Thanksgiving week started out like any other holiday weekend, with excitement for the upcoming holidays and travels. On Monday during the day I was making mental packing and to do lists while working, thinking about prepping for the long weekend ahead. Then I looked at my phone and saw my mom’s number. Thinking nothing of it, I picked it up. “L and his girlfriend have been in a bad car accident near school. Your tia and cousin M are on their way. I’ll keep you updated”. L is a sophomore at a prestigious university in South Carolina. His mom, my cousin M, lived three hours away. I was nervous, but honestly didn’t think too much of it. I had other things on my mind. L was young and healthy. But throughout the day, the news got worse. L’s girlfriend was in emergency surgery. L was in a coma. The doctors said all they can do is wait and see. Then the next day, I get the news that they are doing one more MRI. We were all to prepare for the worst. My mom hit the road to South Carolina. But it was too late. I got the tearful call. No brain activity for 24 hours. He was gone.
I had to step away from work and find a place to let my sobbing tears run and let my body stop shaking. He was 20 years old. 3.83 GPA. Electrical Engineering Major. He was at the start of his young adult life; that moment when you fly free from your parents and start to enter the world on your own. How could he be gone just like that?
The next few days were filled with talking with my mother, my aunt, my cousin, and my friends and family, while trying my best to concentrate on my work, my life and my upcoming trip. My mother was nervous knowing my long drive ahead, but also knew that life had to go on. On Wednesday afternoon we packed up the car, the kids, and the dog, locked up the house, and headed on our trip down to Palm Desert for the Thanksgiving holiday.
As we drove down, I was rethinking our plans in my head. We had planned to stop at a hotel in Wheeler Ridge for the night, and finish the drive early Thanksgiving morning. My husband doesn’t like driving at night. But I wanted to push through. It was only three hours more, the kids could sleep, couldn’t we do it? As I was thinking along these lines, I got a call from my neighbor. “Err…Are you on your way home from work?” “No, I’m four hours south of the Bay Area right now. Why?” “Umm…There is a car in your front yard…”. It turns out, a car lost control on the hill near our house, rolled down backwards, jumped the curb at our front lawn, went through the retaining wall between my house and my neighbors, and crashed into my neighbor’s house. The car was half in my lawn, half stuck in my neighbor’s house.
After talking on the phone with my obviously upset neighbor and the responding police officer, it seemed that there was minimal damage to our lawn and retaining wall, but no damage to our house – my neighbor’s on the other hand… The retaining wall was holding up. The officer assured me that we could safely continue their trip south and didn’t need to return. My neighbors were great about documenting and taking pictures for me. But my husband and kids were in the car and heard my shock and discussion with the police. So now everyone was a little freaked out. It was around 5pm at this point. My husband pulled off the next exit and we decided a nice steak dinner was in order. I texted my best friend the news and said “God has spoken; we are staying in a hotel tonight”. We pulled into Wheeler Ridge and stayed in the hotel for the night.
Fast forward to Saturday, and the whole group is leaving the AirBnB house we had been enjoying the last few days to drive home. Our plan was to see Joshua Tree, then make our way to Wheeler Ridge, to the same hotel we had stayed in a few days below. We even had hotel reservations. Everything worked great at the start. We left Joshua Tree in plenty of time, and decided to take the back desert roads to Wheeler Ridge to avoid LA traffic. At first it was fine. The sun was still out, and the roads were clear. Then the sun set, but the road was still straight and the route fairly straight forward. Then there were a few turns. Google told us that it would be quicker. Then, it asked us to turn down a road, but we couldn’t see it in the dark. It rerouted us. We missed the next road too. It took us to another road, but that one was closed. We took a U-Turn, and tried to find the original road. We make the right… into a dirt road with no lights and no traffic. Google said “Go 16 miles”. No way. We both agreed that was a no go. So we went back on the main road and went back to the next gas station to try and figure out our best bet. There were other roads we could take, but we were in the heart of the desert in the dark at this point. And having traveled this route before, my husband knew there were long stretches with no cell service and no towns. We decided to backtrack a few miles to where we saw a shopping center and get some dinner. We could think better after some food.
Once we stepped in for dinner my husband started right away. “I don’t want to travel any further tonight. Let’s just find a hotel here. Cancel the one we have in Wheeler Ridge”. I looked at the map. We were two hours away from Wheeler Ridge. That would mean two more hours of driving the next day, the heaviest travel day of the holiday weekend. I wanted to push forward. I didn’t want to make a little scare stop us. But I thought of L, and of his mom and what she was going through right now. I thought of my friend J, who had recently had a fender bender. I thought of the car that went though the retaining wall at my house. I thought of all the little decisions that people made that turned out to be life changing. I was at one of those moments. Push forward, and risk a further dangerous situation? Or take my husband’s advice, call it quits, and stay at the nearest hotel?
A quick call to the Microhotel at Wheeler Ridge and a quick explanation of the circumstances got us out of our reservation. Another search found us a Holiday Inn near by. We pulled in, settled in the hotel room, and let the kids watch the Disney Channel as we unwound in the hotel room. Once the decision was made, both my husband and I both relaxed. It was better to be safe, and settle in for the night.
The next morning we got up a semi-leisurely fashion, had breakfast downstairs, and headed out on the road. We drove the two hours through the desert to I-5. As we drove the road, I looked out at the scenery and admired it. It was beautiful, with Joshua trees, mountains, and long stretches of empty. I realized I would have missed the most beautiful part of this drive in the dark, if we had done it the night before. The drive was relaxed, with the kids reading, coloring, and looking out. My husband was relaxed, as he drove. And I was relaxed as I looked out. We got to I-5 safely, and even stopped in Wheeler Ridge to check out the outlet mall and get some lunch. That drive would not have been as relaxing if we had done it the previous night, nervous and scared.
The rest of the trip was some stop and go traffic, some breaks for meals, and coffee, and a little bit of rain. We had a nice dinner, and were able to pick up our dog from the sitter before getting home. As we pulled into the driveway, both my husband and I glanced to our left, to see the damage to our lawn and retaining wall. I parked and stepped out of the car, and walked over. I saw the large tire tracks, the broken pieces of the wall, and realized the bushes were no longer there. We were lucky to have not been home. The whole thing would have been visible from our living room where my children play. They often run up and down the street without even looking (we live on a private street with little traffic). Instead they were asleep, blissfully unaware of the danger they had missed.
I don’t know why God works in the way He does. I don’t know why He chose to take my young cousin in the prime of his life. I don’t know why He chose to have his girlfriend, brother, and parents survive, and now have to live without him. I don’t know why God chose to let this car roll down the hill and crash in such a spectacular fashion. I don’t know why He let that driver walk away with no injuries. I don’t know what directed the driver to turn his wheel at the last second, missing our house and much more damage to their car and our home. But I do know that I need to take these as life lessons, that I needed to see this as a reason to have an abundance of caution. That I need to slow down, and enjoy life. It was not just my husband and my life, but the lives of our two small children as well. And as I looked at our sleeping children, I was keenly aware of the privilege I had in seeing them, hugging them, putting them to bed, as other mothers were not so lucky tonight. So while our trip didn’t go as planned, and the drive was slower than we hoped, we had fun as a family. We made memories. And we all made it home safely. And we are lucky enough to enjoy another day.