Pause for Celebration

5-6-01.

I left a friend’s house on a quiet side street blocks from the University of Kentucky to make my way home after ending my junior year. The sun shined bright over Lexington as I began the 800-mile journey to the heartland for a few weeks’ vacation.

I felt content as I slid my Cherokee–purchased the day before from my boss–out of town and onto the Interstate.

The Commonwealth, in its post-Derby haze, was in my rear view after an hour.  I cut across southern Indiana and central Illinois ahead of schedule, wrapped in quiet solitude and surrounded by everything I owned.

I happily pulled into a gas station outside of Kansas City in search of fuel for car and driver for the last leg of my trip. Eager reach my destination, I wondered if the approaching dark clouds would slow me down.

I merged back onto I-70 and joined the flow of traffic just as the sky unleashed liquid fury on the roadway.

Vehicles slowed in front of me. I flipped on my turn signal to switch lanes to expand the buffer between myself and them.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.

“No! No! No! No! NO!”

I can still hear my voice as “Chief” jerked wildly to the right and zipped across three lanes on two wheels, thumping against the guardrail at 60 miles per hour.

I was pissed.

Soaked to the skin instantly by forceful rain, I snatched the 44-ounce soda I’d just bought from my floorboard and slung it against the steel barrier with all my strength. I jumped back into the driver’s seat and backed off the highway (I was facing headlights), then took a wonderful family up on the offer of a ride to a gas station.

I waited patiently at a QuikTrip for my dad to arrive.

In a surreal fifteen minutes, I’d called the Highway Patrol, made sure my parents knew what happened and commenced staring out the window in shocked silence as tornado sirens blew and three hours’ worth of customers swung through the doors.

I climbed into the familiar white Grand Prix and soon learned my younger sister would be pregnant at her pending graduation.

Then, it got worse.

The Jeep was no longer on the side of the highway.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers and my lack of a cell phone, I had quickly left the scene to call the authorities and my family. Alert motorists described this to the Blue Springs Police and–since the first thing noticed in the cabin was a computer and TV–the boys in blue impounded the vehicle suspecting theft.

A tense conversation with the officer on duty at the station–made more difficult because my name wasn’t on the title–ended a long twelve hours.

So, to recap:

New car wrecked 200+ miles from home.

Eighteen-year-old sister with child.

Considered a potential felon attempting to reclaim stolen items.

Not good.

I dubbed it the “day of days” and, though I’ve had worse moments since, I’ve yet to face a stretch of events so challenging in such quick succession.

The following morning, inspection revealed the culprit: a blown tire. Passing along the same highway on new rubber, I noticed how far the barricade–which, remember, I’d greeted with a thrown drink before–had given way, preventing me from careening six feet or more into the ditch below.

I’ll never know how bad the injuries might have been, but I would have suffered worse than the bruised left bicep I ended up with.

Over several weeks, I came to grips with the severity of the wreck.

I felt lucky to have survived.

Even as problems piled on in the aftermath, I found myself grateful instead of hateful.

In the wake of my toughest time, I learned my first lesson on acceptance.

Every year since, I’ve taken at least a few moments to commemorate the opportunity I have to impact the world.

I’ve raised glasses in celebration.

I’ve told people how much I love them.

I’ve cried.

Most importantly, though, I’ve lived.

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