A car accident reminds me that I’m the only one there for my kids
Last June a Ford F-250 rear-ended me, pushing my car into the hitch of a flatbed truck at the peak of a Friday-afternoon rush hour. I remember the sound of metal bending metal as the truck pulled free from the shiny black economy car my son named Darth. Afterward my friends said things like, “I can’t believe it . . . Thank God the kids weren’t with you . . . Your first new car? Ten days off the lot? And your back hurts? What terrible luck, mama.” But the wreck is not what unhinged me. The other driver had good insurance and accepted liability on the spot. Even the mild neck and back pain wasn’t the cause of my upset. I felt out of my body anyway, having just completed my longest run ever—20 miles—in preparation for my first marathon.
What made my chin tremble right after the accident—my first in 39 years, and a minor collision at that—was the realization that I had no one to pick up my kids.
My phone had only 10% battery, my first four emergency contacts were all out of town, and I could not think of a single human able to do summer-camp and day-care pickup for me. My son had been missing me more than usual that week and made me pinkie promise over breakfast that I would get him a half hour early, at exactly 4:30. The wreck happened two miles from his camp, at 4:25.
We moved to this town (their father’s hometown) three years ago, months before the divorce. Their dad calls and pays child support, but he lives states away, sees them a few times a year, and the only family we have here are a pair of his aunts who take them to dinner and occasionally babysit. I am grateful as hell for that help, perhaps because I have so little of it. I’ve worked hard to make friends here, but most were on vacation the week of the wreck. The aunts, too. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what would happen to my children if I’d been seriously injured. How long would they wait at camp and day care before the directors contacted their father? What would their father do from hundreds of miles away? Exactly how scared would my kids be? And how would I parent with broken limbs through the long-lit days of a Montana summer?
Living without their father
As I waited with the two other drivers for the cops to arrive, I ran through the details I don’t share about being a Solo Mom: How the kids were two and five when their father left (too young to work a smartphone), so I taught them to walk across the street to the convenience store and ask for help if “anything ever happened to mama.” How the girl, still in diapers, used to point to the giant map on the wall, and yell over and over, “Where my dada be?” accepting no answers. How my son developed a habit of crying each time he saw me during one of his father’s visits, associating my presence with his dad’s departure. How he befriended kids at playgrounds, followed them to their fathers, then tried to sit in the strange men’s laps in spite of his shyness. How on a play date one kid said, “I think your Dad isn’t coming back,” and we never invited him over again. How the girl spent the fall she turned three crying in her sleep, me awake listening. How each December they stand by, shiny and useless as ornaments, saying “Thanks, Mom, thanks” as I struggle to get the Christmas tree through the door. How there is no one to help them buy me presents on holidays, so they make them in secret after bedtime. How we spend those holidays alone, all the friends we call family busy spending time with their real families. How when their father last visited, my son smiled and said, “Now everyone at school will know my dad is real.”
Somehow we make it work
It takes seconds for the fear that fuels these moments to pass through me. The story it urges me to tell far more damaging than the strain of running 20 miles or the impact of the wreck. On my last bit of battery power, a text from a single dad friend rolls in, and I realize his son is at camp with mine, my daughter is at the day care where our boys met, and we’re saved. He gets them in minutes. I make it home first and call in pizza delivery. The girl and boy tumble into my arms, a week’s worth of artwork stuffed into their backpacks. They pause to inspect the smashed ends of the car, impressed. The news about pizza distracts them—a rare treat— and the story shifts so swiftly from What if? to Enough. Because it seems no accident, finally, that we always have enough. The three of us snuggle in bed that night, watching a movie together as the sun sets, too rich in luck and goodness to think about my aching neck, elevated legs, or the stray popcorn leaving love crumbs between the sheets.
Melissa Stephenson is a writer, runner, and solo parent to two amazing children. All three are happy to live in Missoula, Montana.
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