On My Own - Excerpts
[Some events of our lives loom larger than others. My auto accident in 1971, when I was 25 years old, is just such an event. While that accident is indelibly imprinted on my memory, it’s simply one more thing in my life that doesn’t make the cut with the themes of the sequel to “Primary Lessons:” grief, loneliness, coming of age and sexual identity. So, I offer this recollection to you as a way to help me shed the weight of that memory. I’ve learned to live with the injuries I incurred that day. I’m grateful I did not die.]
It’s about noon, on one of those bright, blue-sky days that sometimes come in late March when you can almost feel spring popping out. Deanna and I are on our way to a cheap, Saturday matinee downtown – one of those blaxploitation flicks starring Pam Greer. I love those movies! I’m still driving the yellow VW Bug I bought a year ago to take me back and forth to the University of Maryland in College Park. I chose yellow because it’s such a small car that I wanted to be sure that other drivers would see me on the road.
As I maneuver through a familiar left turn at Perring Parkway and McClean Boulevard, a big, dark blue car swoops over the hill toward me. I immediately realize that I can’t get out of its path in time and scream, just before it hits me. Mercifully, I lose consciousness.
Moments later, I open my eyes, but realize that I can’t see out of my left eye. Is it gone? Instinctively, I raise a leather-gloved hand toward it. Relief floods me as I feel the bulge of my eyeball still beneath its lid. As long as it’s there, I console myself, they can fix it. I move my hands and arms gingerly. Both legs refuse to budge. My uninjured eye notes that there’s glass everywhere and that my right thigh bone is bent in the middle - broken.
“What happened?” Deanna asks from the passenger seat.
I lean back against my seat and answer, “We’ve had an accident.” I’m surprised by my calmness and how time seems to be moving so slowly. “Are you okay?”
“My arm hurts. And there’s blood in my mouth,” she says.
A uniformed state trooper slowly opens my car door and leans in toward me. “I’m a police officer. Are you alright?”
“I guess we had an accident, huh?” I ask. “Is anybody else hurt?”
“You seem to be the worse off,” the officer says, as he begins to wrap strips of gauze around my face.
“Why are you bandaging my face?” I ask.
“Because you've got a few cuts and I don't want you to get blood all over that pretty suit,” he answers.
It's serious, but at least I'm not dead. In that brief instant when I realized the car was going to hit me, I was afraid I was going to die. I remember screaming, but I don’t remember the collision. Or breaking the windshield with my face or being thrown under the dash-board.
I hear the familiar warble of ambulance sirens. They grow closer, then stop. I reach over to the passenger seat. It’s empty. They’re taking care of Deanna first, I think. They’ll get to me next. I feel no urgency or panic, just calmly observe myself, as if from outside my body. Again, blackness descends. I awake when a silver haired white man at my side rouses me and says, “I’m a doctor. I was driving by and saw the accident. “I’m going to start an I.V. line so they can give you some fluids.”
“Thank you for stopping,” I say. A needle pricks my arm.
“Are you in pain?” he asks.
“As long as I don’t try to move, nothing hurts,” I say, “but there’s glass in my eyes. Can you please take it out?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t have instruments to do that, but as soon as you get to the hospital, they’ll take care of it. Close your eyes and the pieces won’t move around so much.”
I close my eyes and try to cry, hoping tears will wash the glass out. No tears come. Instead, I float like a dingy in a stormy sea. The overhead whoosh of helicopter blades, and loud voices arguing back and forth awaken me. An EMT is taking my pulse. “I00 over 60,” he calls out. “Let’s get her out of here.”
“We got here first, she's ours! A doctor's got I.V.'s going and everything's under control. We don't need you, so get that noisy piece of metal out of here!”
“No!” booms a voice hovering above me. “That's not the issue. It makes more sense for us to take her to the shock-trauma unit downtown. They're designed to handle accident victims like this. Your local emergency room isn't. Let us put her in the chopper, she'll be better off.”
This dispute takes place between the local county fire department rescue squad and a recently activated Emergency Helicopter Rescue Unit. “Stop this arguing,” someone yells. “I'm in charge of this accident, and it looks like they've got everything under control down here. This doctor agrees that the local medical center can handle it, so head that chopper back to home base, and let them get this girl to the hospital.”
“Okay,” answers a voice in the chopper, “but if she dies, it's on you.”
“Be careful,” I say. “My right thigh is broken . . . and my left ankle. My left knee hurts too.” I touch my hand to my sternum. “And it hurts here.”
“We’ll be careful,” he says. They put an inflatable support around my ankle, stabilize my thigh and lift me out onto a stretcher. Excruciating pain hammers me and several times while they work on removing me, I pass out. Each time, I struggle back into consciousness, as if afraid to sink into the warm valley of darkness which tries to swallow me. As they slide my stretcher into the ambulance, I ask, “Could someone get my purse from the car, please? It has my insurance card in it.”
All through the ambulance ride to the hospital, it feels as if I’m being dragged bodily across rocky terrain. Each jarring movement sends spasms of pain through my legs and chest. Periodically, the ambulance driver curses, and warbles his siren. I wish he wouldn’t. Its shriek tortures my mind as badly as the movement of the ambulance tortures my body. The medic sitting beside me keeps a running conversation going with the driver about conceited bastards who think they're better at rescue than regular emergency teams because they fly choppers. “We got there first, so she was ours. What the fuck made them think they were gonna get her? Hot shot fly boys, always trying to take over!”
Fly-boys? What are fly-boys? Angels? Were angels after me? Maybe I’m hallucinating? Or dreaming? No, this can’t be a dream. Everything’s too vivid. If I were dead, I wouldn’t be hurting so badly. “Where are you taking me?” I ask the medic.
“Greater Baltimore Medical Center,” he answers. “You’ll be fine once we get there.”
Just as the ambulance comes to a stop at the entrance to the emergency room, I surrender to the pain and the comforting darkness.
He was wrong. Things grow worse at the hospital. When they transfer me from the ambulance stretcher onto the exam table, the pain is so bad I once again black out. When I awake, a nurse is snipping at my pants leg.
“You don’t have to cut off my clothes,” I say to her. “I’ll sit up so you can pull them off.”
“No, honey, we don’t want you to move until we determine whether you have internal injuries. Anyway, there’s blood on everything. You won’t be able to wear these clothes again.”
I lie still while she snips straight up the flared legs of my favorite pants suit, a rust-colored tapestry-like fabric, with a subtle east-Indian print. She slits open the top and both sleeves. With a final flourish, she cuts off my bra and panties.
“What are you putting in me?” I ask a nurse tending the IV pole beside my stretcher. “It’s so cold.”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood, and we’re replacing it.”
“Can you heat it before you give it to me?”
She laughs softly. “Wish we could, but that’s against protocol. I’ll get you a warm blanket.
As she covers me with a soft, warm blanket, she says, “You had a card in your wallet listing Constance Sullivan as the person to call in an emergency.”
“That’s my sister who lives in DC,” I say.
“Oh, good. We called her, and she said she’ll be here as soon as she can.”
“But she doesn’t drive.”
“Don’t worry,” she says as she pats my shoulder. “I’m sure someone will bring her. You need family with you at a time like this.”
Family. I feel as if I haven’t had family since Mama died. Connie’s my oldest sister, but our relationship isn’t exactly sisterly. She’s ten years older than I am, and ever since Mama died, she’s tried to act like she’s my mother – something I refuse to let her do. One mother was more than enough for me. Even though I'm the youngest in my family, I'm the strongest. Mama always said that I was born old. I can’t imagine what Connie will say when she gets here. One thing I know is that there’s nothing she can do. I drift in and out of consciousness, and hours seem to pass between events. Different doctors come in, poke me, and ask questions. The only constant is a blond teenager who stands beside my gurney, holding my right hand. She tells me that she’s a student at Towson State College, and that she’s a candy-striper in the emergency room. She becomes my lifeline to reality. Pain makes you realize how alone you really are.
Finally, they roll my stretcher down a hall and into a room where a fancy metal contraption that slides and rotates on noisy ball bearings hovers above a table. When someone calls for orderlies to help move me, I scream, “Don’t move me! It’s hurts too much.”
“But, they need to take X-rays,” my candy-striper says. “They think you’ve ruptured your spleen.”
“Don’t they have a portable X-ray machine?” I ask.
She shakes her head. While they move me onto the cold table, I squeeze her hand, as if it will numb the pain.
“I have to step outside while they take the X-ray,” the candy striper says as she un-peels my fingers from hers. “But I’ll be back as soon as it’s done.”
She returns as promised, and again takes my hand as they return me to my stretcher. Thankfully, the darkness again overpowers me.
“Do you want a plastic surgeon?” a nurse standing over me asks softly.
“Do I need one?”
“I think so,” she says. “There’s been a lot of damage to your face.”
“My face doesn’t hurt at all, but if you say so, then I guess I’d better have one.”
“Dr. McGibbon’s on call today. He usually works on kids, but I’m sure he can handle this. I’ll page him.”
The green curtains around my gurney don’t muffle the sounds of quick footsteps, machines beeping at different rhythms and decibels, or disembodied voices crying out. I wonder if like me, they’ve been in accidents.
The next time I open my eyes, a moon-faced man with a balding pate and a fringe of red hair looms above me. “Hello, young lady,” he says with a soft, Irish brogue. “I’m Dr. McGibbon. Nasty accident, huh?”
“Seems like that,” I answer. “Can you fix me up?”
He gingerly removes the bandages from my face. “You’ll be easy,” he says after a few minutes. “All the parts are still here. The people I work on usually have parts missing. Smile.”
“I don’t feel like smiling,” I answer.
“I think you’ve damaged the nerve that controls the right half of your face. If so, I’ll need to repair it before I sew you up. If you’ll smile, I can see whether I’m right.”
So, I smile, or at least, I think I smile, as Dr. McGibbon snaps photos. When I later see them, I’m appalled by the raw-meat images they convey. Both of my cheeks are rent by lightning-like wounds, and white, fatty globules press out from beneath the edges. Small, bloody slits and punctures covered my forehead and chin. It was a good thing I hadn’t looked in my rear-view mirror. I surely would have frightened myself to death.
Dr. McGibbon leaves my side, and I hear him saying that he’ll need an operating room with an electron microscope so that he can repair my nerve damage before he stitches up my facial wounds.
“Where’s my candy striper?” I ask a nurse.
“I’m sure she’s gone home, by now,” the nurse answers. “You’ve been here for several hours. What do you need?”
What I really need is Mama. But she’s long gone, and I don’t want to go where she is. I close my eyes. When I again open them, I see my sister Connie’s frightened face. “Hi Connie,” I say.” Don’t look so scared. I’m not going to die.”
“Of course not,” she says. Neither her eyes nor her voice match her words. She hovers near my gurney, but doesn’t touch me, and moves out of sight when a nurse comes and injects something in the line going into the vein in the bend of my left elbow. “This will make you sleep,” the nurse says. “Dr. McGibbon has finally gotten an operating room.”
The next morning, I awake in a hospital room. Memories of the accident flood my brain and I slowly assess my situation. I still can’t see out of my left eye. The glass pieces seem to be gone from my eyes, but it feels as if my eyeballs have been in a sandstorm. An IV line is taped to my left arm and several bags of fluids are squished together on a metal pole just above my bed. My left leg is in a cast and my right leg is held aloft by a series of pulleys connected to a metal bar above me that runs the length of the bed. Today, unconsciousness doesn’t come to release me from the pain. I press the call button pinned to my sheet and a nurse appears immediately.
“Good morning,” she says,” We’re glad to have you with us.”
I want to say that I’m not glad to be here. But I am glad to be here. Glad to be alive. “Can you give me something for pain?” I ask. “Every part of me hurts, especially my knee. It feels as if it’s been drilled.”
“It was drilled,” she says. “They needed a way to keep the broken parts of your femur separated until you’re strong enough for surgery. The reason you’re in pain is because there are weights on the ends of the ropes. Do you remember what happened?”
“I remember them drilling into my knee.”
“Not in the operating room. The accident.”
“Yes. Almost everything,” I answer.
“That’s good - and bad,” she says. “Good, because it means you haven’t had a concussion.”
“And bad because?”
“Because you’ll keep replaying in your head what happened.”
Attached to the shiny metal bar above my bed is a small triangle. I have no idea what it’s for, until a nurse comes in after I again press the call button and tell her that I have to pee. She explains that the triangle is to help me lift myself off the bed, to use the bedpan. The way every part of my body hurts, moving is the last thing on my mind. “Can’t you just put a catheter in?” I ask.
“That would increase the chances of your getting an infection,” she says.
“I don’t care if I get an infection. It hurts to move!”
“Give it a try,” she says. She stands beside me as I raise both hands above my head. The chest pain on my left side is so excruciating, I can only grab the cold triangle with my right hand. Tears slide down my cheeks as I manage to raise my body just enough for the nurse to slide a cold, metal bedpan beneath me. After I pee, she wipes between my legs.
“Let me get a sanitary pad before I remove the bedpan. You’re bleeding.”
“Bleeding? Down there?” I ask.
“Yes, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Women often menstruate after a serious accident.”
My period? Now? On top of everything else, I have to deal with my period? I’m astounded! My period has always been so irregular that months often pass before bloodstains appear in my panties.
After we finish this, I’ll give you a shot of morphine for pain,” the nurse says.
That evening, a man in the brown uniform of a Maryland State Trooper enters my hospital room. “I was the officer who bandaged your face at your accident,” he says. “Do you remember me?”
I stare into his face and wide brown eyes. “Your face looks familiar, but - ”
“I'm Trooper Hoyt Jones. I thought I'd stop by to see how you’re doing.”
“The doctor says I lost a lot of blood, but as soon as they get my vital signs stabilized, they'll take me up to the operating room and set my legs so I can start feeling better.”
“You know,” says Trooper Jones, pulling a chair closer to my bed, “most accident victims I've encountered are so bewildered and frightened that they're almost incoherent. They're usually asking me what happened. You were so calm. You even reminded the medic to get your purse out of your car. Are you always like that?”
“Well, at the time of a crisis, I'm usually calm. It's later that I tend to fall apart. Did I thank you for what you did yesterday?”
“Yes, and you also thanked the doctor who stopped and inserted an IV. As badly as you were hurt, you made small talk while he got an IV started. You even asked him where he lived and worked,” he adds, chuckling.
“Don't make me laugh,” I say. “It hurts. I cracked some ribs. I guess I'm lucky I didn't crack my head open too. The one thing I don't have is a concussion.”
“You're lucky to be alive. Your car looks like it’ll be a total loss. Are they treating you okay?”
“I guess they are. You're the second person to ask me that question today. Some officers from Fire Department Headquarters were here earlier and asked if I thought the rescue squad gave me adequate care at the scene of the accident. I said 'yes' but I've never been in an accident before, so I don't know what constitutes adequate care. Why were they questioning me? Is it routine?”
“No, it's not. Your accident caused quite a stir yesterday. The helicopter unit filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Health because they weren't permitted to transport you downtown.”
“I heard someone arguing but couldn’t understand what they’re arguing about.”
“I thought you were unconscious.”
“I was, for a little while. I was afraid to go to sleep. I thought I might not wake up.”
“Were you awake when they got you to the hospital?”
“On and off. An intern stitched up my knee and several doctors came in and looked at my face. They kept me in the emergency room for a long time. I thought they were waiting to see if I'd live before they did any surgery.”
“Young lady, you're certainly not going to die.”
“Oh, I knew that, but I wasn't sure that they knew. When I first got here, they scared me. They said something about my spleen being ruptured, and how I’d lost so much blood that I wasn't strong enough to survive surgery. It's frightening to hear someone say that. They acted like I couldn’t hear them. Their comments frightened me even more than the accident.”
“Were you in much pain?”
“Not as long as they didn't move me or poke me – which they kept doing.”
Once again, the door to my room swings open. This time a short, fat, bushy-haired white man in a navy blue and green plaid polyester jacket walks into my room. He carries an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth. “Are you Sarah White?” he asks, nodding at me.
When I answer, “Yes,” he hands me a long white envelope.
“And who are you?” I ask, as I take it.
“I'm the agent for the attorney representing the family of the baby you killed in yesterday's accident.”
“What baby? They told me no one else was hurt in the accident! They said I was hurt the worse. Nobody else, just me!” I begin to shake violently. My right leg, which is elevated in a traction sling, starts to vibrate spasmodically.
I watch Officer Jones grab the process server by his jacket and shove him out the door. “You have no right to come here with papers like that,” he snarls.
“I've got a legal right to be here,” the server snaps back, struggling to keep his balance.
Still gripping the man's collar, Trooper Jones yells toward the nurses' station, “Get a nurse down here, quickly! This jerk has scared her into convulsions.” Turning back to the man, he growls through clenched teeth, “Legal, yes; moral, no! Their lawyer should have sent those papers to her lawyer. For God's sake, look at her. Can't you see she's in no condition for this kind of thing?”
Several nurses run into my room and swiftly administer something into the I.V. solution dripping into my veins. In moments, the shaking stops and the room goes dark.
Pain covers me like a heavy blanket when I again open my eyes. I’m confused. The shadowy outline of my right leg suspended above the bed brings back recollection of the accident. Memory of the visit by the man with the cigar follows that, and a sob rises in my throat. The burning pain in my chest prevents me from sobbing deeply enough to find relief. An avalanche of thoughts thunder through my mind. How could all this be happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? I'm a careful driver. I've never had an accident before, or even gotten a traffic ticket. That car just appeared too quickly for me to get out of its way. How am I going to survive this? I've got no money in the bank. I'm not even permanent on my new job yet, I'll probably lose it. Maybe I'd be better off dead. I wouldn't have all this pain.
Trying not to cause further pain, I reach gingerly across the bed and ring the buzzer. A nurse enters my room, her white uniform swishes softly.
She smiles down at me. “Hi, what can I do for you?”
“I have to go to the bathroom, and I hurt everywhere. Can you give me something to make the pain go away?”
The nurse brings a small bedpan from the bathroom and slides it under me before she answers. “I can't, not for another hour. The doctor left strict orders - every four hours.”
“But I can't wait another hour. Please, just this once, help me!”
The nurse removes the bedpan, adjusts the drip on the I.V. pole, turns and leaves without saying another word. I lay there hoping that she’s gone to get a needle. From them come the only thing that eases my pain, allowing me to sleep, and forget the terror that surrounds me. Anticipating the coming relief, I doze, but only for a few moments. A new wave of pain viciously awakens me. I press the buzzer again. This time, no nurse appears. Instead, a distant voice answers from the intercom above my head. “Yes, what can I do for you?”
“Nurse, nurse, where's my needle? I thought you went to get it. You've had more than enough time!”
“I told you what the Doctors' orders were,” answers the voice. “You only have 45 more minutes to go. I'll come right in and give you something then. Try to be patient.”
The light over the intercom goes out and the room is again silent. “Don't turn that thing off. Talk to me! You've got to bring me something. You’ve got to! My knee hurts so bad. I don't care if I get addicted. I need another shot.” Tears pour from my eyes, dampening my pillow. Finally, I scream out, “I know what you're doing! You're punishing me for killing that woman's baby. But I didn't mean to have that accident. It wasn't my fault. Help me, somebody help me. Please help me. I didn't mean to kill that baby.”
In my pain-filled delirium, I sometimes cry silently; but just as often, loudly. Sometimes, my cries draw a sympathetic nurse into my room, offering words that can’t comfort me. Morphine is what I want. Whenever a nurse does enter carrying a needle, I begin to thank her before she injects the morphine into the tube which slowly carries the fluid into the bruised vein of my left arm. Lowering my swollen lids, I softly breathe, “thank you, nurse, thank you so much,” as the warmth, like sweet sunshine, begins to spread through my body.
My doctor says it will be more than a month before I’m strong enough to undergo surgery to set my legs. At first, the injected drugs ease my pain for about three hours. As the weeks pass, my tolerance of the morphine increases, and the length of my release from the pain decreases proportionately. Sometimes, at night, when the pain seems most severe, I call any friend whose telephone number I can remember and urgently plead with them to “call a hospital administrator, or anyone who can do something. Tell them that the nurses are withholding my medication. The doctor says I can have it every four hours, but they're making me wait longer. Please, tell somebody. They're making me wait too long.”
The next day, I don’t remember having made the calls. On more than one occasion, an anxious friend tells me that a doctor has returned their call to explain that I’m not being ignored by the nurses, and that pain makes me incoherent about time. And only time, not morphine, can cure my pain.
“Look to your left, Sarah. Now, to the right. Do you see anything at all?” he says, shining the opthalmascope directly into my right eye.
“A very dim light,” I answer. “It looks like a candle way off in the distance.”
“This isn't going to hurt. You'll feel a pressure as I touch your iris. Try not to blink.”
Inadvertently, I try to blink away the small, tubular instrument. “Sorry, doctor, I can't help blinking.”
“I know it's difficult,” he says, “but let's try it one more time.”
“Will I be able to see again?” I ask.
Avoiding my question, the doctor begins to explain what has happened as he continues his examination. “When you struck the window with your head, the trauma forced a hole through your left anterior chamber. Blood leaked into the eye and formed a clot. That clot now prevents any light from being reflected off the retina; in essence, it blocks your brain from seeing. As time passes, your body will absorb the blood clot and we'll be able to get a clear look at the injury. Then, I'll be better equipped to answer your question.”
“But why can't I see out of my right eye? Nothing happened to it? I could see clearly when I first got here.”
“You’re having what’s known as a sympathetic reaction. It's common with accidents involving the eye. One eye is injured and the other mimics the injury. I'm sure that will clear up too.”
“Even if I don't get the sight back in my left eye?”
“Yes. Even if you don't. But we won't know until the clot is absorbed. Try to be patient. The body takes time to heal itself. You've been very brave so far. Don't give up now. I'm sure things will work out.” Before he leaves, I hear the doctor pull open the draperies at the window wall. I listen carefully to the gliding of the metal chain across the track. The room remains dim. Blinking rapidly, I stare in the direction of the sound the curtain made, stretching my lids and straining, as if I can will myself to see. Finally, I sink onto my pillow, resigning myself to the darkness, and my thoughts.
Be patient, he says. I'm trying to be patient but I'm going crazy. Always, there's the pain. And I’m afraid I'll be blind permanently. I never thought something like this would ever happen to me. My eyes must get better... they have to! How will I read? I might as well be dead, if I can't read.
Because I can’t see, I don’t know what my face looks like, and really don’t care because it doesn’t hurt, like the rest of my body. Those first few days after my accident, when the nurses change the bandages on my face and then, when Dr. McGibbon removes the stitches, I’m in so much pain in my legs and chest that I feel nothing in my face. I don’t know that my left eye stays open when I sleep, or that the entire right side of my face is paralyzed, as if I’ve had a stroke.
After two weeks of what seems to be episodic madness, my doctor says, “Sarah, I have good news. Tomorrow, we're taking you up to surgery. Once we take that traction bar out, put a rod in your femur and a few pins in your ankle, you'll have much less pain.”
My response is a barely discernable, “Thank God.” I still have today's pain and one more night of Hell to endure. Even though I don’t have any idea what pins and rods are, I don’t care. The doctor says they’ll hurt less than the steel bar that’s inserted below my kneecap and attached to a pulley weighted with metal discs behind the footboard. I believe his words.
As the morning turns to afternoon and then evening, I begin to think about tomorrow, when the surgery will be over. I wonder whether I'll be able to turn over on my stomach, and if they'll put casts on both legs. As night comes, the knowledge of tomorrow's relief has no effect on my pain.
At six a.m. an aide awakens me. “Good morning, Sarah. Today's the day. They're expecting you in surgery in an hour. Let's get ready.”
“The sooner, the better,” I answer.
The aide bathes me and uses a straight razor to shave all visible hair from above my knee to the curve around my right hip. A nurse enters and administers a needle saying, “This will make you sleepy.”
The next thing I remember is feeling my entire bed rolling rapidly. I struggle to open my eyes even though everything around me is clouded. My gurney stops abruptly. Everything is silent except for soft voices and the squeak of rubber soled shoes. A voice speaks to me. I recognize it as that of my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. White. From just above my head, he speaks to me reassuringly. “It's almost over, Sarah. You're on next. Please move her out of the line of traffic until we're ready to take her inside,” he says.
I feel my bed roll a few feet, then swing around. As it comes to a stop, it brushes against something solid. I hear metal shifting then the ropes above me sliding. My broken leg falls onto the bed and I scream out in pain. I hear a flurry of movement around me. A woman’s voice calls for a doctor. Once again, I’m shaking, just as I’d done when the server told me I was being charged with the death of an infant. I hear Dr. White’s voice. “Get the anesthesiologist out here. Now!”
A flood of something cold infuses my veins and I lose consciousness.
“Sarah? Sarah White?” A persistent, sing-song voice speaks directly into my ear. “Can you hear me? If so, open your eyes and look at me.”
The voice is strange. It has a sort of mid-western twang, like you hear in cowboy movies. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s calling my name. So, I follow its directions and open my eyes. Faint light greets my efforts.
“Hello, Sarah! You're in the recovery room,” says the strange voice. “The doctor is all finished - both legs are set and you're doing just fine. In a little while, we'll be taking you back to your room. How do you feel?”
Like shit, I think, as I close my eyes again. My lids are much too heavy to hold open. I’m supposed to feel better, but I feel a hundred times worse. I hurt everywhere. Now I really feel like I've been run over by a car.
“Hey, Sarah. Wake up. Don't go back to sleep on me. Let's see those big brown eyes again. Say something. Talk to me.”
“I'm thirsty,” I say, forcing the words out over what seems like heavy gravel imbedded in my tongue. Oh, God, it even hurts to talk. What did they do to my throat?
“Ah, I knew you could do it. Congratulations! I know you're thirsty, honey, but I can't give you anything to drink, not yet. It would just make you sick on your stomach. But I can moisten your lips with this lemon-flavored swab. How'd you like that? It'll help the dryness.”
“Hey! No licking the swab. That's not fair,” the nurse says as she slides the moist yellow swab across my parched lips. “You're awake, alright. Awake and doing fine. Now, don't you go away. I'll be back in a few minutes.”
Just my luck. They assign me the recovery room's resident comedian. I'm strapped on a table with two broken legs and she tells me not to go away. I close my eyes and drift off to sleep. I awake to feel myself gliding along, then hear an elevator’s soft ding and the sound of doors opening and closing.
“Sorry about that little bump, lady,” says the voice over my head. “I told them they should put shock absorbers on these stretchers. It would make the ride a lot easier on the patients, but they don't listen to me. Who am I to tell big-time hospital administrators how to spend money? I'm just a lowly orderly.”
Another soft bell sounds and I hear the elevator doors slide open. The orderly pushes my stretcher across metal grooves into the hall, makes a sharp right turn, and keeps rolling. “We've got the patient from Room 212 back from the OR. Can somebody help me get her back in bed?” he asks.
“They told us you were on your way down. Everything's ready, you can take her straight in,” someone answers. Abruptly, my stretcher stops rolling, and I hear the rustle of nurses’ uniforms; then, someone begins counting. On three, they smoothly lift me from the stretcher, onto my bed. I moan softly before drifting off into a sleep filled with strange, multi-colored nightmares. Several times that evening and night, nurses performing some requirement of their position awaken me; but the pain which had been my nightly companion for the past two weeks does not sound its usual alarm. It is still there, but dying, like some hurricane slowly losing its fury.
“Good Morning, Miss White. How do you feel this morning? Better?”
Better? Better than what? Better than dead? Perhaps not. Slowly, I force open my eyelids. I’m overjoyed when sunlight fills my eyes. I can see! Not clearly, but I can see! My leg is no longer in traction and I touch the heavy cast that begins just below my left knee. My right hand is taped to a thin board which prevents an IV needle - inserted just above my fingers - from slipping out. I slide my free left hand under the covers to feel for a cast on my right leg. Instead, I only find thick layers of bandages covering my thigh. A slight effort to move causes a deep pain to thunder through my right hip, and I cry out.
“Take it easy,” says a nurse who’s adjusting the curtains. “You don't expect to get out of bed today, do you? You've still got a long way to go before that. I'll get you bathed, change your bandages, and then set you up for breakfast. By that time, your doctor should be around to tell you about yesterday's operation. They're calling you the girl wonder. They weren't expecting you to be strong enough for surgery for another two weeks, but you surprised them.
In the next few days, I’m grateful that things begin to get better. I’m still confined to bed, but no longer blind, or tethered to my morphine injections. The pain is tolerable, and I sleep without the terrible drug-induced dreams that have consumed me since the accident. But, with a healing of the body comes a new rending of the spirit.
During a visit a few days after my second surgery, Dr. McGibbon examines my face. “There’s been a setback. You picked up a staph infection in your facial scars while in the operating room having your legs set. I’ve ordered IV antibiotics, but I’m sure the pustules will ruin the fine line of my stitches. We’ll have to re-do everything, after the scars have relaxed.”
“Redo everything?” I ask, incredulous.
“The nurses tell me that you haven’t asked to look in a mirror, Sarah. Would you like to see what’s going on?” he asks.
I really don’t want to see, but tell him, “I guess I’ll have to.”
He turns a hand-held mirror toward me. I’m overwhelmed by what I see! The skin on my face is shiny and puffy. Two lightning-like incisions extend up from my mouth to my cheekbones on either side. Tiny, chalk-like markings are flung across my cheeks, chin, and forehead. It looks like I’m wearing a mask! My eyes are bloodshot, and my already thin eyebrows are gone. I begin to cry. “Why do I have these white marks everywhere,” I ask.
“They’re from the stitches I made when I sewed your skin back together the day of the accident. In time, they’ll fade away and your face will have an even color again. And I assure you that I can remove the scars caused by the infection.”
Dr. McGibbon’s words provide no consolation, and I can’t stop sobbing. He orders a sedative, and once again, I drift off into a place where nothing matters.
The next day, an orderly arrives to take me somewhere. I assume it’s for another X-ray. Instead, he wheels my bed down the hall to a room where the nurses have told me a young man with accidental injuries even worse than mine. One of the young man’s legs is still in traction, and he has a wild-eyed look about him. We exchange a few words and commiserate about our bad luck.
As I’m being wheeled back to my room, the nurse says, “You’re lucky. He's been here for two months, but still hasn't made as much progress as you have in less than three weeks.”
“Lucky? I don’t feel lucky. And it doesn't make me feel better to know that he's worse off than I am!” I say. “Anyway, his scars are all on his leg. He's a man, he can cover them with pants. What am I supposed to do about my face? Wear a veil? They even made more scars when they put in the rod and pins. On top of that, Dr. McGibbon says it’ll be six months before he can repair my face again. I'll have to go through surgery all over again! I don't know if I can stand it.”
“They aren’t sure whether that young man will lose his leg,” the nurse says. “You’re young. Be patient. As soon as your breaks heal, you’ll walk again. This whole episode will soon be a bad memory.”
That night, as I lay in my darkened room listening to the disembodied voice of the old woman across the hall calling for someone to bring her slippers, I cry once again.
“Hi, Sarah,” Trooper Jones says as he once more enters my room. “I’ve got good news. The autopsy reports came back this morning. Your accident didn't cause that baby's death. It had already been dead for several days. That's why the woman hadn't delivered.”
“Does that mean that I won't have to go to court?”
“No, you'll still have to go to court for the traffic citation, but you won't be charged with manslaughter.”
“I'm so relieved,” I say.
“So am I. I knew things would work out.”
“What do you think the courts will decide about the accident? Will they say it’s my fault?”
“I really don't know. The courts in Maryland are very strict in their interpretation of the boulevard law.”
“Even if the person you hit is proven to be at fault too? You said you had proof that woman was traveling much faster than the posted speed limit.”
“That doesn't make any difference, Sarah. The law specifically says that when a person has the right of way, you're wrong if you cross their path - no matter what they're doing.”
It has been two months since the accident. I lean heavily on my crutches, as I make my way down the hall and through the doorway marked Traffic Court. Courtrooms and the paraphenalia of the law tend to be imposing for the uninitiated, and as I thread my way past the small knots of faces sitting in the cavernous mahogany-walled chamber, I’m struck by the fear, or boredom, in each person's eyes. I choose a seat on the second row - I never sit in the back of public rooms -- and wait for Simon Jones, my attorney, to arrive. I can almost hear the blood pounding through my veins, but try to appear calm, though I think I probably look as scared as the rest of the people here. If the judge sees I’m scared, he'll think I’m guilty and send me straight to jail - without passing 'Go' or collecting $200. Monopoly? What a time to think about a game. This is not a game. But I guess it's as good as anything to think about.
I frequently glance at my watch. It’s already a quarter after nine and court is scheduled to convene at nine thirty. I'd feel a lot better if my lawyer were here. As the minutes tick away, my attention strays to the people who wander through the double entrance door. Since I have no idea what the woman driving the other car looks like, I can only speculate on which of the women is her. She must know by now that I didn't kill her baby; but, it's dead all the same, and I guess she's got to blame somebody. I'm the likely target, since I did run into her car. Wait a minute, I didn't run into her car! She ran into mine. Mr. Jones said I should remember that she ran into me.
Among the people filing through the door, I recognize my attorney Simon Jones. He’s a white man about 55 years old. He walks a little stooped-over and with a slight limp. We make eye contact and he slowly wends his way toward me. With a slight formal bow, he offers me his small, well-manicured hand before sliding onto the seat beside me and massaging his left knee.
“I'm so glad you got here. I was afraid you weren't coming.”
“That thought was quite unnecessary,” he says. “I always arrive in court well before the judge. But I'm here now, my dear, and there's no need to worry about anything.”
“Everybody keeps telling me that, but I can't seem to help worrying.” I hold out my hand, “See, I can't stop shaking.” He places his hand over mine and pats it gently. “Don't worry too much. You're only charged with failure to yield right-of-way. Do you remember all the things we went over in my office?”
I nod. “They keep running through my mind. I didn't sleep very much last night.”
“That explains the circles around your eyes,” he says consolingly. “Maybe they'll arouse the judge's sympathy. This shouldn't take too long, we're first on the docket. Is the officer who issued you the ticket here?” he asks, as he cranes his neck and peers around the courtroom.
“Yes, I saw him when I first arrived. Is that good or bad?”
“Neither. I'm sure the judge will ask him some questions. Let's hope he's sympathetic to us.”
“I think he is. He’s the one who ordered an autopsy on the woman’s dead baby.”
Mr. Jones frowns. “When you take the stand, remember what I told you - don't offer any information. Just answer the judge's questions.”
A clerk takes his place behind the table at the front of the room and announces, “All rise. Traffic Court is now in session, the Honorable Alston Davenport presiding.”
Throughout the courtroom, people shuffle to their feet. A tall, heavyset white man with bristly eyebrows and greying sideburns enters the courtroom from a side door and takes a seat behind the raised mahogany desk. He glances down and shuffles several papers before he nods to the clerk standing near him. In a monotone, a clerk drones, “The State of Maryland vs Sarah M. White for violation of The Motor Vehicle Code, Article 25, section 8, failure to yield right-of-way.”
The judge adjusts his heavy robes about him and speaks. “Is Miss White present?”
I’m surprised by the deep resonance of his voice.
“Yes, I am,” I answer hesitantly.
He looks in my direction. “Will the defendant please stand,” he says.
I reach for my crutches and stand.
“Are you represented today by an attorney?” he asks.
“She is, your honor,” Mr. Jones answers, rising.
“How does your client plead, Attorney?”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
“Fine,” says the judge. “Miss White, will you please come forward and take the stand. Let the court clerk swear in the defendant.”
After taking the oath, I lean my crutches against the railing and sit down. As the judge speaks, I turn to face him.
“Miss White, the officer who issued this violation charges you with failure to yield right of way. Will you tell us what happened?”
“I was driving west on McClean Boulevard waiting to make a left onto Perring Parkway. There's no left turn signal at the intersection. The light was red. I waited until it turned green, pulled out into the intersection and waited under the traffic light.”
“Could you still see the light while you waited?” he asks.
“Yes, your honor.”
“As the light turned yellow, the last car passed, and I pulled further into the intersection to make my left turn onto Perring Parkway. As soon as I started across, a big blue car crested the hill and started down on me. It was moving so fast that I knew I couldn't get out of its way in time. I screamed just as she hit me.”
“Did you see the car before you began making your turn?”
“No, Sir. It wasn't there when I started to make my turn. If it had been, I would have waited.”
“Were you alone in your car?”
“My friend Deanna, Deanna Hunter was with me, but she had her head down, looking for something that had rolled onto the floor when the accident happened. She doesn’t remember anything.”
“Did you see the police officer's car across the street, before the accident?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What time of day did the accident occur?”
“About 11:30 in the morning.”
“What was the weather like that day?”
“It was clear and sunny.”
“Where were you going when the accident occurred?”
“My friend and I were on our way to the 12:30 matinee at a theater downtown.”
“Is your friend present in the courtroom?
“No, Your Honor.”
“Thank you, Miss White. You may step down. Is Officer Hoyt Jones present?”
“I am your honor,” the state trooper answers, rising.
“Will you please take the stand and be sworn in.”
After being sworn in, Hoyt Jones presents a brief description of the scene of the accident, and a statement about its circumstances. The judge asks him whether he had actually witnessed the accident.
“No, Your Honor. I was present at the scene, but I didn't personally witness either the moments preceding the accident or the collision. I was occupied with some paper-work in my patrol car. I looked up when I heard the collision. I radioed for emergency assistance and left my car to render aid to the victims.”
“Did any witnesses come forward?”
“No, Your Honor.”
“How many people were injured and what was the extent of their injuries?”
“Well, Your Honor, there were two people in the second vehicle: Mrs. Susan Thomkins and her minor child. Mrs. Thomkins was in an advanced stage of pregnancy but exhibited no injuries at the time of the accident. She was able to exit her vehicle under her own power and talk to me while emergency personnel worked to remove Miss White from her car. Her child had been thrown around, and had a few bruises, but very few other visible injuries. Miss White was conscious but seemed to be the most severely injured. She had multiple facial abrasions and several broken bones. The mother and her child were taken to the same hospital as Miss White for observation. They were kept overnight and released.”
“Officer Jones, were there any skid marks at the site of the accident?”
“Yes, there were.”
“Which car made them?”
“Mrs. Thomkins' vehicle.”
“Could you determine from them the speed of her vehicle at the time of the collision?”
“Yes. I calculated that she was driving at a speed of 55 miles per hour at the time that she first applied her brakes.”
“Officer, what is the posted speed limit on Taylor Avenue?”
“30 miles per hour.”
“What do you estimate Miss White's speed to have been at the time of the accident?”
“No more than five or ten miles an hour.”
“Thank you for your testimony, Officer Jones. Is there any other evidence which you feel the court should hear?”
“You may step down.”
The judge next asks my attorney to approach the bench and they exchange a few words. My attorney nods his head, thanks the judge and returns to his place beside me.
“Based on the evidence presented,” the judge says, “it is my opinion that this case is one which innocence, or guilt and responsibility, must be decided by a civil court. Therefore, I stet the State's case against Sarah White and assess her court costs of fifteen dollars. Let the decision be so recorded by the Clerk. Next case.”
As the clerk calls the next case, and the defendant approaches the bench, I question Mr. Jones. “What does 'stet' mean? Guilty or innocent?”
“Neither. It's like a draw. Let's go outside. You can pay the court costs and we can talk.”
I continue to question him as he steers me toward the back of the courtroom. “Wait until we're outside,” he says. “I'll explain everything.”
“Okay, Sarah,” he says as we settle on a wooden bench near the administrative clerk’s office. “You've had a victory of sorts today. If the judge had found you guilty of the violation, he would have paved the way for a civil suit against you by Mrs. Thompkins. As it stands, you only have to pay court costs. The ball is now in your insurance company's court.”
“But if I'm not guilty, why do I have to pay court costs?”
“Because someone always has to pay, my dear. Justice isn't free. The judge did you a favor, though; court costs are usually a lot higher. Do you have fifteen dollars in cash? They won't accept a check in there.”
I nod. “This is so unfair. I haven't done anything, and still, I'm the one who keeps paying. She walked away from that accident. I didn’t.”
“The real paying hasn't started yet. Fortunately for you, your insurance company's the one who'll do the honors. After you satisfy the judge's order, we can go around the corner and have a cup of coffee.”
“We don’t have to do that. I told them I'd stop by my office as soon as court was over. And I'm sure you've got lots of work waiting in your office.”
“None that can't wait a little longer. Come on, a few more minutes won't make a difference. I still haven't had my second cup of coffee.”
Reluctantly, I stand up and approach the young woman standing behind the teller's cage. “I'd like to pay the court costs assessed by Judge Davenport. He said they're fifteen dollars.”
The clerk looks up, examines me and accepts the three five-dollar bills I offer. She stamps a receipt and pushes it toward me.
“Thank you,” I murmur. Laughter erupts from my throat. “This is outrageous!”
The clerk looks up at me. “Excuse me? What did you say?”
“I said, this is outrageous! I give you my money for something I don't get and then thank you for taking it. Don't you think that's outrageous?”
“No, I don't,” she answers flippantly. It happens all the time.”
“Well, not to me, it doesn't!” I retort, banging one of my crutches against the floor. “And I don't like it one damn bit.”
The guard leaning lazily against the far counter straightens up as my voice rises. Mr. Jones quickly takes my arm. “Let's go have our coffee, Sarah. We're all finished here.”
“That's exactly what they're trying to do, finish me off, but I'm not going to let them. They didn't even make that woman take the stand. They should have made her explain why she was driving so fast. Maybe she knew her baby was dead and was looking for someone to blame. I'm innocent. I didn't do anything wrong. She did! She should pay, not me...not me.” I break into sobs. Mr. Jones slowly leads me outside to another bench in the hall and I drop down. “I'm sorry, Mr. Jones. This is all so hard. Maybe I should just go home.”
“How'd you get here?” he asks.
“You're driving already?”
“Yes. I figured that if I didn't get behind the wheel right away, I'd never drive again; so I bought a car a week ago.”
“Where'd you park?”
“In the lot across the street.”
“That's good. Let's cross here at the light. You're getting around on those crutches quite well. I must tell you that you're very lucky.”
“Yes, everyone says so. But I'd have been luckier if none of this had ever happened to me. I was relieved when my wheel chair was picked up by the rental company. No amount of settlement money could have made me like spending the rest of my life in one; so, I guess, in a way, I am lucky. Here's my car.” I take my keys from my purse and unlock the door. I throw my crutches across the back seat and settle behind the wheel. “I'm sorry about making a scene, Mr. Jones.”
“That's alright. I understand.”
“Be sure to send me your bill. Thank you for coming with me.”
Mr. Jones closes my car door and says, “Fasten your seat belt and drive carefully.”
“I always do,” I answer. “You should tell that to the other drivers on the road.”