When I look back now, eighteen months later, at our horrendous car crash, it seems so far away, so surreal. But the harsh reminders are suddenly there. My older brother’s scars, jagged lines across his muscled chest and stomach, and also running down his spine. Still my hero, so brave in his suffering, never a word of complaint during his long healing process. My mother’s stiff neck and hole marks on her brow from her “halo” brace, used to heal her broken neck (what a nice name for such a painful contraption!).
One moment my parents and two older brothers, Scott and Tyler, and I were carefree and traveling along a remote country road on the second-to-last day of our family vacation in Australia, my stepdad cracking a joke, hilarious as usual. Everyone relaxed from just playing tennis. The next moment, we’re violently hit head-on by a speeding car. The sound of crashing metal, then everything is still, my family all moaning in pain, smoke in the air, no one seems to be able to move. In a haze, I try to open the van’s side door but can’t. My stepdad groans and rolls out, blood is everywhere, my mom is not moving, shouts to get out of the van, my eldest brother Scott whimpers in agony that he can’t move (broken pelvis and nose), but Tyler, thirteen, an incredible athlete, miraculously moves to the front seat and crawls out, now lying in a fetal position by the side of the hot, dirt shoulder of the road, moaning in intense pain (back broken in three places, severed stomach and severe intestinal injuries, severed leg arteries). Finally I jump out of the driver’s door and see the smoking car that hit us and it seems to be on fire, with an older man trapped inside.
What to do? My parents are now both shouting for me to get help, I am the only one who can move. Me, the kid brother, the out-of-it one, suddenly called upon. I have no choice. A lonely country road, I can see no one and no houses. The van is demolished, the other car is crushed, with smoke coming from it. Suddenly I run, yelling “Help, help” until I find a house. Part of me wants to rest and make it go away. Two men and a woman come outside. They are kind and phone for help (they visit me later in the hospital). Fortunately, an ambulance arrives from close by, and soon a helicopter comes for Tyler, who is in serious trouble. Another courageous man, luckily just driving by, rescues the trapped and injured man with a crowbar.
My mother’s neck is broken, so close to paralysis, but she is going to be OK and is taken by helicopter to Brisbane, three hours’ drive away. Tyler and the rest of us are in the Lismore Base Hospital. He is in critical condition. They stabilize his broken back and work on his insides, removing thirty percent of his intestines. His leg circulation is bad, and many skilled doctors work to save his foot and toe. My aunt and uncle fly in from Singapore. My aunt talks endlessly to a semi-conscious Tyler and holds his hand. He thinks she is my mother, their voices so similar. It is wonderful to have healthy family looking out for us. The doctors and police say we are lucky to be alive; seat belts and air bags saved us. I say a few awkward prayers for Tyler, he is the cool, free-spirited one, now lying powerless in his hospital bed, linked up to all sorts of monitors, while I play endless video games. My bruises and headaches heal quickly. I try hard not to think of the natural athlete, the graceful snowboarder, triple-long-jumper and effortless back-flip diver, without a foot or his toes. I run from room to room telling each person how the other is doing. It is a strange feeling when your “together” parents and brothers are helpless and you’re fine. I imagine my mother lonely and frantic with worry about Tyler, and away from us. She is the one who insisted that we buckle up, immediately, after each of the many stops of our three-week trip, and now she is separated from us. Later, my dad arrives from Canada to be by Tyler’s side.
My mom, heavily sedated, is mistakenly put in the overcrowded female “dementia” ward of a public hospital with one woman named Ivy, who is over 90, who never stops talking and thinks she is having a baby. Yes, there is some humor, even in tragic moments.
All I can say to anyone who has been in a car crash is that my heart goes out to you. It is a numbing and mind-boggling experience. It is best to focus on the positive things. There are many, and we’re grateful to be alive, and that my baby sister Caleigh wasn’t with us. She was left home with my grandmother, because she was too young to really enjoy what my mom called a more macho trip.
And yes, Australia is a wonderful country for a family vacation. We combined my interest in nature and my older brothers’ interest in sports and adventure. We started in beautiful Sydney, saw its impressive aquarium and zoo, and then on to the Blue Mountains, where we hired a biologist for a nature tour, saw wild kangaroos and leaned over the steep cliffs looking down into the ancient forest. We went to an ecological mountain retreat in the rain forest— no phones or TV—and night-time nature walks to see the fascinating animal life. We absailed down a beautiful cliff and explored remote nature caves and trails. We drove up the Gold Coast. My brothers went bungee-jumping. We took a huge ferry over to an island near the Great Barrier Reef, and went scuba diving and snorkeling. We all learned so much and enjoyed Australian hospitality, including on a macadamia nut farm where we stayed on the night before the accident. The owners looked out for us after the accident.
Once Tyler is out of critical condition, he is helicoptered to Brisbane for his specialized back surgery. He is part Australian now, with three titanium screws in his back. I vividly remember my mom, dad and stepdad around Tyler’s bed, each massaging a different foot and hand, telling amusing stories to keep his spirits up. We are staying at a nearby fancy hotel, waiting for Tyler. I sigh every time my parents and Scott drop anything because I am the healthy one and I have to pick it up. My mother’s metal neck brace is awkward for her, and my stepdad is on crutches, with a broken foot, broken ribs and a damaged knee. Scott is in a wheelchair until his pelvis heals. Somewhat moody is a good way to describe our spirits for our hotel stay. We hire a wonderful masseuse, who comes each day to ease our aches and comes to the hospital to massage Tyler’s toes and feet. She gives Tyler a didgeridoo as a present.
We are all closer together as a result of the trip, even including the accident.
After Tyler came home and could walk without crutches and returned triumphantly to school, my mother arranged for us to see a psychologist who deals with accident victims, especially for Tyler. Initially, we all had said we were fine and didn’t really need to go, but as it turns out we all had important things to say. Ironically, we each separately said the accident hadn’t really affected us, but had affected another member of the family. My mother was worried that Tyler might become too adventurous and try to grow up too fast. Like life could end any time, so why not go for the gusto—but rushing through adolescence is not a good idea either. When you are young, you think you are invincible. Now, my philosophy is to enjoy each day and don’t take life for granted. It sounds like a cliché, but I know now that life and family are truly precious.
Oh yes, and things are relatively normal again. Tyler picks on me regularly, girls are still crazy about him, and he and Scott snowboard with ease and style, and he gets acupuncture and special vitamins. My mom is telling us even more how much she loves us, and to look out for one another, and everyone still tells lots of jokes and funny stories.
C’est la vie, together.