I am finding myself magnetically drawn to sharing pictures I took on Saturday evening of the two accidents I was trapped by, for an hour, on I-10. I want to share my thoughts on this magnetic, somewhat morbid, urge, although I haven’t decided whether or not to share the pictures. I am hoping by time I’m done writing this, I will have some clarity on the matter.
May I tell you what happened? This may take awhile, but I hope you find it worth the time you’ll spend reading it.
I was driving from Austin to Houston, a trip which should have taken 3 hours, but took me 6.5 this time. I make the trip regularly, and I often catch myself paying attention to things other than exactly where I’m going.
I was in a creative space until right before these accidents, lolly-gagging and stopping along the way to take pictures. I was busy wondering what was going on inside of me that I’d created the foundations for around 6 poems and essays already on that trip, after creating another one at about 3am that morning. I’m always creative on Friday afternoon, so I was noticing that I was a day late. I was chewing on and processing a large life ah-ha that had unfolded in a text conversation with a close friend that afternoon, making my departure from Austin several hours late, but well worth the delay. And I was making the observation that none of the pieces that I’d just created drafts for were related to that afternoon’s ah-ha, despite realizing already what a pivotal ah-ha this was going to turn out to be. In summary, my day was pretty intense and my attention was quite distracted from my destination, before these accidents happened.
So now it was sunset, the time of day when, even more so than normal, my attention is absolutely, completely riveted on the sky above me, to the exclusion of nearly everything else that isn’t related somehow to it or its reflection.
A minute before the accident, I’d pulled over on the side of the road to take a picture of the sky, as the sun was getting ready to set. It was already beautiful, and I knew it was going to be a good one. I was only pulled over for a few moments before I got back on the road. Very, very soon after I pulled back on the highway, I saw what turned out to be the tail end of a horrible car accident. I witnessed the remainder of the rollover and the car stopping.
I was suddenly aware of car parts, interior content, and debris flying all over the road. I was scared, but somewhere selfish inside me, I saw that I was going to be trapped by this and it would cause a worse delay in my arrival in Houston. So I followed the truck in front of me right off the road, down an embankment, and onto the frontage road. Then I stopped just past the car accident, where I didn’t think I’d be trapped by the ramifications of it.
Quite a few people ran to the car, and the police were there in record time. I did not go over there, and even right then, I knew why I didn’t. I’ve been the primary witness to more fatal car accidents than seems reasonable, and I felt the memories of every one of those sear painfully and immediately in my heart.
Then it occurred to me to do what I always do…take pictures. So that’s what I did.
I have spent a lot of thought cycles trying to figure out my obsession for taking pictures. I am not sure I’m completely clear, but I do know that, at least in part, my pictures are meant to bear witness and help me remember what I’ve done and where I’ve been. And surprisingly often, they serve unexpected purposes beyond what I think they’re going to.
Several realizations have already come from my picture taking on that trip. First, me pulling over may have kept me from being part of the first accident. There is no way to know. And it’s also crossed my mind that perhaps if I HAD been involved, the person who was in the accident would have been more or less impacted than they were. There is no way to know that either.
Second, my pictures are a disturbing combination of the chaos in front of me on the ground, and the beautiful sunset unfolding, a sunset absent of care about what was happening on that ground. I specifically avoided showing the traffic or the accident in the majority of those sunset pictures, as if joining the sky in a desperate attempt to ignore what was happening on the ground and my helplessness to alter its course.
I also wonder sometimes if my picture taking enhances what I’m experiencing, or conversely, helps me avoid being fully present. Repeated pictures of exactly the same thing show there was something far more than a desire to simply record it. Was I trying to force myself to stay focused?
I think in this case, it’s fairly accurate to conclude from the combination of my pictures, intermixed with repeated pictures of the same thing, that I was struggling to fully accept the realities and the possibilities of what was unfolding in front of me. I can see myself giving in to avoiding it, intermixed strongly with a determined attempt to continue facing it.
Third, because I think I need to see it in writing, I want to admit here that I didn’t see the full accident. I remembered pulling off the road for the pre-sunset picture, but I was baffled until last night about why I didn’t see the full accident. I should have; I’d been back on the road long enough. And I was absolutely close enough at the moment I DID begin seeing it, to have witnessed the entire thing.
My pictures cleared up my confusion. My pictures showed me exactly what I was doing when I should have been facing forward. I was taking pictures in my rear view mirror of what I’d just pulled over to take pictures of a moment earlier…the sun beginning its descent behind me. Besides realizing what a close call that created for me, I am significantly dismayed right now at how proud I often am for seeing things others don’t. I am embarrassed at taking compliments, as if I have this talent. Perhaps I do, but the cost of that is missing far more important things I can make no excuse for missing. What a brilliant example of the dangers of looking behind for too long, and at important moments when we are best served facing forward.
I’d like to return to sharing the events of that hour. I was taking pictures of the sky, taking pictures of the first accident. A policeman approached to ask what I was doing. I said “Watching.” Then after a little hesitation, I said “Taking pictures.” Then after a little more hesitation, I added “I have to.” He said “I wish you wouldn’t.” We looked at each other. I said “I wish I wouldn’t either.” Another moment. I added “I won’t take pictures while you’re getting the person out of the car.” He said “Okay”, looked at me a moment later, and then walked away.
I wanted to yell after him, ask him why they weren’t taking the person out of the car, why everyone was standing around, cleaning up the street and talking to each other. But I was too afraid to ask. I reasoned that if the person were dead, they wouldn’t be letting other cars and trucks crawl past the scene would they?
This drew my attention down the road, where I noticed that now there was a gap in the traffic jam caused by the first accident. Then I saw a man had driven down the wrong lane on the frontage road. He stopped in the middle of the road, jumped out and ran toward the policeman who was just talking to me, gesturing wildly towards that gap. The policeman got in his car immediately, racing down the road towards the gap. Soon, emergency vehicles were approaching from many directions.
At some point, another man pulled over on the frontage road, got out and donned his volunteer fireman apparel. I took pictures of him, too, while I worshipped his heroic willingness to approach the mess I imagined he was about to witness.
As I zoomed in on that gap in the jam, I saw there was a second accident. A car was firmly under the body of a semi.
Then I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what to record, what to witness, what I was willing to see. Part of me wanted to drive off, to run. I was in front of the first accident. I could escape. Part of me couldn’t move from what I was already watching; I was back to being nearly frantic because they still weren’t getting the person out of the vehicle from the first accident. And part of me needed to see what had happened down the road. That part won, for several reasons. So I got in my car and went back down the frontage road, now putting myself between the two accidents instead of past the first one. I’d trapped myself in the mess, when I could have escaped.
The vehicle from the second accident was extremely damaged, too. The drivers’ side was completely collapsed, and by all rights, that person should have been injured. Instead, the young man was standing on the side of the road with the driver of the truck, talking to someone on the phone who probably cared deeply about him. He didn’t appear to have a scratch on him, although he was clearly shaken. I wonder if he realizes how another accident was so differently playing out just up the road from him.
A tow truck came and pulled the second car out from beneath the truck. The tow truck, the semi, the police, with the car driver, moved up towards the first accident, but everyone else was still blocked. Then they blocked the frontage road, right in front of me. And that’s when we all found out why no one was pulling the driver from the car. They were injured beyond transport by ambulance to a local hospital. A helicopter came right across that beautiful sunset-filled sky, landing right on the road. They quickly moved the driver to the helicopter, and it headed off in the other direction towards Houston within moments. I continued taking pictures.
Another tow truck came. The drivers from the two tow trucks worked together to get that first accident’s vehicle on that second tow truck. It took some doing, but they got it. I continued taking pictures.
People were free to go. I stayed behind and continued taking pictures. I zoomed in, I zoomed out. I was riveted, immobile. Eventually, I got in my car, compelled by knowing my friend was waiting for me in Houston, and compelled by my hatred of being trapped, which I suspected I would be by all the traffic now in front of me.
The trip didn’t continue problem-free. Outside of Katy, a large number of emergency vehicles were coming down the frontage road. I was now in 6 lanes of traffic, and saw they were all slowing down. I could have exited right when I saw this, but I made the split second decision to stay put, convincing myself there was no way 6 lanes would all be blocked. They were. It took 45 minutes more to crawl 4 miles past another accident, which I was selfishly thankful was cleared by time I got to the place where it’d happened.
Finally, finally, I got to the exit I was supposed to take. I took it…and was so busy being relieved that I distractedly turned the wrong way onto a 4 lane one way road. 4 lanes of headlights glaring at me. 4 lanes of people blaring their horns at me, likely familiar with people like me, not paying attention to where they’re going. I turned safely around, and managed to arrive where I was going, 6.5 hours after I’d left Austin.
It’s been a bit odd since I arrived. That trip exhausted me. It upsets me still, and the pictures I took made it worse, even though I think I needed to see what was in them. At the same time, I feel quite fortunate because I see all the intersections in time and space that could have changed the outcome of this to something way beyond a 3.5 hour delay.
So back to my desire to share these pictures. I do understand it, now that I’ve told this story, now that I’ve thought this through. It isn’t that I need the attention. I can find plenty of other, more pleasurable ways of getting that, if that’s what I seek. I’d rather make you smile than trouble your heart or bring tears to your eyes.
I’m not particularly interested in shocking anyone. I’m guessing my general behavior and attitudes are enough to accomplish that anyways.
I’m not inclined to warn others about what can happen to them if they make a mistake, nor am I in the mood to preach to others about how lucky they are that this wasn’t them. We all know that, don’t we. And we get our own reminders of it all the time, without me pointing it out.
Maybe this story accomplishes a little bit of all of the above reasons…but I think the reason is really a combination of other things.
I believe the reason I want to share them is the same reason I shared the stories of my marriage falling apart, my dad passing away, losing my grandma. I think, even though I wasn’t involved in these accidents, that I was still hurt, jarred, and frightened by them, because of my past, and because of these accidents. I am aware that I am grieving what I saw, with a background of grieving other losses.
I have found it extraordinarily healing to share my stories. Besides finding my own truths by writing them down, I have found sharing lifts the weight of them off of me.
Perhaps I should convince myself it’s not appropriate to share them, but I am a shining example of crossing the boundaries of appropriate without always realizing, and largely without caring about them. Perhaps my selfish desire to find healing is greater than my concern for boundaries of appropriateness, but I know I am not alone in this.
When I reach out to others who’ve share their stories, reading them, telling them I care and I’m thinking of them, I can tell they are grateful that each of us who has done so, is a part of what is healing them, lifting the weight off them, too.
I want to be one of the collective voices that serve as examples of how healing it can be to reach out to a community, even when we don’t always know each of its members well.
I want to be an example of openness when something troubles me, whether or not I can understand or explain why it troubles me, and whether or not this level of sharing is always acceptable to others.
I often say that I think part of what makes us feel isolated, even with all this open communication technology, is that we tend to believe we are obligated to tell everyone everything is okay, when it is not always.
We seem to believe it conveys weakness to open up and admit, to reach out and share. When everyone responds to this perceived pressure by only sharing when things are good and seem positive, or by lying when they are not, we not only succeed in isolating ourselves, but we become a part of the reason others feel isolated, too.
It took me awhile to get to the bottom of my magnetic urge to share the pictures I’ve taken. But I realize now that I’m done writing this, that I am already helped, just by writing and then sharing this story, without sharing the pictures. And I hope if you’ve read this, that my example of being willing to process it, share it out loud, and admit seeking comfort from outside myself, can be an example to you and others in support of what I believe….That it helps us all to do the same.
~ cj 2013.09.16
The picture I’m including here is the one I took in the moments before the accident, when I’d pulled off the road. Did taking this picture keep me from being in the accident? I can’t begin to know.