A Tragedy, a Gift, and a Reminder to Breathe

On this last day of January, I thought I would share my thoughts on the New Year, the gift that is my daughter, and how the two led me to a few non-resolution resolutions for 2019.

I find myself increasingly wary of the New Year. The celebrations, resolutions, and all those hopes cast into a great unknown leave me feeling anxious and unsteady.

The end of the last year was a barely-controlled descent through work parties, sporting events, and work. The days blurred together and I encouraged myself to just push through; don’t think, just do.

And then came the solstice with its longest, and my favorite, night of the year. The darkness surrounded me like a blanket as I enjoyed the candlelight with my family. Every part of me wanted to remain here in this quiet place of comfort with the two people who hold equal halves of my heart in their hands. Knowing that I could keep this moment as nothing more than a snapshot, I vowed to hold on to the feeling of it as long as I could, to remember it when chaos, anxiety, and busy schedules began to close in on me once more.

The following afternoon, on our way to a girls’ day out, my daughter and I witnessed a high-speed, head-on collision. From my vantage point on the on-ramp, I saw the car lose control, clear two lanes of traffic and the grass median, and slam into an oncoming van. My scream alerted my daughter to the impending tragedy and she looked up at the very moment the truck appeared to explode on impact. We both watched in horror as the first two vehicles gathered two more and came to rest on the far shoulder of the highway.

We sat there in the the middle of the ramp helpless and shaking. An ambulance happened to be a few cars behind the one that had lost control and the emergency personnel were the first on the scene. There was nothing that we could do so I pulled the car to the side of the ramp, held my daughter’s hand and cried. I grieved for the victims whose lives had been changed forever. I grieved for the families who had, no doubt, lost a loved one and didn’t yet know. I wished them peace in their final moments of unknowing.

Still shaking and crying, I drove on. It seemed wrong to move forward but, I told myself, it would have been worse to watch helpless as the injured were removed from their vehicles. On the way to our first destination, I fought through the tears to tell my daughter the story of my aunt who had been killed in an automobile accident and how I still remembered the afternoon it happened; the phone call, the looks on my parents faces as they received the news and their struggle as they attempted to relay it to me. I told her about my other aunt who had been critically injured while rendering aid at the scene of an accident. I remembered the phone call so many years ago on this same day and how it changed her life and all our lives forever in both big and small ways.

My point to her was that I wasn’t just upset about the tragedy we had witnessed. I was devastated for the ripple effect that this one event would have on so many lives from this day forward. As we pulled into the parking lot, my breathing returned to normal and I dried the last of my tears. I looked down and realized that her hand had not left my leg for the entire 20 minute drive. In a stunning reversal of roles, she had comforted me by listening patiently as I struggled to speak the words that were bubbling out of my broken heart. I parked the car and warned her that once we were both out I would need to “hug her fiercely.” She smiled and said “I would expect nothing less.”

Later that afternoon as we shopped, I asked my daughter to stay in a store while I walked down the street to a different store where one of her Christmas presents was located. When I returned she looked me in the eyes and said, “I need you to give me $20. I’ll pay you back as soon as we get home.” This was unusual behavior for her so I smiled, asked no questions, and left her with a $20 bill. She found me a few minutes later. She had a gleam in her eye and a small bag in her hand. She was clearly proud of herself.

On Christmas Eve my daughter handed me a small, beautifully-wrapped box. I carefully removed the paper and top and found a small piece of granite with the words “Just Breathe” inscribed on its face. I dissolved into tears and pulled my daughter close. Two days earlier, she had witnessed a terrible tragedy. I wondered at the time how she was processing it and whether or not it would linger with her. And, in this moment, I had my answer. Her concern had been for me.

We held each other there in my parents’ living room. As Christmas Eve continued around us, we remained still for a few precious moments. I laugh now wondering if my family thinks I always get so emotional over paperweights.

And now comes the New Year. I sometimes wish that I could be like other people and see hope and possibility. At worst I see uncertainty and chaos. At best I see nothing; a blank slate ready for the tally of wins and losses, attempts and misses, and personal fouls (I have a feeling there will be a lot of those). As I look at that slate, I feel the anxiety creeping in around the edges of my being. It’s always there, threatening to pull up a seat next to me and remind me that every gain is ripe for loss and that tragedy always lies a heartbeat away. Before I make room for the extra chair, I think about my daughter. She’s part child and part young woman but she knows more about these dark moments than she should. She’s seen the tears and the uncertainty in my eyes. She has seen enough to know that sometimes I need a reminder to breathe.

I have no intentions of making a resolution for 2019. However, I have promised myself to pause when crazy schedules and life threaten to steal my joy. I’ve promised to close my eyes and remember the quiet moments of the past and to remind myself that the next quiet moment is just around the corner. I’ve promised to let my thoughts linger on the laughter and the light and to refuse to make room at my table for fear and anxiety. I promise to breathe. Not bad for someone who refuses to make resolutions, eh?

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