I’m a Thousand Miles From Nowhere; Time Don’t Matter To Me

Black Hills, South Dakota

I was seriously drunk.  My kids were with Rocky, Tonia was out of town with Mike, and Ruth was out with her boyfriend, who I didn’t like. So I’d gone out dancing by myself. Dancing and drinking. More drinking than dancing. I’d had to get a ride home because I was in no condition to drive. Joyce and Jerome had taken AJ and Kelsie and gone camping. They’d invited me, but sleeping in a tent on the damp ground with spiders and mosquitos had zero appeal to me. Joyce had told me where they were going and how to get there in case I changed my mind. 

I’d raided Tonia’s closet before going out and took her purple suede boots and a body con mini skirt. I paired them with a slinky top I’d borrowed from Ruth and my own black suede fringed coat. I’d spent the evening doing tequila shots to prove that I could. Tequila makes me warm and headache-y. So after I got home, I sat out on my front stoop, smoking and looking at the stars. Just before 2 am, the phone rang. I was immediately afraid. Back in those days, calling late at night meant risking waking up the whole house, so a late night phone call meant something serious was happening. 

When I answered the phone, no one responded to my ‘hello.’ Then I heard someone breathing heavily, a shuddering sob. A woman said my name. She said my name again before I recognized the voice. It was Tonia. She could hardly speak for crying. She said, “I need you.  Please come. Will you come?” 

Absolutely. “Where are you? What’s wrong?” Tonia told me she was at Rapid City Medical Center in South Dakota and Mike had been in an accident and it was bad and she was afraid. The only people there with her were Cindy and her husband. She started sobbing again. I told her I was on my way; I was leaving now. Tonia asked if I’d bring Joyce and Jerome and I promised I would and hung up.

Rapid City South Dakota

My mind was racing. I had several problems preventing me from keeping my promise to Tonia. My car was never going to make the drive to South Dakota. I was sobering up rather quickly, but I was still too drunk to drive. And I’m severely direction-impaired. I was never going to find Joyce and Jerome’s camp in the dark while drunk. I called J. I somehow managed to direct him to the campsite. 

Next problem: the clearing had several tents in it and I had no idea what their tent looked like. So I stepped out into the clearing and called out, “Jerome?” Jerome crawled out of his tent and I told him there’d been an accident and we had to go to Tonia now. He went back and told Joyce who woke the kids and we all broke camp and left for the Black Hills. It was about 3 am. We arrived at the hospital around 10 am.

I will never be able to find the place again.

When Tonia and Mike first married, Mike had been racing modifieds. Modifieds are a mid-level class of dirt racing cars that use stock production car frame sections as part of the racing chassis. Midwest modifieds race on smaller tires than the other types of modifieds and their bodies are very flat on the sides. This year, Mike had started racing sprints. 

Modifieds

Sprints are lighter cars with very high power-to-weight ratios. Mike’s car was a winged sprint. The wings increase traction, making the cars faster and easier to control. The wings also make the cars safer, with the downforce created by the wings making the car less likely to go airborne. When cars do go airborne, the wings contact the ground first and break off or crumple upon hitting the ground, lessening the impact on the driver and the car. 

Mike’s dad, Mike, and a pit crew member with Mike’s Sprint

There was an accident on the track, where one car hit another during the race and the car that was hit flew into Mike’s back tire. Mike’s car went airborne, flying upward and forward until it hit what Tonia described as a light pole standing inside the track. When the car hit the pole, it fell straight down 20 feet to the ground. 

Black Hills Speedway

Mike remembers everything about the accident. He remembers being hit, he remembers his car flying into the air. He remembers hitting the pole and falling back down. He remembers that when his car hit the ground, his hands fell off the steering wheel. And he remembers that’s the last thing he felt.

In the stands, Tonia was fighting her way down to the track. She was angry because no one was helping Mike. But time behaves differently when you’re under stress. People were helping Mike, they were dousing the car with fire extinguishers to make sure it wasn’t burning. When Mike was unable to get out of the car on his own, they didn’t drag him out, but began cutting up the car so the EMTs could get to him. He was loaded into an ambulance and sped away. Tonia found someone or someone found her and told her where Mike was being taken and she drove herself there.

The first people to show up in the emergency room were Cindy and her husband, who had driven down to South Dakota to watch Mike race. Tonia wasn’t crying. Her eyes were leaking but she had clamped down on her emotions to take care of Mike. Cindy came into the hospital crying and cried harder when she saw Mike. Tonia interpreted this as proof that Cindy was in love with Mike. 

Mike was made a quadraplegic in the accident. He has some movement in his arms and is able to drive a specially made car. He can breathe on his own. As soon as he was stable enough, he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis; Tonia went with him. She learned how to care for Mike, how to get him into and out of his wheelchair, bathe him, take care of his bathroom needs. She was about 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Mike was 5’10” or 11” and weighed twice as much as his wife. They learned how to manage with their size differences.

While Mike and Tonia were in Minnesota, I took AJ and Kelsie. I didn’t consult Joyce. I told Tonia not to worry; their kids would be taken care of. When I got home to Minot, I went to Tonia’s house and gathered up their clothes and toys. I took their mattresses off their beds and set them up at my house, AJ in Nick’s room and Kelsie with Monica. We had a few glitches adjusting to each other. Kelsie managed to cut my living room screens with child safety scissors and she told me she could mess in her diapers because her daddy didn’t mind cleaning her up. AJ insisted on sticking their feet under me when they sat next to me on the couch, which drove me up a wall.

I still don’t know how…

But there were no major upsets when I moved Tonia and Mike’s kids in with me. They all rode the bus to the same school, and I made sure I was home from class by the time they got back in the afternoon. Kelsie went to the same daycare Monica had gone to the year before. AJ got to see their friends at school and all four kids had the run of my neighborhood after school. Joyce and Jerome took all four kids some weekends to give me a break. We did so well keeping Mike and Tonia’s kids feeling safe that when Tonia came home and attended parent/teacher conferences, AJ’s teacher didn’t know that AJ was part of the family that had suffered the life-changing accident. I have always been pretty proud of that.

I was also pretty happy that one of the first things Mike did when he came home was show me he could still flip me off.

Minot is a city with a small town mindset. Mike’s accident had been big news. When he and Tonia flew home, there was a large crowd of racing fans and friends at the airport to greet them. Many of them followed both families out to the car. Tonia was set to help Mike into the car. Mike’s dad said he would do it, but it was very important to Tonia that she do it. But with so many people watching, she got nervous. It took her several tries and in the end Mike’s dad had to help. I watched, holding Tonia’s purse, herding all of our kids, and wishing with all my heart that everyone would go away so Tonia could take care of her husband. Eventually Mike was in the car and their family was back together and home.

Mike’s dad had built wheelchair access ramps onto his house and Mike’s house. I don’t know if Joyce and Jerome ever had one at their house, but I know I never had one at mine. Tonia called me one day and when I answered, I thought at first that she was crying and then I realized she was laughing so hard she was having trouble breathing. She asked me to come over, so I did. When I got there, one of the neighbors was leaving and Tonia kept thanking him. Mike was sitting in their van, Kelsie beside him.

Tonia and Mike had been leaving to go somewhere and as they were coming down the ramp, she lost control of the wheelchair. Was the ramp wet or icy? Was it too steep? I can’t remember. But I do remember the end of the ramp wasn’t quite flush with the ground. Tonia lost control of the wheelchair and it was going too fast when it reached the bump at the end. The chair tipped, tumbling Mike out onto the driveway. He’d seen what was about to happen and managed to get his arms up in front of him so he didn’t faceplant. Mike basically ended up on his elbows and knees in the driveway.

Tonia and my daughter share a trait: they both laugh when they get very nervous or embarrassed. Usually this is just a little titter, but Tonia couldn’t get Mike up from the position he was in. She was upset and embarrassed at having dumped him in the driveway and she started laughing. When Mike told her to push him over on his side so they could maybe get him up from there, she laughed harder. Then she couldn’t get him up because she was laughing so she laughed harder and ran inside to call for help. She called me first and after she hung up she remembered I was no bigger or stronger than she was so I was a stupid person to call. Laughing so much now she was gasping, Tonia called the neighbor. 

Thankfully Mr S thought Tonia was crying and not laughing and he came right over. She managed to get herself under control so Mr S wouldn’t find her laughing at her husband lying helpless in the driveway. When I arrived Tonia assured me everything was ok, and Mike, Tonia, and Kelsie drove away to wherever they were going. Tonia never spilled Mike again. 

Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair.

Grief can take on many forms and be experienced in many ways. The four most common variations from normal grief are cumulative grief, compounded grief, disenfranchised grief, and anticipatory grief. Cumulative grief is when a person experiences multiple losses all at once or else in a very short time span. If a person is unable to complete the grieving process before something happens to make them grieve again, that’s cumulative grief. So if a person finds they are carrying a sick child, that may cause grief, which is exacerbated by the stillborn death of that child. Then that person’s sister almost bleeds to death because a doctor won’t listen. Then that person watches a loved one have an accident that could have ended in death. Then that loved one is found to be quadriplegic, changing their lives forever. The person all this happens to is likely suffering cumulative grief. 

Compounded grief is when all the grief you’ve suffered over a lifetime mingles together in a pile-on effect when one more tragic event occurs. Imagine a person lives through the devastating divorce of their parents and the destruction of their family and then is beaten bloody by a step parent and then has an unplanned pregnancy and is abandoned by their partner. Then that person fights with their own parent over ownership of that baby until they find a new, safe partner. But a longed for child dies before it is born and before the person can recover from that, the cherished partner almost dies in a life-changing accident. That person is almost certainly suffering compounded grief.

Disenfranchised grief is when a loss is unacknowledged or deemed insignificant for some reason. Lots of kids get beaten up. It was just the once and you survived so it’s not a big deal. Sure, your child’s father left before the child was born, but you’re better off without the jerk, so why are you so sad? Yes, your baby is dead, but at least she died before you got to know her and love her, and you have other kids. Your husband was in a terrifying accident and he’s paralyzed, but he’s alive, so count your blessings.  Why are you so sad about your parents’ divorce? That happened years ago; you should be over it. Whenever someone’s grief is deemed unimportant or too long lasting, that’s complicated grief.

Anticipatory grief is when you are sad about something that is going to happen or might happen. If your child died because of a genetic condition you may be sad because you fear the same fate if you try to have another child. You may worry about what will happen if your badly injured husband has another accident or gets sick. You may worry that an absent parent will come back and take your child. 

What happens to a person suffering any (or ALL) of these kinds of grief? They may become numb. They may WISH they were numb and begin self medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex, video games, smoking… A person may just avoid processing their grief because it hurts too much. There may be outbursts of misplaced anger, overreactions. The person suffering the grief may feel exhausted, depressed, suicidal, or shut down emotionally. They may feel overwhelmed or unable to sleep.

You cannot hope to heal when you are dealing with too many tragedies. And left unaddressed, the grief doesn’t go away on its own. A new loss may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

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