A Family Crashes And Learns
By Michael Kearns
"I'm a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence isn't the first or even the last thing that's considered."
Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
About four-car lengths in front of me on the 170S at Magnolia, I see a red car hit a less conspicuous colored car. Nothing too dramatic but then, in what can only be described as a scene from a B action-adventure movie, the scarlet demon begins spinning, round and around, almost comedically, and where she'll stop nobody knows.
I begin to brake, uncertain what the fuck was going on but knowing I didn't want in on the festivities. I check my rear view mirror to see if the lane to my right was clear. I double-check by looking over my right shoulder and experienced a nanosecond of relief, figuring I'd outsmart disaster by simply gliding off the freeway. When my eyes returned to the freeway in front of me, what did I see?
The red car's blinding headlights glaring at me as the out-of-control vehicle careens toward mine while I desperately swerve to avoid the inevitable. Evil Knieval I ain't.
The dervish of a car, obviously on a rampage, wins this battle, smashing into me head-on and then proceeds to somersault down an embankment.
Did I mention that my 10-year old daughter, the love of my life, is in the back seat?
As I watched the car flip over and over again on its way to wreak havoc on the city streets below, my daughter and I made inexplicable sounds, not forming any words, all at once anguished, relieved, and terrified. Words eventually came. "Are you okay, Daddy?" Tia asked in a cracked voice that I will never forget.
"I'm okay, Dad," she said.
"Honey, get out of the car," I instructed, noticing that steam was shooting out of the hood. "Be careful."
I had just done a photo shoot and I knew my friend Zo (who took the photos) was behind us on the freeway and would discover us momentarily. By the time Zo pulled over and began to approach, I was out of the car and wondering why she was meandering up to us as if she was strolling through Central Park on a leisurely Sunday afternoon.
"Call the police," I said. Or did I shout? Looking at me like I was the one acting strange, she turned around—albeit without a noticeable surge of energy--and returned to her car where she would, I hoped, call for help.
Tia's shoulder hurt, directly on the spot where the seatbelt protected her but she was otherwise ostensibly okay. No bruises, no swelling. Alert, clear eyes.
Within minutes there were fire trucks and CHP officers, most of whom appeared to be sent by Central Casting. The fireman and paramedics looked like buffed up male models and the female CHP officer could have given Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money with her butch, no-nonsense, approach.
Thank God for Zo who had returned and assessed the Big Picture, something I mistakenly assumed she had witnessed. "I thought you had a flat tire," she said. I realize I'm a tad on the dramatic side but did she really think I'd ask her to call the police because I had a flat?
Zo investigated the scene, snapped photos, and reported that the homicidal car had, after its manic fall from grace down the hill, hit two more cars, one of which wound up slamming into an apartment and the other was wrapped around a pole.
Memories remain blurry. One of the fireman asked if I was on any medication. "For HIV," I said. "That's good," he said and then apologized with real sincerity. "I don't mean it's good you have HIV. It's good you're so honest." Sweet. I was sure he'd be calling for a date any minute. Car-less, HIV-positive with a 10-year old kid is decidedly marriage material.
Zo offered to spend the night and we accepted her generosity. I called my friend/sidekick Cronin who immediately offered to take us to a downtown hotel the following day (Friday) for rest and relaxation
No matter what I was doing or who I was talking to, the accident simultaneously replayed in my head. What could I have done differently? was the recurring question I compulsively wanted someone to answer. Feeling guilty (often without cause), is a parental stereotype, particularly when your kid experiences any kind of discomfort that could remotely be construed as your fault. The little darling stubbed her toe? How could I not have seen that coming? Guilt, guilt, and more guilt.
When I told Zo that I had entered shame zone, she said, "Tia told me that you did everything right." I was comforted to know that she hadn't blamed me. One of the reasons that parents are perpetually guilty is that our kids blame us—either with a subtle glance or an over-the-top tantrum—for everything in the world that makes them unhappy (but rarely thank us for the things that make them radiate with glee).
Zo slept in Tia's room and Tia snuggled next to me in my bed. Even though I knew it's what I needed to do. I determinedly held off crying until I was certain that she had fallen asleep—not because I'm a macho non-crying dad but because I didn't want to worry her.
She looked so beautiful, the cocoa-colored contours of her face in profile, angelically serene. Uninvited details of the crash began replaying in my head. The jolt of the crash. The sounds that Tia and I made before we found our voices. Wondering what that light blue fabric was on the dashboard. Oh, right, air bags. The sound of approaching sirens drowning out other approaching sirens.
Death has relentlessly informed my relationship with Tia, hovering over our life together from our first meeting when she was five-month old. When I would die of AIDS was of great concern to those who projected that my life expectancy did not bode well for my becoming a parent. While I have outlived my critics' projections, don't think that a day goes by that I don't imagine the unavoidable moment of being separated from my daughter.
A casual date, on the verge of getting somewhat serious, once asked me, "Is Tia the love of your life?" I was taken aback but determined to answer his question honestly. I think to myself, Will defining Tia as the "love of my life" suggest that I'm incapable of having a mature adult relationship? Oh, fuck, this dude is testing me and this is a trick question.
I had a few marriages. The first endured the longest even thought it was religiously patterned after George and Martha from the Albee play. The most significant marriage ended prematurely, providing the catalyst for my decision to adopt. Philip and I had a solid bond, almost too sensible for me, and I loved him with all my heart. But was he the love of my life?
When compared to the intense connection I have with Tia, no. Tia is the love of my life and that's simply the truth. Unhealthy? Politically incorrect? Bad parenting? All of the above?
After an extended pause. I answered my dinner date, "Yes, she is."
"Makes sense," he said, as I imagined him tossing the piece of paper with my phone number on it into the "disqualified" bin.
It doesn't matter. Tia and I are a match made in adoption heaven. I needed to take care of someone who wasn't dying of AIDS and she needed a parent who would attempt to feed her, clothe her, send her to appropriate schools, and keep her safe.
Lying in bed, listening to her breathing., a sure indicator of life, I finally cried. Considering what could have happened to us, our family experienced a miracle. We were alive. Perhaps ignited by that initial rush of adrenaline that pumps through your body when something so shocking happens, there's also a resultant overlay of euphoria that accompanies the painful reality of being backstage in the wings, waiting for your cue to get out there and die. Gratitude can often eclipse any feelings of fear or frustration. Maybe contradictory, those were tears of joy.
On Saturday morning, after a fairly peaceful night at the hotel, including time frolicking in the pool and Jacuzzi, Tia took a turn. Her downward spiral happened suddenly. The pain in her chest had gotten worse, she said, "much worse;" it had indeed swollen up during the night.
She barely let me look at the injury. "Don't touch me," she growled, her eyes glazed. Cronin had gone back to the upstairs pool area while I was afraid that I might need the number of the closest exorcist.
"Get away from me," she yelled. And I could see she was clearly in heightened pain and appeared to be experiencing symptoms of delayed shock.
Wanna talk guilty? Why didn't we go to the hospital as a precaution even though she was ostensibly okay? What kind of an idiot dad am I?
Helpless, scared and angry, my little girl had plopped herself on the floor of our hotel room and was adamantly uninterested in Daddy's reassurance.
I am a complete fuck-up of a father, I'm thinking to myself as I gauge whether or not to call 911. Meanwhile, I have visions of Cronin recreating scenes from a sixties beach movie with the poolside hotel guests, casting himself as Annette.
Tia was inconsolable. I called down to the desk and asked them to call 911. By the time Esther Williams returned to the room, dripping, the 911 studs had arrived and were headed in the direction of our room. Cronin must have thought that I had a heart attack. Or a particularly bad hangnail.
We spent the day at the hospital where, after hours of waiting for x-rays, we eventually found out that Tia has fractured her clavicle, a fairly common seatbelt injury. There is not much they can do according to the doctor (who will be played by Christine Lahti in the movie). Keep it in a sling for four to six weeks and it will heal itself. But the good doctor warned that the pain could be excruciating.
For the next four or five days, it was as if I was caring for an infant. Tia was totally depended upon me. Everything required assistance—eating, changing clothes, bathing, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom.
Intimacy between father and daughter is a truly tricky thing but I believe that I have navigated those waters with the right amount of caution without allowing unwarranted fear to jeopardize our closeness. During the past couple of years, as Tia becomes more independent, the level of physical intimacy has (as it should) decreased.
I must say that part of me was thrilled to be needed again (it also alleviated a bit of the gnawing guilt). Another part of me realized that caring for a helpless child of ten requires the same stamina and patience that new parents are required to muster. I became exhausted after a day or two and had to refrain from saying, in a Joan Crawford tone of voice, "For Chrissakes, Tia, get up and get it yourself."
Less than a week after the collision, she returned to school A virtual fan club of her peers assembled to greet her, gently showering her with tender hugs and kisses. She has improved each day even though she still goes into the suffering tragedienne role if she thinks she can work it.
I, on the other hand, suddenly became acutely aware of the pain that I must have been denying while I took care of my kid (another parental stereotype at play). I began physical therapy and attempted to glue life's puzzle pieces back together into some kind of form that made some sense. I cling to the glad-to-be-alive consciousness, determined not to forget what that feels like.
And I look at my kid, the love of my life, through a new lens. I appreciate her more—her humor, her beauty, her intelligence and even her diva-ness.
Experiences like these are what define family. It's not just the rambunctious trips to Disneyland that cement familial bonds; it's facing challenges together, challenges that make you rapturously aware of the depth of your love for each other.
My mother died last year and my ambivalence about our relationship has proven to be an emotional stumbling block for me. Knowing that she did the best she could, having had The Wicked Witch of the West as her role model, I have tried to forgive her without denying the damage she inflicted on her kids. For most of my life I denied the level of her motherly dysfunction. It was only when I became a parent that I saw the reality of her pronounced narcissism, almost always putting herself before her kids, and became furious with her, a fury that didn't abate throughout the last decade of her life.
But the recent car accident reminded me of a story that casts my mother as an empathetic and generous parent, contrasting with most of the less flattering stories I've shared with my daughter.
"I broke my collar bone when I was exactly the same age you are," I told her as we drove home from school, fearlessly traveling on the same freeway where the accident took place.
My mother rode in the ambulance with me after I flew off of my friend's bicycle that we were both riding, reveling in our mutual daredevil personas, zooming down the steepest hill in the neighborhood during a St. Louis thunderstorm.
After the routine x-rays were studied, the doctor (to be played by Vincent Price or maybe Vince Vaughn), began wrapping what appeared to be miles of bandages around my torso, creating a mummy effect. If I was going to be outfitted in an Egyptian inspired get-up, I would have preferred to look more like Cleopatra but perhaps this experience saved me from the world of bondage and discipline.
I tried to be brave as I stared into the eyes of my mother who sat directly across from me. I realized that she'd lost the bravery battle when I saw several big tears slide down her face, seeing how tortured I was in my mummy outfit. We went home and I was unable to sleep. Not only was it appallingly humid, the "cure" was increasing the throbbing pain.
"Let's go," she suddenly said. It must have been after midnight.
"Go?" I asked.
"Back to the hospital. Come on, honey, I'll help you get in the car."
With the ferocity of a lioness, my mother marched up to the receptionist and demanded to see the doctor who had treated me—"immediately," she said, "Do you hear me?"
He appeared, looking a bit confused.. "Take this off of my boy," she ordered him. "Find another solution. Now."
Even though she was barely five feet tall, my mother was a mighty creature, causing the doctor, towering above her, to shrink. Within a half an hour or so, he'd undone his sadistic handiwork, replacing it with a simple sling.
As I tell Tia the story, I feel a wave of forgiveness for my mother, a physical manifestation of deep understanding stronger than I had ever experienced. Remember her goodness, I tell myself, and forgive her blunders.
Forgive yourself, too, I remind myself. I am an imperfect parent on a learning curve, awash in the sensation of loving with renewed forcefulness and forgiving with reawakened gratitude.