I have always imagined life as this generally straight trajectory on a graph, moving forward and upward at a fairly equal and constant rate. Sure there are bumps and shifts in the line but generally it moves in a certain direction. But sometimes life throws you more than a curve ball, it feels like a bowling ball to the face. The moment of impact feels still and quiet. Then everything moves in an accelerated, terrifying motion. I will never forget my “bowling ball to the face”. We had just rearranged seats in the car. My husband grabbed a pillow and leaned against the window. My little boy was happily watching a movie on the ipod. The baby girl behind me was moaning out of boredom and I was the middle of a sibling sandwich with my baby sister to my right and Seth Wiggins to my left. I unbuckled my seat belt and turned around to grab a toy out of the baby bag. When crash: the ball hit me straight in the face.
My body flew to the right then slammed hard against the headrest to my left. The smell of dirt and fuel and fear everywhere. Glass crashing into my body and my voice, internal or external I am not sure, yelling; “stop, stop, stop.” Three times. Then it did. I heard my baby girl screaming and made a mental check next to the “alive” box. Then I looked at the vacant seat where my son had been sitting. The pit in my stomach swells. I moved toward the door behind the driver to see my sister’s back bent out of the window. Her unconscious body hanging there like a piece of laundry out to dry. The first words I am conscious of uttering are, “Katie is dead.” I ran out of the car anxious for any sign of life. “Where is my son?” “Help, help.” I hobbled, barefoot toward the road, screaming for Thomas. Tim grabbed him and shouted, “He’s here. He is alive.” I collapsed with my baby in my arms, his bloody head soaking my left shoulder. He was crying, and I have never heard anything more beautiful. I lay there and realize that the heel of my foot is sliced and that was why I had been limping and I have a huge welt on my left hip which is why I can’t get up. Wiggins came to, found a knife and cut Cali out of her car seat. Things are piled on top of her. “Give her to me” I screamed frantically as I lay in the blood and the dirt and the petrol. It was only as I grabbed my screaming child that I looked up to see my husband smashed into the front seat. His eyes are shut and he is babbling unintelligibly, I numbly figure it is brain damage. Wiggins ran to the side and said, “Katie is alive.” A sigh of relief followed by panic, as I realized we were in the middle of nowhere. No “911”, no ambulance was coming, nobody to call. Several men pulled over to help us. “Help, help us”, I was pleading over and over above the wailing from my babies. The men started trying to pry Seth out of the front seat with a branch. “How is he? How is my husband?” I was so confused and disoriented. Wiggins comes to me and says, “he is conscious we are going to get him out.” Then a man said, “come, I will take you to the hospital.” Wiggins and Tim helped me into the car, I didn’t want to leave Seth and Katie. I protested, but the Zimbabwean man said, “no, please we must care for the children, please, we must go.” I got in his car with no money, no phone, no shoes. We drove for twenty minutes to Karoi public hospital. I tried to keep Thomas from falling asleep, fearful he would never wake up. I remember worrying about getting blood on the man’s truck…such a trivial thought. The man tried to make small talk but I couldn’t hear him over Cali’s wailing and my yelling to wake Thomas.
We got to the hospital and eyes followed me everywhere. Staring. Staring. They finally put me on a bed with the two little ones still on top of me. We wait for an half an hour. No doctor comes, no nurse speaks to us. “Please, are you the doctor?” I ask to each new face. “No.” “No”. ”No”. They each say in turn. I examine our injuries fully and realize that Cali’s bumps seem relatively minor. The gash in Thomas’ head is about four inches long and my foot is bad. Finally a man comes in with a syringe. He looks at my heel and begins to clean it with betadine. “Please, do you have local anesthesia?” I grimace. “Oh, yes madam.” He grabs the syringe and jabs it into the raw mass over and over again. Tommy and I watch him stitch. I am so grateful for the attention and I thank him over and over.
I beg another woman in the room to please hold Cali. She is sweet. I try to keep things light so that I can get the care we need. I tell her Cali’s name and say that she needs a Shona name. The woman says a name which means Grace.
The doctor arrives and asks what happened in the annoyed, entitled manner I have heard from many well-off Zambians. I explain what happened and have the sense to make positive small talk and compliment the Zimbabwean universities. He warms up a bit. “We will shave him now.” Thomas wails and clings to my chest. “No, no, I want my mommy.” The doctor says, “we will do general anesthesia”. I ask, “please, can you x-ray his head first so we can see that he is okay for general anesthesia.”
Thomas is terrified of the x-ray machine…so fearful. He cried, “mamma, mamma, mamma” over and over clutching my shirt. So much fear. We finally get his x-ray and I am not sure if the doctor looked at it before he put him under anesthesia or not. I laid on my plastic bed outside the “operating theater” and prayed for a miracle. I became aware that my left side was in excruciating pain from the initial impact and I try to raise my left foot up by folding the mattress in half. I ask for my baby and the woman brought her to me. I lay there and cry. It has now been three hours from the accident. I have had two white Zimbabweans stop to see me who had seen the crash. Neither of them knows where my sister is and both report that Seth is still stuck in the car. They leave me and I am so very alone. Seth will spend four hours pinned in the car with eight broken bones in his neck, back, shoulders and ribs.
They bring Thomas out bandaged and breathing. They move us to the pediatric unit and we pass a sign that says, “measles”. “Oh, God help us please,” I pray. I just sit watching Thomas breath, grateful for each movement of his chest. Cali is crying on me and finally falls asleep. I sit on wooden bench trying to hold my sliced foot up with my other leg. How long will I wait here with no contact? How till I get back to Seth and Katie? I have no means of contacting anyone. All I can do is sit and wait and pray.
Two hours later an angel of mercy walks in: Charmaine Vanderwesthuizen. She says, “I have come to collect you and take you to your husband.” I just burst into tears. The nurse is rude to her and says, “you don’t know her but you have come for her, would you do this if she was black?” Charmaine’s thirteen-year old daughter had died three months earlier when she rolled in a tractor. Both of our nerves are raw. Thomas wakes up and she helps me get him into her car. She says, “I need a Coke, do you want one.” It was wonderful. I had spent six hours in that clinic full of silent staring.
We pick Tim up from the police station where he has filled in a report. Then we stop by Charmaine and Darvey’s farm to pick up some of the things they saved from the wreck - our clothes and my shoes. Everything smells like car crash: dirt, gas, blood.
Thomas throws up six times on the way to Harare and I struggle to keep him awake. We arrive in Harare at 8:30 at night. I finally see Katie, she is asleep, but alive. The gravity of Seth’s pain hits me like a wall. Nobody knows what is wrong with him but he can’t move his arms. His face is bruised and bloody. Every touch causes intense, scream-out-loud, pain. We will wait all night and into the morning for a Neurosurgeon to look at his CT scan, an entire night of pain without understanding.
We spend another three hours being swabbed, injected, restrained. The care at Avenues Clinic is night and day better but still not thorough by any stretch of the imagination. Thomas’ fear has been cemented from his experience earlier that day. He begs for Wiggins to hold him while they clean his head. I am so earnestly grateful for help managing these two little ones who are scared and tired. In the background I hear Cali wailing. She won’t fall asleep the whole time we are there. She wants me, normalcy.
They admit Thomas but send me home because of the baby. We leave the hospital at midnight. Charmaine and Darvey, two people with their own personal woes, two people with no connection to us other than kindness have stayed with us, held us and fed us. They take us to their friend’s house: Tim and Bernice Eastwood, beds are made and ready and food on the table. I can’t eat. I try to bathe myself. There is dirt and glass everywhere and everything hurts. My pulse is in my heel, beating hard and fast. All night long I roll in the car, over and over gain. I re-live those thirty seconds when I thought I had lost everything. I think about Seth and wonder if I have lost more than I know. I don’t sleep.