The Tree

CLF - Olmstead Parks

Until August 1999, I had a vague concept of God and if anyone had asked, would have told them I was agnostic, leaning toward atheist. I was very far away from God in those days–embroiled in a deteriorating marriage to a narcissistic psychopath, drinking and smoking pot in an attempt to “put up” with him, all while I was raising two young children. I also was an unfaithful wife (as was my husband) and handily made excuses about my infidelity based on his abusive treatment of me and the fact he was unfaithful too. I never darkened any church’s doorway, and thought prayer was useless and silly. God was an abstract and mostly irrelevant concept to me–of no further consequence to my personal life than an Ebola case in Africa. My theory back then was that if there was a God, then maybe he created the universe, but then he left it pretty much alone after that, and was probably too busy creating new universes to give a damn what happened in ours. After all, if God was so concerned about our little human corner of the universe, why did He allow so many bad things to happen?

My ex was drinking heavily back then, and frequently became violent. During one of these fights, he blackened my eye and I had other bruises too, so I called the police. Given that he had no marks on him, but I was in pretty bad shape, he was arrested and went to jail for 90 days. During the time he was in jail, we had a stick-shift pickup truck, which I had never learned to drive. Since it was our only vehicle back then, and I had a six and seven year old that I needed to transport to dental and doctor appointments, as well as getting them home from their after school program, I had no choice but to teach myself how to drive the stick.

At first it was hard knowing what gears to shift into and when. It was very difficult to get used to how totally different a feel driving a stick-shift was over the ease of an automatic, which you didn’t have to “think” about so much. Some people told me they liked stick-shifts better because they felt they had more control over the vehicle, but it never felt that way to me. Still, over time, I got better, and soon was able to drive the thing adequately. Or so I thought. Obviously I still had a lot to learn about what gear to use when.

At the time, we lived in a house that sat at the top of a steep hill, and I’d usually take the long way around, following a gravel easement that looped around the back of the house, and continued down into our driveway, where I’d park so the truck was facing toward the road, so the gas could run into the tank.

On this muggy August day in 1999, after I picked the kids up after their after-school program, we stopped at McDonalds, and the kids were excited about their new Happy Meal toys and were contentedly playing with them in the back seat. Molly, just six and small for her age, still used a booster seat. Ethan, seven going on eight, no longer used a booster or car seat, and wore the seatbelt, which was still pretty loose on him.

When I stopped at the bottom of the part of the hill that merged into the driveway, I put the gear in what I thought was the correct setting for a parked car (neutral). Nothing had ever happened before, and no one had told me this was wrong, so I thought nothing of it this time. I got out of the truck and went around to the back to let the kids out.

Suddenly the truck began to roll. Downhill. The hill was steep and bumpy since it was unpaved. I watched helplessly, as if in a dream, as the truck bumped and rolled its way downhill, picking up speed as it went. I saw my son’s little face in the window of the backseat, frozen in a scream of terror. I heard my daughter cry, “Mama!” Suddenly I was moving, and racing after the truck which had picked up speed as it headed for the road. I threw myself on the ground and tried to grab onto one of the tires, as if that would make it stop. The truck continued to roll, and I was dragged along with it, bloodying my knees and ripping my clothes in the process, but I didn’t even know I was bleeding until later. All I could see was my kids and I had to save them.

The truck barreled into the road, and straight across it was a tree. A very large oak tree with a thick trunk. The truck was headed directly for that tree. At this point I had lost my grip and was screaming and crying, blood from my knees soaking what was left of my jeans. My hands were bleeding too. I watched in horror as the truck got closer to the tree. A few neighbors had come out and were watching the drama unfold, but I was hardly aware of them. Everything was moving in slow motion; I felt like I was trapped in some kind of nightmare. Desperately, I prayed: “God, if you exist, please do something!” I didn’t believe anyone heard my prayer.

The road and the tree were on flat ground, and the truck seemed to slow a little, and then the most incredible thing happened. The truck swerved to the right, and went around the tree, before continuing its journey across the neighbor’s property, which ended in a fairly deep ditch.

The ditch wasn’t visible from where I stood, and neither was the truck when it dove into it. My neighbors from the house across the street ran down into the ditch to see if the kids were alright. My heart was slamming inside my chest like a hammer. I still feared the worst.

A few minutes later, my neighbor appeared–Molly and Ethan each holding one of his hands. Molly was crying; Ethan looked solemn and pale as a ghost. Both children were fine, save a scratch on Ethan’s head (it turned out he had already taken off his seatbelt before all this happened!) They were scared, but fine. Mama, not so much! EMS workers had come and taken us all to the hospital by ambulance. It was me who suffered the worst injuries–deep cuts on both knees and severely chafed hands.

The emotional injuries were much worse, and would last for years. For months, I had flashbacks to that moment of sheer terror, when the truck started to roll and I could hear my kids screaming. Over time, the flashbacks stopped, but I’ve had a phobia ever since about ever parking on a hill–or even having to drive up one.

But overriding the negative aftereffects, is a conviction that at that moment when the truck had veered to the right and safely went around the tree instead of crashing into it, I had seen the hand of God at work, through one or more of his angels. Whoever or whatever it was made sure my kids stayed safe. No longer could I believe God just doesn’t care. I realized that it was the very moment when I called out to him through my skepticism, that he stepped in.

Sometimes we just have to ask and God will show himself, even if we don’t believe.