12 October 2012
On October 18, 2001 I was driving through Harrisonburg, Virginia en route from Vermont to an art show in Alabama when the steering in my van went out. Hands locked on the wheel, I was trying to keep it between a speeding semi and an abandoned vehicle that intruded into the right lane. The steering wheel jerked out of my hands and the far corner of the front passenger side hit the parked van.
When my van stopped, I looked to my right and saw my little 16 year old dog crushed into the passenger seat...he was limp and unresponsive. I tried to open the door, it was stuck shut...so I brushed the airbag out of the way and climbed out the window, my heart breaking. Probably in shock, I wandered around for a minute then climbed back in, scooped Giggy into my arms and held him until an ambulance arrived. The other dog was miraculously unharmed.
The first ambulance was on a call and could not take me, but they put me in the back and kept me off the interstate. Telling them that Gig was, at best, in shock...I convinced them to give me a blanket for him. The firefighters asked if anyone else was in the van. I said "no" and requested that they get the other dog out, they tried to argue...and lost. When the next ambulance arrived, I insisted they take us to a vet…they knew better than to argue at this point. The EMTs looked at one another then called dispatch to get the number for the nearest vet. Later, Debbie (the vet's wife/office manager) would tell me that Gig was their first patient to arrive in an ambulance with sirens going.
Once the dogs were in good hands, the EMTs said I needed to go to the hospital...I refused to leave my dogs. The vet's wife/office manager, Debbie, chased them into the parking lot: "you can't leave her here!" The EMTs told her they had no choice if I refused to go.
It turned out Gig had a punctured lung and the vet gave long odds for his survival because of his age. In fact, they later told me, they thought he was as good as dead. They just didn't know the Gig. I parked myself on the floor beside his cage and waited. My glasses had flown off in the wreck, so I was blind and everything, including my wallet, had been towed somewhere with the van. Focused on Gig, I didn't even care.
A cop came, took my statement and offered to take me to the van to get my stuff (I had no ID, no money). Shortly after leaving the vet's office, the cop slowed as he approached an intersection. Ahead, a car ran the stop sign and plowed into another vehicle. The cop stopped duty delaying my trip to the van. A little bemused at the irony, I asked if I should walk back to the vet...he nodded. I started walking (nearly blind and probably still shocky), then suddenly realized I hadn't paid attention to where we had driven from. Had there been a turn after we left the vet? Fortunately it was straight up the road.
When I walked in to the clinic, the receptionist got a "deer in the headlights" look and ran to the office. (Later, Debbie would tell me that the receptionist came running into her office and said "SHE'S BACK!"). Later, Debbie took me to the van…and I solemnly faced the damage. It was an amazing twist of fate that I survived. Aside from some bruises and probably a broken pinky finger, I walked away virtually unscathed. After we returned to the vet, I resumed my spot on the floor by Gig...tearfully happy that his tail had thumped weakly when I walked back into the room.
The receptionist had kindly offered me a room in her home…then later, Debbie and Terry (the vet) said that I would be going home with them. I wanted to stay with Gig, though. They said that would mean taking him to an emergency facility that was open all night and would require a credit card. Stubbornly, I replied that it didn't matter, I wanted to stay with my dog. They looked at one another and then told me: okay, he can come home with us. Gig still could not stand, and through the night I had to gently flip him over every so often to take care of his lungs. In the morning Terry took him back to the office…and a little while later he called to say that Gig had taken a few steps, I tearfully laughed and told Debbie "guess we'll have to call him 'dead dog walking' from now on".
Terry and Debbie and their staff showed unbelievable kindness and generosity...they didn't know a thing about me, but they brought me into their home and took care of the dogs and I. Giggy, typically, was a little walking miracle…everyone but me thought he was a goner. Throughout the ordeal, I had not allowed myself to think too much about the costs. I knew it would be high, and well beyond what I could afford...it would go on my credit card and be dealt with later. As I prepare to leave, Terry and Debbie stepped out to say goodbye...I asked about the damages. They said "we spoke with the staff and everyone agreed that you and Gig would be our 'good samaritan' case for the year. There would be no charge.
There were a couple of odd things that happened before this trip even started. Beginning many months before, I was worried about doing this drive alone. I would be taking my paintings and those of my then-husband, but he did not want to go. Over the years I had driven solo hundreds of thousands of miles to and from shows all over the country (including this one several times). Not only did it not worry me...I LOVED it. This one had me inexplicably spooked, though. Finally, I convinced Rob to do a trade...I would shuttle him and his companion from Vermont to Northern Ontario for a canoe trip (it meant two major round-trip drives up there) and in exchange, he would help do the drive to Alabama. I did my part...but we were in a rough place at the time and two days before we were to leave for Alabama, he backed out. Still with a deep "bad feeling" about the trip but unwilling to back out of a commitment, I went solo.
For some reason before leaving, I INSISTED on finding two heavy metal grids, old display panels, to put behind the back seat and prevent paintings from flying forward. Trying to find them was putting me behind schedule, still I searched until they were found. That was weird because I never worried about those things, in fact, I'd never used them...yet was obsessed about having them this time. As it turned out, those grids probably saved me and the dogs. The weight of the paintings against the grids tacoed the back seat, but not a single painting flew forward of them.
Another thing that was odd: I packed my cameras in their bags and stored them under the back seat. Normally, I ALWAYS kept the cameras out and right between the front seats where I could reach them quickly. Had the cameras been in their usual spot…they would have been destroyed.
Lessons from this...trust your gut and listen to your heart. My gut told me over and again that something was amiss...months before I even left. My heart made sure I stayed beside the little dog who had always stayed beside me. Over all my years on the road alone, I had often wondered what would happen if I had a wreck...and here, hours in every direction from anyone I knew, it was the kindness and generosity of complete strangers that got me through.
A couple of other good things that came out of that wreck: The abandoned van? Turns out it belonged to a migrant farm worker who could not afford to have it repaired or even towed…I imagine her insurance check was a pretty welcome surprise, as well. My vehicle? A year earlier, my 92 Toyota had failed (at 250,000 miles). With an important show coming up, I sold my truck and borrowed money from Rob's parents to buy a used Dodge 15 passenger van from a local dealer. It seemed like a good idea at the time...but from day one, I hated that van, it handled badly and was scary to drive. I wanted to sell it, but it wasn't worth anywhere near what was still owed on it. When it was totaled after the wreck...the check allowed me to pay the balance I owed Rob's folks and left some for a down-payment on my 2002 Tundra (which, by the way, has carried me safely for nearly 300,000 miles so far).
The photo of the totaled van is kept out where I can see it...every time I look at it I am amazed that we survived that. I am also reminded of the good things that can come out of terrible accidents and of the kind strangers who rallied around me and a tough little dog with a huge heart.
Giggy, in the copilot seat as always,
one year AFTER the accident...