Do angels hang out at truck stops and wear hippy clothes?
She was a petite, blonde in bellbottom blue jeans, with no visible wings coming from her leather vest—and amber eyes that glistened. I met her in the parking lot of the Jubilee Truck Stop along I-20 in Louisiana under a blazing August sun. 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. Carl was a gentle giant and one of the most respected actors in our Christian repertory theatre group of over 500 performers.
At nearly 7 feet tall with a solid build, he was physically intimidating. But when he smiled, there was tender boyishness in his giant body that made him more lovable than frightening. He had a playful silliness, and laughed easily and loudly. Carl also had a deep faith that made me want to know God the way he did. I was assigned to Carl’s unit, which made me the envy of virtually the entire theatre.
Kristine’s 16-year-old heart and mind were ablaze with becoming a movie star. Our traveling repertory theatre group was going to be good training to further her future. She was a cute brunette, petite with dark eyes that lit up whenever a boy flashed her a smile. She rarely joined into our conversations. I think she was too busy daydreaming.
I had not met Audrey before this tour but we hit it off right away. We were both writers and shared our journal entries and poetry, and found we made near-identical entries about the places we had stopped. We were kindred spirits. She was blonde with a pixie haircut, sparkling blue eyes, a slightly crooked nose and one chipped tooth. I thought she was beautiful.
We stopped at the truck stop for some drinks and No Doz. We were all so tired, we considered pulling over somewhere, finding some shade and sleeping for a while. But somewhere in North Carolina, people were coming to see our show that night and we were going to get there, no matter what.
With candy and sodas in hand, we left the truck stop and walked to our messy, packed-to-the-rafters van. Poor Carl was the only one who had a license and had been driving nonstop. I had a learner’s permit so he took the seat next to me and told me I was up. That’s when I saw her.
The petite blonde woman walked straight toward me as I sat in the driver’s seat waiting for the others to get in. The car wasn’t even running yet. She placed her hand on my arm. “Please put your seatbelt on,” she said.
She placed her hand on my arm. “Please put your seatbelt on,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied. “I would, but it’s just so hot. The last thing I want is something else touching me.”
Her grip grew a little tighter. “I’m begging you; please buckle your seat belt. It’s very important,” she said. Her eyes had an odd shine to them. I buckled my seat belt.
Four hours later, I regained consciousness, pinned inside our overturned van. Upside down through broken glass, I saw glimpses of my friends lying outside the van on a blazing Jackson, Mississippi highway. I heard people yelling and saw feet running by, but I couldn’t move or even yell for help. 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.
I heard multiple sirens getting increasingly louder as they approached. Two men came with a stretcher and slid me onto it with the help of the trucker. He squeezed my hand and said, “I’m rooting for you, honey,” and seemed to vanish.
I saw my friends being loaded into ambulances, too – and remembered feeling calm because they were in good hands now. I was sure they would bandage us up and put us back on the road. As they wheeled me into the ambulance I noticed large puddles of blood all over the road. I drifted in and out of fear and faith, never truly landing on either side. I prayed fervently and sang Amazing Grace and other hymns. Whether I actually sang them or just thought I did, I do not know.
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. One nurse said to another, “Haven’t you heard? A van full of kids was traveling cross-country. They crashed and one is dead.”
I remember thinking what an odd coincidence that there was another van of kids driving cross-country that ended up in the same hospital. Maybe they were the ones who crashed into us? I softly asked the nurse, “What did you just say?”
She and the other nurses looked embarrassed. “I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have heard that. Just get some rest and try not to worry.” They quickly shuffled out of my room, leaving me in silence, held hostage by an IV. I had a million questions that no one came to answer.
I pulled out the IV and meandered down the hospital corridor in my quest to find a pay phone so I could call my mom—I knew she’d be so worried. I found one and called collect. When my mother answered she was whimpering before I said hello. “Mama,” I said, “I have been in an accident.”
“I already know,” she said through tears. “The policeman called us.”
I thought, Policeman? What policeman? “Well, I just wanted you to know I was okay,” I reassured her. She began crying again but wouldn’t tell me why. I kept reiterating I was okay, but I couldn’t get her to calm down.
A nurse spotted me and took me back to my room and assigned someone to keep an eye on me. I asked her if I could check on my friends. “No,” she said simply. She explained they were still undergoing tests. I couldn’t understand what was taking so long.
A doctor came in and explained what had happened: our van had rolled eight times over an embankment and eventually landed on the wrong side of the freeway. I was astonished—there was a giant ditch that separated the two directions. 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. Perhaps we’d be having a much nicer conversation.”
He removed his glasses. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your friend Audrey didn’t make it,” he said. “Carl injured his spine very badly. He may never walk again. Kristine is in critical condition. If she makes it through the night, she will be paralyzed from the neck down. We tested your blood for alcohol and found nothing. This was just a very unfortunate accident. And you’re the lucky one.”
Lucky? My friends were dead, crippled and paralyzed and that made me lucky? I felt like my chest would explode. I felt a stinging sensation, as if my heart had belly-flopped on ice-cold water. Audrey didn’t make it? What was he talking about? We had just spoken. She just lent me $8 to get snacks. And what do they mean they tested my blood alcohol?
I felt a stinging sensation, as if my heart had belly-flopped on ice-cold water.
Then it hit me. They tested my blood for alcohol because 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 how he was feeling, to tell him about Audrey, to find out what he knew about what had happened.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I went to see him, but I knew what I was hoping. I was hoping he’d be his old self and joke around with me and tell me that this was all just a terrible misunderstanding. My hopes were dashed the moment I walked into his room. His face was swollen so badly I couldn’t recognize him. There was bloody gauze everywhere. Each one of his limbs were secured above him in casts. He looked like a creature from a horror film. When I walked in, he tried to adjust himself and it caused him to shriek in excruciating pain.
I tried to hold it together, but failed miserably. I burst in to tears.
“Tammy,” he said in little more than a whisper, “I want to make this clear. This is MY fault, not YOUR fault.”
“It’s no one’s fault,” I said trying to convince myself. “It’s just a horrible thing that happened. It was an accident and 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 was so worried about getting in on time, I didn’t think about the consequences.”
I had no idea what he was going on about. What on earth did us being tired have to do with it? “What are you talking about Carl? What does that have to do with anything? Tired or not, whatever hit us would have hit us no matter what. Even if we were fresh-eyed, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”
Carl looked at me with disbelief, as if I had just said the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “Tammy, nothing hit us. You fell asleep at the wheel.”
It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. I ran to the bathroom in Carl’s room and threw up. It couldn’t be true…but, it had to be true. It explained why I couldn’t remember anything and why they tested my blood for alcohol.
It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. I ran to the bathroom in Carl’s room and threw up.
I had no one to blame. The fault was mine alone. Carl could take the blame if he wanted, but I was the one who closed my eyes and caused so much unthinkable devastation.
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 strung up and bandaged and knew he was there because of me. I thought about Kristine who refused to even see me, and finally 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. I didn’t know a hole that size existed. The walls reached taller than my eyes could see. In the moments when I didn’t feel cold and lonely at the bottom of an abyss, I felt the heavy burden of extraordinary weight, as if I had pulled a large blanket of earth over my body. 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 have come and gone and I still cannot make sense of the horrors of that one afternoon and the world’s costliest nap. A few good things have come from it, that is for sure: I remember Audrey telling me that she had been praying for her dad to come to know Christ. He accepted Jesus at her funeral. Another is Carl, who did learn to walk again, became a pastor and occasionally references the crash in sermons. These are good things. But are they worth that kind of pain?
I tell myself, perhaps I can’t know the answer. To know the answer would mean not having to trust God with the things I do not understand.
But this I do know. There, in my quarter-of-a-century wrestle with God, the cross still speaks to me. It 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. Sometimes the Gospel message is a warm light that washes over me. Sometimes the light pokes through the darkness like a pinhole—it’s just enough to illuminate my hands. Either way, it doesn’t make sense of my catastrophe. But it is the truth, and in truth there is always hope.
Today Tammy serves as the Rock’s Human Resources Project Assistant, has been happily married to her husband, Jeff for 24 years and has a vibrant and growing relationship with Jesus.