This essay is a little different from my regular “Hometown” pieces as it focuses mostly on personal memories of my family’s old homeplace in Grand Saline. But, I included it in this series because, like us, so many people in town back in those days were also Front Porch People. If this story brings back memories for you, please do share them in the comments section on the blog.
There was something about sitting on our front porch during the late afternoon and evening, especially during the spring and summer, that I just couldn’t get enough of. If I was alone, I’d stretch out on the smooth concrete–no matter how hot it had been, the concrete slab was as cool as if it had never seen the light of day. Those moments never lasted long, though. As soon as my grandmother or aunt caught me lying there “for the world to see” (as they would say), I was admonished to “sit up straight” lest somebody drive by and see me “all wallered out there like some kind of lump.” I never really understood why it was so important to them that nobody ever saw me lying on the front porch, but it was, so I did as I was told. I sat up, leaned back with the palms of my hands flat–sometimes, if I felt really daring, I would lean back on my elbows…maybe they wouldn’t check up on me again. Until I was in sixth or seventh grade, and had gotten too big for them to hold me, I would sit in one of the two metal chairs that sat on the right side of the porch under my grandmother’s bedroom window. They were often even cooler than the concrete, but those sits usually didn’t last long. Mammy or Sister would open the screen door, step out on the porch, look at me–“you’re in my chair,” they’d say–and that was my cue to get up and let them sit down. Sometimes, if they had company or something especially important to talk about, I’d be instructed to “run on out yonder and play,” and I would dutifully do as I was told. But, most of the time, we would all be content to just sit there on that big front porch, watch the cars go by, and listen as the summer sunset brought every creepy-crawly in every tree in our front yard to life.
During the school year, on the days I would walk to and from school, my grandmother would stand on the front porch watching–waiting patiently. In the morning, she would see me off, “Have a good day at school,” she would say. Then she would stand and watch me walk down High Street until I went over the hill at the intersection of Houston Street and was out of sight. In the afternoons, she would stand and watch for my head to pop back up over the top of that hill, and then would wait for me to walk into the front yard and up on to the porch. “Well, did you have a good day at school,” she’d ask. After my almost-always-less-than-enthusiastic answer, she’d offer the weary student solace. “Are you hungry? Do you want a jelly sandwich?” A “jelly sandwich” was short hand for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and my answer was always “yes” and “yes.” After getting me settled with my afternoon snack, she and my aunt would go back out on the front porch to sit and watch the afternoon traffic pass as people headed home after work. On Friday nights during the fall, back when the old Person’s Memorial Stadium was still around, we would sit there on the porch and listen to the game–well, we weren’t really listening to the game. But, we could hear sound from the speakers and sometimes make out what the announcer was saying. And, we could certainly hear the roar of the crowd and the Fight Song every time the Fighting Indians made a touchdown. When I got old enough to go to those games, my grandmother and aunt would often still sit and listen, then ask me for a full report when I returned home.
When I was a little kid, my whole family gathered at Mammy and Sister’s house for Thanksgiving. I’m sure there weren’t more than fifteen or twenty people there at the most, but the house was almost busting at the seams. After dinner, while the older men would gather around the television to watch football and talk, the younger kids would head outside to eat our dessert and then play. The front porch was always “home base” no matter what game we were playing. It was especially good for Hide ‘n’ Go Seek because it was big enough for all of us to find safety from whomever was “it.” It was also a school room, an airplane, a spaceship, a Trailways bus (remind me to tell you sometime about my childhood desire to be a bus driver when I grew up). It was a bank, a post office, a hospital emergency room. It was often a stage where we performed original “plays” and Christmas pageants that we’d written ourselves as my Mom, grandmother and aunt would sit at the foot of the steps in the yard. The front porch was just about anything we could imagine possible. I remember once when we were young–VERY young–my sister and I decided to open a lemonade stand, and we convinced our aunt to make the lemonade because she made the best in the world. We didn’t make much money–okay, we didn’t make any–because instead of selling it at the street, we tried to sell it from the front porch where it was cooler. It was about 150 feet from the road, an impossible distance to read a sign made on a piece of cardboard and written with a ball point pen. Of all the things it was, our front porch was not a prime location to start a business.
During the springtime especially, the front porch was a pretty good weather station. When the afternoons grew sticky and still, my grandmother would step out on the porch and turn her eyes to the sky. “It sure is still out here,” she’d say in the most foreboding tone you could possibly imagine. Sometimes, if she’d heard from Harold Taft on Channel 5, or Warren Culberson and later Ron Jackson on Channel 4 that a thunderstorm was headed our way, she would stand at the edge of the porch and look to the west until she could see that it was “comin’ up a cloud.” We’d often sit, wait, watch, and listen until we could see lightning, hear the thunder rolling in the distance, and until the wind began to shake and bend those towering oak trees. If the storm wasn’t too bad, my aunt would often sit on the porch and enjoy the cool wind and the fresh smell and sound of the rain pattering on the roof of the porch cover. Then, if the storm rolled through early enough, I would sit with her and watch as the sky cleared from the west and the setting sun turned the sky a brilliant pink. Rain or shine, that front porch was an amazing place to see, hear, and feel nature all around.
That house and that front porch are long gone now. In fact, little remains that still looks as it did when I was growing up there. But, I can still see it all in my mind’s eye; and I can still hear the voices of my grandmother, my aunt, and all those wonderful people who spent time there. We weren’t the only front porch people in town, though. Back in those days, you could scarcely walk or drive down a single street in town without getting a big wave or a cheerful “how do you do?” from somebody enjoying the day on theirs. Even downtown, folks would sit in chairs in front of the businesses to “catch up” on the latest goings on in town and in the world. Most folks back then seemed to be the kind that wanted to be in a place to see what was happening. To hear events with their own ears. To greet their friends and neighbors with a smile, a wave, and a “how do you do?” They weren’t in the business of letting the world pass them by without giving themselves the chance to reach out and stop it, even if for just a moment. They were just that kind of people. They–we–were front porch people.
“If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you’ll come home to a bed that is made–that you made! And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. So, if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Admiral William H. McRaven, United States Navy
When I was a kid, my mom and grandmother constantly stayed on my case about making my bed every morning before school. “Did you make your bed,” they’d ask, knowing the answer already. After my standard grunt, moan, sigh, and eye roll, I would usually go do it. But, it seemed such a pointless task. No one but me slept in my bed. No one but me even saw my bed unless I had friends over, and they didn’t care because they thought the act of bed-making was equally as pointless as I did. It was obviously important to my mom and grandmother though, so to keep peace I would usually make it.
My ambivalence about bed-making didn’t wane as an adult. Even after moving out and living on my own I poo-poo’d the idea that it was necessary. Recently, though, I’ve come to a new appreciation for it. In 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven gave the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. In it, his listed 10 lessons from basic Navy SEAL training that can change the world. The first lesson–make your bed every day. “If you make your bed every day,” he said, “it will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task; and another; and another.” I wish I could say that I took the admiral’s advice when I first heard the speech two-and-a-half years ago, but I didn’t. No, I didn’t start making my bed until just recently.
2016 was such a chaotic year for me. It seemed as though I’d lost control of everything. I remembered hearing the speech and thought to myself that
maybe–just maybe–Admiral McRaven and the Navy SEALs had a point. So, I started making my bed. To my great surprise, it made a difference. It was one thing that I had absolute, total control over. It was one thing that I alone controlled; that I could do regardless of any other circumstances. And, even if I didn’t do it perfectly (which I rarely do), it’s still done, and I feel better for it; and on the days when I forget or just neglect to do it, something feels different–something feels undone.
The lesson here is far greater than the simple act of making the bed. The lesson is getting up, getting moving, and getting things done. Too often I, we, all of us, give up before we ever get started. We live in a world and in a time when convenience is paramount and inconvenience is not tolerated. Too often, the end result of that mindset is that things–little things, big things, important things–are left undone. And we wonder why everything feels so out of control. I’m not saying that getting up and making your bed every morning will fix what is broken in the world, or even in your life. But, the admiral was correct, even if it is the only thing you accomplish, you will have accomplished SOMETHING!!
Below are two videos. The first is just the portion about bed-making. The second is Admiral McRaven’s full address. I encourage you to give it a listen because it is truly inspiring!
“How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for each mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. If justice exists, then that was enough; we don’t need to do it again. But every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again. . .Is this fair?” -Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
How guilty of this am I? How guilty of this are we all? Let’s start off this new year by forgiving ourselves and others of past mistakes and missteps. Let’s stop punishing ourselves for the same ones again and again. What a gift that will be!
Almost every known culture celebrates the turning of the new year. They don’t all celebrate it in the same way, or even at the same time of the year, but at some point during our perpetual 365 1/4 day trip around the sun, billions of people mark its completion and the beginning of the next. New Years celebrations are full of happiness and hope, and offer a metaphorical, and sometimes literal opportunity to wipe the slate clean, start over, and resolve to do this year what we were unable to accomplish in the last. From Sydney Harbor in Australia to Times Square in New York City, those resolutions are made under fireworks, crystal balls, and to the tune of the Scottish poem, “Auld Lang Syne.” Growing up, I was always allowed to stay up until midnight to “watch the ball drop” and toast the new year with a drink of sparkling grape juice before I was shuffled off to bed. At midnight on January 1, 1981, standing on my great grandmother’s front porch, I was introduced to a new and uniquely local tradition–the New Year’s midnight parade in Grand Saline.
We had just moved to and spent our first Christmas in town. I was still missing the friends I’d left behind in Irving. Before, there always seemed to be something going on at our house or at someone else’s house on New Year’s Eve with other kids around. That first year in Grand Saline, it was just us. At the stroke of midnight, just as the local stations broadcast the Times Square ball drop our time, the “fire alarm” (as my grandmother called it) downtown sounded one long alarm and in the air beyond it, I could hear the sirens of every emergency vehicle in town tune up and join in. If my mom hadn’t told me what was going on, I would have been convinced that something terrible was happening. As the fire alarm wound down and went silent, I could hear what sounded like hundreds of car horns alongside the sirens. We lived about a mile from downtown, so as the parade headed east down Highway 80 and up Highway 17 to Bradburn Road, the sound, now far away in the darkness, seemed almost as if it were part of a dream. Soon, however, the long line of New Year’s revelers following fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars made their way back to High Street and headed toward our house. I was disappointed when they turned on Houston Street before they passed by, but my grandmother told me it was because they couldn’t get that close to the hospital “making all that racket.” Who knows if that was the actual reason, but it sounded legitimate. Before long, the last of the cars had turned, and once again, the sounds of the New Year grew further away. I went back inside, toasted with grape juice, and headed off to bed having just experienced my first New Year’s parade in my new hometown.
I’ve asked a number of people how the tradition got started and how long it has been going on. No one I asked seemed to know, although I’m sure there is someone around who does. Regardless of its origins or age, the Grand Saline New Year’s Parade is one of those wonderfully quirky traditions that so many towns and cities across the country still practice. I don’t remember how old I was when I first participated in the parade, but I do remember loading up in my mom’s car with a friend, driving downtown and waiting in a long line next to the train tracks. We anxiously looked at the clock on the dashboard, which apparently was about three minutes ahead. At precisely 12:03 (according to that clock), the fire alarm sounded, the sirens wailed, and all of those horns began honking. Being in the parade added a new layer of sound–the shouts of “Happy New Year” from inside all of those cars. As we wound slowly through the streets of Grand Saline, we passed house after house with lights still on and folks out on their front porches, in their driveways, and standing curbside returning our New Year’s wishes with enthusiasm. There were even a few employees and residents waiting outside Anderson’s Care Home as we passed.
As I got older, I opted to ride or drive in the parade with friends. One year, the 1984 Chevy Celebrity that I drove in high school was loaded down with six passengers. Another offered the chance to ride in the bed of a pick-up truck, freezing with several other friends. As naturally cynical teenagers, we spent more time making good-natured fun of people standing outside in the freezing weather at midnight waving at car loads of high school students passing by. But, it was all in fun, and we did have plenty of that. In 1989, a dense fog had descended on Grand Saline, and the parade route got cut short. But, I was riding with friends who were somehow uninformed of the change. It didn’t take long to figure out that we had been separated from the main group and we never managed to find them. So, we drove around town honking and screaming solo–I’m sure residents appreciated our efforts. Two years later, I was the youth director at the Methodist Church, and had a New Year’s Eve lock-in for the youth group. At 11:30, we loaded the church van and drove downtown to take part in the parade. I had no idea until we were followed back to the church by the person in the car behind us that a couple of the kids had smuggled Roman Candles on board and were shooting them out the back windows of the bus during the parade. Of course, I played the part of the responsible adult and gave the kids a good dressing down, but secretly I wished I had thought of it myself!
There are, no doubt, countless stories that could be told by the countless people who have participated in the parade over the years–stories of good times with good friends celebrating the new year in our own special way. It’s been well over ten years since I’ve participated in the parade, but during the time that I still lived in town, hearing those sirens wail at midnight brought a smile to my face and, somehow, made me feel “at home.” Let’s be honest, it’s a kind of goofy tradition. Over the years, when I’ve told people who aren’t from Grand Saline about our little midnight parade through the streets, I’ve gotten reactions which ranged from raised eyebrows to outright belly laughs. The thought of multiple emergency vehicles and dozens of private cars creeping along the streets at midnight honking, screaming, and causing a genuine ruckus, is fairly humorous. But, it’s part of the charm of growing up in and being from a small town in East Texas. It’s part of what makes our little hometown feel like home. It’s part of what makes us who we are.
Even though I won’t be there to be a part of it, I know that tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Grand Saline will wake up to 2017 and the hope that comes with the new year. Holding on to traditions like our midnight parade provides us with a touchstone, a landmark to return to when times get tough and when we’ve somehow lost our way. They help us mark the occasion of a chance to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again–doing away with the old; taking on the new. With a little luck, and an ample serving of Providence, this new year will be at least a little better than the last and will be filled with health, happiness, and prosperity. May that be what 2017 brings to you and to your family and friends, no matter how far from home you may be.
I wrote this poem back in 2006. It was written for a friend who was going through some very difficult changes in her life, and was written to help her remember that, as dark as those days were, there was always hope and that she always had friends who loved and cared for her. It is a tad sophomoric where poetry is concerned, but she got the message then, and when I found it this morning, it made me smile. I hope you enjoy it!
It goes without saying that tides don’t always turn in our favor;
that the wind is not always at our backs;
that the sun doesn’t always bring gentle warmth.
It goes without saying that fires don’t always rage;
that flowers don’t always bloom.
But, it must be said that tides doturn;
the wind doesblow;
the sun doesshine;
embers dosmolder beneath the deepest ashes;
The only certainty in life is its uncertainty.
It will always twist and turn;
There are also always new days,
As surely as all of this is true,
rest assured that there is someone always with you.
My family did not have a lot of money growing up. Being raised by a single mom who drove to Dallas and back every day for work meant not having a lot of the things that some of my friends had. But, for the life of me, I cannot remember a Christmas during my childhood when I didn’t receive most, if not all, of the things I asked for. The funny thing is, all these years later, the memories I have of Christmas time in our house bring with them very few of those gifts. No, my memories of Christmas time during my childhood in Grand Saline aren’t full of toys, games, bikes, and clothes. My Christmas memories are full of love, laughter, and lights!
For the first few years after we moved in with my grandmother, we didn’t have a big Christmas tree. I remember going with my mom and sister to K-Mart in Tyler and buying a 4-foot artificial tree that sat on my grandmother’s antique Duncan Fife table in front of the living room window. We decorated it with all of the ornaments which had been collected over the years–handmade construction paper gingerbread men with our names and the year written in crayon on the back; silver manger scenes with our names and the year engraved on the bottom; and the many special ornaments given as gifts which meant (and still mean) far more than money could ever buy. Besides all of the ornaments, tinsel, and tree-toppers, one thing that we kept adding each year, probably at my insistence, was lights. I loved–okay, I still love–Christmas lights, and by the time we quit using that little 4-foot tree a few years later, the lights we strung around it each year was a kaleidoscopic cacophony of color, flashing, blinking, and twinkling that would make the Las Vegas strip green with envy! Eventually, we started buying bigger trees and opting for uniformity of color and opting out of flashing, blinking, and twinkling. But, the Ghost of Christmas Lights Past made its way from the living room to the front porch and the hedges.
As we retired the old lights from their indoor duties and moved them outdoors, I found new ways each year to drape them over anything that would stand still. I wound them around the posts on the front porch. I strung them through the handrails beside the porch steps. I wove them between the camellia bush and that other big bush that, to this day, I have no idea what it was. Then I would piece together an intricate tapestry of extension cords and plug them together ending with one plugged into the outlet just inside the front door. It was only years later that the inherent danger present in running that many string of light using 4 or 5 extension cords plugged together in one 50-year-old electrical outlet dawned on me. Fortunately, I never burned anything down, and when I plugged them all in, the results were, to me at least, magical. As the sun went down each evening between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, that old house came alive with light and color and the vibrance that is Christmas. But, back then, that was not at all uncommon. Back then, it seemed as if the whole town came alive at Christmas time.
Our house sat on High Street at its intersection with Florence Street. We were just about halfway between the hospital on Waldrip and the old elementary school on Oleander. If you stood at the end of our driveway, you could see about a half mile east, west, or south, and in those days, doing so at Christmas time promised enchanting views. It was easier to count the houses around us that didn’t have lights than those that did. Colored and clear; twinkling and steady; rooftops and treetops and driveways and hedgerows were all aglow. Mr. and Mrs. Darby, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson always lit their homes during Christmas, as did almost all of the others whose names I’ve long since forgotten. In later years, before I graduated high school, the Chamber of Commerce began selling luminaries, which lined the homes and churches on Main Street from Highway 80 all the way to High Street, and beyond. Topping the hill just north of the salt mine on Highway 110 revealed the little downtown area bejeweled in white Christmas lights on top of every building, and what looked like thousands of luminaries stretching for miles out of sight on Main Street. I can still see it in my mind’s eye and it makes me smile.
As the years went on and as people passed away, and as families moved away, most of those lights went out. There were still a few folks who kept up the tradition, and although most of the buildings stood empty, the city did still light the downtown area. But, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t seem as alive or magical as I remembered growing up. It seemed as though as the town spirit died, the Christmas Spirit died, too. During the years that I lived away from Grand Saline, I would come back from time to time during Christmas and be filled with disappointment at what had been lost. Fortunately, though, I think the tide may have turned. I made a couple of trips into Grand Saline this year at Christmas and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a lot more of that spirit coming back. There were a number of homes lit up for Christmas–some with simple displays, and others with elaborate and even choreographed productions. As I turned off of Highway 17 onto 110 at the top of that hill, I could see some of that light from my memory. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t what it used to be, but it was light and it made me smile.
I don’t really know what it is about Christmas lights that makes me so happy. Of all the wonderful traditions that the season brings with it, light seems to be the best metaphor for what it is all about–the Light of the World coming to dwell among us, even in our most desperate state. I hope I never know a time when I don’t see those lights each year during Christmas. I hope that as I grow older, those lights in my memory grow brighter because they remind me of a time and of a place and of people who mean a great deal to me still. They remind me of a time when life was simple and when Christmas time was magical and bright and full of hope–as it always should be.
**On December 26, 2003, I was involved in a serious car accident which caused several significant injuries. While the accident was terrible, and while my recovery was long and difficult, the events of that night ultimately changed my life for the better. This is a version of the story that I wrote for my Creative Writing class last year. I am using it to tell the story because it is the most recent version and it concludes by focusing on the positive outcome. Please note, there is some bad language in the story. I welcome all comments, and feel free to share.**
Not Dying Was Easy—Surviving Was the Hard Part
I wonder sometimes what might have been if I’d taken my normal route home; if I’d swerved faster; if I’d not been driving on the spare; but, I didn’t, I couldn’t, and I was, and everything in the world changed because of it.
“What time is it?” I asked. Everything was dark, but I knew someone was in the room with me. I tried to open my eyes, but my eyelids felt like they were made of lead, and what little light penetrated them was so bright that it hurt.
“It’s 4:30.” It was my mom’s voice. “You were in surgery for about seven hours,” she continued. “Do you remember me telling you about it when they brought you back to the room?” She asked. What she said didn’t make any sense. The last I remembered it was about one in the morning. How could I have been in surgery seven hours if it was only 4:30?
“4:30 in the morning?” I quizzed her—I was too confused to say more.
“No. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon.” She was standing next to my bed and had her hand on my right arm. She wasn’t crying, but I could hear the worry in her voice. With her blocking the light from the open door, I was able to open my eyes enough to see her standing there. My brain was foggy, but I understood now what she meant.
“What did they do to me? I don’t remember if you told me.” I heard her take a deep breath and clear her throat. “Shit,” I thought to myself, “my arm is gone!”
“Mom, did they take my arm? Just tell me,” I said in a more demanding tone.
She squeezed my right arm, “Shhhh. I’m going to tell you, but you can’t scream in here.” I guess moms never stop being moms, even when their babies are hurt.
She told me that the surgeon spend the first two hours of the operation suctioning “bone dust” out of my arm. Every bone in my left arm from my shoulder to my wrist was shattered, and I literally had no elbow left. They implanted two titanium plates, sixteen screws, and a six-inch titanium rod was inserted into the radius. The incision started in the middle of my upper arm and extended to about three inches above my wrist. She also told me that my left lung and kidney were both bruised, that there was extensive bruising on my torso and left leg, and that I had a concussion.
“You have a long recovery ahead of you,” she said as she wiped the streaming tears from my face. “The doctors say probably a year or more until you’re fully recovered. But, you didn’t die, and that’s a miracle.” Not dying was the easy part—surviving was going to be the real trick.
* * *
Less than twenty-four hours earlier I was on my way home from my family’s Christmas celebration. I had dinner planned that evening with a friend whom I had not seen in some time. I was running a little later than I’d hoped and was driving above the speed limit. I never saw the small piece of metal in the middle of the highway, and the next thing I knew, I was struggling to stay in one lane. I pulled off the road. I got out and walked around to the passenger’s side of the car. BLOWOUT! The right front tire was completely shredded. Now I would be late for sure.
I opened the trunk to get the jack and spare tire. It was full of boxes and when I finally reached the spare tire, I discovered it was nothing more than the “donut” that car manufacturers included with new cars. My frustration growing by the minute, I unpacked it and the jack and went to work. As I tried to maneuver the jack under the car, I realized that where I pulled off the road was uneven and that the right side of the car was resting on a small hill. There was no room for the jack to fit. I tried it under the front bumper, but it was too small and wouldn’t hold sturdily to the car there.
Thankfully, an old man passing along the road saw the trouble I was having, stopped and offered to help. I rode with him to his home not far away to get a big jack like I’d seen in mechanics’ shops. He told me that was the only way we’d get the car lifted to change the tire.
As we returned to the car, I saw my sister’s green Ford Expedition pulled over near it. She, my mother, and my niece were headed to Dallas for shopping and happened to notice mom’s disabled and abandoned car. As the old man put the toy spare tire on the car, I stood and talked to them.
My mother tried her hardest to convince me to turn around and go back to her house. She was worried about me driving on the toy spare. I promised I would be careful and that I would go first thing the next morning and get a new tire. I pulled back onto the highway and headed for Dallas.
As I reached the Stemmons/Highway 183 split, I noticed a small, gold-colored sedan traveling almost parallel with me for some time. Somewhere between the Walnut Hill and Royal Lane exits, the little car swerved and collided with my right front quarter panel. The impact wasn’t that hard, but the little toy spare couldn’t handle its force. I was stranded.
I stepped out of my car and noticed that another car was stopped just behind mine. A young woman was behind the wheel. I motioned for her to wait and began walking toward her. She was driving a brand new silver Lexus with the dealer tags still on it. I walked up to her passenger window. I leaned in and asked if we could use her phone to call 911. She said we could and handed me the phone. I made the call and reported the accident.
“Do you know where Frankford Road is?” the Good Samaritan asked. I leaned into the window again and began to tell her how to get to Frankford. Then I heard the noise. . . like metal grinding followed by a gunshot. I looked up just in time to see the front end of an eighteen wheeler barreling toward us. Before my brain could process what was happening, the truck slammed into the back of the Lexus. Then, darkness.
I felt myself get hit, first from the right and then from the left. Everything moved in slow motion. There was no light and no sound, but I was not unconscious. I was keenly aware of what was happening, but at the same time there was nothing. It’s not true what they say–my life didn’t pass before my eyes–nothing did–it was just dark, and still, and deafeningly quiet. I never lost consciousness. I knew when my body was thrown into the air and I knew when I came crashing to the ground with a thud.
In just a few seconds my brain assessed that I was still alive–I could feel my heart beating and I could hear myself breathing. I was hurt–badly, and I was still in the middle of the freeway. “Jason, get your ass up before you get hit again!” I don’t know if the voice I heard was my own, my mind, a guardian angel, or some other celestial sentry charged with saving my life. Whoever. . .whatever it was, I trusted it and picked myself up off the pavement.
My glasses were gone, but the rest of my clothing seemed intact: shoes, check; pants, check; belt, check; shirt, check. But, something was not right. I only felt one arm. I looked down at my left side. The arm was there, but I could not feel it attached to my body anywhere. I began to panic, thinking that the only thing holding my arm off the ground was my shirt sleeve. I heard myself scream in terror, “NO!” Almost simultaneously I realized the fingers on my left hand were moving. I couldn’t feel them moving, but I saw them moving. Left arm, check.
Traffic was completely stopped. I walked toward the right shoulder where I could see the back of the truck peeking over the ledge of the deep ditch between the freeway and service road. It was burning and people were rushing around from side to side.
It was then that my head cleared and all of my senses returned. The smell of rubber and diesel burning filled the air and irritated my eyes and the inside of my nose and throat. The entire left side of my body, from shoulder to knee, felt like someone had smacked me as hard as he could with a baseball bat. It was an intense, burning and aching pain. I grabbed my left arm with my right hand and bent it at the elbow. I could feel the bones moving freely under my skin. As I brought my arm to my abdomen, I could hear them moving. It was a nauseating grinding and cracking sound.
“Somebody help me!” I screamed for my life. Until that point I don’t think anyone knew I was there. A man who was standing nearby ran to me. He grabbed my shoulders, and a lightning bolt of pain shot through me. I nearly collapsed, but the man caught me and sat me down on the pavement and leaned my back against the metal guard rail.
“Where are you hurt?” he asked calmly.
“I think my arm is broken,” I said, now writhing in excruciating pain. “No, I know it is, but what about my pupils? Are my pupils dilated?” I don’t know why I asked about my pupils, but I asked at least three times before the man assured me that my pupils looked fine.
Before long, paramedics, firemen, and police officers descended on the scene. As they attended to me, I noticed a familiar voice. I opened my eyes and squinted. Through the strobe of red and blue lights and the smoke from the truck, now completely engulfed in flames, I was able to make out a familiar face. “Ben Roberts?” I asked. Ben was a friend from high school whose parents were the youth leaders at my church. I had not seen him in over ten years.
After a moment he recognized me, too. “Jason Walker?” He asked. “What are you doing here?”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed as tightly as I could. “Don’t let me die, Ben. Please.” I began to cry—the first tears I’d shed during the entire time. Ben assured me I was not going to die, but was honest and told me that I had significant injuries and that they needed to get me to the hospital quickly. I asked him to ride with me in the ambulance and he agreed.
It was surprisingly quiet and calm on the ride to the emergency room. Ben asked me to tell him exactly what happened. I told him the whole story: the first of about ten repetitions of it that night. Then, I took Ben’s hand again and asked him to pray with me. He agreed and proceeded to ask God to protect and heal me, and to give me peace and comfort. I did begin to feel peace—finally, peace. When he finished, I asked him to call my mother and tell her what happened. He reached her on her cell phone and told her where she would need to meet us. I could hear her crying on the other end of the call and Ben assured her that everything would be alright.
We finally arrived at the Parkland Memorial Hospital Emergency Room. Ben and the other paramedic wheeled me in on the stretcher and we were met almost immediately by a nurse who jotted down the vital signs Ben gave her. After they transferred me to a hospital gurney, Ben told me that he had to leave, but that my mom should be there soon and that he would check in with me the next day. I thanked him again and closed my eyes as he walked away.
There were what seemed like hundreds of people milling about in the hallway, and from time to time I would hear blood-curdling screams coming from down the hall. Since the accident happened, time had stopped. My watch was gone and I couldn’t see a clock. I had no concept of how long I laid there on that gurney in the hallway waiting. Waiting for someone to help me; to give me something for the horrific pain I was in; to tell me I could go home and get me out of that hellish place.
* * *
Five days later I was on my way, but not to my home. I was being released from the hospital and was headed to my mother’s home. I couldn’t take care of myself at all. On December 30th, the day I left the hospital, my left arm was still tightly wrapped in bandages. A drain tube and bag still collected the blood and puss which constantly oozed from the wound. I couldn’t take a shower or bath. I couldn’t dress myself. I could eat, but only if it was something which could be easily manipulated with my right hand alone. I was helpless, and if it hadn’t been for the wretched physical pain I was in, I would have felt that way. I had a fabulous apartment full of nice things which I’d worked hard to get, and something inside of me knew I’d never be back there again.
The first two weeks after I arrived at my mom’s house were spent in bed in various stages of consciousness and alternating between hydrocodone for the pain and Phenergan for the nausea that it caused. During the day, while Mom was at work, my sister would come and stay with me. The entire situation was demoralizing and humiliating. I was ready to get out of bed, get moving, and get back to my life, but that wasn’t going to happen for months.
At the end of January, my doctor, who I had been seeing once a week since I left the hospital, released me to begin physical and occupational therapy. In the beginning I went three days a week. It was the hardest work I’d ever done. Even the simplest tasks racked my body. My therapist began each session by having me lie on the floor. I held on to one end of a Theraband, and she held the other while I stretched my left arm as far across my body as I could. The goal was to touch my right shoulder with my left hand—it took almost three weeks before I could do it. Each time I tried my weakened body would tremble, sweat would pour from every pore on my body, I would be as short of breath as if I’d run a marathon, and I cried like a broken-hearted schoolgirl.
During those days, victories were small, and they were few and far between. Tying my shoes, spreading peanut butter on bread, combing my hair, and shaving were cause for celebration. But, there were many days when victory was nowhere to be found. After one particularly difficult session, I called my mom at work. “Mom,” I said, sobbing, “why didn’t you just tell them to cut my arm off.” I was sitting in the floor of the bathroom where I’d collapsed trying to get into a hot shower, the only thing that seemed to help my arm. The physical anguish was bad enough, but nothing compared to the unbearable sadness I felt the day I sat in my mother’s living room and watched most of the things I owned being sold to complete strangers for pennies on the dollar. There was no victory in that.
My adult life up to the point of my accident had been largely directionless. I played around at college for almost ten years before giving up and going to work full-time. I had a good job, but not a career, and certainly not what I felt was my true calling. During the nearly nine months I was recovering, I had a lot of time to think, to reevaluate my life, and to consider my options. In an odd way, the same accident which turned my world upside down had also cleared my head about life. I finally had an appreciation for what I’d heard people say all my life—it’s too short to waste a minute.
I was released to go back to work in early September of 2004, and I secured a job at Southern Methodist University that November. I was responsible for the operation of the Information Commons in the Hamon Arts Library. It was a dramatic cut in pay and responsibility from the job I had before my accident, but every day I was surrounded by people who valued education and hard work, including my boss, the library director. He knew my story and knew my goals. In November of 2006, after two successful and empowering years, I sat in his office and tearfully handed him my letter of resignation. I had finally saved the necessary money and was headed back to school full-time. I was scared to death about what his reaction might be.
“Jason, I think this is wonderful, and I’m so happy for you,” he said with an enormous smile on his face. Not only was he gracious and encouraging, as usual, he gave me the biggest surprise of my life when about a month later, just before Christmas, a package arrived for me. It was a brand new computer with the latest software installed. It was from him. There was a note inside which read, “You are greater than your past. Love always, Tim.” I was overwhelmed.
Many things about the accident and the two years which followed it overwhelmed me. The worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to also be the best thing. Coming literally within inches of losing my life saved my life. Working to regain the ability to use my arm for the most menial tasks taught me that those things are not to be taken for granted. The day I walked across the stage at Texas Tech University, and now, having completed my master’s degree at the University of Texas at Tyler, pushing through all of the pain and all of the heartache–not giving up when giving up would’ve been so easy–makes the struggle seem somehow worth it.
In the end, surviving was the hard part. But, I could, I did, and everything in the world was better because of it.