By Erin Walton
I had just finished a twelve-hour shift waiting tables and had plans to meet a girlfriend for drinks, in celebration of St. Patty’s Day. In my car, I splashed a layer of green sparkles on my eyelids and spread some more across my cheeks and then met Teera at a bar downtown. From our corner booth in the bar, I sipped a single cosmopolitan made with cheap vodka while undressing handsome men with my eyes. We stayed until closing time, and at the end of the night, Teera offered to let me crash on her couch but I refused. I had a 7 a.m. breakfast shift at the restaurant and I couldn’t risk being late. I worked in the small mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado, an hour’s drive up the canyon from my home in Boulder. That night, I insisted on driving up the canyon.
Sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m. I fell asleep while listening to Beck’s soulful, whiney, “There’s a place where you are going/You ain’t never been before/No one left to watch your back now/ No one standing at your door.” In the moments before drifting off, the song hummed from my CD player while I drank lukewarm gas station coffee. This I remember vividly – the exact song that was playing, “Lost Cause” – although I cannot remember what was next, only that I felt my car hit a rock. My eyes jolted open and my car catapulted into the air and down a steep ravine where I would remain for the next twelve hours.
I woke up disoriented and in pain. Everything hurt. At first I thought it was a dream, some nightmare from which I would awaken. My left leg throbbed, and when I made myself touch my thigh, I felt my mangled femur bone under my skin. And although I think I felt the jagged bones, I couldn’t see any blood on my thigh. Lights from the dashboard flickered, revealing shadows of my figure against the rocks. I was surrounded by complete silence: no birds chirping, no cars humming on the road above. My car landed right side up in a dry creek, forty feet below the highway. The front end had smashed inward, pinning my legs, but my airbag had deployed and my seatbelt had held. I reached to release the steering wheel away from my body and tried to free my legs, but my left leg wouldn’t budge; it felt dead. I grabbed the rearview mirror and stared at the shadow of a face staring back at me – the nose bloody and swollen, a gash under my lip, and the crimson blood dripping down my chin and onto my matching scarf and jacket.
I pushed open the door and rolled my body onto the ground. Collapsing from agony, in the dark, I couldn’t see my surroundings, although I didn’t care. I just wanted the pain to go away and I wanted to be warm. But the pain came in waves, and I was freezing. Erratic weather patterns and spontaneous snowstorms marked springtime in Colorado. Each year, we could expect a few feet of snow in March and April, temperatures in the teens. Cold mornings and evenings broken by a few hours of sunlight. You dressed in layers, hoping to sweat, but expecting chills. That night, I had worn a short skirt and knee-highs and a jacket with no zipper.
I sat next to the car until morning, my left leg lying limp behind me while I shivered. I cried for someone to hear me, perhaps a car passing by. Then I prayed to God and to the universe, pleading to be saved, promising to do better, to stop rushing around, to start listening to my body and my heart instead of doubting myself, if only he or she would spare my life or at least alleviate my pain.
Years later I can ask the hard questions of myself: why had I refused to admit I was too tired to drive? And why was I so worried about being late for a shift at a restaurant? What difference would it have made if I’d called in sick or if I’d asked for a few days off? I will long wonder why I felt the need to push myself past what I could manage back then, although the question that haunts me the most is why I ignored the intuitive nudges that begged me to rest, to take a breath, and to slow down?
Somehow it went from being pitch dark and silent to being light again. When the sun moved down the ravine, I noticed that my belongings were everywhere; I was surrounded by CD cases splintered into shards and shiny disks covered in dirt. I distracted myself from a mounting panic by figuring out what else had exploded from my car, each thing growing clearer in the light: single dollar bills, a hair clip, a pair of leather boots, gum wrappers, empty Diet Coke bottles and Cotton Blossom lotion.
At some point, I felt warmed by what must have been mid-day sunshine and the sensation of no pain, likely because I was in shock and my body was shutting down. I was no longer cold but felt comfortable, felt safe. The trees around me looked brighter and light was everywhere. I wanted only to close my eyes and sleep. Then I heard the sound of my father calling my name, and he rushed down the hill with an urgency I’d not seen in him before. Soon I was surrounded by paramedics. I had served some of them beer and fish tacos at the restaurant, although I didn’t know their names. Now I can’t forget their faces. I said I was cold and that I was sorry and vaguely remember hearing my father repeating over and over again that, “This was not your fault.” But it was my fault. No one had forced me to drive up the canyon that night, nor had anyone made me work seven days a week. No one had made me create my anxious reality. So why had I done it?
In the several years I spent recovering from my accident, I never stopped wondering about the choices I had made in the moments leading up to my accident. In recent years, I’ve become even more determined to better understand why I had created a lifestyle based on perpetual doing and achieving instead of listening. Recently I found some reassurance in a New York Times article by Tim Kreider. In “The Busy Trap,” he suggests that “Busyness serves as kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Kreider further suggests that the busyness epidemic began in the twenty-first century and affects everyone, even children. He asserts that no one is immune from this malady, and states that the reason we make our lives busy is that we want the reassurance we are good enough and doing enough, something we often feel when we are busy and focused on achievements. And so, we keep choosing busy. When we become adults, we feel more pressure to succeed, to attend prestigious colleges, marry, have children, earn a good income, all while maintaining friendships. We take on more responsibilities, set higher goals, collect more material items, holding the belief that we are achieving success. Before we know it, we are making choices that keep us perpetually preoccupied and productive and busy.
Choosing busy has become a way of asserting our worth, of avoiding anything that might make us wonder if we are worthy – of time, love, attention, caring – of leading a fulfilling life. I would suspect that on our deathbeds, we want nothing more than to say we are pleased with the lives we have lived and with our choices. How could desiring this be wrong? But what if, in the end, busyness is exactly the wrong approach to fulfillment? What if it makes us feel emptier and more disconnected? What if it threatens our lives?
I was flown by Flight for Life to a hospital in Fort Collins, where I had surgery to repair my shattered femur. I had a sprained ankle, broken nose and severe hypothermia and would stay overnight to be monitored for blood clots. A doctor, who had kind eyes, said I was lucky to be alive. Be patient, he told me, and count your blessings. My recovery would be long and hard. I would limp for a while, maybe as long as a year, he said, and my left leg might always ache. The rest, all the sprains and bumps and bruises, would heal in time. In two years, I should feel like myself again.
Because I couldn’t walk or drive or even bathe myself, I moved back home with my parents. My first night out of hospital and in their home, I woke up, gasping for air; I couldn’t breathe. I yelled for my father who ran into the guest room where I was staying. “You are burning up,” he said, his voice touched with fear. While he reached for the phone to call my surgeon, I tightly clutched my chest as if I could will for more air. I fainted, and then woke up in the ER with an oxygen mask tied to my face, my father gesturing to the panicking nurse. The doctor on-call wouldn’t be in until later that morning, so they would need to transport me to a hospital an hour away. I woke in the ambulance with a nurse peering at me through her big glasses. She told me to just keep breathing and then faded into the background. We arrived back at the hospital down in the valley within an hour and I was rushed to the ICU unit, where I would remain for two weeks. I had a pulmonary embolism – a complication from the surgery. They promised to monitor me closely. When my father asked if I would be okay, the doctor said it was tough to say, but he hoped so.
At the time of my accident, I was twenty-five, had just completed a graduate degree in Psychology and was working as both a waitress and a staff manager at a local climbing gym. Without the structure of academia, I felt lost. I craved the predictable array of assignments and internships and passing grades. These were evidence of success and this success meant something to me; it was my reassurance. But I hadn’t been able to find work in my field, and because of that I poured myself into these other jobs, long hours, steady paychecks, consistent responsibilities. I had come to believe that my life was worth something.
It is no wonder to me now that I crashed my car, that I fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning. In fact, I wonder how it didn’t happen sooner. However, rarely can we so clearly make sense of all our choices, particularly those we made during our twenties. Years later my cheeks still blush when thinking about my compulsive exercise habits in the years leading up to my accident, how hard and tirelessly I pushed my physical body. There’s a strange irony in the doctor’s remarks that my physical strength had quite likely played a crucial role in my survival. Had I not been in such good shape, I wouldn’t have survived the night, the twelve hours, the waning temperatures, the horrific pain. Now over ten years have passed, and I still berate myself for questioning my intuition at that time, for not heeding the small, obvious signs: the fatigue after three twelve-hour shifts waiting tables, the migraines after refilling glasses of orange soda to screaming children and their impatient parents, the relentless psychic exhaustion of dealing with people day in and day out, with no time to recover. In fact, my signs of stress and even my personality had remained remarkably consistent since my early childhood. What had shifted over the years, particularly in the time leading up to my accident, was how I channeled my perseverance, where I placed my attention. Although my natural inclinations had never been to focus on external accomplishments, the life I had created for myself before my accident suggested otherwise, and during that time, I paid dutiful attention to my constant movement and doing and achieving rather than listening. And yet, that same fierce determination likely kept me alive and focused during my twelve hours alone on a mountainside. It’s even stranger to admit that I enjoyed the solitude while I was waiting to be rescued, despite the horrific pain. I fixated my thoughts on a recent concert I had attended, then on the bitterness of organic coffee or how Teera and I listened to the same Belle and Sebastian album repeatedly while sewing together our Halloween costumes that previous October. Had I not possessed such intense internal strength and reveled (somewhat) in being alone, it’s possible that my mind would have given out before my body.
In the ICU, a pretty, young nurse, Sheila, brought me warm blankets and wrapped them tight around me, swaddling me like a baby. Seth, a forty-something quiet doctor with rosy cheeks and a thin mustache, came to visit daily, checking my meds, scanning my body for evidence of blood clots and taking my oxygen levels. My mother stayed overnight a few times, although I told her to go back home. I felt safe, I could breathe, and I wanted to sleep alone in silence. It was the first time in years that I could think clearly.
In his same article on the busy epidemic, Kreider writes, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition from standing back and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” Was that why I loved this quiet, this idleness, this just sitting and being and dreaming and wondering?
I cringed when visitors tapped at my hospital door, dreading the inevitable trek through the crash and all that came after. I learned quickly that all I had to do was close my eyes and snore a little, and my guests would leave. Then I could return to just being mesmerized by my third viewing of Almost Famous, hoping to see a connection I had missed, or to journaling or to imagining moving to northern California and starting my life over.
Once I was released from the hospital, my recovery could begin. I had a severe limp, so I could not work more than five hours at the restaurant without needing to rest. I could barely walk, let alone run or hike or climb. I filled my time with physical therapy appointments and consultations with orthopedics, most of which ended in tears. When would I be able to run again? To make love? I wanted my body back, every muscular ounce of it. At the same time, I didn’t want this time of rest and recovery to end. It was the only time in my life I’d given myself a break.
To heal physically, my body also required abundant amounts of sleep and nourishment, and so I sought those out for the first time in years, swallowing the guilt each time I took an afternoon nap or went to bed by 8 p.m. My body was forcing me to be idle. I couldn’t imagine walking down the street without a strange gait or my cane and shyly smiling at a handsome climber boy without wondering if he noticed the scar under my lip. My former life belonged to someone else, and I would never return.
Out of necessity I suppose, I explored other ways to fill my time, to make me feel less like a failure, to feel less lazy. And strangely I began to experience something I hadn’t anticipated, a sense of ease at my own presence. I found myself engaging fully in each moment, as though time stopped with every sip of hot coffee I tasted. Although I had felt this way during my time in the ICU, this seemed different, more permanent, more like me. No pushing, just being. The race had ended, or rather, I had created my own tempo. Although a part of me still hated myself for not being able to walk or run or work or do anything that had made me feel worthy, I managed to find other ways to pass the time, a return to activities that I’d forgotten about, pastimes that I had once believed unproductive. I read, a lot, books that transported me to worlds where David Sedaris became a Macy’s Elf and classic stories that made me feel less alone – young Holden in his teenage angst, the mysterious Gatsby and his tragic loneliness. I reconnected with childhood friends like Joe Marsh and imagined what it would have been like to live in his era. When I chose to engage with others – a handful of close friends – I listened to their stories, looking them in the eye and watching for a flicker of excitement or discomfort. I allowed a few to enter my world, sharing how horrifying my twelve hours alone had been and yet how grateful I was and how strange that all must sound. I listened and re-listened to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker and welcomed the places their poetry took me – to the arms of old boyfriends, to my freshman year of college, to the last real conversation I had with my younger brother. I savored the realness I had found, the layers of myself long forgotten, although I had nothing tangible to show, no yearly salary, no husband, no beautiful children. My life had less, and I was happy.
Erin Walton has graduated from Pacific University where she earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing and worked with Scott Korb, Judy Blunt, and Debra Gwartney on a thesis manuscript that contains personal, memoir, and lyric essays. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays. This is her first publication.