Misunderstandings

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The first time I almost died, I was 6 years old. My mom was taking me to school, 8 A.M. on a Monday, when a man decided to run a red light, or something. We were in front of the McDonald’s playplace on St. Charles Ave, my eyes were fixated on the slide winding around the storefront, green and yellow and red plastic panels shaking with the weight of young bodies. The car hit the driver’s side door, where my mom was sitting. I was next to her in the front passenger seat.

We had just enough time to lock eyes. It must have been a split second, an immeasurable moment in the midst of the noise, but we had time to find each other’s eyes. I memorized her face (shocked, scared) and the way her autumn leaf printed mock turtleneck cradled her chin. I felt myself move through the air, my neck straining, my ass lifting off the seat, my stomach lurching like I was riding a roller coaster. This moment is seared in my memory with stunning clarity.

Then it gets a little blurry. The airbag exploded and I hit the side window. I felt my heart beating. My mom commanded me, calmly but forcefully, to get out of the car. She climbed out after me—she was not a limber lady, but I remember watching her move and thinking of her body as a child’s body, climbing a tree or running at recess.

Her eyes flashed between me and the car and the man crawling out of the other car. I was holding my head and wiping blood and trying to find the sidewalk. Horns blared. People got out of their cars. People ran from one place to another. People directed traffic. Police were there before we could think. Sirens and horns and voices wailed and I sat on the sidewalk holding my burned forehead.

I spent four days out of school; any kid’s dream, but a nightmare for me. My ears were damaged and ringing and desensitized from the airbag explosion and my head was wrapped with gauze. I had a concussion, I had chemical burns, I had whiplash. I heard the paramedic telling my mom concussion symptoms and PTSD and I refused sleep. I stayed up all day in her bed and stared at the wall or the covers or the cat. I stayed up all night watching old movies on AMC. At the end of the week I returned to school tired and wrapped in gauze and hard of hearing. I stepped out of the rental car my first day back and a huge group of kids from my class swarmed me in front of the school. They hugged me, held my hand, looked at me, asked me questions about airbags and ambulances—my misfortune had apparently been a convenient teaching moment for many parents about the reality of vehicle safety. Good, I remember thinking.

*   *   *

I saw my cousin that weekend. We were the same age, single children, more like sisters when it came down to it. We played dress-up—I was a doctor in an ambulance and she was a car crash victim. She wailed, sprawled out on the floor like a crime scene chalk body outline.

“The pillow came out and hit me!”
“Pillow?”
“Yeah, the pillow that lives in the car!”

It occurred to me that she was talking about the airbag. The airbag that exploded out of the dashboard and knocked me to the window. The dynamite-fueled industry-standard safety feature that burned my face, broke my ears, made me bleed. The airbag that, if my ass had not lifted off the seat in just the way it did, would have missed me, would have exploded and sailed over my head while my skull smashed into the dash and imploded from the pressure.

“I don’t want to play dress-up anymore.”

On the way home, I asked my mom—”why did Aunt Tina tell her that the airbag is a pillow?” She explained that sometimes parents need to explain things to kids in ways that kids can understand, and that sometimes this leads to misunderstandings.

“Mom, promise to always tell me the truth, just the way it is.”
“Okay, sweetie.”

She still went on for a few years with Santa and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Boogie Monster. I knew, I knew, but I said nothing. It made her happy for me to be a child so I said nothing. In my own life, the soft-focus world of youthful ignorance was growing rapidly sharper.

Many years later, I found a diary entry from another sleepless night in the weeks following the crash. “Why do grown-ups have to lie? Why can’t I know the truth in this world?” I was angry. I promised to never lie to my kids. Looking back, I’m not glad that I lost the soft-focus world of youthful ignorance, though at the time it felt like such a gift. I wouldn’t mind a world where airbags are pillows ad Christmas Eve is filled with wonder and magic. I’d happily take those days back.

When I have kids I want them to keep those days forever. I’ll lie, I’ll tell them about Santa and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Boogie Monster. I’ll tell them airbags are pillows. I’ll explain things to them in ways that they understand and midunderstand and they’ll have a great adventure figuring it all out.