I want to tell you a story. One that happened to me over 35 years ago. That seems so long ago now, but yesterday it was as fresh as if it had happened just a moment ago…and in a way it did.
One Friday afternoon I got in my yellow VW bug and started out to pick up Sara from the pre-school program she went to twice a week. I lived in West Seattle at the time and the program was up in the Interbay area. It was a good piece of a drive and I always tried to avoid the rush hour traffic both coming and going, as even back in the early 1980’s Seattle’s traffic could be congested if you picked the wrong time to head out on the roads. The new West Seattle bridge hadn’t been built yet. That didn’t come until 1984. There was a smaller drawbridge that got heavy use every day.
There was lots of traffic that afternoon and I guess I was a little more than distracted. My life felt like there were a lot of loose ends unravelling. My mom had just passed away, Sara’s dad and I were in the process of divorcing, I needed to move from the house we had shared, and finding reliable child care for Sara so I could work was an ongoing challenge. That afternoon I was going to pick her up, get us back home and fed before I would drop her off at child care, and then head out to the book store I was working at for the late afternoon and evening shift.
Getting onto the bridge from the left side of the road required looking over my right hand shoulder and then careful merging into a steady stream of traffic. I took my position behind a big sedan and swiveled my head to watch the flow of traffic. There was the gap. It was big enough to join. I put my foot on the accelerator, released the clutch, and started out. Within a second I had plowed right into the back of the sedan. Although I had been hit by another car before, I had never hit a car. Traffic behind us came to a stop. I got out of my car to see the damage. I hoped that the crash had not been hard enough to cause physical injury to the driver in front. I felt jittery and shaky.
The woman who I had just rear-ended got out, too. I told her I was so very very sorry. That it was all my fault. That I hoped she was ok. That I thought she had already merged into traffic. That I hoped her car wasn’t too damaged. That I was going through a divorce. That I was…
She stopped me right there and said, “I know how you feel. I’ve been through a divorce myself. You feel like a freight train has plowed right through you.”
I was crying by then. She looked at the damage to my car. The front trunk was caved in and the right hand fender was right up against the tire, but if it were bent outwards a bit the car would still be drivable. We looked at the back of her car. Nothing noticeable. She remarked that it was an old car, built like a tank, with plenty of bumps and scratches on it already.
“What’s one more?,” she said and gave me a hug. “You’ll be ok.”
We got into our cars and carefully merged into the traffic flow heading back to our separate lives. I have no idea who she was but I have always remembered her kindness to me.
Yesterday, I travelled to the big city for an errand. I was just going to slip in and out…right before rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Traveling south on I-5, the traffic was building by the minute, alternating between moving along moderately in one section, and sudden brake lights in another as cars inched along at a snail’s pace.
Without warning I felt a sharp jolt as my car moved forward without me doing anything. The parcel on the front passenger seat fell to the floor. The windshield wipers were swishing back and forth on the dry window. I had been rear ended. Once I remembered where the emergency blinkers were on the console, I turned them on and motioned to the driver in back of me to join me at the side of the road. I crossed over a lane of heavy traffic, parked, and got out of the car. The young woman who had hit me was out of her car by this time, too. I looked at the back of my car. I looked at the front of hers. I told her I didn’t see anything horrible.
She said, “but there’s a little damage here and…”, and pointed to my rear fiberglass bumper that now had a tiny crack. Honestly I would never have even seen it had she not pointed it out to me.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to contact the insurance company for this. It would raise your rates and probably cost thousands of dollars.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yup. Not to worry.”
And then I told her the story of what had happened to me 35 years earlier. I saw tears in her eyes and gave her a hug and said, “You’ll be ok. Maybe you’ll have the chance to do this for someone else someday.”