The quick sputter of dirt and debris hitting the metal hull of my parents’ Rav4.
My mom’s gasp of terror.
The sight of a vehicle on the opposite side of the highway soaring through the air.
The sickening sound of metal crushing against the overpass behind us quickly followed by the earth-shattering thud as the airborne vehicle slammed into the grassy median.
It’s been almost a week since my parents and I witnessed the fatal accident–almost a week, and I’m still trying to grasp (or maybe unsee?) what happened.
Those sight and sounds we heard that day is something you’d see and hear in any high-action scene in a movie, one where maybe the hero of the movie is in the soaring vehicle I saw and, yet, miraculously survives to save the day because it’s a movie. Or maybe it’s the moment where the bad guys went and screwed up, suffering an instantaneous fate of crushed metal and gore. But, unfortunately, this wasn’t an action movie. There were no heroes or bad guys.
This was real life. And I was a witness to it.
I remember being shell-shocked as my dad continued speeding down the busy highway. I wanted him to stop, silently pleading him to stop, but I knew he wasn’t going to. I wanted to help, trying not to picture what the end result of the accident looked like. Pulling out my phone, I dialed 911 for the first time ever and gave them the details that I could: “On 475 North by Airport Highway…car soared through the air at full speed…slammed into the overpass…only one vehicle involved…I don’t know what caused it…yes, my name is Josh…we…we just passed it…”
Meanwhile, my mom was crying in the backseat, throwing up desperate pleas to God to be with the person in the car.
My dad, with a solemn face, seemed to sense my unspoken desire to want to stop–to pull over and rush to the aide of the victim. With a grave voice he said, “We can’t stop. I’ve been trained in first aid classes that when you see something like that, the worst thing you can do is stop on the side of a very busy highway.” He paused. “I hate to say it, but with that impact, whoever was in that car probably didn’t survive.”
My mom continued to cry for the stranger she didn’t know. That’s who she is, a woman with a heart for anybody.
I continued to stare ahead at the highway, moving closer to home. I mean I stared, but I don’t know what I was seeing because my mind and thoughts were miles behind us at this point. I knew my dad was right; I knew it could’ve caused another accident had we pulled over. But at the time I didn’t care. I’ve never seen something quite like that.
How could something like this happen? It had only been two days since Christmas, a day full of family and cheer. It wasn’t fair to whoever was in that car. It wasn’t right.
Our journey home continued, arriving to safety to turn on the news, very somber and in disbelief. Turns out the man behind the wheel lost control of his vehicle. The vehicle was wrapped around the overpass column. He was 52 years old with a family. My mom is friends with somebody who knew the guy.
Dead on impact.
I know I wasn’t in the accident. I know I didn’t lose anybody that day, but seeing something like that does weird things to your mind. And maybe that’s odd to say because maybe it’s detracting from the reality that a human life was stolen from the world. I don’t know. But how could it not make one think? The rest of the night that’s all I could think about. It’s all I could see. It’s all I could hear. Over and over and over again.
In mere seconds, everything changed for that man. Life ended for him.
Maybe he was on his way to see his family. Or maybe he was out to grab a bite to eat. I don’t know what his plans were, but I do know he didn’t plan on dying on December 27th, 2016. That’s usually not something people plan on. Death is just something that happens. It storms into life and carves you right out of it, leaving sorrowful holes in the lives of those left behind in its destructive wake.
What’s weird is that accident wasn’t the first time that day that we experienced the carvings of Death. No.
Hours before that accident, my parents and I were on our way to see Rogue One–my second time and their first. Naturally, I was scrolling through social media, excited for the movie, when five gut-wrenching words showed up on my feed: “Carrie Fisher Dead at 60.”
My heart had stopped.
I couldn’t believe it.
Death began scratching away at my heart.
Princess Leia, a woman I grew up admiring for her bravery and willingness to rebel against injustice–dead. And to find that out while we were on our way to see the new Star Wars spinoff movie? Weird. It brought a deeper meaning to the movie while we watched it somehow, even though Carrie Fisher technically didn’t star in this one.
After the movie, before we drove home, before the awful accident, I’d convinced my parents to walk over to Barnes and Noble since it was next to the theater. I collect Funko POPS! and I wanted to get one of Princess Leia to honor Carrie Fisher in some way. Maybe it’s silly. But I had to. I remember viscously searching the collection Barnes and Noble had to offer. Like a starving animal, I shoved aside the ones that didn’t interest me on the shelves, hoping I’d find one of her, but she was nowhere to be found.
Nearly defeated, I walked up to the help desk and asked the woman if they had any of her. She smiled at me with almost a sad smile, reached behind her, and offered me the Funko POP! of General Leia from Episode VII.
“I knew somebody would come in today looking for her. Here ya go.”
I grabbed that Funko POP! and almost got a little emotional because, I don’t know, the reality of losing an actress I respected kind of hit me and I felt like I held a small piece of her legacy in my hands. You can judge me all you want. I didn’t personally know Carrie Fisher, but I don’t think I had to in order to admire the woman she was–one who spoke her mind without a care about how it made her look to the world, one that was very open and human about her struggles, and one whom fans have reported to be absolutely loving and kind. She was a battle-scarred goddess.
Minutes later, after my purchase, I was looking at that same Funko POP! in my hands while my dad drove us home. I was holding the cartoonish representation of the deceased Carrie Fisher when the sound of crushing metal announced more death that day.
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m trying to find meaning in something that has no meaning at all. But that day, to me, was a day of death in various ways. The death of a beloved celebrity and the horrific passing of a man I didn’t even know. In both situations, death had its way. It tore loved ones away from each other, only leaving unanswered questions in its wake like a penultimate episode of LOST.
Regardless, my mind hasn’t stopped going back to that day. Every day since when I’ve gone out to my vehicle to go somewhere I stop and wonder, “Is this my last time getting in my car? Will Logan, my adored fur-child (dog), get to see me again? Will my family get a call they never expected?” It’s hard to predict because you never know.
Or I’ve been going through my days almost apprehensive because I’m afraid that maybe I’ll get a phone call from a loved one reporting bad news. Why? Because Death plays its game in mere seconds, destroying all those around it.
These have been my thoughts over the last week. However, I want to be clear that I’m not sitting here wallowing in fear and pity. I’m not letting the possibility of death ruin me. No. I think what I’ve come to realize is that you can’t live your life in fear of death because it happens one way or another. But you can live your life to its fullest every day, despite how insanely cliche that sounds.
You can live your life with meaning and purpose, a life full of unadulterated passion.
You can live every day as if it is your last. (Yeah, I know, I’m getting deep into the cliches! Sue me–just don’t expect much money if you do.)
But is cliche so bad in this situation? Because if you adopt that mindset, you set yourself up for success no matter what you do. Living a life with no restrictions, to its fullest, doing the things you love, not letting excuses hold you back? Well, it changes you and impacts those around you. It doesn’t carve holes into peoples life like death does. No, it plants seeds of power in the lives of those around you–in the life you’ve been granted.
And isn’t that the beauty of being alive? To make those impacts? To nurture those seeds to fruition?
Because, after all, how you live your life is exactly the thing people will remember you by.
How that man lived his life, is how his family and friends will always remember him.
Carrie Fisher’s approach to life will always be scrutinized and studied by all those she impacted–or didn’t impact.
The fruits of life take years and even decades to grow while death, in all its power, ends it in mere seconds. However, death can’t undo the way you live your life. It has no power there.
Because life is a legacy and legacies can’t be truly destroyed. You never know when your time to build it will be up. You never know when that buzzer will ring, ending your watch, but when it does what will your legacy be?