Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Fountain

What I remember most is the fountain. A column of sparkling particles rose in the bright sunlight and gracefully spread in a shower of glittering splendor before delicately falling back to earth.

It was a beautiful day--clear, warm, calm, a good day for lazy pursuits. I was on my way to visit my grandfather in Western New York, enjoying the scenic ride along Rt. 20. Suddenly, as a reflex, I started to shout an obscenity as my hand pounded the horn and my foot stomped on the brake--the idiot in front of me was stopping abruptly. But almost as soon as I had reacted, I froze--a car from the oncoming lane had swerved into the path of the car in front of me, causing the abrupt stop. Everything changed in that instant. I could no longer hear my voice, still shouting my obscenity, now in mid-word. I couldn't hear the horn blaring, I couldn't hear the tires screaming, and I didn't hear the two cars hit as I watched them crumple in slow motion. My car was skidding to an eventual stop, but I knew I'd never be able to stop in time. I watched the glass fountain slowly rise, catching the sunlight, spreading its misty brilliance, and float back to the ground. The cars continued their dance, slowly bounced apart, and I skidded through the space they created.

I thought my car would never finally stop; it seemed to skid for hundreds of feet for a few minutes, even though I hadn't been traveling fast. My instant impulse after finally reaching the roadside was to jump out and run to help the accident victims. But “jump and run” had a new definition. People performing in underwater ballets move faster. All my strength went into every stride, but every stride seemed to take minutes.

Still, I was the first on the scene, and time returned to its normal pace. The car that had swerved held a college age woman, unconscious, her lip hanging from the half still attached, half her face coated with blood. "I'm drowning" she repeated, barely audible. The other car held a family of four, Mom, Dad, and two children, probably two and four years old. None of them had been wearing seat belts; Mom and Dad were trapped under the dash, and the children had been thrown from the car.

Other people started to arrive on the scene, and Mom woke, "My babies! Where are my babies?" Two of the new arrivals surrounded the children lying motionless on the ground. "People are looking after them," I fudged, not knowing if the children were even alive. "Try to remain calm while the ambulance comes, OK?," I lamely attempted. She agreed, calmed down for just a few moments, and started screaming again. I repeated my attempts to keep her calm, and we continued this cycle for several minutes until the paramedics finally arrived. I walked over to the grass to wait my turn to talk to the Sheriff, sat down, and finally fell apart, shaking violently for several minutes.

Everyone did survive the collision, I finally visited my grandfather, and except for occasional calls from the two parties' lawyers looking for court evidence, I had largely forgotten the incident after a time--except for the fountain--until a few summers ago.

Early one Sunday morning, a rabbit darted into the road just a few feet in front of my car. Again reacting, I slammed on the brakes, instantly spinning the car. Used to years of winter driving, I turned into the spin, but the car was already traveling sideways off the road. Although I wasn't driving fast, I knew I'd never be able to stop before I hit the tree in front of me; I never saw the tree my car hit sideways, just inches behind the driver's seat.

No slow motion this time--everything happened too quickly to follow. Just a second or too passed before an onlooker called 911 and kept me from trying to leave my car, pointing out that my arm was torn open, something I hadn't realized. The paramedics seemed to arrive in under a minute, and insisted, foolishly, I thought at the time, on cutting me out of my car. I calmly answered questions and even joked a little, until finally, in the ambulance, I went into shock. Worried medics hurriedly started IV drips and draped every blanket available over my still shivering body as I turned pale white. Radio conversations with the emergency room staff heralded our imminent arrival. But, several X-rays and a little surgery later, I was on my way home.

It took weeks to fully absorb what had happened. I thought the insurance company too hastily wrote off my car as totaled. I described the event to friends almost as a fender bender. I wondered why I had nightmares, something I hadn't experienced for years. It was three or four weeks before I realized that with a few inches difference, the tree that crushed my back seat would have crushed my skull. I guess that explains why I could barely move--or breathe--for a few months. My sister had taken pictures of my former car the day of the accident and mailed me a set. I finally opened the envelope.

Denial is easy, and human capacity for indulging it is staggering. The clear facts steadily stare, but they're so often invisible. Fountains are like that. They appear solid and still, despite their actual constant motion and nebulous, liquid state. Like fountains, focused will can propel us for a fair distance, but inevitably that originally climbing column will reach its zenith and dissipate in a shower of disintegrated droplets. Obviously life will end for all of us, but we manage to act in daily life as if we will never lose power. But control is an illusion. The fountain is beautiful, but the water supply can be shut off at any moment.


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