Two and half years ago, somewhere in Patterson, California, a man got shit-faced. He decided to drive his van into my family’s car.
Earlier in the day, my family and I climbed into our car to go celebrate my birthday at a cheesy Mexican restaurant. It had been a little over a year since we’d all been together. I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, two whole time zones away from my family and the warm California sun. I flew in the night before and decided to stay at a friend’s house.
My parents met while my dad was in the military and stationed in El Paso. She had only recently crossed the border. My dad’s best friend went along during their dates to translate and somehow love blossomed. They got married and I was born. My mother and I both learned how to speak English by watching Sesame Street. And here she was, some twenty years later on her way to getting her degree.
My little brother was just starting to live. Before getting to California, I remember telling him on the phone, “This is the start of the rest of your life and you have every opportunity before you; don’t fuck it up.”
I was always too hard on him.
My last real memory before the accident was pulling into the driveway of my parents’ rental home. I felt awful. The house I grew up in, the only home I had ever known, was lost in foreclosure after my dad was laid off. This new place, painted an ugly shade of brown, had a massively cracked driveway, and a saggy roof.
“Hijo, I’m so embarrassed,” my mother told me through sobs the night before. “If you don’t want to stay here, it’s okay.”
I told her to stop and that everything would be all right. But looking at the house in person, with the summer sun baking it on a 100° day, I remember hoping my dad didn’t feel ashamed about the house and losing his job.
This is my last memory before the accident.
I hear a loud crashing noise. It’s quick, like when you drop a textbook and it lands flat on the ground. A van doing over 60 miles per hour has slammed into the side of our car.
We flip over multiple times and crash into some palm trees.
I’m hanging upside down. I feel like the inside of my body is on fire. I feel the tickle of something running up my neck and face. I hear screaming.
The seatbelt is holding me up. It feels like I’m floating. I’m confused and it’s hard to see. I feel a light touch running up my neck, around my jaw and now it’s tickling my cheek. It starts to drip into my eye and it stings. I want to wipe it away but my arms are stuck.
I feel a burning throughout the inside of my body. I blink hard a few times. Things are coming into focus. I am facing towards the inside of the vehicle and I see what’s left of my little brother. Parts of the car are jamming through his body. There is so much blood. One of his arms is unnaturally bent. But worst of all are my brother’s eyes.
I’m staring into them. They stare right back at me.
“Andrew,” I call out. My voice is raspy. “Please, Andrew, say something. Tell me you’re okay.”
His eyes keep staring. His eyes are dull. Lifeless. He won’t stop staring. I want to look away but I can’t seem to move. I scream for help before passing out from blood loss.
I woke up from a coma several days later. The first thing I see is my wife sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed. Some friends come in with their new daughter. The drugs make it really hard to focus but I think she is adorable.
My wife looks nervous.
I ask her when my family is going to visit. She starts crying. I don’t understand. She tells me that there was a car crash. She says that my entire family died in the crash, and that I am paralyzed from the neck down.
I imagine my mom misty-eyed, asking me, “Donde quieres a comer for your birthday.” She’s blending her English and Spanish like she does when she’s excited. I tease her about it. I imagine my dad asking about school. He wants to know if I memorized the criminal code yet. He never understood what I did at law school but he was proud that I was there. Picturing my little brother is the hardest. He recently turned 14. All I can see is the pudgy little kid I taught to ride a bike. He is smiling. He is always smiling.
I feel so bad for my wife. She should not have to say those words. I want nothing more than to hold her, to console her, but I can’t. I’m trapped in my own body, pinned to the hospital bed.
I have a collapsed lung, a concussion and significant blood loss. A piece of the car went straight through my knee. I have a spinal injury at my C-4 vertebrae. The doctors say I will be a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of my life.
Mentally, I am gone. I want to hide. When reality creeps in, I just settle back into the comfortable embrace of intravenous narcotics. But I know I can’t hide forever. I owe it to my family to be more than a sad endnote on an already depressing story.
There was a month in the ICU, a handful of bolts and screws to reset and fuse my spine, a flight back to Wisconsin for insurance purposes, another collapsed lung, a tracheotomy, and a couple months of intense physical therapy. I had to learn how to breathe again. I had respiratory therapy every four hours, every day for over a month. My lungs were so badly bruised that nurses had to push a vacuum tube into the hole in my trachea and suck fluid out several times a day. I had to learn to swallow again. This included a week where all I could eat was hospital meatloaf. Rehabilitation was hard work but I eventually came out the other side well enough to go home. Not perfect, but well enough.
They say time heals all wounds. In the two years since the accident, I have found that to be true. If it wasn’t, I would have bled to death in one way or another. The real problem is the scars. The ones on my skin are ugly and painful. The ones on my spine will leave me physically broken for the rest of my life. The ones on my mind and my heart, those are the most difficult to live with. But despite all of the hardship, my scars also give me purpose. By showing you my scars maybe I can save you or someone you love. Maybe my scars will give someone pause before driving drunk or encourage someone to get help for their drinking problem. If sharing my scars can save just one person, then the pain of reliving that day is worth it. When I see my family again, I think they will be proud.
Jimmy Anderson lives in Madison, WI with his wife and their small zoo of animals. He has recently started Drive Clear, a nonprofit that works to prevent drunk driving and to provide assistance to those injured by drunk drivers. If you would like to support Drive Clear, you can send us a donation by going to www.driveclear.org/donate.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]