The Car Crash That Built A Friendship

For her, August delivers two anniversaries — a car accident and a people accident.

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This August is bookmarked, for me, by two significant anniversaries: the first related to a car accident, and the second a people accident. Twenty years ago, on August 1, my brother, Steve, and I were driving south on Route 7 in Vermont, leaving Manchester and heading toward Bennington. It was, as it is this year, the start of a busy holiday weekend so the road was fairly clogged with traffic. Stevie and I had just returned from a first-rate road trip to Montana and Wyoming. He was 15 that year, and we were in Vermont to retrieve our parents' dog, who had been with our brother, Tommy, while Mom and Dad were in Oregon. Heading south that day, I looked in my rearview mirror to see a car coming at us at what was clearly a high rate of speed. Really high. There was no time to act, and there was nowhere to go, with a steady stream of cars coming in the other direction. But instead of plowing into our back end, the driver of the speeding car pulled out into the oncoming lane and hit the first car--which had veered into our lane--broadside, sending it tumbling over and over and into the ditch, far down from the side of the road.

To this day I have no idea what happened in the moments after those cars collided. Time slowed to a crawl, and there was glass and metal and smoke everywhere. I'm guessing that one of my guardian angels took the wheel and navigated because we miraculously missed all of the other cars as we swerved around in the confusion. I pulled to the side and got out, grabbed the blanket I had in my trunk and ran to the car that had caused the accident. To say my adrenalin level was off the charts is an understatement: if I had had a baseball bat in my hands, I probably would have committed manslaughter. The boys in that car were drunk. Beer cans tumbled out with their bodies. They had no idea what they had just done.

The scene at the other car was heartbreaking: there was a boy who sat, bloody, in the high grass, rocking back and forth, and there was a father who was frantic because his wife, who had been sitting in the backseat, was in very bad shape. I gave them my blanket. Someone had already called for an ambulance, and soon the three were taken away to the hospital.  In the days after the accident, I learned that the family was from Texas, and that the mom had been airlifted to Albany Medical Center. Because I was living in Saratoga at the time, with my folks, we called the hospital to offer our home to the father and son, but we were just a hair late, as it turned out that they had already gone back to Texas so the mom could receive treatment closer to home.

The story didn't end there, though, and later that summer, just as I was about to board the ferry to visit my friend, Peter, on Nantucket, I got a call from the mom — Charlotte Carvalho. Someone at Albany Medical had passed on our message to her husband, Dennis, and somehow, despite her condition, despite the miles between us, despite the work it took to track me down, Charlotte and I connected, and a bond of friendship was formed that has spanned the past 20 years. Eventually Charlotte sent my blanket back — a gesture that still makes me laugh — and she made new ones for me — gorgeous quilts for my wedding to Scott and upon the births of my babies. I learned that the Carvalhos were in Vermont on that fateful day, visiting colleges for their son, Jason, who is now a doctor. Over the years we shared, long-distance, our triumphs and tragedies, but we didn't meet until just three years ago, when I took my son, Nate, on a road trip. To Montana and Wyoming. Charlotte and Dennis live in Michigan now. So we stopped en route to stay with them; to meet, finally, the people whose lives intersected mine in the most horrific of ways, and who had such a surplus of grace as to turn that awful day around and rebuild it into an enduring friendship, deeply rooted in gratitude and love.

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