It’s not until you’re laying there that you realize how different reality is from the movies–especially in this case.
That moment exposes the assumptions you had about how this sort of thing would happen, and the various details and nuances of those assumptions are really affected by the cultural influences you take in.
The biggest difference? For me, at least, it was the sound. Or rather, to be more specific, the lack of it.
Music. Squeal. Cursing. Bending of metal. Breaking of glass. Breaking of branches. Landing of body.
And then, silence.
That was the weirdest thing to me. I’ve always associated the whole ordeal of a major car crash with noise and fire. But honestly, after the few seconds of the crash itself, all that’s left is you silently cradled in the snow. Sure, there’s the strained attempts at breathing, the occasional choke on the blood in your throat, and maybe even the crunch of snow and twig under bloodied fingers trying to move for the first few minutes. But eventually, you surrender to it as your breathing gets shallower and quieter.
The silence itself becomes loud. Does that make sense? I remember going out on freshly-plowed streets in my neighborhood growing up, before the other kids had come out to muddy it and ball it and throw it at one another, and walking silently down the street–or even just standing still–and being taken in by the presence with which the silent snowfall approached the earth. Surely you know what I’m talking about, right? Have you ever stood in silence–true silence–and felt its presence? It really is loud, if you pay attention.
And so that’s the main thing I noticed about that night. The crash was over and done with, and next came silence. I hoped for help to arrive, but no one did. In the middle of the night, hardly anyone can see a wrecked car in a ravine down the hill from an isolated country road. The only company I had was the silence.
The other difference between our cultural ideas of this moment and reality was my thought process. I did not have my life flash before my eyes in those moments before, during, or after the wreck.
Rather, I experienced an extremely deep sense of self-loathing. This was on two accounts: the stupid mistakes that led to this moment, and the fact that this was the way I was going to go.
You see, life is so fragile. Yes, we know this, and occasionally we have these moments that remind us of it, but really–it is. I walk down streets every day that others have walked down and died. The smallest act can end it all.
It reminds me of scars. I’ve had this weird fascination with scars my entire life. If you have a scar, look at it right now. Really. Stop listening to me and look at your scar. How did you get it? Usually, I have found, it’s from some event that, were it not for the scar, would have faded from your memory long ago. Cutting vegetables, getting caught on a fence, breaking a glass, or childhood “boo-boos” all contribute to this. The smallest, least dramatic, most seemingly-innocuous things quite often gives us the longest-lasting effects. Further, you can probably think back on that moment and know the precise thought or decision that if you had only done it ever so slightly differently, you wouldn’t have that scar.
Well, the same applied to me in that moment. I just laid there, knowing I could have just let that damn song end and move on to the next song on the playlist rather than insisting on scrolling through the iPod to find the other random song I had been reminded of.
This naturally led into the other reason for my self-hatred. Thinking through the steps that had led to this moment, one thought began dominating all the others: Really? This is how it ends? Really?
It became almost an obsession. Knowing this was it, I couldn’t believe just how mundane the actions were that led to this. I’ve never hated myself so much.
Compounding this, I recalled that it was just this morning I had heard that I got the internship at the State Senator’s office. Staring up into the fading blackness, I told myself that I was just now being prepared for such great things. There was so much more for me to do.
My life was not on a trajectory to end!
We all live by stories, and the story of my life was not one in which me dying on the side of a road made any sense. It played no part in furthering the common good or wherever the hell this whole thing is going. I woke up this morning with no sense that it would be the last. Hell, I put off those chores one more day, expecting to do them tomorrow.
There would be no tomorrow.
I then felt something I definitely was not expecting. A growing sense of injustice seized me, and I was forced to ask: towards whom is this accusation pointed? God? My self? Natural selection?
I had no answers, nor did I feel I had the resources to arrive at any.
Smallness. Humility. Quietude. Shame.
I suddenly felt very small. My self-loathing that had turned into Other-loathing finally settled as a sort of repentance against whomever that sense of injustice was directed towards. I felt shame. I noticed that the snowstorm clouds were, of course, blocking the light of the stars above me, but from my perspective, the snowflakes themselves acted as surrogate stars. The sky was literally falling all around me.
Or was I rising?
Letting the illusion overtake me, I let the fear drain out of my body along with my blood. Calm and warmth beset me as my shivering stopped and my eyes became heavy. I felt my heart in my chest pump ever-slower. And the falling stars became grayer and darker as the darkened sky within my mind became the sky of the whole world.
And then, silence.
This work by Paul Burkhart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.