Today, my 82 year-old grandmother stood up in front of a congregation full of friends and family and told the story of the day she almost died.
My entire life, I’ve known my grandma was in a horrible accident when she was only 16 years old and that the accident stole the life of her beloved older brother. Her only brother, she counted him as her confidant and one of her best friends. She idolized him. We knew from a young age that grandma broke her back in the accident and we shouldn’t bring it up. It could upset her. And so we did not speak of it, although we knew the grief of it was always with her.
My mother told me recently that grandma wanted to give a spiritual testimony at my childhood church, reading from an essay she’d written about the accident. I cried when I read what my grandma wrote, unable to imagine her getting through it without becoming overwrought by the memories.
Today, she did it. The scripture for the day, Psalm 46-4-5, was perfect. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fail; God will help her at break of day.” My petite, 82 year-old grandmother, whose back was once broken, showed that her spirit is anything but.
It was 1950 and my grandma was on the passenger side of her 21 year-old brother’s car when they were broadsided by a gravel truck. The car flipped, turned, ejected the two siblings a half a second after they’d been singing along to the radio and telling jokes with, as she put it, “not a care in the world.” My grandma, her body crumpled and twisted up like a rag doll on the side of the road, dwelled somewhere between heaven and earth. She describes it as a place with no pain. She felt perfectly calm and at peace and wrote “If I’m dead and this is heaven, I’m okay with it.”
On the side of that road, as she was fluttering between life and death, my entire history, the history of my family, hung in the balance. I’ve never once considered how close she came to death. It’s a miracle that she lived. It’s a miracle that just a little over a year later she was healthy enough to give birth to my mother. If she’d slipped peacefully away on the side of a dusty road in Kansas in 1950, my mother, aunt and uncle would never have been born. My brothers and I, all of my cousins. None of us would exist. All of our children… mine, my nieces and nephews.
After she survived, my wonderful grandmother was tortured by guilt. Her late brother was her parents’ only son. She wrote that she felt for years like God made a mistake in taking her brother and sparing her.
When we humans are hurting, one of the hardest things to hear is that “everything happens for a reason.” It would be like standing in a torrential downpour with no umbrella and passersby reassuringly tell you, “Don’t worry, one day it will stop raining.” Knowing that the storm will pass doesn’t change the fact that you’re getting drenched, or that you’re being consumed by the rainstorm. That you can hardly breath, so intense is the deluge.
My grandmother stood in front of the congregation today and said she’s learned to let go of the “survivor’s guilt.” She’s come to understand that God couldn’t have made a mistake by sparing her life, because her 17 great-grandchildren are no mistakes.
We imagine things … that we wouldn’t be able to survive, but in fact, we do survive. We have no choice, so we do it.
– Joan Didion