by Seth Eisenberg
Sunday Morning, March 27, 2011
A half-hour before the near-fatal accident, I was finishing off a bowl of warm, buttery grits in a Hartsville, South Carolina diner packed with Sunday morning patrons cheerfully enjoying meals, quiet conversations, and the serenity of nowhere to go in any particular hurry.
Though it’s almost ten years since she died and decades since we enjoyed breakfasts sprinkled with laughter and hugs, grits anytime of day still remind me of Maybelle Charley. From my earliest memories, Maybelle was my surrogate mother.
That particular Sunday morning, even before the amiable, young waitress whose shape, charm and “morning y’all” greeting revealed her natural southern roots sat down my bowl of grits, I was already thinking of Maybelle.
Like many of Hartsville’s families, I’d woken-up early that Sunday morning. While many of the city’s 7,800 residents packed into freshly polished station wagons, mini-vans, and SUV’s to worship at one of the area’s nearly 150 churches beneath the overcast sky of a chilly spring morning, I was packing up for breakfast with Howard and the 32-mile drive to the Florence Regional Airport for return flights via Charlotte to sunny South Florida.
Maybelle’s stories about growing up in Columbia, just 70 miles west of the Hartsville Marriott Fairfield Inn where I’d spent the last two nights, provided some of the most colorful folklore of my childhood. I wondered if I could find one of the courts where she’d played basketball as a youngster long before my birth, if I could somehow find the home where she’d grown up, school she attended, or learn something, anything, about the relatives and friends she’d left behind when she moved to Washington, D.C. in the early sixties to escape the poverty of the South.
Although Maybelle would have approved, I didn’t ask for a second serving of grits or splash ketchup atop the virgin white speckled corn that I both savored and devoured. With her easy smile and accepting nature, I suspect the waitress would have gladly obliged a request for seconds, thirds, or perhaps a much larger bowl.
We finished off our meal, returned to the white Ford Focus with Upper Pee Dee YMCA boldly painted on both sides, and continued our conversation about the area’s nearly 20% unemployment rate, how technology was changing our world, and what we could do to make a difference. Passing the entrance to Interstate 95, I joked about skipping the airport altogether and making the 10-1/2 hour trip back to Fort Lauderdale by car.
Minutes later we headed down West Palmetto along the final miles to the Florence airport.
The accident happened faster than I could blink my eyes.
In the same instant I saw the woman’s car shoot through a stop sign into oncoming traffic and realized there was nothing Howard could do to avoid a high-speed collision, our air bags had deployed. The bags and seat belts held our bodies in place while our car came to a jolting stop as if we’d driven into a brick wall. The impact sent the other vehicle across lanes of traffic to the other side of the thoroughfare.
After glancing at Howard and the deflated white airbags in front of us, my first thought was that our car was about to explode and we had to get out.
My leg collapsed beneath me as I stepped from the car.
I quickly found myself laying face down in the soft grass of a home at the intersection of the accident. A scruffy middle-age man with ripped jeans bounced across the yard to check on me and returned a moment later with a blanket to cover my trembling body, offer kind words, and insist that I stay still. I heard him or someone else calling 911 and then sirens in the distance.
Seeing Howard standing, I turned my head to ask him to grab my computers from the backseat of our immobilized car that store gazzilions of files that could take me years to recreate.
I struggled to remove my cell phone from my pants pocket, push the buttons to reach my wife, Stephanie, and let her know what had happened.
As pain shot through my limbs, I wondered if I had internal injuries. I wasn’t thinking about Stephanie’s reaction as much as I yearned for the comfort and peace of her voice. I didn’t know what was happening inside my body, but I knew I wanted to feel her love amidst the shock and fear of the accident.
I thought of Maybelle again, heard her laughter in my head, and felt the joy of her ever- present spirit.
Suddenly, my thoughts were far away from the scene of our accident, the throbbing pain, and even my wife and three sons in Florida.
In my mind, I was back in Indiana during the winter months of 1984.
It had been just a couple hours since the end of the meeting with Bracha Oshratt from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago when I got the phone call. She’d come to the Indiana University campus in Bloomington for a program hosted by the Israel Public Action Committee I’d founded three years earlier. Yochanan, another student activist, offered to drive her to Indianapolis afterwards for her short flight back to Chicago.
The roads were icy from recent rain and snow. Somewhere during the 36 miles north on Highway 37, Yochanan’s car slid on the ice and crashed into a poll.
Bracha Oshratt, a survivor of the Nazi death camps who had made her way to Israel after World War II and risen with distinction to the highest levels of her nation’s foreign service, died at the scene.
Yochanan survived, went on to earn his PhD in Economics, and is today a respected American university professor.
I imagined how much Yochanan and Bracha must have thought of their loved ones in those moments 27 years ago. I wondered what final thoughts and images went through Bracha’s mind in an instant likely very similar to the flashing glimpse of life’s fragile nature that I’d experienced on West Palmetto Sunday morning.
More than 40,000 people die in auto accidents each year in the United States, including more than 1,000 in South Carolina alone. For many, the end of their lives arrives in an instant.
Almost a week has now passed since Sunday’s accident. Rest, medication, crutches, and the patient, gentle care of my devoted, ever cheerful wife has eased the physical pain.
Long after the symptoms radiating through my limbs subside, I suspect the seconds of March 27, 2011 will remain forever engraved as a reminder that we never know the day, moment, or instant that will be the last of our life or the life of someone we love.
It’s also a reminder of the kindness of strangers during a traumatic moment in which we are all fingers of the same invisible hand.
Most of all, it’s a reminder of the priceless, infinite gift of one last conversation and one more embrace in the arms of a beloved.
Seth Eisenberg is President/CEO of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation in Weston, Florida, an industry leader in relationship skills training and marriage education.