boss said it was fine for me to leave early, and I told him to call if things got busy, and I’d come back in. When I received the accident report, I was faintly amused – the time I’d suddenly felt tired and asked to leave work was the time – to the minute – of the accident.

My mother, in typical fashion, had sent me some money shortly before the wedding and instructed me to buy something presentable to wear. I had done so, albeit presentable to my eyes. Once back at my apartment after leaving work, I pulled out the clothes, and realized they were all black. I tried not to think about how much this would irritate her. I hadn’t done it intentionally. She’d take it very personally that I would be wearing all black at the wedding, and it would ruin her day, and it would be all my fault. This in spite of the fact that the 99% of my wardrobe was black, and she knew that, but it would still be something she could be upset at me about.

Instead, even she would have had to agree that the outfit was perfect for her funeral.

The funeral was rough – even more difficult to deal with than my father’s funeral, in the same place, two and half years prior. When my father died, his mom was understandably devastated, and was propped up with a panoply of pharmaceuticals. (All the more appropriate – or ironic – since he was a pharmaceutical salesman.) When my mother died, it triggered everything all over again for his mom, and this time both grandmothers were heavily medicated. That’s a condition no one should ever have to be in, and a sight no one should ever have to see of their loved ones.

I felt sorry for the minister conducting the service. He hadn’t known my mother, and had been forced to rely on second-hand accounts of her life from various well meaning, but not necessarily well informed, sources. The talk bore little resemblance to the mother I knew, but seemed to make everyone else happy – judging by the weeping and sniffling throughout. As I had at my father’s funeral, I kept myself from crying by focusing on the fact that my mascara was not waterproof, and I’d look like Alice Cooper if I wept, and my mother would have been incredibly irritated by that.

The funeral home was packed, and there were enough flowers and plants to stock a commercial nursery. A surprising number of my friends made the long drive to be there, unbeknownst to me. I’m not sure if I ever thanked all of them at the time; whether I did or didn’t, I thank them now.

Their presence was all the more amazing when you consider that we all were in our last week of classes and staring at impending finals, and they had chosen to make a long drive to a remote town for a funeral of someone that many of them had met only once, or not at all.

In particular, one group of friends had somehow managed to view my mother’s car in police custody. They were permitted to remove the pot of flowers she’d had in the car, since they weren’t evidence. My friends carried out my mother’s intentions, and placed the flowers on my father’s grave. Those flowers were in place when we arrived at the cemetery, along with all the flowers from the funeral home for my mother’s service. Friends are the best thing in life.

The flowers, food, and cake which had been ordered for the wedding reception were instead sent to one of the homeless shelters. I’ve always wondered how the recipients felt, knowing the source of the abundance. I hope that, in spite of the circumstances, the unexpected decorations and delicacies were enjoyable for them.

Most of my family were angry, but I felt sorry for the woman who’d caused the accident. Yes, I had to live the rest of my life without my mother, but the driver had to live with the knowledge that she had killed someone.

That made a big change in my driving habits.

Since everything – and I do mean everything – in her life was always about my mother, her timing couldn’t have been worse to screw up my life. I was heading into the last week of classes of my last semester in college, preparing for the GRE exams, and preparing to move to California. My professors were all extremely understanding, I managed to graduate, did decently on the GRE, and still made it to California, albeit a bit later than planned.

So, what have we learned?

1. Live every day as though it’s your last. It just might be.

2. Tell people you love them, frequently. You might not get another chance to say it.

3. Be a good friend, and you’ll have good friends.

4. Write your own obituary if you want it to be accurate.

5. Compassion is a gentle, yet compelling, instructor.

6. If you can’t see where you’re going, slow down.

One Response to “If You Can’t See Where You’re Going, Slow Down”

  1. Anastasia, Reading about your experience has made me value what an amazing woman you are on a whole new level. I’m sorry that you had so much loss, so early in your life. Thanks for being willing to share!