There have only been a few very dark days in my life. The most distinct one—the one where certain smells, sounds, songs, and phrases can instantly transport me back to that day—is May 9, 2009.
The day before Mother’s Day. A bright, clear Saturday. Gorgeous blue skies. Perfect weather for motorcycle riding. My dad set out on his motorcycle that day to meet up with some friends and pick up a Mother’s Day gift for my mom.
My brothers and I went to the local feed shop and bought a hanging basket for my mom and a small yellow potted flower for my mom’s youngest sister who was visiting for her birthday that same weekend. My older brother and I had finished up our exams for the semester, and we were scheduled to be home for the next few weeks. His wedding was coming up in six weeks. Our younger brother was 12 days away from his high-school graduation. I was three weeks away from starting a summer internship which would finish out my courses for college at Auburn University.
My older brother’s fiancé arrived at our house to spend the rest of the weekend with us. We had bought some Mother’s Day cards and I went into my room to write a note to my mom. As I closed my door, I heard the phone ring. Something deep inside me ached in that moment. In an almost out-of-body experience, I imagined that time slowed down, and that something was going to go horribly wrong.
I slowly walked to my bed to start writing the message on the Mother’s Day card. A knock at my door revealed my future sister-in-law. “Your mom is in the kitchen and she’s crying.” My heart sank, and I knew. I knew something was very wrong. The only other time I’ve seen my mother in the kitchen crying was when she got the news that one of my friends had died in a car accident—which was very close to this same day, three years prior. I ran to the kitchen and saw my mom holding the phone up to one ear, with her other arm clutching her heart. I said “No, no, no, no.” She was sobbing, and my now sister-in-law was wringing her hands as she stood behind me. I leaned back into the living room and saw my aunt napping on the recliner. “Aunt Robyn!” I screamed. She popped out of the chair and came running to the kitchen. My sister-in-law went to grab my older brother who was just exiting the bathroom. It was so many very long seconds until my mother hung up the phone and could talk.
“Your dad has been in an accident. The helicopter is on its way. We’ll get another call back once we know if they’re taking him to Montgomery or Birmingham.”
My older brother’s head sank. He knew what the helicopter meant. I didn’t. I assumed it was a good sign because it was the fastest mode of transportation. I didn’t understand how dire the situation was until he told me.
My mom asked me to call the Associate pastor. He lived just a couple miles up the road. He raced to our house with his young son. I also called my then-boyfriend (who is now my husband). My boyfriend called his mom and stepdad who lived at the top of my parents’ street. My future father-in-law rushed down the street and was prepared to drive us all in his van to either one of the Montgomery Hospitals or the Birmingham ones.
Everyone who was in my house joined hands in prayer. The associate pastor’s phone went off. Matthew West’s “Something to Say” was the ringtone. “You’ve got something to say, and you know if your heart is beatin’.” He silenced the ringer, but I’ll never forget thinking that the lyrics said “and you know your heart is bleeding.” Our hearts were torn. We were in a panicked state of not knowing if my dad was even still alive. My younger brother was grasping the situation and told me that he wasn’t able to graduate high school if my dad wasn’t around. I told him that we would make sure he graduated. I told him dad would want him to graduate.
We got the call that my dad was being flown to a Montgomery hospital. My mom called her friend who worked in the NICU, which was right next to the heli-pad. Her friend ran outside to meet the helicopter and be with my dad as the crew rushed him down the hall to assess his injuries.
We gathered in the waiting room of the ER, and church members from our current church and from the former church that my dad had pastored began showing up. I remember how odd it was to see other people in the ER who were there to get vaccinations, or because their nose was running, etc. We were there for a real life emergency. My mom’s friend came out at various time intervals and gave us updates on my dad. They were not removing his motorcycle helmet, because they weren’t sure if his neck was broken. They were cutting his t-shirt and jeans off. Eventually, my mom got to go back to see him. Everyone who was in the ER for our family joined hands again. A chaplain came and moved us to a private waiting room. Church members (both current and former) cycled through to give us hugs and pray. Doctors then began rolling in. My mom was back with us at that point. The doctors needed a full medical history on my dad—what medications was he taking, had he had any recent doctor visits, etc. They were trying to decide the best route to take for their emergency surgery that they were about to do. They told us he had a 50% chance of survival. My mom wept. They told us one arm was severed, and only hanging on by a tendon. They told us they’d have to amputate both legs. They came in again in a couple minutes and said they’d only have to amputate one leg. Then they said his survival chances were 40%. We all sobbed. How could this be real?
The chaplain came and told us that they were about to take my dad into emergency surgery. He told us that we could stand in the hallway and the nurses would roll his gurney by us, and we could say “goodbye.” The odds were not good that my dad would survive the surgery. The chaplain led us, just my mom, my brothers, my future-sister-in-law, and my aunt, down the hall and he closed both doors behind us. I remember hearing awful blood curdling screams and yells coming from a room further down the hall. I asked my mom if that was dad. She assured me it wasn’t.
After what seemed like forever, a gurney came rolling down the hall. Four nurses were pushing the bed. My dad was covered up with sheets, up to his neck. One nurse was pumping breaths of air for him with a purple pump. The chaplain told us my dad woul be able to hear us. The nurses offered encouraging expressions as we each tried to come up with something to tell my dad, to encompass twenty-plus years of life and love. It was hard. I think I could only squeak out “I love you.” My older brother spoke the most. He is so very strong. He told dad that we’d see him later. The nurses pushed the gurney through more double doors to the OR. The chaplain took drink orders from us so he could get us a drink at the Chappy’s Deli in the hospital. We were then led to a much larger waiting room—for surgery waiting.
People filled up the waiting room. They were all there for us. I remember hearing people talk about the price of beef at Winn Dixie. I was furious. I realized that their lives were going to continue on as normal. Ours was forever changed. After hours passed, the doctors came into the waiting room. My mom, brothers, sister-in-law, aunt, our associate pastor, and myself, were taken into a small room. The doctors said they attempted a CT scan, but my dad wasn’t stable enough to finish. So, they had to stabilize him and just perform emergency surgery. They cut him from sternum to right above the groin area. They had no idea what was damaged inside of him, so they had to open him all the way up. He had some broken vertebrae, collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, compound fracture in his right arm which they were able to reattach since it was nearly severed, a fracture in his left arm for which they input an external fixator, a shattered knee cap, multiple broken toes, broken right wrist. He survived. The doctor said “He has a long road ahead of him.” I said “At least there’s a road.”
The next few days, my dad would undergo more surgeries to repair his broken pieces. He was in a medically induced coma for two weeks. He did not open his eyes until two weeks after the accident. My brother’s high-school graduation went on, and my brother did great. Some church members even accompanied my brother to the hospital in his cap-and-gown later on to bring the diploma to show my dad (who was still in a coma).
He stayed in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit for three weeks, and then was moved to a regular room. My mom worked so hard to prepare our house for him to come home. He arrived home via ambulance on May 29, 2009. We had a hospital bed set up in our dining room, and that was his room for months. He had occupational and physical therapy. He had to learn to walk again. In fact, he learned to stand with the assistance of a walker, the very week before my older brother’s wedding. He practiced walking around our living room the day before the wedding. On the wedding, my mom’s brother-in-law (husband of her older sister), pushed my dad (the Best Man) down the aisle in his wheelchair. When my sister-in-law entered the sanctuary, my dad stood up for her walk-in. Afterwards, he sat in his wheelchair for the duration of the ceremony.
A little over three months after that, my dad graduated from his physical therapy, and had me take a picture of him standing in front of the school bus that he was going to get to drive for that year. He propped his right leg (the one with the shattered knee-cap) up on the tire of the bus, and I took a picture and went with him to take it to his physical therapy leaders. For weeks, he’d go back to physical therapy to cheer on the other individuals in there.
On October 3, 2009, my dad walked me down the aisle. No walker, no wheelchair.
It took him years to be able to run.
And I got teary eyed when he told me that this accident took away years from his life.
You might wonder what caused the accident. An 18-year-old and his buddy were riding in their car in the opposite lane as my dad. The 18-year-old needed to make a left-hand turn from the road onto the driveway of his dad’s auto repair shop, and this kid decided to turn right in front of my dad’s oncoming motorcycle. My dad hit the car, and flew feet into the air, and landed on the concrete road. It was a country road, so it took a while for the volunteer ambulance to get there. They knew they needed to life-flight him, but they had to transport him to a nearby church parking lot to give the helicopter somewhere to land. My dad’s friends who were on the bike ride with him saw the whole thing, and it was the male friend who used my dad’s cell phone to call my mom and give her the news that send us all into a whirlwind that day. She thought it was my dad calling her. She answered the phone in a genial manner and said light-heartedly “If I knew it was going to take all day, I wouldn’t have let you go.” Then she realized it wasn’t my dad. This friend would later tell us that dad’s eyes were open after he landed on the road. He was groaning in pain. Fortunately, my dad remembers none of this. He remembers trying to swerve and avoid something coming into his path (the car), but he remembers nothing else waking up in the hospital weeks later.
We are very grateful that my dad doesn’t remember more of what happened. We’re also grateful that he was wearing a full face shield helmet. It saved his life.
Today, my dad can run. He can coach soccer. He can hunt and fish and exercise. He is his happy, jovial self. And we are eternally grateful that God chose to let him stay here with us.
Until Next Time,
Much love, Reba