Somewhere in Patterson, California, a man got drunk and climbed behind the wheel of his van.
My family and I were on our way to go celebrate my birthday at a cheesy Mexican restaurant. I hadn't seen my family in a little over a year. I was studying at the University of Wisconsin, two whole time zones away, which made it too expensive to fly home except for special occasions.
My last real memory before the accident was pulling into the driveway of my parents' rental home. I felt awful. The house I grew up in, the only home I had ever known, was lost in foreclosure after my dad was laid off. This new place, painted an ugly shade of brown, had a cracked driveway and a saggy roof.
"Hijo, I'm so embarrassed," my mother told me through sobs the night before I flew in. "If you don't want to stay here, it's okay."
I told her to stop worrying and that everything would be fine. But looking at the house in person, with the summer sun baking it on a 100° day, I felt deflated. I remember thinking I hope my dad doesn't feel ashamed about the house. And about losing his job.
That was my last memory before the accident.
I hear a loud smack. It's quick, like when you drop a textbook and it lands flat on the ground. A van doing over 60 miles per hour has slammed into the side of our car. We flip over multiple times and the car is crushed into some palm trees.
I'm hanging upside down. I feel like the inside of my body is on fire. I feel the tickle of something running up my neck and face. The seatbelt is holding me up. It feels like I'm floating. I'm confused and it's hard to see. I feel a light touch running up my neck, around my jaw, and now it's tickling my cheek. Something starts to drip into my eye and it stings. I want to wipe it away but my arms are stuck.
I blink hard a few times. Things are slowly coming into focus. I am facing towards the inside of the vehicle and I see what's left of my little brother. Parts of the car are jamming through his body. There is so much blood. One of his arms is unnaturally bent. But worst of all are his eyes.
I'm staring into them. They stare right back at me.
"Andrew," I call out. My voice is raspy. "Please, Andrew, say something. Tell me you're okay."
His eyes just keep staring.
I start to panic. Something inside me starts to break. I can't see my parents in the front seats. "Mom? Dad? Say something."
My little brother keeps staring. His eyes are dull. Lifeless. "Andrew! Just blink. Please! Just blink! Just close your eyes!"
I know he's dead. I know they all are dead. Something inside me shatters. I grow frantic. He won't stop staring. I want to look away but I can't seem to move. I begin to scream for help. And then I'm just screaming. Something inside me dies. It'll take another 10 minutes before I pass out from blood loss.
I wake up from a coma several days later. The first thing I see is my wife sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed. Some friends come in with their new daughter. The drugs make it really hard to focus.
My wife looks nervous.
I ask her when my family is going to visit. She starts crying. I don't understand. She tells me that there was a car crash. She says that my entire family died in the crash, and that I am paralyzed from the neck down. I just shut my eyes.
I imagine my mom misty-eyed, asking me, "Adonde quieres a comer for your birthday."
She's blending her English and Spanish like she does when she's excited. I tease her about it. I imagine my dad asking about school. He wants to know if I memorized the criminal code yet. He never understood what I did in law school but he was proud that I was there. Picturing my little brother is the hardest. He recently turned 14. All I can see is the pudgy little kid I taught to ride a bike. He is smiling. He was always smiling.
I feel so bad for my wife. She shouldn't have to say those words. I want nothing more than to hold her, to console her, but I can't. I'm trapped in my own body, pinned to the hospital bed.
I have a collapsed lung, a concussion and significant blood loss. A piece of the car went straight through my knee. My first four vertebrae were crushed. The doctors say I will be a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of my life.
Mentally, I am gone. I want to hide. When reality would try to creep in, I would just run into the comfortable embrace of intravenous narcotics. It's warm and safe and I can just dream of my family. But I know I can't hide forever. I owed it to my family to be more than just a sad endnote on an already depressing story.
There was a month in the ICU, a handful of bolts and screws to reset and fuse my spine, a flight back to Wisconsin for insurance purposes, another collapsed lung, a tracheotomy, and a couple months of intense physical therapy. I had to learn how to breathe again. I had respiratory therapy every four hours, every day for over a month. My lungs were so badly bruised that nurses had to push a vacuum tube into the hole in my trachea and suck fluid out several times a day. I had to learn to swallow again. This included a week where all I could eat was hospital meatloaf.
Rehabilitation was hard work but I eventually came out the other side well enough to go home. Not perfect, but well enough.
They say time heals all wounds. In the time since the crash, I have found that to be true. If it weren't, I would have bled to death in one way or another. The real problem is the scars. The ones on my skin are ugly and painful. The ones on my spine will leave me physically broken for the rest of my life. Those on my memory haunt my nightmares. But the ones on my heart, those are the most difficult to live with.
But my scars also give me purpose. By showing you my scars maybe I can save you or someone you love. Maybe my scars will give someone pause before driving drunk or encourage someone to get help for their drinking problem. If sharing my scars can save someone's life, then the pain of reliving that day is worth it. And when I see my family again, I know they will be proud.