The Accident

I almost died 7 years ago today. Many people know some of the big-picture details, but I’ve only shared what’s below with family, close friends, lawyers, and my medical team. It’s still a really hard story to tell, but Angelica and I are going to be talking about trauma over the next few months—about the traumas we’ve experienced personally, but also about the fact that everyone has had, or will have, their own personal, private traumas; we’ll also be talking about the collective traumas of violence, hate, and climate crisis we are all experiencing. These stories of trauma—of the terror, anxiety, loss, rage, and also the opportunities for rebirth, connection, forgiveness, and healing that trauma creates—are at the core of our next album, meditations. They are at the core of our identity, and the impetus for who and where we are now.   

This story is far too long for Instagram, so I’ll only be posting it on FB and on a private page of our website that you can find here:  pinkskymusic.com/the-accident 

For those that choose to read it, thank you for taking the time to sit with me for a while. It means the world.   

-Ryan 

                               

* * * 

On Aug 6th 2012, I was driving home from a teacher’s orientation at Olivet College. Angelica was in San Francisco on her first business trip. It was a beautiful, blue-skied summer day, and I was 10 minutes from home when traffic backed up on I-69. I came to a complete stop in my Hyundai Accent and was changing the radio dial. I landed on NPR and was listening to devastating news about a mass shooting at a Sikh temple the previous day.  

In less than a second, with no warning, I was spinning—almost as if my car had turned into a cyclotron. I remember being so confused, so scared. I thought a bomb had gone off, that maybe fighter planes dropped them. It sounded and felt like the end of the world. I didn’t see the truck coming, which has been a blessing and a curse. I don’t have any traumatic scenes of its approach to recall, but I do have a strong, still-lingering fear that a terrible, life-threatening emergency could happen any time, anywhere, totally unexpected or announced. Which is true, and sometimes helpful to remember, but also terrible and debilitating.  

The spinning stopped, and I looked down to find blood on my pants and my left pinky finger dangling by what looked like a thread of skin and tissue. In my rear-view mirror I saw that my forehead was cut and the car seemed smashed. I knew something terrible had happened but wasn’t sure what, so I decided I should stay in my car in case there was another impact. I found my phone and was trying to figure out if I should call Angelica or my parents or the police. 

Before I could call anyone, I heard a man outside my door saying, “you can’t move him . . . c-spine . . . paralyzed” and then a woman exclaiming, “but his car is on fire!” The man said something about waiting for a fire department. The woman opened my door. She was in an army uniform. Despite all my anti-war sentiment, seeing her in that uniform was one of the most comforting experiences of my life. I immediately felt safe, like she was an angel. She said, “Honey, your car is on fire and is going to explode. Can I take you out?” I told her to pull me out.  

She dragged me out and positioned me nearby on the grass so that I couldn’t see what was going on. I told her I needed to call my wife and parents, and that I needed my pinky because I played piano. Another soldier began emergency medical treatment on my head and hand. The sky was so blue, and people were screaming and crying. It smelled like plastic burning. I couldn’t see anything except the blue sky, and it was so hard to breathe. The next thing I knew I was in an ambulance, struggling to breathe, telling the EMT that I couldn’t breathe and also that I played piano and needed my pinky. The truth was that I’d barely played piano in years; I’d left that dream behind for a more practical version of myself. But in that moment, that was who I was again; I needed to talk to my wife and parents and my pinky for piano.  

By the time I got to the hospital, I only knew that there had been a car accident involving a semi-truck. I’d caught a glimpse of the semi, and of my car, which had large flames coming out of it. I’d caught a glimpse of the car that I later learned had merged into my lane right behind me, just a few seconds before impact. It had been almost completely flattened. I later learned the driver of the car died instantly, and his wife suffered permanent brain damage and physical injury. I later learned they were on their way to say goodbye to his father, who passed away that evening.  

In the hospital, I had to wait a couple hours for attention. Several other people were injured more severely than me—at least upon initial examination. They gave me a phone and let me try to call Angelica, but I couldn’t reach her. She was in a meeting, and her phone was off. I kept telling the nurses I couldn’t breathe, and they kept saying I bruised my ribs and maybe broke them. To hold tight. I knew I was hurt, but I also thought I was okay. And then it got really hard to breathe and I started to fade. I remember a bunch of commotion and then nothing until I was in a different room, and a doctor was leaning over me. He said, “Ryan you’ve been in an accident and you are bleeding internally. We need to open you up and figure out what’s going on.” I started to cry, and I asked him if I was going to be okay. He said, “We’ve got our best doctors here, but I want to be honest with you. There’s a chance you might not make it, and if you do, you may be missing some organs.” I’m still not sure why he told me that. I started to fade, likely from shock and panic. I heard things like “colostomy” and “emergency” and “phone call” and “wife.”  

As they rushed me down the hall, someone handed me a phone to try and call Angelica one last time before I went under. Her phone was still off. I thought I was going to die without saying goodbye. I was put into another room and my dad came running in crying, and that’s when I lost it. I’d never seen him so afraid. I’d never been so afraid. And then I went into surgery.  

No one was able to reach Angelica for hours. Once she turned her phone on, she had missed something like 80 calls and almost as many voicemails. I was in surgery by then, and no one knew if I was going to make it. She hopped on the first flight home, thinking the whole time she might be coming home a widow, and that she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. The two year anniversary of our wedding was only a week away. We still feel the impact of this, regularly. It’s so hard to leave each other even for day trips.  

I was given a second miracle that day, the first being the national guard convoy that had just happened to be several cars ahead of mine—that many soldiers immediately used their training and compassion to pull me from my car. I wasn’t the only one they saved. The second miracle came from the surgeons. They removed almost all of my intestines from my abdomen, spread them out on a table, and stitched back together the numerous lacerations. My airbag hadn’t deployed, and my seatbelt had restrained me so effectively that the lower belt lacerated many internal body parts, including my mesenteric artery, intestines, and mesentery. My head had smashed the steering wheel and given me a minor TBI and some serious neck and shoulder problems. I later learned that my left pinky had caught on the steering wheel as my car spun, and the momentum and power had ripped it nearly clean off my hand—and that this is surprisingly common.  

Despite all that, I woke up in better shape than even the surgeons expected. After several hours of surgery, they were able to drain the blood, stitch my artery, and repair all my organs. My hand would be operated on in a few days, once I’d recovered more. Even the hand surgery went better than expected. He said he was proud of the work he’d done on my hand, that it was some of his finest work ever. He’d impressed himself, but that the recovery really depended on how seriously I approached physical therapy. I told him that I played piano, that I would work hard to get back to normal. He told me that I’d probably regain 50% functionality in my pinky, and about 75% in my left hand. I’d say today I’m at about 80% for both.  

Shortly after the accident, on a day when I was really struggling, my dad said something like, “You gotta understand, everyone thought you were going to die that day, Ryan. But you didn’t. You were given another chance. You’re in the bonus round.” I return to this scene often, when I’m struggling, and in it I find the strength to be grateful. Although everyone struggles, not everyone is given that gift. 

And so began the struggle between gratitude and physical and emotional pain. We’d moved back to Michigan only three weeks prior and were living at a friend’s house in Lansing while we looked for our own place. Because of that, we had no medical team set-up. No family doctors. Because we didn’t have a network, it took several months to find a doctor who would see me. For months, every doctor I tried to see denied me, stating something along the lines of “auto billing is too complicated.” I was forced to return to the ER and see my initial surgeons far longer than appropriate for either of us. Fortunately, my hand surgeon was able to get me into PT within a month of surgery, and I worked on rehabilitating my hand for several hours every day for over a year.  

The first six months, I couldn’t do much except lie on the couch. If I made it to a different room on my own, that was a huge success. Angelica became caretaker and sole income earner. Within 6 months, my insurance company began refusing to pay for services—including my ambulance—and fighting against my prescribed treatment. Doctors became frustrated with the billing of my case and dropped me as their patient. Our medical debt piled up, and we were only able to scrape by because our families were able to help us financially. Ultimately, I had to sue my insurance company in order to get them to pay. Despite winning the lawsuit almost a year later, they still were only forced to partially pay my medical debt. And they have fought paying for service since then, despite Michigan law mandating auto-insurance companies are legally obligated to cover all serious accident-related medical expenses for life.  

Our best friends and family came to our aid like the heroes they are. During the first year, they were all we had; there was almost no institutional support. Angelica and I learned so much about ourselves that year—especially about Angelica’s strength. We learned about the fragile nature of identity. We learned that many of the things we’d thought were important simply weren’t. And we learned of the necessity and power of community.  

During this time, I was essentially just a patient and a victim trying to be neither, but I had no other identity markers—no occupational fenceposts upon which I could present my identity to the world. I’d lost my means of expression and of spiritual healing in the accident, too. I couldn’t play piano or guitar, and I was far too raw to write poetry or prose that didn’t tailspin me. I became severely reclusive apart from going to the doctor or PT nearly every day. Day by day, I was losing myself. I couldn’t handle facing people—especially new people— and having them ask me the two most common, benign questions: “how are you?” and “what do you do?” The answers to both were far too difficult and depressing for me to share honestly.  

Oonce I was cleared for light-duty, I was no longer the same person. I tried to go back to teaching, but I couldn’t be the teacher I’d prided myself to be. My plan of continuing onto a PhD was destroyed. And I’d started to transition from being grateful I was alive to being overwhelmingly depressed, scared, and angry. I was so confused. I knew I wasn’t myself anymore but I didn’t know who I’d become.  

I think we each have an emotional reservoir inside that, when we’re healthy, is about half-full; there’s enough room for our own emotions and the emotions of others. Having that space inside for others is the wellspring of compassion. After the accident, my reservoir was continuously overflowing. I couldn’t go a day without breaking into tears or panic. I had no room for other people’s emotions or states; I could barely handle my own. How was I supposed to teach writing? And yet I needed to work. Because we needed the money, Angelica also had to continue traveling for business 1-2 weeks per month, which forced her to revisit her side of the trauma—the fear of leaving and losing me. Insurance still wasn’t paying my medical bills, which were ongoing.  

Despite initially protesting it, we’d also decided to join all the other survivors in a class-action lawsuit against the truck driver’s insurance company, which meant week after week in depositions, hearings, and lawyer offices. Week after week became three years. During that time, it was impossible to find closure, to move forward, to really address the emotional and psychic damage that had been done. We were stuck in a loop of retelling the story of the accident, defending everything that happened on that day and since.  

After three years of this, I was a shell of my former self. I was more lost than I’d ever been, in part because the tools that I’d previously used to find solace and find my way seemed inaccessible. Near the end of the third year, though, Angelica encouraged me to try painting—just for fun, no expectations, just something to do together. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with painting. It started to free me emotionally, and I felt “myself” coming back.  

Between 2015 and 2016, I completed over 100 paintings. I couldn’t stop. The process was transformative and emotionally healing. It enabled me to return to music, and it gave me the courage to (finally) start sharing my work. In 2016, I began writing simple waltzes on piano. Right around that time that Angelica, seeing how much fun I was having, asked if she could play along with me. She got a Korg Volca Beats and Sample, and she started making house-inspired beats. My waltzes began to shift into 4/4, and within only a few weeks, we’d written the main parts of the songs we now call “Breathing,” “Indoors,” and “Outdoors.”  

Although much of what I’ve relayed is crazy, terrible, etc etc . . . it is also only part of the story. The full story includes Angelica’s stories of trauma—about the accident, and about her own trauma which began a couple years after the accident. The full story is that each of us has a story of trauma—some more and some less extreme, some that are just starting, just ending, and some that haven’t even begun yet. I have a hard time believing that anyone can escape trauma—even those who seem well insulated. Life is beautiful, but also difficult, short, and fragile.   

I will never know why the accident happened. I only know that the semi-truck struck the vehicle behind me at 74 mph—that no brakes had been applied prior to impact. I was told the truck driver had 4 cellphones in his car, but they were locked. He was a Canadian citizen and was able to return to Canada after being released from police custody. Lawyers were unable to extradite him or any gain access to the cellphones or contents of the vehicle. And within a year, while lawyers and detectives were still trying to figure out what happened, the driver passed away from leukemia.   

I never received an apology, and I was never able to tell him I forgive him. That the accident was the worst thing that ever happened to me, that I still struggle with too much fear and anger because of it, and also that the accident was the impetus for many of the best parts of my life now. And he never got to offer an explanation or to apologize.  

When I'm struggling nowadays, I still try to remember that I'm in the bonus round. That life is short and difficult but also beautiful. I also try to remember that I'm not alone. Anyone who has been through some shit and decided to work through it, to embrace their new/old-self, they are in the bonus round, too.