Consider these two: one brutal, one loving.
My sister Lucy and I were driving along a winding Connecticut road late one night, early one summer, en route to visiting our parents. I don’t remember when it was exactly, sometime after her first suicide attempt. 1989, maybe? 1990?
I was at the wheel of my old Toyota Tercel. Good car. Ugly car. We were blabbing, probably about men, which was normal for us. I had a crush on a guy named Ian. It was around 11:30 or midnight.
And then up ahead, blitzing toward us from around a curve, came a small coupe chased by a police cruiser.
Oh my God, I said to Lucy. I hate high-speed chases. Too often they end with some innocent passerby getting killed.
We started chatting about this. I started telling her about the statistics I’d read on the subject, the news stories I’d written about crashes. But I only started, because less than a minute later, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw that same little coupe screaming up behind us from the opposite direction. The chase had turned around and backtracked.
I looked ahead and saw a blind curve.
That’s when the coupe passed us straight over the double yellow line and into the blindness, and as it did, a second car whipped around the curve from the other direction, and again I said, Oh, my God, and I pulled onto the shoulder, and the cars screamed head-on into each other, launching upward, upward, the smashed metal firing sparks into the night. And they sounded like a bomb.
The oncoming car rocketed through the black and crashed behind us.
The other, the coupe, took its time. It hung in the air forever. When it landed, the ball of steel rolled toward us, still sparking, and for a split second of ghostly calm I watched and wondered if it would crush us. It finally came to a halt about 15 feet ahead, spraying the windshield with shattered glass.
The cops arrived. Then the ambulance. Then the barefoot woman running down the road, yelling, “My husband! My husband!” Then more cops. Lucy and I spoke to the new ones, who separated us and took our stories, then compared their notes and returned looking ashen.
Turned out the first cops had been called off the chase but kept going anyway. The young guy in the sports coupe had been drinking. They had his plate. But they wanted to nail him that night, driving those double-yellow roads in the blackness.
The innocent passerby died.
Months later we spoke to an investigator on the defense team of the sports coupe driver, who’d had too much to drink. He survived. But not whole. Not with the cognitive ability to stand trial.
I think about that night, sometimes. I once got bumped from jury duty on a case with a high-speed chase; I had to confess my bias. That’s the deadliest trauma I’ve ever witnessed firsthand, and I’ve wondered since about people at war who see so much. The terrible and pyrotechnic vision replays in the same slow motion as it did a quarter century ago.
Yet what I remember most, after the accident itself and that poor, distraught, shoeless woman running through the night, was the conversation I had with Lucy as we drove away.
“Ame,” she said.
It happened so fast, I said.
“We didn’t die.”
No, I said. No, we didn’t.
“I guess it’s not my time,” she said. “I guess I’m supposed to live a little while longer.”
Yeah. You are. You will.
And she did, for a little while. Long enough to see me get married. Long enough to be my maid of honor.
Long enough to sit beside me at the altar, reach for my hand in a moment of quiet and squeeze it with love.
I have no more violent memory than that head-on collision. I have no sweeter memory of my sister than her gentle touch at my wedding. But I can’t remember the former without remembering the latter, because she couldn’t have held my hand if she hadn’t survived.
The extra time with her was a gift. That moment at the altar was a gift. It hangs in eternity, too.