Too closeNear death on highway makes new school year more new
Nothing about the day indicated that we might die.
On the way home from our last trip of summer before school started, we were making good time, thanks in part to the minivan’s onboard DVD player that cut boredom stops to a minimum. The weather was bright and mild. Even with vacation traffic and a stop for lunch, I figured we’d be home before dark.
Two hours later I was staring at black clouds on the western horizon. The leaves on the trees began to stretching toward the sky, and thunder grumbled discontentedly. My mom, sitting in the middle row of backseats, looked up from her magazine. “Oh boy,” she said.
A blinding flash of lightning and accompanying thunderclap was enough to rouse my 9-year-old daughter, Nina, from the thrall of Mary Poppins. “Wow. Mom, has there been a lot of lightning?”
“A fair amount.” She nudged her six-year-old brother and pointed outside. Torin looked unimpressed. Apparently lightning could not compete with Dick Van Dyke as Burt, the Cockney sidewalk chalk artist.
Looking ahead, I saw the wall of rain before we hit it. Already in the right-hand lane, I dropped my speed even more, checked to make sure the headlights were on, and eased us into the tempest. We were engulfed in rain and hail. I clicked on the hazard lights.
The rain slackened to a drizzle as we came out from under the bank of dark clouds, and slowly traffic picked up again. I moved over to the left lane to better allow parked cars on the shoulder to reenter the highway.
“Well,” I said to my husband, “that wasn’t bad.”
Just then the Nissan Sentra in front of me lurched. About 30 cars in front of us were suddenly squealing and sliding to a halt, their brake lights rushing toward me like a downwind brushfire. I slammed on the brakes, pumping them due to a habit I formed long before anti-lock brakes made that unnecessary. The world slowed while my brain slipped into overdrive. A wall of cars were in the lane to my right. The Sentra was going to come to a stop well before I could. A 4x4 pickup was in the interior median slightly ahead of the Sentra. That was my only hope.
Still braking hard, I felt the left tires leave the highway. They were on wet grass now; the only thing keeping us pointing forward were the two tires still on the road. The Sentra skidded slightly left, eating up some of the little blacktop I had left. I tightrope walked the tires on a small rim of pavement and they held. Our van came to a stop three inches from the bed of the pick-up truck in front on us in the median. But I wasn’t watching that.
My eyes were glued to the rearview mirror. Beyond my son’s shaggy blonde hair, beyond the frightened eyes of my beautiful daughter, a tractor trailer was baring down on us, brakes wailing, its left wheels in the median grass, right ones hugging the road.
In that moment, I understood we could all die. I was powerless to stop it.
The Mack truck grill grew bigger and bigger, death on MiracleGrow, until it took up the entire back window — every inch of glass behind by beautiful children.
Then it stopped.
“Jane? Michael?” called Mary Poppins. “Hold my hands. Stay close now.”
I sat, my hands on the steering wheel. Cars were everywhere — both lanes of traffic, both medians. My husband turned around to check the kids and saw for the first time the truck grill inches from our back windshield.
“Just turn around,” I said quietly. He did, his eyes staring blankly ahead.
Finally, my mom took a breath. “You did well, honey.”
I couldn’t answer. Truth be told, it didn’t matter how well I did. If the driver behind us had been less skilled . . . if his load had been any heavier . . .
I don’t remember the rest of the ride home, other than a brief moment when traffic was moving smoothly again and that truck pulled level with us. The driver and I looked at each other, his eyes darting toward my children in the far back seat. Thank you, I mouthed. He nodded, deathly pale. And he was gone.