Moments of Grace (18 Years Later…)

For almost 15 years, I thought of this day as the anniversary of the worst day of my life. But as with so many other things in my life, especially recently, my perspective on this day has changed dramatically. Now, instead of remembering it as one of the worst days is my life, I celebrate it as one of the best!

26 December 2003:

I was living in Dallas at the time and had been home in East Texas spending the Christmas holiday with my family. I didn’t have to work again until the 27th, but I had made plans to have supper that evening with a friend I hadn’t seen in some time. On my way home one of my tires blew and I had to replace it with the toy spare because I wasn’t anywhere close to a tire store. After stopping briefly at a bookstore to pick up a gift for my friend, I got back on the road.

I was headed up I-35 toward the LBJ Freeway, but I decided at the last minute to go on up to Frankford Road because it looked like traffic was backing up on LBJ and I didn’t want to risk being late. Just between the Walnut Hill and Royal Lane exits, the driver of the car in the lane next to me swerved into my lane and collided with the right front quarter panel of mine. The collision was just close enough to the front bumper that it caused that tire to contort and blow. I was stuck in the left center lane of Stemmons Freeway at 5:30 on Friday afternoon, the day after Christmas. It was not a good place to be!

I didn’t have a cell phone then…it’s true. I was one of the few people I knew who, in 2003, still didn’t have a cell phone (nostalgia for simpler days…). As I waited for traffic to pass so that I could at least get myself to the shoulder and out of danger, I noticed a young woman stuck behind me trying to move around. I could see she was on a cell phone, so I motioned for her to wait and ran back to her car and asked if I could use her phone to call for help. She agreed. Although traffic had slowed significantly in the right lanes (the car that hit me had also stalled further over), cars were still passing freely in the far left lane, so I decided to stand on her passenger side. I dialed 911 and reported the accident to the police. I was told it would be about 5-10 minutes before someone could get there.

When I finished my call, I handed her phone back and thanked her. She asked me if I knew how to get to Frankford Road. I told her yes, that it was actually where I was headed. Just as I started to tell her how to get there, I heard a terrible noise from behind her car–like a loud gunshot followed by metal grinding. I looked back just in time to see the headlights of the 18-wheeler that was about to plow into the back of her car…the car I was standing next to.

There was no time to react. Suddenly, I felt a concussion blow me backward and I was plunged into darkness. Then a horrific impact on my left side was followed by what seemed like an eternity of deafening silence and the sensation of my body moving uncontrollably. Finally, I was stopped by another violent impact and the silence was overcome by the cacophony of noise in the wake of what had just happened.

I was suddenly acutely aware of my situation. I was lying on my back in the middle of Stemmons Freeway. I heard brakes squealing and tires screeching. I heard people yelling “Call 911! Call 911!” But none of it was near me. Near me there was nothing. Just…me.

In those few seconds that seemed like hours, I came to my senses. I heard what I perceived as an audible voice (maybe just a thought?) say “Jason! Get up and get your ass out of the middle of the road!” I opened my eyes and lifted myself off the pavement. I was disoriented, but I knew I needed help, so I headed back down the highway toward the headlights, the flames, and the rush of people. The acrid smell of burning oil, rubber, and metal hung in the air.

As I stood momentarily trying to steady myself, I became aware of the searing pain in my left arm. There was a deep, intense throbbing on the inside, and a sharp burning on my skin–like someone had smacked me hard with something heavy. In the same instant I discovered that although I could feel the pain in my arm, I couldn’t move it. I panicked because, for a moment I thought my arm had been severed and the only thing holding it to my body was my shirt sleeve. Then logic took over and I remembered the pain and saw my fingers moving. My arm was still firmly attached to the rest of me, but it was in bad shape.

I started walking toward all the carnage and commotion. I saw the car that originally hit me on the side of the road where it had come to a stop minutes before. Then I saw the back end of the truck perched halfway in the ditch on the right side of the highway. The flames I’d seen when I first opened my eyes were coming from the car I’d been standing next to. It was mangled and pinned beneath the cab of the truck. People were working furiously to get her out of it. Thankfully, they were able to get her out and she survived with only minor injuries. I looked around but didn’t see my car–I learned later that the truck had also slammed into it and it had careened further up the highway beyond where I landed and came to rest on the center median barrier.

No one seemed to notice me walking toward the scene, so I finally screamed, “Help me!” A man ran toward me and asked if I was hurt. I told him that I thought my arm was broken but that I was hurting all over, I was dizzy and disoriented. The man, whose name I never learned, happened to be a trauma nurse in town from Houston for the holidays. He sat me down on the shoulder and looked me over. He checked my pupils, took my pulse, and looked me over for other injuries. He reassured me that he thought I’d be OK. He said help was on the way and asked if I wanted him to call anyone. I asked him to call my mom, which he did and told her what had happened.

About that time, police, fire, and ambulances started arriving. It took longer than usual because the accident had blocked the entire freeway, so they had to go up and use an exit ramp to come back down the wrong way to get to us. When the paramedics got to me, the man walked away…to this day I wish I’d gotten his name. But, in another moment of grace, one of the paramedics was my friend from high school, Ben. He rode with me in the back of the ambulance to the hospital and prayed with me on the way there. He also called my mom again and told her which hospital they’d taken me to since the man who’d called earlier didn’t know and she was beside herself trying to find me. I can’t express in words how comforting it was to have him there with me that night. I’ll owe him always!

After being transferred from the first hospital to Parkland because it was better equipped to handle the traumatic injury I sustained. There I underwent over 7 hours of surgery to repair my left arm. Every bone from my shoulder to my wrist had been broken to one degree or another, and my elbow was completely shattered. The surgeon spent the first two hours of the operation getting what he called “bone dust” out of my arm. When it was all said and done I had two plates, sixteen screws, and a six-inch metal rod in my arm, all of which are still there today.

Over the next 10 months, I went to physical therapy to help me strengthen and relearn to use my arm and hand. Some of those days were grueling–it was the hardest physical word I’d ever done. I wasn’t released to drive again for six months and finally went back to work when it was over.

So, why on earth would I celebrate that day as one of the best in my life?

Before the wreck, I was kind of a wreck. I had dropped out of college years before and struggled to maintain steady employment. I had no direction in my life. Worse still, I had no desire for direction in my life. I was a mess. The accident stopped me in my tracks and forced me to take a hard look at myself and accept that truth.

But, in a continued series of moments of grace that began happening the night of the wreck, I met my friend Joe late one night when I was unable to sleep because of pain and was chatting in Yahoo! Chat (remember those days?). Because of my friendship with Joe, I met Tinsley who, although he hadn’t known me more than a month, took a chance on me and hired me to come work in the arts library at SMU. It was with their inspiration, prodding, and even financial help that I decided in 2007 to go back to school. And it was my return to school that inspired me to start writing my blog in 2009, which helped reunite me with another high school friend, Trent. It was Trent who first told me that he thought I’d make a great professor, even before I’d finished an undergraduate degree.

Those moments of grace that started the second I survived my accident put me in the company of people who believed in me before I believed in myself…long before. You see, it wasn’t until this day rolled around in 2016 that I realized what had happened. That year it dawned on me that I was an entirely different person. Twelve days before that anniversary, I’d received my master’s degree; I was two years into a teaching career; and I was beginning to apply for doctoral programs. Had that accident not happened, I don’t know if I would have ever experienced those moments of grace.

I used to remember this day as the anniversary of the worst day of my life. Today, 18 years later, I celebrate it as one of the best. I’ve never been in a better place in life. I’m beginning my doctoral dissertation. I’m teaching college courses. I have great friends that I otherwise never would have met. All because of those moments of grace.

Perspective is everything. I could’ve easily written this from my original perspective of what happened to me. I did write that story for almost 15 years. But that’s not my story anymore. All of those things happened and gave me a chance to get here today. That is not something to mourn. That is something to celebrate, and I do.

What things do you perceive as moments of sadness that are really moments of grace in disguise.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

(The photos below are from the police files. On the left, the car I was standing next to. On the right, the truck that hit us.)

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