Jan 18, 2024

content warning: contains mention of death, car accidents, suffering, other sad things, and childhood trauma

When I was 5 years old my mom was driving me to school on probably a Monday morning in her gold dodge minivan. I was wearing a colorful striped sweater and pink pants– a new outfit she’d gotten for me that weekend from JCPenney. We got a green light to cross 95th Street on Lamar Avenue and, about three-quarters of the way to the other side, were struck by what I understood to be a cargo van. I learned later that the cargo van was actually a semi-truck.

I was sitting on the driver’s side behind my mom, buckled into my carseat. We were hit on the passenger’s side. The collision was loud. All I remember was leaning forward and seeing my mom doing what I thought was sleeping. “Wake up, mommy, wake up!”

The rest is kind of a blur– I’ve been told my friend and classmate Keonte Walker’s mom was walking nearby and stopped to help– I think of her sometimes and find peace in this example of sort of ambient community love and support.

I was pulled out onto a stretcher and taken to the children’s hospital where I got some stitches on my forehead for a little cut. My dad picked me up from the hospital and brought me back to his apartment. I took a shower and rinsed off a lot of blood.

I don’t remember if I asked anyone about my mom or if I was in too much shock– somewhere my little growing brain thought she might have died, and my little growing brain was kind enough to protect me from that possibility.

Later that day my dad drove me to the hospital my mom was in. She was in intensive care and had a lot of serious injuries; no visitors were allowed, but she was friends with someone who pulled some strings to let me go back to see her.

She was in rough shape– I’ll never forget hearing her. She spoke slowly and was hoarse as a result of the painkillers and her injuries. She was fallible, but she was going to be okay.

Last night I listened to a podcast episode where John Green talks about Auld Lang Syne. He talks about time passing and his friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who wrote this Modern Love essay that I hate (but it’s very good– you’ll soon understand why I hate it).

In the episode, John Green talks about his history with Amy and reveals that she died of cancer. He talks about a phone call between the two where Amy sought reassurance because she was worried about her husband and three kids and how she wanted them to be OK when she was gone. She’d led a happy life with all of them.

I started to sob and felt a unique and familiar sense of dread.

I struggle to listen to the Beatles song Blackbird because of a sad viral video of a man singing it to his newborn child after his wife died during childbirth.

After the car accident, I started thinking about death and dying a lot. I felt more aware of my mom’s mortality than I’d ever felt before.

She said something along the lines of “we got our Really Bad car accident out of the way– people only ever have at most one of those in their lives.” I found this wholly comforting.

Since that car accident, I’ve been in a handful of fender-benders. And then, in high school, I was t-boned by a guy who is now a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers (for legal reasons I’d like to share that I was considered partly at fault). The car rotated around 180 degrees but nobody was hurt. I did end up being late to a woodwind trio performance in Columbia, Missouri. Also, my 2001 Subaru Outback was totaled.

A couple of months ago I got side-swiped on my way to the quaker meeting for worship– the couple who side-swiped me were on their way to Rosh Hashanah activities. My car sustained a lot of damage, but just now I got a call from the repair shop that it’s all fixed up. And everyone ended up being okay.

I’d like to think my mom’s theory is right.

I took one stats class in college and didn’t love it– much like physics, none of it is intuitive to me in the way instructors expect it to be. I find both stats and physics very difficult to reason about.

I remember learning, basically for the first time, about independent events. About how if you roll a die once that outcome will have no effect on the next roll, or the roll after that. I found this kind of disturbing, not in its implications for dice but in its implications for life.

I haven’t read a lot of Taleb, but I think a lot about this passage from his book The Black Swan:

“So you could see the stars with great clarity. I had been told in high school that the planets are in something called equilibrium, so we did not have to worry about the stars hitting us unexpectedly. To me, that eerily resembled the stories we were also told about the “unique historical stability” of Lebanon. The very idea of assumed equilibrium bothered me. I looked at the constellations in the sky and did not know what to believe”

I’ve endured suffering for as long as I can remember. My childhood was relentless in its nightmarishness. And the relentlessness made it so much worse. The escape I imagined was an adulthood of freedom, agency, safety, and love. I dreamed of many of the things I have now, like a life in New York City and money to buy myself as many cookies as I want.

“Once I’m an adult, it’ll all be perfect,” was something I told myself to endure my suffering. The suffering would end, and then I’d be happy.

I thought about my mom’s car accident framework a lot and applied it to my suffering overall. I felt I was frontloading my suffering, and I had to rely on these assumptions as a coping mechanism. I relied on hope and daydreams and had to formulate a future I could look forward to.

This past year has been weird for me in a lot of ways, and I’ve learned that difficult things will continue to happen with no regard for the dues I feel I’ve already paid.

This is perhaps why I am so deeply disturbed by stories of mothers dying too young–- I imagine myself finding everything I dreamed of as a child and having it ripped away or cut short. I find this disturbing and annihilatingly humbling. The fact that suffering is so random and chaotic and constant is sobering.

I’d like to think that there’s a cap on the amount of suffering one person can experience over a lifetime, but I’m beginning to be resigned to the belief that there is no cap. I don’t really want to end this essay that way, so I’ll also say I believe we are all so remarkably capable of making the most of things and of carrying on, and I think our capacity for suffering grows as we experience it. I think I want the ways I’ve been shaped by my suffering and my capacity for empathy and love, which is undoubtedly one outcome of it, to be a bit of a silver lining.

Es ist passiert, ‘it just sort of happened’, people said there when other people in other places thought heaven knows what had occurred. It was a peculiar phrase, not known in this sense to the Germans and with no equivalent in other languages, the very breath of it transforming facts and the bludgeonings of fate into something light as eiderdown, as thought itself.

-Musil, The Man Without Qualities

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