Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Traumatic Past Event

There are some drawbacks to having an extremely good memory. Learning new things is easy, at least when there's enough interest in them. I remember a lot of happy and amusing things that other people who were there have long since forgotten. But I also have an excellent memory for bad things, as my musings on May 9 probably show. The incident I'm about to describe happened about five years before that, and like May 9, 2001, I will also remember May 17, 1996 as a day that changed my life, and not in a good way.

You see, that day, I was a passenger in a car that hit a young boy—he must've been two years old at most. I was thirteen.

My dad was driving me home from a horseback riding lesson I'd had that night. There were kids playing at the side of the road; one of them waved at us. Dad was driving slower than usual; he was afraid that something would happen, and it did. We were passing a car that was parked on the road, and the boy—completely unsupervised by his parents—ran out in front of us. One of the neighbours told me later that she almost hit him herself because he ran out in front of her as well and she only just managed to dodge him in time.

Dad slammed on the brakes as soon as he saw the boy, but we were in a big old boat of a Chrysler—a wine-coloured 1983-ish New Yorker or Fifth Avenue*, I don't recall which model it was, though I gather there wasn't much of a difference between the two that year—and it couldn't stop as fast as we (and that kid) needed it to. I remember the sickening thunk when the car made contact with the boy (the memory of it still has the power to rob me of my appetite and make me want to vomit) and Dad shouting "Oh, God!" as he hit the brakes. The boy lived, but he was very badly injured. He had a broken arm and a broken leg, and I learned later that one of his fingers was actually torn off his hand; it was surgically reattached. All this happened with us travelling at a speed that was under 20 kilometres per hour. I remember all the blood, and his father—only concerned about his kid now that something had actually happened—did the stupidest thing imaginable and picked the kid up and rocked him. It's a good thing he didn't have a broken back. If that had been the case, the boy's father could've paralyzed him.

Oddly enough, I remember that the boy's father was wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, and I remember seeing a smear of the boy's blood on his clothing as he rocked the kid and told him about a "magic truck" that was coming for him. Much of the drama played out right beside the passenger window of the car, which I think is part of the reason why it hurt me so badly—I could see practically everything that happened.

I can still hear the kid's screams.

I remember that evening in frightening detail, although it happened just a bit over fourteen years ago. I think I went into a minor state of shock at the time, and the event traumatized me for years; I even put off learning how to drive until I was nearly 21 because I was so frightened that something similar would happen with me behind the wheel. To this day, whenever I see kids playing on the side of the road while I'm driving, a sharp feeling of panic runs through me, almost like an unexpected sharp blast of frosty wind on a cold night. It doesn't help that about three years ago, a kid did run out in front of me, and it's only because there was no traffic coming on the other side of the street that I didn't re-live this traumatic episode from my past in a particularly tragic way—or end up a victim myself out of colliding head-on with another vehicle while trying to avoid the kid.

To this day, I still have no patience with parents who can't be arsed to keep an eye on their children. I'm far too aware of the potentially tragic consequences that this can have. I suffered panic attacks for years after it happened—I don't think it's a coincidence—and as I've already said here, it still affects me.

So when I ran across a Facebook group today that's apparently for people who got hit by cars, and I recognized the name of the kid my dad hit, I couldn't resist the temptation to read about his experience of the incident. I wish I hadn't. I know that his recovery from the incident couldn't possibly have been pleasant—he had to get a finger reattached, for Goddess' sake!—but the way he wrote about it—"That bastard MOWED ME DOWN WITH HIS CAR, AND DRAGGED ME DOWN THE STREET WHILE I WAS UNDERNEATH IT"—made it sound like Dad intentionally hit him and dragged him down the road, instead of hitting the brakes as hard as possible as soon as the kid ran in front of us. All that my dad was guilty of was being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a little kid (whose parents couldn't be bothered to keep an eye on their son and make sure he stayed away from the damn road) decided that it would be a fine idea to run out onto the street.

My dad was sued for it. We never learned the result of the lawsuit, because it was settled between the kid's family and the insurance company.

And you know what? I got angry when I read what that kid said about my father. Dad didn't want to hit him—he ran out in front of us from behind a vehicle parked on the road. If he'd been driving at the legal speed limit on that street—50 kilometres per hour—that boy would almost certainly have died.

That evening in my diary, I wrote that I didn't care if it affected me for the rest of my life; I just wanted the kid to be OK. But when the memory is still so clear fourteen years later and still has the power to make me panic and although the psychological damage that it did to me wasn't anywhere near as severe as the physical and mental damage that it did to the kid that ran in front of us, I can't help but think that the victims of collisions like that aren't just the people who get physically hurt, though they may be the most obvious ones.

It is not, by the way, my intention to downplay all the therapy, surgery and pain that the kid must've gone through as a result of running in front of the car that evening. The incident clearly left a mark on his mind as well as his body, and I can't get angry with him for being upset about it. But knowing how he's described what happened, and knowing that he apparently thinks that Dad intentionally ran him over—I got angry because he's blaming the wrong damn person for what happened. Considering that his parents didn't bother to supervise him while he was outside, I'd say that they were the people at fault for their neglect.

Perhaps there's a lesson in forgiveness to be learned here. Forgiveness for myself for my bad timing and not insisting on going home by another route, as I'd wanted to do. Forgiveness for the kid's parents for letting him run around where he could've gotten killed and where he did get very badly injured. Forgiveness for the kid himself for what he's said about it. This incident is still haunting me as badly as if I'd been physically hurt, so obviously I need to put it past me somehow. But how can I do that when I can be pretty sure that the kid Dad hit thinks it was intentional and probably hates our guts for being on that road when he decided he wanted to run onto it?

It is, after all, easier to forgive those who we love than those who we know hate us. (My opinion of the kid is fairly neutral, though his harsh words about Dad do make me angry.) Harder still when you know they have an understandable reason for being angry at you, even when the incident actually wasn't your fault. Perhaps it is hardest for me to forgive the kid's parents, because if they'd been keeping an eye on him and making sure he wasn't anywhere near the road, then the incident probably wouldn't have happened in the first place.

I pray that someday I'll be able to manage it, because it does no good for any of us to hold on to the bitterness, the anger and the fear. I know that as a passenger in the car I was probably the least of the victims of the incident, but I was very young and it did a hell of a job on my mind. It's not good that I should still be hurt by it, and I hope and pray that someday I'll be able to let go of it.

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*Edit as of June 7, 2010: I've looked up an old diary entry of mine that I wrote shortly after my mother bought the car; it was a Fifth Avenue. It was eleven years old by the time she bought it, but it was one of the really nice ones with a built-in compass (which started to malfunction less than a year after she bought the car due to the magnetic-mount ham radio antenna for her radio) and thermometer, and a "crystal" in the shape of the Chrysler logo inset on each side behind the rear passenger windows. I don't remember why Dad was driving it that night, as he had his own car—also an early 80's Fifth Avenue, which meant that our driveway was very crowded for most of the 90's, especially after my mother inherited her father's old grey-blue K-body LeBaron when he died in 1997.

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