Three Years Ago Today

Al-Can Highway, October 2010, Photo Courtesy of L.O'Kane
Three years ago today. A car accident on a remote stretch of Northern British Columbia's Alaska-Canada Highway. Four lives that were inexplicably spared.

It is staggering to realize all the things that have changed since this moment. 


OCTOBER 23, 2010

The hard left swerve of the first fishtail.

The paralyzed feeling of helplessness as I bolt awake to see our truck sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic.

Ice. Obsidian patches of water. Ribbons of snow swirling across the spruce-lined highway like dim grey snakes or threads of tape ripped from the underbelly of a cassette.

Beautiful. Looks like dancing.

Michael. My Michael, my dirty, adventurous mountain man. The love of my life.

Tensed at the wheel, blue eyes wide in panic.

He attempts to correct us, flinging the wheel hard to the left, then hard to the right. His knuckles are clenched--white as paper--and stretched too thin around our sun-faded steering wheel.

A ship’s captain in the throes of a thunderstorm.

Relax. Don’t panic. This has happened once before. Everything will be fine.

Fleeting thoughts of a harmless skid back home in Anchorage, that afternoon we drove from the Hillside two winters ago. Watching with a mixture of dread and fascination as our Toyota Tacoma did a ballerina’s pirouette and came to rest at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. Didn’t leave a scratch.

Flawlessly executed. A judge’s Perfect Ten.

This time will be just like that.

Some sort of talking. Michael’s frustration and fear, my words of encouragement. Trying not to panic.

Don’t freak out. It will just make him freak out more.

A decision.

Angling toward the ditch. Wide and soft-looking, with blades of prairie grass folded to the ground by the winter’s first snowfall.

Launching off the asphalt, realizing the road is a few feet higher than the shoulder. Watching the ground rise to meet us and clutching the “oh-shit” bar without even realizing it. Socked feet—the same pair I’ve been wearing since we crossed into British Columbia two days ago—braced against the floor’s rubber mats.

This. Is. Happening.

Just noise now. Shattering glass, the screeching of metal upon metal. Plastic and steel and tires tearing into the earth, ripping through the ground like a heaving, angry claw.

The smell of dirt, the chill of ice. Lights and darks, and the realization that we’re flipping now. Over and over and over. Tiny and insignificant, like lottery balls in a wheel.

My head is suddenly hanging out the window. Resting sideways on the door frame like that time I drank too much Bushmill's the night we got engaged.

But this time I’m mad.

Furious. Mind-bendingly, unflinchingly, unfiltered in my rage.

STOP!

STOP FLIPPING!!

THIS ISN’T FAIR… YOU CAN’T DO THIS… LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW FIRST…

GODDAMNIT, LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW!!!

There’s dirt everywhere. In my mouth, in my eyes. It tastes raw and silty, dark and fertile. It’s good soil.

In the midst of the chaos, I feel something hard against my chest—Michael’s arm?—and I hear a voice yelling. Screaming, actually, and I understand with a start that it’s my voice I’m hearing.

Weird.

Didn’t even realize I was speaking.

One. Two. Three. I lose count of the truck flips after four, realizing with detached amusement that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies aren’t even filtered by car wrecks.

And then suddenly, there’s silence.

Distant, detached, uncompromising silence.

Mother Nature doesn’t really give a shit about you.

We’ve stopped. The truck is right-side-up, and our twisted front bumper is angled downward into a drainage ditch. We’re teeter-tottering in mid-air like kids on a seesaw.

Thank God for this drainage ditch.

I pause for only an instant and then swirl sideways to take stock of the truck’s passengers.

There’s Michael. Eyes wide. High cheekbones drained of color and face skewed with shock. He’s okay.

Check.

Looking backward into the truck’s extended cab, I lock eyes with Bridger. Our floppy-eared, vulnerable pound dog Bridger. Black bandit’s mask and that beautiful tan face. His eyes are wide, but he’s sitting up, and those lanky sled dog legs are fully intact. He’s okay.

Check.

“Where’s Naia?”

The question tumbles from my mouth as I lock eyes with Michael again. It’s the first words I’ve spoken.

Naia. Our radiant, vivacious, black German Shepherd mix. Our heart and our soul, and the glue that keeps us all sane and balanced. The most fearless member of our blossoming young family.

She’s gone.

Michael and I move quickly, nodding in silent understanding as we turn from each other. Our hands and arms move on autopilot, unbuckling seatbelts and flinging open car doors we later won’t remember opening.

I’m outside before I know it, leaping with socked feet into the waiting drainage ditch. Bands of ice shatter beneath my toes, and I shudder as my legs sink into a freezing, muddy creek. Sulfur, vaporous and rotten, surges into my nostrils.

Shit. Now my feet are all wet.

I feel like I’ve stood in the creek for days but realize it has probably only been an instant. Clambering up the embankment on my hands and knees, I scuff my palms and tear the knees of my favorite pair of jeans. Those way-too-expensive Seven for All Mankind jeans I bought last year at Nordstrom because Michael said they made my butt look cute.

Up the hill, our belongings—suitcases, clothes, gasoline cans and blankets—are scattered through the prairie grass like leaves in the wind.

And then there’s Naia.

Tossed amongst the luggage like a crumpled rag doll, she’s awake, and her golden eyes are trained on us. Her silly, oversized bat ears stand erect like satellite dishes.

Michael has almost reached her—with Bridger bounding like a terrified jackrabbit behind him—so I make a beeline for the highway, waving my arms as a minivan pulls to a stop on the road’s shoulder. My vision seems to be flickering as an older truck slides in behind the minivan, and then Naia is suddenly howling.

She’s running with her tail down—short, compact and panicked, her legs beautiful in their musculature.  Her stance is the same one we saw two days ago at that rest area in the Yukon Territory, the one where she chased pebbles and bounded through the black spruce forest with the speed and grace of a panther.  Clipped and measured in her movements.

Like a police dog. Like a big girl.

She isn’t even three yet.

She’s bolting into incoming traffic now, and I’m yelling something about not panicking, but Michael already has her, and he’s leading her back across the asphalt. He’s holding her by that beautiful, “girly, but not too girly” collar he picked out last year for her birthday.

His injured hands are spilling blood all over it.

There’s a family—a wholesome Canadian family—and now they’re rushing us inside the minivan. Two wide-eyed daughters stare from the backseat as the mother spreads a bedspread over the middle seat for us.

It’s cute. Pink and cartoonish. Fluffy and decorated with maybe the Powerpuff girls, but I hear myself saying, “I can’t… I don’t want to get blood on your blanket…”

I’m inside now, and Bridger is cowered on my lap. Naia is crumpled in knots on the floor, and Michael is staggering back from the truck. He’s clutching my wallet and the new Canon camera I bought last year so I could “take a picture every single day of 2009.” The base is swinging crazily from its straps, winding in figure-eights like the loose seat of a swing set. The lens cap is missing.

What a funny thing to save.

The van door closes, and now we’re pulling away from the accident, swirling back toward Fort Nelson, where we stayed at that chain hotel and ate Dominos pizza last night. Looked at our map of Canada and studied that battered copy of our Milepost magazine. Tried to figure out our itinerary for this crazy move from Alaska to Colorado.

I watch our truck fade in the distance, its nose face-down in the drainage ditch and its back wheels suspended in mid-air like a child’s Tonka truck. Our camper shell has been ripped off, and our things—all our things, each one lovingly packed in preparation for this trip—are scattered in tangles like the wake of a tornado.

That’s our LIFE out there.

I catch a stray word and repeat it—“Totaled?”—feeling the wheels inside my head laboring to process the notion.

But that’s not possible. That’s our truck. We’re driving to Colorado in that truck.

Michael’s hands are on mine, and I realize I’m covered in blood, too. Dark blood, thick and viscous, spills from wounds on my hands and face.

“You’re bleeding. I’m… so… sorry.” He pauses on each word for emphasis, running his hands up and down my sides to check for injuries. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”

I don’t know. Am I?

Dragging my fingers through my hair, I pull free tiny bits of glass—beautiful, raw diamonds that shine like stars. My right hand is beginning to swell, and my left jaw is aching, but I think I’m remarkably healthy.

“I’m fine. How about you?”

I touch his arms, his face, that sandy beard he insisted on growing special for the trip. His beanie is smudged with streaks of dirt and blood, but I can still see those two campfire ash stripes he accidentally wiped across its brim during our weekend trip to Seward last spring.

“I’m fine.”

Turning to Bridger, I repeat my inspection, cradling his bony shoulders against my chest and feeling my heart break as I watch his back legs tremble.

Naia is crying, howling out in pain whenever she twists herself on the floor of the minivan. We can’t find any wounds—not even the one I thought I saw on her hamstrings just before she ran into oncoming traffic.

Internal injuries.

The thought strikes me with the weight of a wrecking ball, and I do my best to convince myself I’m mistaken. “She’s probably just sore,” I say, patting Michael’s knee after I palpate her spine and the bones of her back legs. “Everything seems to be intact, and she’s letting me touch her everywhere. That’s a good sign.”

But what the hell do I know? I’m not a vet tech.

As we drive, we thank the Canadian couple more times than is reasonably necessary, asking them their names over and over only to feel their answers drifting away moments after they form.

Duane is the dad; I try my hardest and finally commit him to memory, feeling my mind battling the word like an out-of-control kite in the midst of a hurricane. Duane. Duane is beefy and good-natured, with a gap between his front teeth and meaty, flushed sausage fingers. Duane. Remember the name Duane.

Duane and Duane’s wife—who I will later only remember as an ash-blonde blur—were on their way to Fort St. John this morning. They’ve been living in Fort Nelson for the past five years, and Fort St. John is the next town over; it’s a three and a half to four hour drive, and one of Duane’s daughters will be getting her braces tightened there Monday.

“We’ve been driving behind you the whole way south from Fort Nelson, about 40 kilometers,” Duane says. Same speed. Following at a safe distance. These straight roads will get you, he says. Your tires get away from you on that ice, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Forty kilometers is a long way to backtrack,” Michael says.

“I feel terrible we’ve ruined your day,” I say, watching the windows fog up from the heater and wondering why Duane hasn’t fixed that hairline crack spreading like a spider web across his front windshield.

“You’re all alive,” Duane’s wife says—or was that Duane? “If you weren’t, that would have ruined our day.”

“It would have ruined ours, too,” I say, and I smile because I’m being clever.

Get it? Because we would have been dead.

####

“I’m sorry ma’am, you can’t bring your mutts in here,” the nurse says when we arrive at the Fort Nelson hospital, staggering out of Duane’s minivan as his wife calls the police and says help is on the way.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” I answer, clutching Bridger’s collar and tracking wet, socked footprints across the linoleum. Michael sways in behind me, holding Naia to his chest with wide eyes and bloodied hands.

I bet we look like those people you always hear about. The crazies.

A room suddenly opens for us in an unused portion of the hospital, and we spend the better part of the morning sitting on the floor in stunned silence, giving a police report to an officer named Katie and force-feeding Naia and Bridger dry crackers and lukewarm water.

It will cost $500 per person to be seen by a doctor, so we forego medical exams for now. And Fort Nelson doesn’t have a veterinarian—what the fuck kind of town doesn’t have a veterinarian?—so Michael and I skip deliberation and make the only decision we feel is reasonable.

Give us a rental car, because we need to get Naia to a Fort St. John vet hospital right now.

####

Fast-forward four hours, and Michael and I are in the middle of nowhere on that same God-forsaken two-lane highway in the middle of a snowstorm. I am sitting in the back seat of our rental Kia Sorrento, and Naia is crumpled in a little black heap at my side. She shifts to get comfortable amongst the avalanche of belongings we’ve stacked to the ceiling around her, and this tiny movement sends a stab of pain coursing through her already weak body.

“How’s she doing?” Michael asks from the driver’s seat.

I don’t know how he’s doing this; driving through this snowstorm in the middle of this fog, dodging stray elk and flicking on and off his high-beams during those heart-stopping moments when visibility drops below twenty feet.

It’s pitch-black out here. Black as an abyss, a wormhole stretching across the frozen void of space. The steady stream of snow tapping our windshield reminds me of that Windows screen saver that makes you feel like you’re flying through the solar system.

Only now I’m afraid we’re going to spin into another accident, and this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself together afterward.

It’s a statistical improbability, a mathematical unlikelihood. I probably have a better chance of being attacked by a shark and then being trampled by an elephant. But there’s always that one little anomaly, that one weird guy in Texas who’s been struck by lightning more than 60 times.

Some times these things just happen.

Why not twice in one day?

Naia’s golden eyes are rolling in her skull, and her breathing is raspy. I’m trying to get her to drink water, and I’m doing every trick I can think of to distract her from her panting.

“Got your tongue. Hahaha, look at me, I’m gonna get your tongue if you don’t put it back in your mouth… I’m gonna get your eye googies next." I know she has this gross little habit of always wanting to eat them after I’ve wiped her eyes clean. "Don’t you want to pause for a second to eat your eye googies?”

I watch Naia struggle, and I suddenly feel my chest closing. Those golden eyes are so beautiful, and her ridiculous bat ears are perfect.

She’s going to die. Naia is going to die right here sitting on my lap, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A swell of anger spills itself into tears, and I clench my eyes shut, fighting the pain and clutching Naia so tightly that I imagine my arms have the power keep her together.

The power to keep her here.

This isn’t fair. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen.

We’re supposed to move into a new house together. We’re supposed to have babies, and Naia is supposed to be their nanny. She’s supposed to snuffle their ears and sleep beside them every night.

We can’t say goodbye to her yet. We can’t leave her here in this god-forsaken place, broken and extinguished like a snuffed candle. She isn’t even three yet.

This isn’t how this is supposed to happen.

Oil refineries tantalize us for hours, gleaming red and warm in the distance. They camouflage themselves as the town of Fort St. John only to mock us when we approach. Their wicked flame smoke stacks glow like beacons, and we feel like we’re traveling through time as we steer past them into the abyss.

####

We have been on the road for more than five and a half hours by the time we finally reach North Peace Veterinary Clinic--a square metal box illuminated by street lights and outfitted with a squeeze cage in the front for handling large livestock procedures.

My socks are gone now, so I carry Naia barefoot through the snow as Dr. North waves and pulls her glass door open for us. She’s small and athletic, coffee-haired and tan-faced, with kind eyes and rock climber hands, and she can’t believe we’ve come to her vet hospital before seeing a doctor ourselves.

Her office is warm, and the air smells like antiseptic and metal as Michael and I struggle to place Naia on an exam table. She cries out in pain, and her insides heave. A trickle of blood begins dripping in dark rivulets down the base of her tail.

I take one look and suddenly think I’m going to vomit.

Her insides. Her insides have turned into mush, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A wave of heat rips through me, and I collapse in an exam chair, tearing off my favorite chocolate vest and that pink American Eagle hoodie I put on this morning because I knew Michael would think I looked pretty.

It’s ripped. I ripped the sleeve of my pretty pink hoodie, and Naia’s going to die here.

The flecked tile floor feels cold against my back as I slump to the ground, and Dr. North brings me a water-filled mug. It’s old and white, stained with coffee and chipped at the handle, but the water tastes good, so I share with Naia.

“It’s good if she wants to drink, right?”

“Maybe, but we don’t want her to drink too much in case we need to sedate her.” Dr. North attempts a smile, explains that she’s going to take her now and do x-rays. We should make ourselves comfortable in her waiting room.

####

Bridger and I pass the time by walking laps through the fluorescent-lit reception area while Michael sits slumped in a corner, eyes watery and hands shaking, dried blood caked around his knuckles.

I decide to make up a new game.

1…. 2… 3… 4…

20… 21… Twenty-two steps to make it from one end of the room to the other. Gotta beat that pace next time.

1… 2… 3… 4…

Six steps to get all the way around the corner.

1… 2… 3… 4…

18… 19… Only twenty steps to get all the way back. Let’s try it again a little faster.

Eukanuba, Science Diet... Dry treats, chewy treats, cute little cans of cat food…

Bridger loves keeping pace with me. This whole thing is his idea, actually. He’s named Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos thanks to his propensity for walking laps around our bedroom at 4:00am, his black and clear toenails click-click-clicking against the lacquered wooden floors when he needs to go to the bathroom.

“He’s a morning person,” we would laugh, grumbling as we unfurled ourselves from our nest of blankets. “The rest of us are night owls, but Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos is a morning person.”

Dr. North returns to the reception area, peering at us with a tentative smile. Her words are blurs, and the x-rays she presents only serve to accentuate how beautiful Naia is, even when she’s just bones on a screen.

“See that?” Dr. North asks. “That’s her bladder. I was afraid it may have ruptured when she started bleeding earlier, but it turns out her kidneys are just badly bruised.” She points to the bones, the wispy, smoke-colored bones all lined up like Lego blocks on the flimsy plastic sheet, and she smiles again. She explains that everything looks great, and that Naia probably only has a hairline fracture on her pelvis.

“A hairline fracture,” she repeats, “so she’ll probably be a good candidate for arthritis when she gets older.”

I’m stuck on the word, and a surge of tears suddenly pours down my cheeks as I lean into Michael for support. Dried brown blood coats my fingernails, and I pat Bridger on the head as I repeat it: “Arthritis? Naia is going to get arthritis? Michael, did you hear that? Naia is going to get arthritis because Naia is going to get old. Michael, Naia is going to get old.”

Air whooshes from my lungs, and a swell of pure joy fills my ribcage, warm, golden and inviting as a sunrise.

Memories spring to life and dance like a film roll before me—wrestling matches, hikes in the sunshine, fire lit nights—and then suddenly I’m seeing pictures of things to come. Dancing in the kitchen, Christmas trees, blanket-wrapped babies and a little black, bat-eared nanny. Dog bones, snowflakes, soccer games in the park… Bridger, Naia, Michael and me fighting for space on our always-too-small queen-sized bed.

The four of us. Our blossoming, young, four-member family.

We all get a second chance.

Deja Vu Blogfest: The Product of Post-Crash Insomnia

 
In honor of the Deja Vu Blogfest (brought to you by DL Hammons, Creepy Query Girl, Nicole Ducleroir and Lydia Kang), I am re-posting a favorite blog post of mine that I think needs to see the light of day one more time.

The purpose of this Blogfest is to prevent great posts from fading away into the ever-expanding blogosphere without one more shout-out. It's also a great time to check out the posts from others that you may have missed. Here's the list of the other participants: The Deja Vu Blogfest.

Without further ado, here's a re-post of one of my favorite posts, "The Product of Post-Crash Insomnia." I originally posted this on March 9, 2011, and it's by far the most meaningful thing I've ever written. I will post it again here in its entirety: 

Al-Can Highway, October 2010, Photo Courtesy of Me

I survived a pretty intense car accident in October 2010, and--like most people, I suppose--I now separate my life into two segments: pre-crash and post-crash. My husband and I were driving through a very remote section of northern British Columbia near the Yukon Territory on our way from Alaska to California, and our car flipped six times before finally coming to rest in a drainage ditch. Although we both survived, we almost lost one of our dogs, and the accident itself was unfortunately just the first of our struggles.

After we finally arrived safely in the Lower 48 (nearly two weeks later), I couldn't sleep for weeks, and I found myself haunted by the ghostly images of what we could have become: a cluster of faded crosses buried and forgotten in waist-high snow. It amazed me to think that we could have simply ceased to exist. All the threads of our lives--our goals, our dreams, our connections and our relationships--could have slammed to a stop, and life would have continued on without us.

There is nothing more humbling than realizing the sun will someday set without you.

At the height of my post-crash insomnia, I realized the only way I could purge my experience was to write it down, and here is the result. (I apologize in advance for the language and the general choppiness; I've tried my best not to embellish, and I've recorded everything as best as I can remember.) By putting it on paper and then putting it out here, I think I'm finally ready to let it go...

OCTOBER 23, 2010

The hard left swerve of the first fishtail.

The paralyzed feeling of helplessness as I bolt awake to see our truck sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic.

Ice. Obsidian patches of water. Ribbons of dirty snow swirling across the spruce-lined highway like dim grey snakes or threads of tape ripped from the underbelly of a cassette.

Beautiful. Looks like dancing.

Michael. My Michael, my dirty, adventurous mountain man. The love of my life.

Tensed at the wheel, cobalt eyes wide in panic.

Attempting to correct us, he flings the wheel hard to the left, then hard to the right. His knuckles are clenched, white as paper, stretched too thin around our sun-faded steering wheel.

A ship’s captain in the throes of a thunderstorm.

Relax. Don’t panic. This has happened once before. Everything will be fine.

Fleeting thoughts of a harmless skid back home in Anchorage, that afternoon we drove from the Hillside two winters ago. Watching with a mixture of dread and fascination as our brand-new-to-us Toyota Tacoma did a ballerina’s pirouette and came gracefully to rest at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. Didn’t leave a scratch.

Flawlessly executed. A judge’s Perfect Ten.

This time will be just like that.

Some sort of talking. Michael’s frustration and fear, my words of encouragement. Trying not to panic in the midst of a runaway train ride.

Don’t freak out. It will just make him freak out more.

A decision.

Angling toward the ditch. Wide and soft-looking, with blades of golden prairie grass folded to the ground by the winter’s first snowfall.

Launching off the asphalt, realizing the road is a few feet higher than the shoulder. Watching the ground rise to meet us and clutching the “oh-shit” bar without even realizing it. Socked feet—the same pair of Wigwams I’ve been wearing since we crossed into British Columbia two days ago—braced against the floor’s grey rubber mats.

This. Is. Happening.

Just noise now. Shattering glass, the screeching of metal upon metal. Plastic and steel and tires tearing into the earth, ripping through the ground like a heaving, angry claw.

The smell of dirt, the chill of ice. Lights and darks, and the realization that we’re flipping now. Over and over and over. Tiny and insignificant, like lottery balls tumbling in a wheel.

My head is suddenly hanging out the window. Resting sideways on the door frame like that time I drank too much Bushmill's the night we got engaged.

But this time I’m mad.

Furious. Mind-bendingly, unflinchingly, unfiltered in my rage.

STOP!

STOP FLIPPING!!

THIS ISN’T FAIR… YOU CAN’T DO THIS… LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW FIRST…

GODDAMNIT, LET ME GET MY HEAD INSIDE THE WINDOW!!!


There’s dirt everywhere. In my mouth, in my eyes. It tastes raw and silty, dark and fertile. It’s good soil.

In the midst of the chaos, I feel something hard against my chest—Michael’s arm?—and I hear a voice yelling. Screaming, actually, and I understand with a start that it’s my voice I’m hearing.

Weird.

Didn’t even realize I was speaking.


One. Two. Three. I lose count of the truck flips after four, realizing with detached amusement that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies aren’t even filtered by car wrecks.

And then suddenly, there’s silence.

Distant, detached, uncompromising silence.

Mother Nature doesn’t really give a shit about you.

We’ve stopped. The truck is right-side-up, and our twisted front bumper is angled downward into a drainage ditch. We’re teeter-tottering in mid-air like kids on a seesaw.

Thank God for this drainage ditch.

Pausing for only an instant, I swirl sideways to take stock of the truck’s passengers.

There’s Michael. Eyes wide. High cheekbones drained of color and face skewed with shock. He’s okay.

Check.

Looking backward into the truck’s extended cab, I lock eyes with Bridger. Our floppy-eared, vulnerable pound dog Bridger. Black bandit’s mask and that beautiful tan face. His eyes are wide, but he’s sitting up, and those lanky sled dog legs are fully intact. He’s okay.

Check.

“Where’s Naia?”

The question tumbles from my mouth as I lock eyes with Michael again. It’s the first words I’ve spoken.

Naia. Our radiant, vivacious, ebony German Shepherd mix. Our heart and our soul, and the glue that keeps us all sane and balanced. The most fearless member of our blossoming young family.

She’s gone.

Michael and I move quickly, nodding in silent understanding as we turn from each other. Our hands and arms move on autopilot, unbuckling seatbelts and flinging open car doors we later won’t remember opening.

I’m outside before I know it, leaping with socked feet into the waiting drainage ditch. Bands of ice shatter beneath my toes, and I shudder as my legs sink into a freezing, muddy creek. Sulfur, vaporous and rotten, surges into my nostrils.

Shit. Now my feet are all wet.

Feeling like I’ve stood in the creek for days, but realizing it has probably only been an instant, I clamber up the embankment on my hands and knees, scuffing my palms and tearing the knees of my favorite pair of jeans. Those way-too-expensive Seven for All Mankind jeans I bought last year at Nordstrom because Michael said they made my butt look cute.

Up the hill, our belongings—suitcases, clothes, gasoline cans and blankets—are scattered through the prairie grass like leaves in the wind.

And then there’s Naia.

Tossed amongst the luggage like a crumpled rag doll, she’s awake, and her golden eyes are trained on us. Her silly, oversized bat ears stand erect like satellite dishes.

Michael has almost reached her—with Bridger bounding like a terrified jackrabbit behind him—so I make a beeline for the highway, waving my arms as a minivan pulls to a stop on the road’s shoulder. My vision seems to be flickering as an older truck slides in behind the minivan, and then Naia is suddenly howling.

She’s running with her tail down—short, compact and panicked, her legs beautiful in their musculature. Her stance is the same one we saw two days ago at that rest area in the Yukon Territory, the one where she chased pebbles and bounded through the black spruce forest with the speed and grace of a panther. Clipped and measured in her movements.

Like a police dog. Like a big girl.

She isn’t even three yet.

She’s bolting into incoming traffic now, and I’m yelling something about not panicking, but Michael already has her, and he’s leading her back across the asphalt. He’s holding her by that beautiful, “girly, but not too girly” purple collar he picked out last year for her birthday.

His injured hands are spilling blood all over it.

There’s a family—a wholesome, bacon-eating Canadian family—and now they’re rushing us inside the minivan. Two wide-eyed daughters stare from the backseat as the mother spreads a bedspread over the middle seat for us.

It’s cute. Pink and cartoonish. Fluffy and decorated with maybe the Powerpuff girls, but I hear myself saying, “I can’t… I don’t want to get blood on your blanket…”

I’m inside now, and Bridger is cowered on my lap. Naia is crumpled in knots on the floor, and Michael is staggering back from the truck. He’s clutching my wallet and the new Canon camera I bought last year so I could “take a picture every single day of 2009.” The base is swinging crazily from its straps, winding in figure-eights like the loose seat of a swing set. The lens cap is missing.

What a funny thing to save.

The van door closes, and now we’re pulling away from the accident, swirling back toward Fort Nelson, where we stayed at that chain hotel and ate Dominos pizza last night. Looked at our map of Canada and studied that battered copy of our Milepost magazine. Tried to figure out our itinerary for this crazy move from Alaska to Colorado.

I watch our truck fade in the distance, its nose face-down in the drainage ditch and its back wheels suspended in mid-air like a child’s Tonka truck. Our camper shell has been ripped off, and our things—all our things, each one lovingly packed in preparation for this trip—are scattered in tangles like the wake of a tornado.

That’s our LIFE out there.

I catch a stray word and repeat it—“Totaled?”—feeling the wheels inside my head laboring to process the notion.

But that’s not possible. That’s our truck. We’re driving to Colorado in that truck.

Michael’s hands are on mine, and I realize I’m covered in blood, too. Dark blood, thick and viscous, spills from wounds on my hands and face.

“You’re bleeding.” His eyes are wide, and they glimmer with sapphire light, bright and clear as a glacial lake. “I’m… so… sorry.” He pauses on each word for emphasis, running his hands up and down my sides to check for injuries. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay?”

I don’t know. Am I?

Dragging my fingers through my hair, I pull free tiny bits of glass—beautiful, raw diamonds that shine like stars in the morning haze. My right hand is beginning to swell grotesquely, and my left jaw is aching, but I think I’m remarkably healthy.

“I’m fine. How about you?”

I touch his arms, his face, that sandy beard he insisted on growing special for the trip. His grey Mountain Hardware beanie is smudged with streaks of dirt and blood, but I can still see those two campfire ash stripes he accidentally wiped across its brim during our weekend trip to Seward last spring.

“I’m fine.”

Turning to Bridger, I repeat my inspection, cradling his bony shoulders against my chest and feeling my heart break as I watch his back legs tremble.

Naia is crying, howling out in pain whenever she twists herself on the floor of the minivan. We can’t find any wounds—not even the one I thought I saw on her hamstrings just before she ran into oncoming traffic.

Internal injuries.

The thought strikes me with the weight of a wrecking ball, and I do my best to convince myself I’m mistaken. “She’s probably just sore,” I say, patting Michael’s knee in encouragement after I palpate her spine and the bones of her back legs. “Everything seems to be intact, and she’s letting me touch her everywhere. That’s a good sign.”

But what the hell do I know? I’m not a vet tech.

As we drive, we thank the Canadian couple more times than is reasonably necessary, asking them their names over and over only to feel their answers drifting away moments after they form.

Duane is the dad; I try my hardest and finally commit him to memory, feeling my mind battling the word like an out-of-control kite in the midst of a hurricane. Duane. Duane is beefy and good-natured, with a gap between his front teeth and meaty, flushed sausage fingers. Duane. Remember the name Duane.

Duane and Duane’s wife—who I will later only remember as an ash-blonde blur—were on their way to Fort St. John this morning. They’ve been living in Fort Nelson for the past five years, and Fort St. John is the next town over; it’s a three and a half to four hour drive, and one of Duane’s daughters will be getting her braces tightened there Monday.

“We’ve been driving behind you the whole way south from Fort Nelson, about 40 kilometers,” Duane says. Same speed. Following at a safe distance. These straight roads will get you, he says. Your tires get away from you on that ice, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Forty kilometers is a long way to backtrack,” Michael says.

“I feel terrible we’ve ruined your day,” I say, watching the windows fog up from the heater and wondering why Duane hasn’t fixed that hairline crack spreading like a spider web across his front windshield.

“You’re all alive,” Duane’s wife says—or was that Duane? “If you weren’t, that would have ruined our day.”

“It would have ruined ours, too,” I say, smiling because I’m being clever.

Get it? Because we would have been dead.
 
Ha! See? I’m still funny, even in the midst of a tragedy.

####

“I’m sorry ma’am, you can’t bring your mutts in here,” the nurse says when we arrive at the Fort Nelson hospital, staggering out of Duane’s minivan as his wife calls the police and says help is on the way.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” I answer, clutching Bridger’s collar and tracking wet, socked footprints across the linoleum as Michael sways in behind me, holding Naia to his chest with wide eyes and bloodied hands.

I bet we look like those people you always hear about. The crazies.

A room suddenly opens for us in an unused portion of the hospital, and we spend the better part of the morning sitting on the floor in stunned silence, giving a police report to an officer named Katie and force-feeding Naia and Bridger dry crackers and lukewarm water.

It will cost $500 per person to be seen by a doctor, so we forego medical exams for now. And Fort Nelson doesn’t have a veterinarian—what the fuck kind of town doesn’t have a veterinarian?—so Michael and I skip deliberation and make the only decision we feel is reasonable.

Give us a rental car, because we need to get Naia to a Fort St. John vet hospital right now.

####

Fast-forward four hours, and Michael and I are in the middle of nowhere on that same God-forsaken two-lane highway in the middle of a snowstorm. I am sitting in the back seat of our rental Kia Sorrento, and Naia is crumpled in a little black heap at my side. She shifts to get comfortable amongst the avalanche of belongings we’ve stacked to the ceiling around her, and this tiny movement sends a stab of pain coursing through her already weak body.

“How’s she doing?” Michael asks from the driver’s seat.

I don’t know how he’s doing this; driving through this snowstorm in the middle of this fog, dodging stray elk and flicking on and off his high-beams during those heart-stopping moments when visibility drops below twenty feet.

It’s pitch-black out here, black as an abyss, a wormhole stretching across the frozen void of space. The steady stream of snow tapping our windshield ironically reminds me of that Windows screen saver that makes you feel like you’re flying through the solar system.

Only now I’m afraid we’re going to spin into another accident, and this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep myself together afterward.

It’s a statistical improbability, a mathematical unlikelihood. I probably have a better chance of being attacked by a shark and then being trampled by an elephant. But there’s always that one little anomaly, that one weird guy in Texas who’s been struck by lightning more than 60 times.

Some times these things just happen.

Why not twice in one day?

Naia’s golden eyes are rolling in her skull, and her breathing is raspy. I’m trying to get her to drink water, and I’m doing every trick I can think of to distract her from her panting.
“Got your tongue. Hahaha, look at me, I’m gonna get your tongue if you don’t put it back in your mouth… I’m gonna get your eye googies next. I know you have this gross little habit of always wanting to eat them after I’ve wiped your eyes clean. Don’t you want to pause for a second to eat your eye googies?”

I watch Naia struggle, and I suddenly feel my chest closing. Those golden eyes are so beautiful, and her ridiculous bat ears are perfect.

She’s going to die. Naia is going to die right here sitting on my lap, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A swell of anger spills itself into tears, and I clench my eyes shut, fighting the pain and clutching Naia so tightly that I imagine my arms have the power keep her together.

The power to keep her here.

This isn’t fair. This isn’t the way things are supposed to happen.

We’re supposed to move into a new house together. We’re supposed to have babies, and Naia is supposed to be their nanny. She’s supposed to snuffle their ears and sleep beside them every night.

We can’t say goodbye to her yet. We can’t leave her here in this god-forsaken place, broken and extinguished like a snuffed candle. She isn’t even three yet.

This isn’t how this is supposed to happen.


Oil refineries tantalize us for hours, gleaming red and warm in the distance, camouflaging themselves as the town of Fort St. John only to mock us when we approach. Their wicked flame smoke stacks glow like beacons, and we feel like we’re traveling through time as we steer past them into the abyss.

####

We have been on the road for more than five and a half hours by the time we finally reach North Peach Veterinary Clinic, a square metal box illuminated by street lights and outfitted with a squeeze cage in the front for handling large livestock procedures.

My socks are gone now, so I carry Naia barefoot through the snow as Dr. North waves and pulls her glass door open for us. She’s small and athletic, coffee-haired and tan-faced, with kind eyes and rock climber hands, and she can’t believe we’ve come to her vet hospital before seeing a doctor ourselves.

Her office is warm, and the air smells like antiseptic and metal as Michael and I struggle to place Naia on an exam table. She cries out in pain, and her insides heave. A trickle of blood begins dripping in dark rivulets down the base of her tail.

I take one look and suddenly think I’m going to vomit.

Her insides. Her insides have turned into mush, and there’s nothing I can do to help her.

A wave of heat rips through me, and I collapse in an exam chair, tearing off my favorite chocolate vest and that pink American Eagle hoodie I put on this morning because I knew Michael would think I looked pretty.

It’s ripped. I ripped the sleeve of my pretty pink hoodie, and Naia’s going to die here.

The flecked tile floor feels cold against my back as I slump to the ground, and Dr. North brings me a water-filled mug. It’s old and white, stained with coffee and chipped at the handle, but the water tastes good, so I share with Naia.

“It’s good if she wants to drink, right?”

“Maybe, but we don’t want her to drink too much in case we need to sedate her.” Dr. North attempts a smile, explains that she’s going to take her now and do x-rays. We should make ourselves comfortable in her waiting room.

####

Bridger and I pass the time by walking laps through the fluorescent-lit reception area while Michael sits slumped in a corner, eyes watery and hands shaking, dried blood caked around his knuckles.

I decide to make up a new game.

1…. 2… 3… 4…

20… 21… Twenty-two steps to make it from one end of the room to the other. Gotta beat that pace next time.

1… 2… 3… 4…


Six steps to get all the way around the corner.

1… 2… 3… 4…

18… 19… Only twenty steps to get all the way back. Let’s try it again a little faster.


Eukanuba, Science Diet... Dry treats, chewy treats, cute little cans of cat food…

Bridger loves keeping pace with me. This whole thing is his idea, actually. He’s named Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos thanks to his propensity for walking laps around our bedroom at 4:00am, his black and clear toenails click-click-clicking against the lacquered wooden floors when he needs to go to the bathroom.

“He’s a morning person,” we would laugh, grumbling as we unfurled ourselves from our nest of blankets. “The rest of us are night owls, but Bridger Pacey Boop Chickos is a morning person.”

Dr. North returns to the reception area, peering at us with a tentative smile. Her words are blurs, and the x-rays she presents only serve to accentuate how beautiful Naia is, even when she’s just bones on a screen.

“See that?” Dr. North asks. “That’s her bladder. I was afraid it may have ruptured when she started bleeding earlier, but it turns out her kidneys are just badly bruised.” She points to the bones, the wispy, smoke-colored bones all lined up like Lego blocks on the flimsy plastic sheet, and she smiles again, explains that everything looks great, and that Naia probably only has a hairline fracture on her pelvis.

“A hairline fracture,” she repeats, “so she’ll probably be a good candidate for arthritis when she gets older.”

I’m stuck on the word, and a surge of tears suddenly pours down my cheeks as I lean into Michael for support. Dried brown blood coats my fingernails like clay, and I pat Bridger on the head as I repeat it: “Arthritis? Naia is going to get arthritis? Michael, did you hear that? Naia is going to get arthritis because Naia is going to get old. Michael, Naia is going to get old.”

Air whooshes from my lungs, and a swell of pure joy fills my ribcage, warm, golden and inviting as a sunrise.

Memories spring to life and dance like a film roll before me—wrestling matches, hikes in the sunshine, fire lit nights—and then suddenly I’m seeing pictures of things to come. Dancing in the kitchen, Christmas trees, blanket-wrapped babies and a little black, bat-eared nanny. Dog bones, snowflakes, soccer games in the park… Bridger, Naia, Michael and me fighting for space on our always-too-small queen-sized bed.

The four of us. Our blossoming, young, four-member family.

We all get a second chance.

An Embarrassment of Riches

Yay!  Holy crap, I am now the proud recipient of THREE new blog awards!  Sophie Li just bestowed me with an adorable strawberry shortcake, recognizing my "Irresistibly Sweet Blog."  (What can I say?  It's obviously those cuties in my right margin...  They're the real crowd pleasers here, not me! :))

If you haven't visited Sophie Li's blog, The Wordsmith Apprentice, you really ought to.  Not only is Sophie the most adorable Army vet and ex-parachuter you've ever seen, but she's also in the process of finishing her first manuscript, raising two kids and generally being fantastic.


My second blog award is from Pam Asberry, and it's so chic and svelte that I don't know what to do with myself!  My brand new "Stylish Blogger Award" proves once and for all that hiking boots and dirty clothes CAN be trend-setting!

As a disclaimer, take a stop by Pam's blog, Sometimes It's Cloudy, Sometimes It's Clear, to see what REAL style looks like!  Not only is Pam a writer, piano teacher, jewelry designer and single parent, but she's also an incredibly classy lady, and I'm honored someone so chic chose to give me this badge.


Last but certainly not least, Alison Beightol just bestowed me with my third honor, the "Versatile Blogger Award."  Wow, I looove this award; we are all juggling multiple paths as aspiring writers, so it's amazing to be recognized for my little corner of the world.

Alison's blog, Adventures of the Cautionary Tale, is a wonderful place to visit.  Not only does she jazz it up with hilarious pictures, but she provides tons of fun content, and she never fails to make me laugh.  If you don't know Alison yet, you really, really, really need to swing by and say hello!


Thank you SO much, ladies!  You have truly made my day!

After doing some soul searching, I am ready to pay my gifts forward.  Here are a few rules before I announce the recipients of MY blog awards:

1. Thank and link the person who nominated you.
2. Share seven random facts about myself.

3. Pass the Sweet Blog Award to 15 blogging buddies. 
4. Pass the Stylish Blogger Award to five new-found blogging buddies.
5. Pass the Versatile Blogger Award to five fellow bloggers.
6. Contact the winners to congratulate them.


Without further ado, here are my winners (in no particular order).  Some of you I've known for awhile, and some of you I've just met, but I've been touched by your kindness, style and humor, and I'm so pleased to be able to show my appreciation for you with these awards.

IRRESISTIBLY SWEET BLOG AWARD
1. Anita Howard
2. Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC
3. Lydia K
4. EEV
5. brenda
6. Marewolf
7. Charlee
8. K. Syrah
9. Girl Parker
10. Dawn Brazil
11. Deirdra Eden-Coppel
13. K.C. Blake
14. Bethany C.
15. Jennifer Snyder

STYLISH BLOGGER AWARD
1. Rebecca Dupree
2. Moonlight Gleam
3. Talia Jager
4. Kimberly Spencer
5. Eliza Faith

VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD
1. Kalen O'Donnell
2. Katherine Jenkins
3. Coral
4. Beckah-Rah
5. Anna L. Walls

Now, on to my seven random facts.  Compiling these was great fun; I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

1. My original career goal was to be a garbage man. People think I’m kidding when I say this, but I absolutely wanted to be a garbage man when I was five or six years old. This was back in the days when garbage men actually stood on the back of the garbage trucks, and I used to stare longingly at those dudes, wishing there was some way I too could someday get paid to hang on the back of a moving vehicle. (The whole disclaimer that you actually had to stop and pick up trashcans every few feet obviously didn’t make a dent in my childhood brain.)

Photo Courtesy of California Cthulhu (Will Hart)
2. I am too tall to be Cinderella. While I attended college in Orlando, one of my dreams was to become a Disney princess at Walt Disney World. Utilizing the behind-the-scenes knowledge of some acquaintances who worked at the park, I actually managed to maneuver my way into a casting session. Upon my arrival, I was floored to learn how specific Disney’s princess requirements are. Princesses, apparently, should be between 5’4” and 5’7”, and their feet should be no larger than a size 9. (Sad news for my 5’8” and size 9.5 self!) Although I tried unsuccessfully to slouch and scrunch in my toes, I was quickly dismissed, and that was the end of my Disney princess dream. As a parting gift, however, I was cast as a dancer in Epcot’s Tapestry of Dreams parade, and I spent the next year and a half dancing, sweating, and smiling my gold-painted face off!

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

Summer 2003: That's me!!
3. I’m a crappy surfer, and I apparently don’t have the sense to stay out of shark-infested waters. I lack upper arm strength, but that didn’t stop me from really, really, really trying to pick up surfing during the six months I lived and worked as an apprentice chef in Australia. (I know, random, right? I’m almost as bad at cooking as I am at surfing.) The crowning jewel of this failed attempt at greatness took place off the coast of Adelaide when my friend Simon and I spent an afternoon surfing on a fantastic, hidden and remarkably empty stretch of beach just south of wine country. Upon our return to town, a few locals stopped us. Seeing our boards, they asked us where we’d been, and their jaws dropped when we told them the name of the beach and remarked how unusual we’d found it to be so empty on such a beautiful day. Yep, you guessed it. The beach was renowned great white territory, and none of the locals were stupid enough to step foot in the surf. (I still get the willies when I tell this story!)

Photo Courtesy of Terry Goss, Wikimedia Commons
4. I once lived in a tent for four and a half months. I spent the summer of 2004 living and working in Yosemite National Park, and my assigned employee housing was a 10’ x 10’ tent with canvas walls, a wooden floor and a pair of creaking, rusted army cots. (Did I mention I SHARED this 10’ x 10’ tent with a roommate??) Despite this rustic housing, I truly view those 4.5 months as an amazing turning point in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. By living simply, I realized how much crap I actually didn’t need in my life. My summer in Yosemite also cemented my love of the outdoors, and I don’t think I would be where I am today if not for the lessons I learned while hiking, biking, stargazing and floating down the Merced River. (I will actually be returning to Yosemite next week to be a bridesmaid in my Yosemite roommate’s wedding. Mary Schwab, you are an angel, and I can’t wait to be part of your big day!!)

Photo Courtesy of Rainer Marks, Wikimedia Commons
5. The tattoo my left foot depicts the footprints of my six favorite animals at the Alaska Zoo. When my husband and I made the difficult decision to leave Alaska after nearly four fantastic years (see Thoughts on Leaving the Last Frontier), I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my job at the Alaska Zoo without taking along mementos of my six favorite animals. The result was this tattoo, which symbolizes (from bottom to top) Knobby the Bactrian camel, Elf the moose, Tracy the mountain goat, Mac the red fox, Max the raccoon and Peabody the great horned owl. (I have many more zoo loves, but these six animals in particular touched my life in so many ways that I’m ecstatic I get to carry them around with me every day.)

My bony feets!
6. I survived a horrific car crash last October, and nothing has been quite the same since. During my husband’s and my exodus from Alaska last October, we ran into a patch of black ice on a remote stretch of the Alaska Highway just south of the town of Fort Nelson in northern British Columbia. (See The Product of Post-Crash Insomnia) Our truck flipped six times and one of our two dogs was tossed out the back window, but we all miraculously survived. (My husband, our boy dog and I suffered only minor scrapes and bruises, and our girl dog suffered a hairline fracture on her pelvis, which healed after six weeks or so.) Although we walked away mostly unharmed, I couldn’t sleep for weeks, and I was haunted by the idea that the sum of our lives—our memories, our relationships, our goals and our dreams—could have been extinguished so easily in that split-second. The accident taught me many things, and the strongest of these is that we should ALWAYS tell people how we feel about them. If they are important to us, they should know that, because we might never get a second chance to express that. (On that note, thank you—ALL of you—for stopping by to visit me here. I know I’ve never met most of you in real-life, and I know I don’t know most of you very well yet, but our commonality and purpose as aspiring writers {most of us, anyway} is so powerful, and I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve found all of you to share in this journey with me.)

July 4, 2009: Milk Glacier, Girdwood, Alaska
7. A snake took a ride on my backpack this Tuesday. Now that I’ve gotten all “Debbie Downer” on you, I’ll end on a funny note. I’m currently working as the Director of Education at a nature center in Denver, and I had a huge field trip group out at the site this Tuesday. As I was wrapping up their field trip program, I set down my backpack to say goodbye to the teachers and pass out evaluations and whatnot. After leaving the backpack unattended for no more than five minutes, I picked it up, slung it over my shoulder and headed back to our educational shed to put my gear down. As I turned a corner, I caught a flash of movement at the corner of my eye, and THIS SNAKE fell off my backpack and hit the ground at my feet. WTF? WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m not really allowed to be afraid of snakes in my line of work, and I’ve worked with enough of them that I’ve kind of gotten over my girlish fear of them, but OH MY GOD. How are you supposed to NOT freak out when a 16-inch bull snake falls off your backpack and lands on the ground at your feet??? The best part, of course, was the fact that I had to grab a stick, pick this guy up, and run him to a safe place before the kids found him. Yikes!!!

Photo Courtesy of Antonio Muniz
That's all from me...  I can't wait to hear YOUR seven facts!! :)