Rounding the tight curve, I'm swallowed by a cloud of caliche dust. Bulldozers are devouring the hillside next to me, bite by bite, along with the cedar and oak trees that once called it home. The highway department has decided to straighten this serpentine section of FM 1431 north of Austin.
I watch the wasting of the hill with mixed feelings. I hate seeing trees cut down. And I love this roller-coaster road leading home to Lago Vista. I used to tense at every curve and dip, wondering what came next. But now its course is ingrained in my memory. Each curve loosens coils of tension wound by Austin traffic, all left behind at the first big drop, where miles of cedar-covered hills appear before me like a rumpled green chenille bedspread.
My husband, Tom, almost died on that first curve.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day 1998, he arose early for work to beat the traffic. His kiss goodbye woke me. I mumbled, "I love you."
"Love you, too. Go back to sleep."
It seemed only minutes later a ringing shattered my dreams. I fumbled with the phone, finally getting it to my ear. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Shallue? This is Susan from Brackenridge Hospital. Your husband is here; he was in an accident this morning."
Her words, like ice water, jolted me awake.
She continued. "He's alert, but he has some pain, and there's a bad cut on his face that will require surgery." Panic swelled inside me, but I had no time for it now.
I called our friends Jim and Liane, asked them to watch the kids. Within five minutes they were at the door.
Telling the kids was hard. Tommy, 12, and Daniel, 9, mirrored my calm mask. But 6-year-old Kendall sobbed questions as I held her: Was Daddy hurt bad? When would I be back?
When I finally reached the hospital parking garage, the first level was full. And the second. Blood pounded in my ears, faster and faster with every loop I rounded, desperate for a space. Precious minutes were escaping. At last I found one. Hurrying through the labyrinth of corridors to the emergency room, I was directed toward a waiting area. Susan approached, introducing herself.
"They've just taken him for CAT scans, but you can see him in a few minutes. Restrooms are through there." Walking into the restroom, I glanced in the mirror. How could I look so normal? Chaos reigned inside me.
Returning to the waiting room, I noticed a red-haired woman, who looked familiar, sitting with a teen-age girl. The woman left. She soon returned, her eyes filled with tears but a smile on her face. She grabbed the girl's hands. "He's in intensive care. He's got some broken ribs, but he's gonna be OK!"
I wondered about their story, who their "he" was.
It hit me that I knew nothing about Tom's accident. When Susan came back, she told me another car crossed into his lane on FM 1431 hitting him head-on. The other driver was in intensive care.
I picked up a magazine and tried to read, but whirling thoughts consumed me. Soon Susan returned: Tom was heading to surgery. I could see him in pre-op.
"Remember, he has a nasty cut to his face. Prepare yourself."
Weaving my way through the halls, I saw him ahead of me, lying on a gurney. His eyes peeked above a large piece of gauze. When he spotted me, tears welled in his eyes, overflowed and trailed through matted blood near his ears. His hands grasped mine. "I'm sorry," he told me, the gauze muffling his voice.
I smiled and touched his head. "I'm just glad you're still here." Gelled blood oozed into his eyes from the cut. Grabbing a sterile pad, I dabbed at it as much as I dared, feeling a need to help him, fix him. I could see the beginning of the gash at the top of his nose; it was about a half-inch wide before it disappeared under the gauze.
As the nurses prepped him, they were careful to lift the covering away from me, trying to protect me from the sight, I guess. I was grateful. How could I keep smiling if I actually saw how bad he looked?
Tom's knees and arms were gouged, bleeding. He complained that his foot hurt. Surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses came and went, introducing themselves, explaining things, asking questions. I held Tom's hand, petted his head, wiped the blood away from his eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes, now swollen. Yellow. The cut ran close to his left one. The plastic surgeon told me he could lose sight in it or have nerve damage, even paralysis, in his face. Before I was ready, they took him away.
A nurse led me to another waiting room and assured me I'd be called when the surgery was over. All the chairs angled toward a TV anchored in the corner, offering an escape from our worries.
I rushed into the restroom, locked myself in a stall and let the tears flow. Sob after sob burst from my body, mingled with babbled prayers: Why? It's not fair. Tom's such a good man. Please let him be okay.
After splashing cold water on my face, I went back to the waiting room.
Our parents took turns watching the kids so I could be with Tom. Friends and co-workers streamed in and out, bringing magazines, snacks, even a TV/VCR and some movies. An Energizer bunny was clasped to Tom's bed, reminding him to "keep on going."
Advice poured in, also. My heart raced just thinking of all the hassles to come.
I couldn't leave Tom during those first days filled with so many details: keeping his morphine shots on time, a supply of ice chips handy to soothe his throat, his nose pad changed when it filled with blood. Besides the gashes on his face, arms and knees, he had a broken left hip, a broken right foot and bruises everywhere. At night I slept in snatches on a reclining chair, tuned to every muscle he moved, concentrating on the sound of his breathing.
Nurses helped me scrub the blood from his face and hair and get him into a wheelchair for his first shower. I steered him into the huge tiled room, but he insisted on bathing himself. Tilting his head back, he invited the hot water to splash onto the angry red scar diving his face.
Rumors drifted in about the driver of the other car, a teenager with a history of trouble.
One day I noticed the redhaired woman heading into the room next door. My curiosity aroused, I started hanging around the doorway, eavesdropping. I overhead a boy's voice saying, "When I tried to turn, the car just kept sliding. I tried to steer between two cars, but I knew I was going to hit one." He remembered telling an EMT to "tell that guy I'm sorry."
Was this the kid? A friend came to visit who brought balloons and confirmation: The boy next door was the driver. He was her son's friend. She brought balloons for him, also. She said his mother had been looking for us.
I was apprehensive. Tom, normally such a sweet man, had been raging about the person who had hit him. How would this affect him? And what about me? My husband, my children's father, had almost been taken from me. Could I feel sympathy for this boy?
When the mother appeared later, she apologized. She showed us pictures of their car, assured us they had insurance and told us her son's story: he had graduated Friday, turned 18 Monday and had been celebrating all night. He had just taken his girlfriend home. Hurrying back to Lago Vista, he didn't slow down enough for the curve, despite a misty rain. He was cited for speeding.
I felt her pain; I'm a mother. Making all the right nods and sounds of sympathy, I waited for Tom's reaction. He listened quietly, then shrugging, granted her absolution: "Well, that's why they call them accidents."
The young driver soon hobbled over to meet Tom, despite seven broken ribs, and a punctured lung and liver. It would be a long time before Tom could walk unaided, and that just didn't seem fair. But Tom was gracious. He told the kid, "I just hope you learn from this; then it's not all for nothing."
I wished I could be so forgiving. I remembered instances of my own reckless teenage driving, but knowing it was a miracle that I had never caused an accident like this myself didn't uproot the bitterness in my heart.
The time came when I could leave Tom in Mama's hands. I needed to clean out his car. It felt strange leaving the freezing-cold hospital and re-entering the world of sunshine and summer heat.
The wrecker driver, Jay, met me at the yard, unlocked the gate and pointed out what was left of Tom's Plymouth Colt. I had steeled myself for the sight, detaching my emotions from the task at hand. Snapping pictures from every angle, I pretended I was Nancy Drew, sleuthing to solve the mystery of Tom's broken bones and bruises. The car's nose on the driver's side had been squished into the dash, ramming it against Tom's chest, bending the steering wheel into a right angle I found myself loving this little car, a martyr that had sacrificed itself to shield my husband. Broken glass and plastic shards mingled with Tom's stuff inside, including blueprints of the dream house we were going to start building this summer. Ants had already started cleaning up the bloodstains. Could he actually lose that much and still be alive?
Jay helped me bag up the junk. It was hard to tell trash from treasure. Probing under the seats, I ended up with dried blood speckling my arm and was dripping with sweat by the time I finished. But I felt happy. Seeing the car made me realize again just how lucky I was that Tom was even alive.
"Say, is your husband missing a tooth?" Jay asked. "There's one stuck in the steering wheel."
Sure enough, there it was, wedged in the padding. Wrapping it in tissue, I tucked it in my purse. Thanking Jay and patting the car again, I headed back to Tom.
Tom couldn't find any gaps in his teeth. We showed it to the plastic surgeon when he came in to remove the splints and packing from his nose.
"That's not a tooth. It's a piece of bone. Probably nose."
One afternoon my parents brought the kids to visit their father. They waited in the visitors' lounge while the physical therapist helped Tom into a wheelchair. As I pushed him through the door, they rushed to hug me, then gently hugged and kissed their dad. I noticed his eyes didn't light up when he saw them as they usually did. And he didn't smile. I realized he hadn't smiled since the accident. I hoped it was just his pain medicine, not nerve damage, or worse, spirit damage.
I pictured another Tom, 17 years younger, sitting next to me at a table in Gilley's waiting for Alabama to start playing. Although we'd met just the night before, he seemed like an old friend; his smile was quick and warm, crinkling the corners of his eyes, shining through them like a cloudless sky. You could tell his face was used to that smile, that it was what it wore most of the time. It wasn't just an ornament but a vision of his soul, of his heart, and I started falling in love with him that night. Two weeks later we were engaged. A year later we were married.
I prayed the wreck didn't steal that smile.
Homecoming day finally arrived, and friends had filled our house with casseroles, salads and desserts. I didn't have to cook for weeks. My parents stayed with us awhile, helping with the house and kids so I could concentrate on Tom. But true to his old self, he refused to be babied. A Scoutmaster, he insisted on riding along for the first day of Boy Scout summer camp, a three-hour drive; parents scrambled to take his place the rest of the week.
Needing work transportation, Tom fought vertigo and the summer heat radiating from the driveway to replace the steering-gear box on his old diesel truck, assisted only by Tommy.
At the end of July he headed back to work. I worried about him but had to let him go. His accident was a split-second in time we couldn't have predicted or prevented.
I wondered how he felt driving around that curve again. At first I imagined the accident each time I rounded it. But time paints over pain: one day I realized I had passed the site without thinking of it.
Our lives fell into the same old comfortable ruts, although the wreck did throw a few hurdles in our path, like medical bills, and insurance and lawyer hassles. We now have expertise we hope never to use again. And our house still isn't built. But we learned to appreciate each day as a gift. Whatever comes, God will carry us through. I pray the accident has made the teenager a better driver and that the memory of Tom's accident guides my babies when they start driving.
A survey team is setting up on the next bend, planning the future generic road.
I picture Tom's scar, now barely noticeable. It winds like this road from between his eyes down the side of his nose, through his lips to the dimple on his chin. When I trace it with my finger, he kisses the tip and smiles. I'll miss these curves, but at least his lost smile returned, a little crooked, a little slower, but still crinkling his eyes and lighting them up, along with my heart.
Written by Barbara Wilson Shallue, copyright 2000, all rights reserved. Originally published March 5, 2000 in Texas magazine, a publication of the Houston Chronicle.