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by Bob Schaller

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January 24, 2006

One bad turn

The day it almost ended was in reality a new beginning

By Bob Schaller

            Back on the road.

            The middle of winter is interrupted by a late January week of Indian summer, which in Colorado means 55 degrees.

            Up from my house up a winding road that ends in two miles at the Flying W Ranch, where the menu includes steak and potatoes and a country band act that involves a healthy repertoire of humor in the form of anecdotes and innuendo.

            But this initial leg – the first of nine climbs – of my ride ends where the steep part of the hill meets Vindicator, a street that runs all the way to the interstate once it hits Woodman Road.

            The foothills in the shadow of Pikes Peak couldn’t be more beautiful. There is snow in yards and on several roofs that are deprived of sunshine by trees.

            After climbing my first hill since the start of winter ended my 90-minute daily rides, I debate between turning left and climbing several small hills, or taking a right down a short hill on Vindicator, and heading up the beast of them all, Rossmere, a steep-mile long climb that I hope I still have the legs for. Even in my car, I have to downshift into second gear to handle this behemoth.

            I head down Vindicator slowly, cautiously, because the dirt on the road set down by dump trucks to, in theory, make the roads safer for the car of choice in neo-conservative Colorado Springs – the SUV – is a cyclist worst nightmare. Well, next to almost any driver, especially one on a cell phone.

            As I get in the left hand turn lane, I have 150 yards before I turn. I see a woman in a white sedan stopped at the stop sign. I have the right of way, but that doesn’t mean a thing when you’re on a bicycle. Being “right” still sucks when you go up against a thousand-plus pound vehicle.

            I get closer, sitting up on my seat, one hand on my handlebars, my left arm signaling my upcoming left turn. I always get queasy when cars are at this intersection, so much so that I’ll travel the final half down this hill and turn around and come back up just to turn without risking it. But this woman who I can see has a companion in the front seat has obviously seen me – maybe she’s a cyclist, too – and is waiting for me. I’ll consider it a late Christmas present.

            With two cars coming up the hill I time it so I can start to pedal in the turn and gain speed to hit Rossmere’s steep incline with a head of steam. I drop my arm and turn in front of the white car. The woman, who I now realize was looking left while talking on her cell phone, looks at me.

            Time stops. But not for long enough.

            Her mouth makes a big “O” shape and her eyes grow wide as her car lunges forward. She has punched the gas and then just as quickly the brakes. But I am in no man’s land.  For the life of me, I cannot say for sure if she has hit my back tire – I sense she has, because I suddenly have no control of my bike – but I also swerve to the right for just a split second to try to miss her.

            The bike disappears beneath me. I feel myself sail off the left hand side. I have no time to react, and my head – though I am wearing a biking helmet – slams into the pavement. My face serves as the brakes. I feel my ear squish like a sponge, and the area below my temple crumbles as I am stopped by the curb.

            And then, the lights go out. Fade to black. Scene over.

 ---------------------------------------

            When I come to, the white car is gone. A man is getting out of his truck.

            “I’m going after them!” he yells.

            “No, no,” I wave him off. I’ve only been out, apparently, for a few seconds, maybe a minute? I really don’t know. “There’s already one person hurt here. There doesn’t have to be another.”

            Two women get out of a car.

            “Oh, God!” one says when she sees my face. I take inventory of what works. My arms are fine, though the palm of my left hand is partially torn up from the base to the middle of my hand. My right leg feels like I’ve been punched, and I do see some road-rash on it. But my left leg is fine. I’m breathing, but my mouth feels funny. I feel like I have a couple of pebbles in my mouth. Out comes a tooth, and part of another. Still, I am able to push myself up, to sit on the curb.

            “Call 9-1-1!” the woman orders to her friend, who has just gotten out of the driver’s side of the car.

            “No, no, I think…” I say. I don’t know what I think. Or how I feel.

            “How bad do I look?” I ask.

            “It’s bad,” the woman says. She has very kind eyes, and a soft voice.

            I look down, and a significant amount of blood is falling from, where? My nose, my chin? My mouth?

            Her friend brings me bunch of napkins, the brown kind you’d find at Taco Bell, it dawns on me.

            “Your lip,” says the second woman, “is gone. And so is all the skin above it.”

            Because of the cold, I am wearing a hooded fleece under my helmet. Since biking helmets are little more than saucers turned upside down – a hockey helmet is what should be the standard – the fleece hood has saved me, I can tell, from a lot more damage. But it is sticking to my chin. And when I wrest it off, the real flood of blood starts.

            “You need a doctor,” the one with the calm voice says. Her friend is leaning against the car, holding herself up by her arms, her face downward. Is she going to hurl? Because of me?

            “No, I live nearby,” I lie. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to sit a minute. Really, thanks for stopping.”

            They look at me. One says something that I don’t hear, and since I’m not sure it’s intended for me, I thank them again. I’m losing a lot of blood though. I’m wearing white tennis shoes I just bought from Target, and they are covered from the toe up to the laces. My blue and white USA Fencing sweat jacket has been splashed with a patriotic red. All over.

            The long-sleeved jogging shirt I am wearing underneath, which covers the hand and obviously saved me from further damage, is torn, a half-moon flap of material dangling. The shirt, I think outloud, is ruined.

            And then, just like that, I am alone, bleeding. My head hurts. I remember watching Bugs Bunny when I was younger: So THIS is what it feels like to get hit in the head with a sledgehammer. Then, it gets dark again. My bike is done. Totaled, as they say when a car has endured far more impact than it was built for. The left brake is gone, the seat turned at a funny angle and torn. Both tires are flat. Maybe the front one went flat, and that caused the accident, because I could no longer turn after I adjusted to the car – I hit the dirt and then hit the ground because the bike wouldn’t turn. Does any of this matter now?

            I try to stand up, and then the darkness sets in. I feel the air leave my lungs. The few things that hurt – and nothing really hurts that bad – aren’t hurting any longer. The light fades as I lean back, and I curl over, the cold pavement that broke my face now feels good. And then I don’t hear or feel anything.

 ---------------------------------------

            “I think he’s dead!”

            I hear someone talking by me. Near me?

            “He’s dead, do I call 9-1-1, Dad? Can you hear me, Dad? The police, fire department?” he continues, panicked. “Oh, they’re both the same number, just call 9-1-1? It’s that road by Walgreens, the one that goes up to Flying W Ranch.”

            Oh my God, I think. There’s been ANOTHER accident on the road since I was hit, what, a minute, an hour, a day ago? And this one is worse than mine? What is happening today?

            The lower half of my face is in a pool of blood, and there’s actually a noise as I try to lift up.

            “Good Lord!” the young man exclaims. “I’m calling 9-1-1. My Dad said…”

            “No,” I say, holding up my hand with the torn palm, scaring this poor kid – who was kind enough to stop – even more. “I’m fine. It’s just a couple of cuts. I’m fine, really. Just go on home.”

            “School,” he stammers. “I…I…I’m going to school.”

            “Okay, then, well, have a good day at school,” I say. “I live right by here. I can just walk home.”

            He doesn’t dial 9-1-1, but he doesn’t leave either. For reasons I will never figure out, I start pushing my bike, and it is then I realize my right ankle and right knee are hurt, but to what extent I really have no idea. As I cross the road, a truck speeds up so I have to hurry. My right knee hits the pedal on my slow moving bike, which has two flat tires.

            “Boy, that would really hurt if the rest of me wasn’t so messed up,” I think to myself.

            I couldn’t accept the generosity of strangers, because of something none of them could have possibly known: I’m a single parent, and my 11-year-old is at home, doing homework. This is our routine more often than not, and while I feel bad leaving him at home, he encourages me because I dropped from 200 to 150 pounds in just one year cycling like this. I can’t have my son getting a call from the hospital. I am all he has. And vice versa. Sure, his mother lives in town and sees him for a half hour here and there.

           My brother is a deputy sheriff here, and my parents live down the hill only about three miles away. But what if I pass out? What if I die on the way to the hospital, or when I get there? I have to get home and get my son taken care of first before I take care of this situation I’ve created for myself. If it costs me my life, so help me God, I will make sure my son is safe with my parents before I go get put back together again. Even if it kills me. Tears run down my cheek as I think of this. Why did I go out on the bike at all? People say, “When you stop living you start dying.” Well, if you get killed, you stop living too. For as cautious as I am as a bike rider – and I’m even too cautious to ride in groups because I stop at lights, always yield, go too slow down hills – I can’t control even a single car driver.

            I have all kinds of time while I walk the bike down the hill toward the road that leads to my house. It’s a good mile, maybe more, and with every step my injuries are becoming more apparent. I try to pop my clogged ears, and find I can’t move my mouth. Broken jaw. The chin is bleeding and I can’t do anything about that. My upper lip is tender, and I can taste blood coming off that. I wipe at my nose. No blood. Finally, good news.

            One more street to cross. The light changes and I am moving slowly. I don’t make it across before the light changes back and a car speeding toward me honks and steers toward me. I pick it up fast as I can and get across the street.

            I have to walk down a paved walking path behind our house that runs along an irrigation ditch to get home. Usually I’ll run into five or six women, with a couple of them pushing baby strollers. This time, thankfully, I see no one – or shall I say, no one sees the horror that is suddenly me. The quarter-mile path ends at the street, and I have to turn back and walk down the sidewalk to my house.

            As I walk up the driveway, I notice there is blood all over me. I can’t imagine how I look. I wipe off with the fleece, and then put it back on, which generates pains I didn’t know existed. I put on my helmet, too, but why I do that, I have no idea. I can’t get to my house key in my left hand zipped pocket.

            But the big white front door gives me cover, gives me a chance to let my son know my situation before he sees the trainwreck that is his father’s face. I quickly formulate a plan. And then I do our coded knock. I hear my little boy come to the door, but I grab the doorknob before he can open it.

            “Wait a minute, bud,” I say, though the words are barely audible, I am sure, because I can’t move my mouth to enunciate them properly. “Dad’s been in a bike wreck, and let me tell you, I feel great. I don’t look that good, but I look so much worse than I feel. In fact, I really don’t feel bad at all.”

            “Okay,” I hear the voice say. He opens the door, and I see a look I can’t remember seeing on his face before: Fear. I have protected this boy from bullies at school, teachers who played favorites, a mother who I thought wasn’t a good enough influence on him, strangers who cast an eye his way, dogs at the park who approached us. But now, he is afraid, because of me.

            “Hey bud!” I say. “I love you a whole bunch.”

            “I love you too, pal,” he says, using his favorite nickname for me. He looks at me, and takes his own inventory. I hear blood dripping onto the carpet of our new, huge rental home. There goes the deposit.

            “Dad, oh no, I’ve got to call 9-1-1, just sit down, I’ll be right back. I’ll get you some water,” he says, taking charge. I’m so proud of him, I could cry. I get in the door, and lean against the wall. My son is okay. I’m starting to fade again.

            “Please bring me the phone,” I say. “I’m going to call Grammy or Papa, or uncle Mike, and one of them will come get you, then I’ll go to the hospital.”

            He brings me the phone. My Dad, who I have never been close to, screens me out because, well, that’s how he is. I call my Mom. She is out running errands, she tells me, a half hour away.

            “Everything all right?” she asks. “Your voice sounds all messed up.”

            “I’ve been in a small bike crash, but I’ve broken some things and I’m going to be needing some stitches,” I say.

            “I’ll call your father and tell him to come get Garrett,” she says as motherly panic sets in. “Give him five minutes.”

            I get to the downstairs bathroom, pull off the fleece, and look in the mirror. Bad. Worse than I thought. Blood everywhere. I see a cut that runs along the bottom of my chin, from one side, to another. It’s a couple of inches long. Going to need stitches for that one. My upper lip on the right side – my left as I face the mirror – is gone. Plain and simple, it does not exist. Ditto for the skin above it. The left side of my face is swollen in several places, in front of my ear and down a little lower. Broken jaw. That explains why I can’t really open my mouth.

            I get a wash-rag and hold it against my chin. It does no good, so I pull it back. The skin is turned inside out. I try to turn the skin back, but it won’t work.

            My father pulls in the driveway. My son has his schoolbooks.

            “Since I won’t be there long,” my son says, “I’ll just get my homework done until you come get me.” My son is so optimistic, but I want to believe this too.

            “Good idea, bud,” I say.

            My father gets out of the car.

            “Get in the car, let’s go to the Emergency Room!” my father yells. He is not good in the clinches, he chokes in the clutch, where most of life's most meaningful battles are won and lost. Which is why I'm a winner, and he is not, though this is of course is not something I can point out now. I can handle this far better than he could, or can. But for the first time since I was a small child injured in a hockey game, my father is actually concerned about me. It is touching, but I don’t want my son to panic. Time to be cool. My son always brags to his friends about how his dad is not afraid of anything. Time to again prove him right.

            “Nah, I’m really okay,” I say, slurring words, squeezing what's left of the fabric on my left hand as the skin opens up and blood seeps out. “Looks worse than it is. I’ll take care of it. If you could just take Gboy for an hour or so, I’ll come get him afterward.”

            “Listen, I’m not dicking around on this Bob,” says my father, who is also Bob though that’s all we really share. “You are really hurt. Come on, let’s go.”

            He doesn’t understand. This isn’t about me. It’s about this little boy, for whom we both share a real love. He and my mother are great with my son. The best grandparents. Ever. And I need that now. So does Gboy.

            “Pick you up in a while bud,” I say as Garrett gets in the backseat. I stay out front and wave with my right hand, so he can see that I’m all right. Something is happening to my body. My right leg is suddenly completely numb, and the torn skin on my left hand no longer hurts even though the bleeding is visibly worsening. My head is starting to hurt even more though, and I’m worried that this might be the last time my son sees me. And if I’m waving good-bye, then so help me God, I’m going to do it with a smile on this mess that is my face.

            I get to the doctor’s office. For some reason, I feel a tremendous relief; it's like I got my son taken care of, and now that I'm near doctors, I'm no longer my own responsibility. I made it. Still... I don’t have to ask anyone how I look – their expressions say it all. Skin, and what looks to be a piece of tooth or a white little pebble fall from my chin, and blood drip to the floor as I stagger to the counter.

            “Sir,” a woman says quietly, “your face – pieces of… of your face, are falling on the floor. Why don’t you just sit down?”

            I lean against the wall, and gravity does the rest. Then, I am in a ball on the floor. I am surprisingly not uncomfortable, though fear is starting to creep in. I am fading fast. I hear voices around me, and soon two, maybe three people are tending to me. I hear only echoes, or like everyone is in a tunnel. Someone pushes on my chin. Someone straightens out my left arm, and gasps, "Oh, God!" Then, I hear the person who I think is the doctor, start yelling, and I see boots and more shoes near and around me. I feel tears running down my cheek. I wish I would have told my son how sorry I am for doing something so stupid. And then, just like that, it all goes black again, and while I am likely a big part of the activity, I'm no longer involved, though I certainly hope it turns out well.

            The day’s going to get worse before it gets better.

 

About the Kid...

To see pics of the brave little boy who got me through this crash and rehabilitation that followed, click here or here for galleries of us in Wyoming last year on UWYO's awesome campus!

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