I'm not sure, maybe everyone has a story about "the time they almost died". I guess it's possible that if every person has one, it makes everyone else's not-dying seem like not such a big deal. Because there are other things to get emotional about. You know, like people actually dying. The farther removed I get from my particular story, the less often I think about it, but there's one thing that I am 100% certain about - June 13, 1999 was a big deal.
I was thirteen, and I was away from home for the longest stretch I had ever been. I had a junior staff position for a couple of weeks at a little camp near Peoria, Illinois. I was fairly middle-of-the-pack socially. I was perplexed by one half of the other girls, the early bloomers who wore sexy pajamas and looked stunning always. I myself was just figuring out mascara, and I was hoping there would be just one boy who noticed that my personality was bigger than my dental gear. I was somewhat comforted by the other half of the girl-population. The ones who rocked culottes and took moral issue with the concept of deodorant (before that was earthy and admirable or whatever). I was probably spiritually middle-of-the-pack, as well. I was sometimes genuine, sometimes not. I wasn't in the throes of adolescent rebellion, but fell short more often than not when it came to WWJD (very big in 1999, if you recall :).
June 13, 1999 was a beautiful Sunday. All of the camp staff was headed to church, and I hopped in a car with two other Jennifer's and an Alex. We started down the eternal gravel road that led through the Illinois farmland and out of the camp. I tried to fasten my seatbelt, which was only a lap belt with no shoulder harness. I realized that the actual buckle part was tucked far into the seat, and I couldn't get it out. I felt around, but after a minute, I decided to skip the seatbelt, just this once. We drove on, laughing and chatting about inconsequential things that I don't remember in the slightest. What I remember was a Voice. It wasn't audible, but I'm not going to play it down and say it was a 'strong thought' or even my conscience. I'm a firstborn, and I'm well acquainted with conscience and 'strong thoughts' about how the world will end if I jaywalk. This was different, and it started soft, saying, "You need to buckle your seatbelt." I fished around in the seat again, halfheartedly. Nope. No buckle. Back to conversation. Maybe a minute later, it was back. "YOU NEED TO BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELT." It's possible that I got a little sassy with the Voice at this point. There was no buckle, I was not going to make a scene about it, the end. We continued driving and everything was fine, but after another minute or so, it was back. How something that isn't actually audible can be loud, I don't know, but it was LOUD, "YOU NEED TO BUCKLE YOUR SEATBELT." I happened to see, across the whole seat and over by Alex was the buckle for a person sitting in the middle. "No way," I thought. "That's weird and I'm not doing it. I'm just not." Silence. The Voice had gotten my attention, though, and I couldn't shake the sense this was something worth listening to. I'm sure you already know that I stretched that seatbelt clear across the seat and buckled it over by Alex. We exchanged a look, I assume his look meant, "Hey weirdo. From now on, you have to hang out with the kids who think drums are the devil's instrument." Mine said, "Just, whatever, Alex." Or, "Talk to the hand!" Probably the latter. It was 1999.
I won't condescend. You know there's an accident in this story. We were making the final turn off a main highway onto the street the church was on. The driver gasped, "It's going to hit us!" Somehow I never even saw "it". I looked out my window, then turned forward, which was a mercy because a big van hit my side of the car, fast and hard. The sound of the impact was something I'll never forget. It overpowered everything - the metal crunching in and twisting around my ankles, the shower of glass that rained in on us, the feeling of the car flying through the air, what it must have felt like to land - I don't remember any of it other than that horrible sound. When we landed, we were far from the road, far from anyone, and I was the only one conscious. Alex came to in a few seconds, but those moments felt alone and very confusing. First, I noticed the blood. The driver was hunched in an odd, unnatural position, blood pooling in a large fold in her shirt. I had blood across the front of my clothes - was I hurt? I couldn't see my legs, the door was crushed in around them. I couldn't feel anything. Second, I looked back to see what hit us. There were people running from the van and I watched flames burst from it. Reality and panic caught up with me. I had figured out that my legs were completely trapped and I knew I couldn't get out if we caught on fire. But in those last few moments of being 'alone', I had peace that replaced the panic. A peace that didn't so much make sense, it just was.
It was the stuff that traumatic memories are made of. Swarms of rescue workers (amazing ones) descended on the accident site. They covered me with a sheet and began cutting the top off the car with the jaws of life. They cut us three girls out of the car, one by one. The driver was airlifted, she was hurt so badly I could cry thinking about it today. I remember her convulsing, the paramedics saying her body was shutting down. I have no idea how long it took them to get me out, but I remember the crowd of what seemed like at least 100 gawkers behind the yellow tape, just doing that obnoxious gawking thing. I remember being in the ambulance and being so distressed that they cut my new sandals off my feet. I ran through what I grasped of the story for the third, thirtieth, three hundredth time, I don't even know. They asked what the driver's name was. "Jen," I answered. They asked who the other girl in the front was. "Jennifer," I replied. They paused and asked, "So... what's your name?" Even at thirteen, I knew where they were going with this. "Jenni. It really is Jenni." They exchanged knowing "she-must-have-a-head-injury" glances and proceeded to dig glass out of my scalp.
We talked about my seatbelt situation, I sheepishly told the paramedic-man about how I buckled it across the seat. He was quiet for a minute and then quietly discussed with the other paramedic-men. He said it was a miracle, that there was no better way that I could have been buckled in for the way we were hit. No seatbelt would have been very bad. The correct seatbelt buckle would have held me in place to be smashed when the van hit us. In the days weeks, months, even years following, more and more "miracles" became obvious to us. Somehow landing inches short of a concrete pole - miracle. The two other Jen's pulling out of comas, recovering from brain injuries, surviving through that first night when the odds were not good, working through what had to be gruesome therapy - miracle. My seatbelt "situation" - I consider that my miracle, and at least there's one paramedic out there who does, too!
For me, God's voice wasn't a booming voice and an epiphany, it was in insistent urging to do something I already knew was right. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't listened. From now until forever, the phrase "just do the next right thing," feels really weighty and even urgent. June 13th is a type of New Year's Day for me, where I thank God for whatever He saved me from and muster fresh determination to just do the next right thing.