Morning Drive

17 10 2008

I drive 27 miles on the interstate to get to work. The speed limit is 70, which means that I generally go anywhere from 65–90 mph. This morning I was running behind, so I did my best to keep the speed around 77 while I put on my make up, checking the clock at every exit to see if I had succeeded in defying time. I also listen to Morning Edition on Fresh Air. There was a horribly sad story today about a man and his wife, whom he met in Iraq, and how utterly miserable they are in Ozark, AK. So I’m driving, listening, getting ready, and probably checking my phone for emails.

When I got to exit 70, which is 7 miles before my exit, there were cars stopped in front of me. Or, they were going very slow. I moved over to the left lane and checked my phone again. I’m thinking all kinds of urgent, frustrated 4-letter word combos. I slammed my fist on the dash repeatedly, which sent my eye shadow tumbling to that place on the floor of my car where my reaching for it only pushes it further away. By this time, I was definitely LATE, with make up on half my face, and, to top it off, there was a dark brownish-golden smudge on the freshly shampooed carpets of my *clean* car (a feat that takes such considerable effort that I believe it’s been a year since it’s been this clean). I grabbed the phone to call another teacher, and began to fume in my mind about how much it sucks to miss work when you’re a teacher. I mean, if you have a regular adult job with adult people, it’s just not the same. However, if I don’t show up for work, 150 8th graders are going crazy in my classroom with no lesson plans, no teacher (unless it’s a co-worker who is on their *planning* period). So I make the call and then text him with lesson plans 10 minutes later just in case.

After 15 minutes or so, the sun came up and I realized that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for a while because there was a truck in the right lane that had gone off the road and there were only 3-4 cars in front of me. All I could see was the back of the truck at an angle and the front, sort of jack-knifed down off the road. There were some people gathering around the cab, but the driver was walking around seemed just fine. Another teacher (from Valley, but not from my school) was parked in front of me and she was kind of nosy––walking around, talking to people, talking on the phone, fixing the way her shirt would get bunched up by the waist of her pants. I borrowed her phone to call the school again because my phone died. She told me that when she drove up, she noticed the smoke coming up from the truck and pulled off to the side.

Soon after, a helicopter came, and two ambulances, followed by a bunch of random people who parked on the exit ramps and walked down through the damp, tall grass to see what was happening with the truck. Under the cab of the truck, there was a anoth truck––a white Chevy. Inside of the Chevy, or what was left of it, there was a person. Trapped. Everyone stopped for this wreck (and there were 2 other cars involved in the wreck, 4 cars in front of me, and so on) was just standing around. Not speaking. Not moving. People who drove by on the other side of the median slowed down, some pulled over, some got off the exit and walked down, waiting 50 yards or so away. While the firefighters worked on the mess, the truck driver was taking pictures with his disposable camera. Click. Wind, wind, wind. Click. I could hear that from where I stood on the shattered pieces of windshield on the other side of the road near the yellow line.

The two men who had on jumpsuits (I guess they flew the helicopter) stood close to the white truck with a stretcher. Waiting. Then someone put a black thick-looking tarp over it. Next were two white shoes poking out of the carnage, followed by the body, head turned to the side. I can remember being shocked at how straight his body was when they pulled him out––like when Mary Poppins pulled that floor lamp out of her carpet bag. All of this happened behind a white sheet that two firefighters held up, but I was on the other side, I was on the inside, I was behind that sheet. My view was not protected and I could not look away. One man––a big guy, a firefighter––sat on the bumper of the yellow truck they came in on and leaned over with his hands on his knees like he was going to throw up. He squeezed his fingers into his eyes real hard and shook his head. Another one came up and put his head close to the big guy’s head. By that time, the black bag was sealed and strapped onto the stretcher. I saw the helicopter fly away, but I don’t know whether or not the stretcher was on it. After that, there were several people in big blue hats waving us off and shouting for us to leave. I don’t know where they expected us to go, but I went and sat in my car anyway.

I write this because it was a strange kind of alone standing there on the interstate. Everyone was alone in their own minds, but together in our being drawn to move closer, to hold our breath, to stand on the tippy-est parts of our toes to see what death looks like. I’ve never seen that before. And I was, we all were, so close to being the one on that stretcher. That man was sitting in traffic just like I had been 45 minutes prior. Maybe he was late. Maybe he was wearing his seatbelt. Maybe not. It wouldn’t have mattered because that truck couldn’t stop. And if he had been only one car ahead, or only 4 cars behind (as I was), he may have been standing next to me on the shattered windshield, on the road, holding his breath and waiting for what they were doing to pull out of that car.

I know this isn’t as light-hearted as what I normally write. It feels strange to have this sitting above the post about Ruthie in a shopping cart and planting mums, but there is no place to write or talk or think about death that is not strange or uncomfortable or easy. It doesn’t follow that after witnessing this awful thing, that I turned around and had a “normal” day. I went to school, ate lunch, emailed a few people, and now I’m sitting here writing on my blog. I’m not sure what I believe happens after a person dies, but I do know that I won’t ever say again that I’m ready for my life to begin. That I’m ready to be finished with the rushing around and the living month-to-month. It’s just so hard not to live for the next best thing. It is so hard to be in the moment living, paying attention, focusing on the now.