She was a petite, blonde in bell-bottom blue jeans and amber eyes that glistened. I met her in the parking lot of a truck stop along I-20 in Louisiana. Funny place to meet an angel.
My friends Carl, Kristine, and Audrey and I had been on the road for two days traveling from Los Angeles to North Carolina for a performance. Carl was a gentle giant and one of the most respected actors in our repertory theatre group of over 500 performers.
Kristine’s heart was ablaze with becoming a movie star. She was a cute brunette, petite, with dark eyes that lit up whenever a boy passed by. She kept to herself mostly. Daydreaming about hitting it big will do that.
Audrey was blonde with a pixie haircut, sparkling blue eyes, a slightly crooked nose, and one chipped tooth. We hit it off famously. I thought she was beautiful.
We stopped at the truck stop for some drinks. Carl was the only one who had a license and had been driving nonstop. I had a learner’s permit so as he got back in the van, he said, “You’re up.” That’s when I saw her.
The petite, blonde woman walked toward me as I sat in the driver’s seat waiting for the others. She placed her hand on my arm. “Please put your seatbelt on,” she said.
I gave her a quizzical look like, What, huh?
“Please. It’s very important,” she said. Her eyes had an odd shine. I buckled my seat belt.
Four hours later, I regained consciousness, pinned inside our overturned van. I saw glimpses of my friends lying outside on the highway. I heard people yelling and saw feet running by. I must have lost consciousness again because the next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground with my head in the lap of a burly truck driver with a serious drawl. “Call an ambulance!” he hollered.
Two men came with a stretcher and slid me onto it with the help of the trucker. “I’m rooting for you, honey,” he said.
I drifted in and out of fear and faith, never truly landing on either side.
The next time I woke up, I was in the hospital with nurses huddled at the foot of my bed. They spoke in hushed tones. “Haven’t you heard?” one asked. “A van full of kids was traveling cross-country. They crashed and one is dead.”
I remember thinking what an odd coincidence that another van of kids driving cross-country ended up in the same hospital. Maybe they were the ones who crashed into us? I had a million questions.
A doctor came in and explained what happened: our van had rolled eight times and landed on the wrong side of the freeway. He told me how lucky I was to have broken fingers and a concussion. Then he said, “I wish your friends had worn their seat belts too. We’d be having a much nicer conversation.”
He removed his glasses. “I’m sorry, but your friend Audrey didn’t make it. Carl injured his spine very badly. He may never walk. Kristine is in critical condition. If she makes it through the night, she will be paralyzed. We tested your blood for alcohol and found nothing. This was a very unfortunate accident. You’re the lucky one.”
My friends were dead, crippled, and paralyzed and that made me lucky? I felt as if my heart had belly-flopped on ice-cold water. Audrey didn’t make it? What was he talking about? She just lent me $8 to get snacks. And what do they mean they tested my blood alcohol?
Then it hit me. They thought this was my fault. Yes, I was driving, and I was the one who crashed the van. But whoever it was that hit us, they were the reason for the crash—not me.
Ten days later, I got a call from someone at the hospital that said Carl had woken up and asked to see me. I was desperate to talk to him to find out what he knew.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I saw him, but my hopes were dashed the moment I walked into his room. His face was swollen so badly I couldn’t recognize him. Bloody gauze was everywhere. His limbs were above him in casts. He looked like a creature from a horror film.
I burst into tears.
“Tammy,” he said, “this is my fault.”
“It’s no one’s,” I replied. “It’s just a horrible thing that happened. You can’t blame yourself.”
“I’m the one who made you drive when you didn’t want to,” he argued. “You told me you were too tired, and I didn’t listen.”
I had no idea what he was going on about. “Tired or not, whatever hit us would have hit us. Even if we were fresh-eyed, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Carl looked at me with disbelief. “Tammy, nothing hit us. You fell asleep at the wheel.”
It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. I ran to the bathroom and vomited. It couldn’t be true…but, it had to be. It explained why they tested my blood for alcohol.
Where does one go after news like that? How do you live with yourself? How do you still believe in God? I looked at Carl and knew he was there because of me. I thought about Kristine who refused to even see me and understood why. I thought about my beautiful friend, Audrey, and realized I was the one who robbed the world of her light.
For the next five years I laid lifeless at the bottom of a dark pit. In the moments when I didn’t feel cold and lonely in an abyss, I felt as if I had pulled a large blanket of earth over me. I had given my life to Christ many years before and I always felt He was with me. It seemed like an odd time for Him to become silent.
Twenty-five years later I still cannot make sense of the horrors of that one afternoon. A few good things have come from it: Audrey’s dad accepted Jesus at her funeral. Carl, who did learn to walk again, became a pastor and references the crash in sermons. These are good things. But are they worth that kind of pain?
I tell myself to know the answer would mean not having to trust God with the things I do not understand. But this I do know: In my quarter-of-a-century wrestle with God, the cross still tells my story—that I am a sinner in need of a Savior, that Jesus loves me so much He gave up heaven to take on my sin and shame. It doesn’t make sense of my catastrophe. But it is the truth, and where there is truth there is always hope.
POSTSCRIPT: Today Tammy works at Rock Church in the Communications department