How to say, “I was hit by a car.”
Three weeks ago, I sat around an outdoor table at a home on the Oregon Coast, visiting with friends, Franny and Jerry. Mid-conversation, my 24-year-old son said, “In case you didn’t know, she got hit by a car,” mimicking my standard lines no matter the situation over the past year.
He and my husband chuckled whenever one of them, including me, uttered that line. But how else would I tell people I was hit by a car?
Franny turned to me and asked, “How are you?” Both husband and son rolled their eyes.
A pause filled the smoky air swirling in the Pacific winds.
Early Monday morning in October of last year, I had just returned to Cincinnati from a different annual trip to Oregon. My body, still on Pacific Time, wanted to sleep or at least toss the buzzing alarm across the room. Rain outside my window had slowed to a drip, yet darkness had yet to cede to the day.
From the closet, I pulled out a black windbreaker and a pair of black athletic shorts. The air still held on to an odd mix of summer and freedom. As I slid my arms into a black windbreaker, I recalled my son asking, “Why’d you get rid of that green jacket?” The Gortex had worn down and it was best to let some things go.
My standard Nike Pegasus running shoes were also black. I was dressed head to toe in funeral attire, as if someone had died.
Twenty-minutes later, that someone would be me.
My feet slowed to traverse the creaky wooden boards of our home. Menopause had struck months earlier, and I took up running again to pause the weight gain and energy drain. Mondays were my running days, where my route spanned an average of six miles, back and forth across rivers, bridges and hills, and my mind was set loose from constraint.
At 6:30 a.m., I stepped out the door and into the city. New energy flowed from my pores. My book, I’ll Have Some of Yours, about caregiving for my mother who experienced dementia, had just been published. Finally, I had mourned my mother and experienced a rare peace and pleasure regarding our days.
Ahead of me lay a schedule filled with book events, signings, festivals, etc. What every writer aspires to. I had attained the status I pursued.
I decided not to run in order to absorb the barely discernible light sneaking through the morning shutters of clouds, the smells of aftershave, pot, rotten cheese from leftover pizza in the garbage, and diesel fumes. Everything. I imbibed it all.
From my jacket, I removed a set of headphones, hooked them up to my iPhone, then thought otherwise and shoved them in my pocket. I wanted to hear the heartbeat of the city, and people mumbling good morning to me.
On my walks, I never have an intended path in mind until I get going. The city vibes, the traffic lights, directed me on where to go. I simply followed.
Heading south down Race Street, a bus grumbled for a wakeup call at Washington Park. I pulled up my hood because rain started spittin’ then stopped. Heat overcame me so I yanked the hood off.
At Fifth Street, I turned left toward Fountain Square. One of my favorite perspectives of the city is when the sun rises through the “V” of the north and south sides of Fifth Street between the skyscrapers, as if to prove its power over man and machine. But the yellowed warmth had yet to show up.
Typically, I snapped photos of my #morningfinds, but surprisingly, I didn’t possess pics from that day. Yet I was present. Considering what happened next, I take that to heart.
The ghost white symbol of a “walking person” blinked at the corner of Fifth and Broadway. It was the last image I saw, and kind that would remain intact whenever I closed my eyes — if I would again.
Cleared for crossing, I stepped off the curb and took several strides across Broadway to the middle of the road. From my right eye, I saw a car turn left from Fifth Street — into my path.
My brief thought (I’m a fast thinker) was, “Why are you hitting me, I’m in the crosswalk with the signal on?”
The next few seconds were a blur — me rolling across the front bumper, falling to the ground and trying to scoot away from a car driving 20 mph that had just struck me down.
On the ground, writhing in agony, I let out a long, guttural cry. From the pavement, all I saw was rubber — on feet and tires. Cars stopped. People exited their cars. I started to form words in my “Italian” vernacular, yelling so loudly, “I had the signal” or “I had the crosswalk,” that later I wondered if my vocal cords had snapped.
After the first seconds of impact and my ear-piercing screams, catching my breath, finally I whimpered, “Hold me. I just want someone to hold me.” I had never felt so all alone, such a solitary being, in all my life.
I was cold, wet, bleeding, in a pain that reverberated deep within my bones. Sipping in short breaths, I closed my eyes, maybe twice. Envisioning my soul place in Oregon, the joy I had carried in my pocket like a shiny agate now disappeared.
Several onlookers called the police. Someone did hold my hand, Bonnie, maybe?
I begged of the EMS — please call my husband, please let me roll over or I would throw up, and please hold my hand — Frank did. I was so insistent on touching another human being, one to tether me to earth and not let me to float away.
Nauseous, but in a neck brace, I panicked in the back of the ambulance because I was immobilized. I didn’t like to be held down or inactivated. Panting and shivering by the time the transport arrived at the ER, I took stock of my body. Arms, movable. Chest and lungs, breathing. My left knee felt throbbed, exploding from within. I had no idea if my left leg bone had shattered. Was my knee broken? The toes on my other leg cramped. They had been run over.
And my face. My upper lip and cheek on one side was swollen. Every time I covered my face with hands and cried, my fingers touched blood and tears — a grief cocktail if ever there was one. I licked at my thumbs to stem the bleeding from my knuckles, not wanting to lose a drop.
Hours later, I sat at home and surveyed the war-torn landscape. Bruises and swollen toes on one foot. The knee of my other leg blown up like a pumpkin and fractures within. Later, a torn ACL was diagnosed which would preclude me from normalcy again. An upper canine tooth was shoved up into the gums. A root canal was in my future.
Anxious as the night dropped around me while laying on the couch, I didn’t know how I would sleep with the highlight reel from the horror show playing in my mind. No need for Halloween to bring out the evil demons. They appeared without summons.
Would I walk the city streets in the same way I had walked, with delight or consternation, capturing the essence of what I loved about or connected me to here? Back at the hospital, when the social worker asked me to rate “how often did I feel like I was close to death” on a scale of “none of the time” or “all of the time”, I gave it a “most of the time.” Would I walk those streets at all?
The months of recovery were long and gray. To paraphrase poet Louise Glück, I was forced forward into my obstacles. My armpits developed a rash from the rub of crutches. Physical therapy took place twice a week at the hospital, but also twice a day on the floor of the sitting room, where bands and balls and mat littered the carpeting like leftover toys from a toddler play date. I physically became ill before, during, and after my stretching sessions. Dizziness overtook my days. Another persistent rash appeared, which I blamed on poison ivy. In November. Turned out, it was shingles.
Given the losses in my life, I didn’t know how to take this one in. Every facet of my ability to heal was impacted. I used a stool in the shower. I couldn’t walk. (I scooted up and down stairs and had splinters to prove it). With sore hands, writing was out of the question. Every night, I lay mummified in bed, and held in my pee because I didn’t want to step on my leg when a cattle prod jolt would shoot through my foot to the hip bone with every step, whether on crutches or not. Consistent sleep cycles disappeared as the ferocity of the pain recycled itself.
The first weeks on two crutches, I didn’t walk at all. Then, my hobbling was limited to one lap around Washington Park. Each day. One lap. Then two. Then more. Then one crutch, then none.
My book events were cancelled, and some were rescheduled into the next year. March, I suggested, giving myself a solid six months as a deadline, but for what?
By January, I wobbled along Elm Street to the Y, four blocks from my home. When I limped through the disabled entrance, Rico, who worked the front desk, immediately asked, “What happened to you?”
On crutches, I feared social settings and tired of answering, “What happened?” Even now, the idea of inserting “I was hit by a car,” into a conversation wasn’t natural, only necessary. Inhaling deeply, I shared with Rico how I felt like a bull’s eye in a crosswalk painted eerily similar in its lines to an archery target. The bow had struck me in the knee. In my source of power. My walks. My feet.
That was February. The pandemic struck in March. My arbitrary deadline had been met, and was now dissolving through disinfectant sprays. Life morphed again. While I was in the company of everyone else whose life had been altered, I knew how to cope with what Pauline Boss called ambiguous loss. How to let go of what was no longer needed.
Preparing for a settlement agreement with the insurance company over my injuries, my attorney asked for additional photos and entries from journals. I had forgotten about my early poems that were corrosive (The musk of asphalt seeps into her nose — she smells the wretched iron of her skin). The events I described were harrowing, as if they had happened to someone else.
My lawyer also asked for an inventory of the activities I no longer pursued or had been curtailed, and which ones were still a struggle. I cried for each entry, as if writing an obituary for an old friend: 1. Snow skiing, 2. Water skiing, 3. Running, 4. Yoga — limited, 5. My gait has changed and hard as I try, I still limp, 6. The scars on my knees, 7. The tooth that hurts when eating an apple, 8. Long, long walks, 9. Standing for any length of time. And, there was more.
Summer wore on, so did the pandemic. Amongst other writers, we bemoaned how our book sales were in the dumps, despite our efforts to reinvent through audio book sales, freelance writing gigs. But the inventory I created for the attorney prompted another action: to take stock in what I had accomplished — on my own.
1. Sitting for long hours. 2. Writing with focus now that the pain had subsided. 3. Writing reflections about my dead parents, my father’s tenacity and my mother’s vulnerability, both of which I better understood. 4. Essays on caregiving. 5. Essays on the pandemic. One included in the Cincinnati Museum Center’s permanent collection. One used by a colleague in a writing class. 6. Two op-eds: one won a first place with the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and another garnered a note from Sen. Sherrod Brown. 7. Relationships cultivated brought forth new opportunities: publishing a caregiving writing journal, reading poems before city council, an entry into the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s Literary Journal, presenting at City Council School. 8. Long walks, just not long, long ones. 9. Cooking. 10. Italian language classes. And, there was more.
The list grew longer than the one sent to my attorney.
That dark and wet morning when I donned black and chose not to run, I didn’t know the path my life would take, or what would be on the trail to return, only that the two paths diverged.
As fall broke wide open again, the proliferation of yellows, oranges and reds were welcomed. I also invited the appearance of — and wore — more purple. Purple, which accompanied black in our bruises, was the color of our scars, a badge of courage. In the Italian language, the translation for purple was viola. Its Latin root could be seen in Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy, and in the related Latin verb vitulari “to exult, be joyful.”
Yes, the feeling of joy I carried into that fateful week, a holdover from my blissful time in Oregon.
Home again from our recent trip to the same state, I asked again, “How do you tell people you were hit by car?” The joke ended like many others. “You don’t, they’ll tell you.”
But only if they survived.