The Only Grown-Up in the Room

IMG_1939bwHome.  It’s good to be home.

Last week, after a glorious, extended July 4th weekend, I found myself standing in a hot, dry wind in the parking lot of an insurance office — or possibly a bank, I’m honestly not sure — in Travis, California.  My heart was beating in my ears and every inch of me was sweating as I stared at our crumpled hatchback and (perhaps slightly hysterically) instructed the agitated children in the backseat to PLEASE AFTER EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED JUST STAY IN THE CAR.

I was breathing hard, trying process all the thoughts and questions stacking up in my mind.  In no particular order:

My complete and frantic relief that my children were not hurt at all, and even seemed sort of bemused by this unexpected turn of events; the wrist-flexing question of whether I was hurt from bracing against the impact but too adrenalized to feel it yet (update: I was not hurt, thank god); the mantra that We’re okay, we’re all okay, the car did all the things it’s supposed to do, and now I need to get us home.  Safely.

Also: Had I taken down enough information, or the right information, about the accident?  I was new to this.  And the car: Could I drive it?  Would it make it the 90 miles to San Francisco?  If I couldn’t drive it, how would we get home?  Why did this mess have to take place on one of those godforsaken stretches of highway that only have office parks and car dealerships, and no McDonalds in sight?

I wasn’t even sure exactly where I was; I had been so focused on getting from the left-hand shoulder to the right-lane exit in my fog of shock that I didn’t notice the exit name or number.  I dumbly tried to geolocate myself on my cell phone, but gave up.  This wasn’t the time to learn something new.  Geolocating myself was not the priority.

I needed to call my husband, needed to call my dad, needed a minute to wrap my head around exactly what I needed.

Another grown-up.  That’s what I needed.  SOMEONE ELSE to step in.

I still wasn’t sure how this had even happened.  I hadn’t seen her coming in the rear-view mirror, traveling as we were with the holiday-light flow of traffic in the fast lane on a road I know so well.  Even after the collision, after my head snapped back and I screamed, when I realized I still had control of the car, was still going the right direction, it took several seconds for me to process the next steps: slow down, pull over, turn on hazards, check on the kids, lock the passenger side so my independent little Babygirl couldn’t climb out into oncoming traffic flying by at 70, 80, 90 miles per hour.

Back in the office park, the back door popped open and an empty McFlurry cup flew out, followed by a chorus of tired, sweaty whines.  “Mommy, it’s hot!  Mommy, we want to go home!  Mommy, when are you going to start driving again?  Mommy, are we going to go buy a new car now?”

I squinted and took stock.  I was the only grown-up in the room.  The only grown-up in sight, actually.  I was in a pickle and I was going to do what you do when you’re 38 years old and have a car accident driving alone with your two kids.  You pull yourself together and make grown-up decisions.

Good lord.  What a terrible feeling.

I had to text my husband.  I hesitated only because I knew he was in a meeting, and his phone would keep buzzing until he apologetically pulled it from his pocket and saw that his family had been in a car accident in I-80, and that is basically one of the worst scenarios in life, and I didn’t want to put him through it.  (But then I did.)

I called my dad, too, because it was one of those times when, even though you’re 38 years old, you just want to hear what your dad has to say about the situation.

After these two phone calls I was calming down, and it became clear that this office park was not moving any closer to San Francisco on its own.  I needed to get help and I need to get to a better location for waiting for help — ideally a location dispensing large bags of greasy chips and candy bars along with automotive expertise.  Breathing slowly through the fear of getting back on the road, I drove for several miles until I came to a familiar exit, with a familiar Chevron just off the freeway.  The shelves in the convenience shop were filled with useful-looking car tools, bottles of coolant and motor oil, and I felt confident as I approached the woman at the counter.  “Excuse me, is there someone here who might be able to take a look at my car?”  She seemed confused and shook her head.  “Nooooo,” she said.  “No one here knows about cars.”

Also, the bathroom was out-of-service, for the record.  (Insert crying-laughing emoticon here.)

LittleMan appeared at my elbow, brandishing a bag of Kettle crisps.  “Can we each get our own bag of chips and not have to share?”

This, I could handle.  “Yes!” I answered, sort of too loudly and authoritatively, like someone in charge of a situation.  Ha.  “Chips all around, and sparkling waters too!”

Back at the car, gusting winds still bearing down on us, I put on a DVD in the backseat and rolled down the windows.  I called AAA with the exit and station name, then put my head back and waited, the tinny voices of the Chipmunks chirping behind me.  I sipped a sparkling water.  Someone was coming.  This was progress, at least.

As it turned out, the car in its post-accident state was not in driving shape.  “You’ve got kids in there?” the mechanic asked.


“Well, your bumper is crushed up against your tires.”

“So the tires could pop?”

“Well,” he said, standing up and scratching the top of his head thoughtfully.  “The more likely thing is that the friction would spark a fire.”

“Oh…”  (By which I meant, good lord holy crap aaaaaaarrhhhh fire is bad.)

I stared helplessly through the window at the kids, and back at the highway.  Home was still a solid hour away. Reading my mind, the mechanic knelt down next to the wheel.  “If it’s okay with you, I can rip out most of the bumper, I think,” he said.  “Take it off the tire.  Get it safe enough for today.”

Question: Is it ever not okay to rip off the bumper when it could spark a fire under the gas tank?  I mean, it’s not like my bumper was lookin’ good at that point.  “Have at it,” I replied, and happily signed the dotted line.  (As a side note, how nice it must be to work for AAA?  I mean, in that moment, every part of me wanted to hug this stranger.  But I didn’t.  The day had already been super weird.)

If you saw a car driving 55 mph on the open road on Wednesday, with a harried-looking woman and two kids inside, and a shattered bumper swinging off the back, that was me.  I was the driver that the other drivers change lanes to get away from.  And you know what?  This did not bother me at all: keep your distance, people.

We had had enough.  We were okay, we were all okay, and we were going to get home safe.


Photo by Lauren Hemmingsen.


  1. Thanks,Jaime. We’re glad you were all safe and unhurt–though I expect you felt a few bruises later!

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