Thursday, February 6, 2020

You Never Know

You never know until it happens.

You can plan for it, think it over, and think it over some more. But it's just speculation. A brain simulation of your best (or worst) what-ifs.

You can panic about it, you can be stoic about it, or you can put it out of your mind with a distraction.

None of it matters until you're actually there.

Like when you're a passenger in a car on a slushy highway, with the snow coming down on an early winter evening in North Idaho. You feel the car fishtail a little bit, and you immediately stiffen up and feel a ball of anxiety rising in your belly. But then the driver gets control of the car, and your worst fears subside.

But then, moments later, it happens for real. The car fishtails again, and then it spins out of control.

This is the what-if moment you've played out in your head for years. Do you fly into a panic?

Well, maybe some do. The point is, you never know until it happens.

I've lived most of my life playing out anxiety-inducing worst-case scenarios like this in my head, even though I should know by now that the real thing is scarcely ever the way you play it out in your interior cinema.

In your imaginary scenarios, you have control over the outcome, even if you don't like what happens. But in real life, you have no choice but to surrender control.

I heard my wife at the wheel. Whatever she was saying, she sounded urgent and scared. But I'm not sure what exactly she said. It seems like a scene from a dream. It was as if I was hearing her from faraway, as if through a tunnel, or secondhand, as if watching everything play out on a movie screen.

The car spun, facing the wrong way. I could see two headlights through the snow, bearing down on us. I felt the blast of the collision. I remember spinning back the opposite way and coming to a rest in the snow-covered grassy median between the eastbound and westbound lanes.

I remember my kiddo sitting next to me in the back seat, crying and scared.

I remember seeing my wife, whose glasses had been flung off her face, reaching for her phone to dial 911, and announcing to the operator in a shaking voice that we'd just been in an accident.

I remember the police, the paramedics, the tow truck, and our friend who arrived to drive us home.

But what I don't remember is any sense of fear. Yet fear is what drives my worst what-ifs, all the time.

You never know until it happens.

If I'd seen the headlights of the box truck racing toward us in one of those what-if feature presentations in my interior cinema, I would have been sweating, screaming, stiffening my body and preparing for the worst.

But when it really happened, I strangely didn't feel scared at all. Not a bit.

The only thought that went through my head was... "Well, this could be the end."

I actually felt strangely at peace. I knew that if this was it, there was not a single thing I could do about it. Despite all those what-ifs in my head where I tried to exert control over the situation, when I actually found myself in that situation in real life, I immediately let go. I didn't need to be in control any more. I guess because I knew I couldn't.

Maybe I feel so physically awful every day of my life that, deep down, I didn't mind if those oncoming headlights might mean the end of my story. Maybe my brain was telling my body, "Finally, no more suffering. You'll be at peace."

But that didn't happen. We walked away from the crash. My wife got some bruises. My back stiffened up later that evening. My daughter was fine, at least physically. The car took it far worse than we did. In fact, the frame got bent so badly that it's going to be totaled. And we only had five or six more payments to make on it.

And what's so odd to me, in the aftermath of the crash, is that I now feel, of all things, a deep sense of sadness. We went to look at our car at the body shop, and I felt like crying. Over a hunk of metal that I never liked in the first place. I always thought it was an ugly car.

Maybe it was because of all the memories made inside the car -- going places together as a family, moving to our new house, playing CDs, playing pretend with my kiddo as we drove.

Or maybe it's the fact that the car had just reached a milestone, having gone over 100,000 miles. When I mentioned that to a guy last week, he said, "It's a Subaru. You're just breaking it in."

I wish. Now I'll always have to think that the last time we sat in that car was when we spun out of control and got knocked off the highway, like a Tilt-a-Whirl combined with a game of bumper cars.

What an ignominious ending. It almost feels like a betrayal of a car that had reliably taken us all over the place, while we took it for granted.

So, sadness, but never any fear. Strange, right?

You never know until it happens.

But also a sense of relief and gratitude. Because a million things could have gone wrong to make the crash a lot worse.

Because of the way we spun around, the box truck hit the front passenger-side corner of the car, which was the only part of the car not occupied. I usually drive, but I was sitting in the back, helping my kiddo with an assignment for the class we were driving her to. If I'd been driving, my wife would have been next to me in that front passenger seat, with a bull's-eye painted on her.

The car could have easily flipped, but the collision snapped the front passenger-side axle, leaving the tire dragging at an awkward angle against the road like a rubber anchor, so that we essentially scraped our way into the median.

There could have been a car in the left lane to hit us again, but there wasn't.

We could have kept skidding all the way over to the other side of the highway, but we didn't.

My wife joked that I must have racked up some Catholic-boy merit points. When I countered that anyone who kept the crash from being worse could have actually prevented the crash altogether, she joked again that maybe we were given some kind of lesson to learn.

Well, who knows? Maybe.

And maybe the lesson was... you never know until it happens.

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