The rain had started. It hadn’t reached us yet, but the storm blew up quickly the way it does on a North Carolina summer afternoon. It comes over the hills and catches in the trees and for a little bit it seems like the end of the world, but then it heads east and the sun comes out and you forget it happened. But we were still at the waiting for it stage. We were looking out at it from summer camp at the USNWC. I generally do two weeks of work there each year. I was on my second week. I’d had two of the very best camp groups in my six years as a part time summer camp “guide” out there. My boss looked nervously at me. I was just a few minutes from my clock out time and he looked at me and the coming rain and said, “You should probably get started. At least you might be able to get ahead of the rain.” I got up and got moving. Started my mileage app, donned my helmet, turned on my light. I considered putting in my one headphone that I ride with so I can hear both music and traffic, but decided against it. It’s best to be safe on days like this. I got on my bike and started riding the first uphill out of the White Water Center. I got on the road and hadn’t been riding long when one of my raft guide friends Zak waved and yelled at me from his car window. “BETHANIE!!”
People get nervous about me riding because riding a bike isn’t the normal way to get around. But it’s as normal to me as walking really, as normal as eating breakfast in the morning. I’ve been doing it for such a very long time. I rode as a teen because my parents had three kids and only the money for one car. If I wanted to go see friends, I rode my bike. I rode or got rides from other people in the army because when you are in and out of the country, owning a car can be difficult. And by the time I got out of the army, it had just settled in that at least for me getting a car was weird. Having a bike was the thing. I moved to San Francisco and I attended San Francisco State and I rode my bike there from the Haight District. I took the long way out Golden Gate Park and hung a left just shy of the Ocean. It was an 18 mile round trip. There was a shorter way but it involved a very steep climb, so I stuck to my Golden Gate Route and just enjoyed the view, which was spectacular.
So when people get nervous, or seem worried about me riding my bike so far I mainly shrug it off. Riding a bike is just what I do and not what I’d consider a heroic event. Most of my rafting friends already know it’s just something I do because this is my second summer riding my bike to work. It’s a 28 mile round trip and I take what I find on most days to be sweet country roads back into the city. Today was a little of an exception since riding in the rain is a challenge. It was windy, and instead of getting ahead of the storm, I found as I rode out towards Freedom Drive on Moore’s Chapel that I was riding into it. The wind had picked up, but visibility was good, so I kept on the pavement at the turn onto Freedom and kept going. I hit the first hill heading down Freedom and I just stopped pedaling and cruised. That is one of my favorite parts, the downhill glide where you don’t even pedal, you just hold onto the handlebars and keep your bike on a straight course. The light at Little Rock was green so I kept on going down the second part of that long, fast hill. I checked over my left shoulder to make the transition from the wide left shoulder to the road before the shoulder ends and traffic was clear behind me so I moved onto the road and I relaxed a little. It was still raining but the wind had died down, or I’d ridden out of it. At the bottom of the hill the road narrowed considerably, it’s one narrow country road here going around a curve and then hitting a straightaway for a bit. It’s just a little bit longer to the bike lane, which is one of the reasons I ride this road. That’s when I saw the black sedan. He was stopped and getting ready to make a left turn and waiting for traffic to turn into his neighborhood. He was stopped, so I kept pedaling, but then I notice he was making his turn and he would hit me if I didn’t do anything or if he didn’t notice in time. I started to scream, “NONONONONONONONONONONONONO!” I did the thing that has worked against the left hook in the past, which was to do a sharp right to get out of the way. But I knew he was coming too fast and that if he didn’t see me, and then even if he did, we would crash. Then it happened. My bike and body connected with the front of his car, without him ever slowing down or noticing I was right in front of him. He was still speeding up when I hit. I went flying over the hood, and then off the hood and up. I was in the air with two thoughts in my head. I hope I don’t die. I hope if I die Madison will be okay. And then I hit the cement hard on my knees and elbows and I rolled. I was screeming non-stop at top pitch and there was pain. I screamed and screamed and car doors were opening and closing and I kept on screaming. People gathered. A lady was calling on her phone. She asked my name and I think I stopped screaming to get it out. My body was shaking and there were people, and the lady said my name and said I looked to be a 26 year old woman. “46” I corrected her through my fingers which were covering my face. She paused. “46?” she questioned to the police. She told me they were coming. Someone came around to my left leg side and gasped, “Oh god.” In my brain which hadn’t stopped thinking thoughts or going through a thousand different suggestions and facts—“I guess you aren’t working tomorrow. This will ruin 24 Hours of Booty for you. What if you can’t ride a bike again? Well who wants to ride a bike now anyway? Madison doesn’t know where you are. At least I’m not dead. Is anything broken…” so when the man gasped and said, “Oh God,” my brain was thinking, “I’ve taken first aid and cpr class about ten times now and I know that’s something you really shouldn’t say to someone who’s had a trauma. You are supposed to say it will be okay and that help is coming and whatever you need to say to keep the victim calm. “Oh God,” is nowhere on that list. Someone had laid a hand on my shoulder and had been sitting there for a while with me without me realizing it until that person suddenly removed their hand and got up. In my mind I panicked a little. I looked up and saw a lady’s hand. It belonged to the woman who’d called the police. I reached up and grabbed it and held it. I didn’t know what else to do in that moment except to reach out to a stranger and hold on. My soul was struggling to breathe. After a while there was a lady in the distance. From the resonance of her voice she sounded like a strong black lady, but I can’t be sure because I didn’t look at faces the entire time. I looked at shoes and the six inch block in front of my face. There was a sign post and there was a brier patch which didn’t make a very comfortable bed. But the lady started yelling, “Move on people, Come on! We’ve got to get an ambulance in here! Please just keep moving on!” Of all the voices I heard it was hers I most remember because out of everything I thought that lady was saving me. Just because she knew how.
After a little while of laying in the poison ivy and briers and staring at the sign post and crying and shaking a group of firefighters gathered around me. They started prodding and asking more questions. They asked the where do you feel the most pain question twice and I was yelling at them about my toe, wondering if it had been ripped off or seriously sliced, like maybe it was hanging on by a tiny piece of skin, but they said no, my toe looked fine, and was there anywhere else (hint hint) where I might be hurting. I yelled about my toe again. They seemed perplexed, but proceeded to put a collar around my neck, which I found weird, but understood it was protocol. It was still raining, so one of them went inside their fire truck and brought out a tarp. Then they all stood there holding a tarp over my shaking, wet body. The police came and then the ambulance. Everyone was asking me their questions. They asked me to sit up, so I tried. I did fairly well getting myself up with some support, but then I saw my knee, and I just couldn’t. I fell back down into the grass and threw up in my mouth a little bit. I don’t think the reality of what had happened, or that my life would be effected more than just having the day off work tomorrow or missing 24 Hours of Booty, hit me until I saw my knee, which had already swollen to twice it’s size and was nothing but raw, skinless red flesh I knew it was going to be a while and I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t want to see it or deal with it. I wanted to lay in the grass and stare at the sign post and the wet green leaves for as long as possible. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to stop shaking. So they let me lay there until they rolled me on the stretcher and slid me into the ambulance. I’d never ridden in an ambulance or been to the hospital for anything other than wisdom teeth or childbirth. I’d never had a broken bone or a serious injury.
As soon as I went into the ambulance I remembered Madison had no idea where I was. She’d be expecting me home soon. My friends were also waiting on me to arrive at the bicycle shop Queen City Bicycles, where I was supposed to have my bike safety inspected. I’d made a very specific plan of going to the bike shop, getting a check and picking up my packet, and heading home to make a quick dinner and passing out early because the next day was going to be a 28 mile round trip followed by Booty in the evening. I yelled about my bike. Where would it go? What would happen to it? They found they could fit it behind the back seat of the ambulance. I asked about my phone. “nobody knows where I am.” I said in my small, crying voice. I was still shaking. The EMT said to let them take care of me, and that we’d work on that other stuff later. The police asked me questions, again, mistaking my 46 for 26. I wondered out loud why the driver hadn’t slowed down at all when he saw me. The police said people get distracted. Just like that. I thought of all the cell phones I’d seen over the months through the windows of cars, with people stalled on busy streets trying to find something more entertaining to do than wait. All the times I’d seen people moving in traffic while looking at an electronic device and I said, “Oh.” It was so cold in the ambulance and I felt so alone that I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t stop thinking about the moment I was in and that not one person I loved had any idea what was happening. That I’d been hit and that I was heading in an ambulance for the trauma center. The EMT stuck me with an IV and pretty soon after suggested a shot of fentinol.
I asked what that would do. I remembered seeing a movie last summer about a boy getting addicted to his grandparent’s fentinol and wondered if getting this shot would cause an addiction. Would I end up on the street or breaking into the homes of old people to steal their pain meds? I asked in a nervous voice what the fentinol would do and the EMT said it would just take the edge off and perhaps he’d just start with half a dose. Half a dose seemed not too dangerous, so I nodded and tried to pull the sheet more closely around me. I don’t remember ever being that cold. Or alone. The idea that nobody I loved knew where I was, or that nobody who cared about me would know if I died. In that moment, I felt so lonely. But then the fentinol started working, my shaking started to slow and I could remember to look at the lights above my head and relax, just a little.
Things moved quickly at the trauma center. I was given the trauma name of Joplin, and the nurses and aids started taking bets on when the Doctor would show up and the fact that they’d been doing this work for so long they really didn’t need him anyway. Someone found my phone in my bag and stuck it in my face to try and get numbers. I took the phone then and tried to call my friend Meg. I wasn’t sure about calling Madison first or how she would handle me telling her I’d had an accident so I called Meg but got her voicemail twice. So I called Madison. “What?” she answered the phone. I could hear the voices of the TV in the background, and could tell she was distracted. “I’m at the hospital. I got hit by a car.” She stopped for a second, then, “I’m coming. What do you need from home?” It strikes me sometimes, like right here in this moment that while not always dealing well with every day situations, in moments like this, Madison is absolutely the person to have with you. She will bring what you need and she’ll be solid. I said goodbye and hung up the phone. The Doctor came, they cut off my shirt and then he said the funniest thing. “We are not going to cut the shorts. Find a way to get them off without damaging her anymore, but those are expensive.” He looked at me. “I know, because I ride bikes.” They shimmied them down very carefully, which was when it began to dawn on me that there was something down there besides just my knee and my toe that I hadn’t seen yet. The nurse insisted they save my bra as well, and when the doctor complained about not quite being able to get it off, the nurse rolled her eyes and said, “I’m sure you’ve removed a bra before.” We laughed then. They took some blood and read the chart from the EMT and rolled me down the hallway towards a room. When they rolled me into the hallway, the first thing I saw was Madison’s face, which seemed to me to be the best thing I could ever look at. She was dressed to the nines, in the way of both her grandmothers. In her smart, summer outfit that transitions so easily from bike ride to hospital. She smiled. I spilled tears of great relief. “I brought you an outfit.” “Shoes?” I questioned. “Of course shoes.” I kept remembering shoes because I had ended up in the ditch with one missing and my toe hurting so much. Meg called Madison, and Madison told her where we were, and so she came. I explained to Madison what happened on the road, and she took it and she made jokes. The nurse came in and I mentioned I needed to use the bathroom. “Toilet or bedpan?” Madison and I looked at each other and laughed. “I don’t think I can stand,” I said. “Bedpan then.” He went to the cabinet to get one and we slid it underneath my butt. “I’ve never used one of these before,” I said, hoping for some guidance. “Well, now you can cross it off your bucket list. It’s pretty easy.” He handed me tissue. “I don’t think I can pee with people in here.” Madison laughed, and they both left the room. Bedpans are weird. They seem easy. It’s basically a plastic pot with sides on it. But there’s probably some trick to using one I didn’t understand, so I think I leaked just a little onto the sheet. Also you absolutely can’t pee with your legs closed laying down. That simply doesn’t work. Eventually I peed and everyone came back. The nurse took care of the evidence and I checked my phone. A message from Pel, “Where are you, I have your packet. You never showed.” I replied, “I’m at CMC, I had an accident riding home.” He called.
“I was left hooked out on Freedom on the way into town. He never saw me.”
“Are you okay?”
I fudged it a little because of not really knowing what okay means in a situation like this. In the fact of not being dead, I was absolutely okay, but in the fact that I was afraid to look down at my left knee, I knew I was probably not really okay. But being alive right at the moment seemed like the most okay thing in the world to me. The fact that I knew my head had hit the cement pretty hard and that I had an awesome helmet that kept me from feeling most of it. I felt behind my ear at a small, sore spot that had already dried over with blood.
The resident came in and explained what needed to happen with my leg. I was still on the phone, but I looked down for just a second. I squished the sheet so I could see below and I looked at it very briefly. What the EMT had referred to as an emulsion while we were in the ambulance. It did not look okay at all down there. It looked like a good part of my skin and also some stuff underneath that had been taken out, and it looked like the rest had been pushed back to one side. I put the sheet back up.
“Should I come get you?”
“It’s going to be a little bit I think. We have to wait on the surgeon to come in.”
“There’s a problem with the bottom of my leg. I think I’ve gotta go.”
“Let me know if you need anything. Like Sweet Baby Jesus.” Sweet Baby Jesus is, among other things, a beer, and one of my favorite porters.
I was suddenly pretty aware of how hungry I was. I remembered then thinking that on the road. When I ride and have a long day of work, and ride home I normally have a snack just before I head out so I don’t get too hungry. But that evening I’d left quickly and didn’t get a chance to have my normal pre-ride fill up. So I mentioned I was hungry. Madison said, “I can go get you something. What do you want?” Meg said, “There’s the cafeteria and chick-filet.” Those waffle fries sounded really good to me. I asked for those. Madison got up and went for food. Meg looked over, “She’s so amazing and grown up.” That made me cry some because it’s true. I had no idea what she was thinking, but she’d made us all laugh in the hospital room, and she laughed at me for telling everyone who came in I was naked under my sheet (fentinol is just a little fun), and however she was doing on the inside, she just held herself together and took care of things. I think it stunned us both sitting there in the hospital room, because we both knew where she came from, and it’s stunning sometimes to see her so grown up and ready to take on the world.
Madison came back with this amazing soup because Chick Filet was closed. Chicken tortilla soup. I’m vegetarian, but I was so hungry that I ate it without question while we waited for the resident and the ER doctor to come in and tell us what would happen. I drank some lemonaide that she’d brought with the food, but not too much since I was really hoping to not have to use that bedpan again. The doctor came in. We talked about what would happen, how much skin I’d lost and what would have to be done to cover the wound and sew me up. It seemed gruesome. Madison and Meg were attentive and kept looking at the battle torn skin of my leg. My brother in law always says in a battle between bike and car, the car will always win. This is the uncomfortable truth I know. I’ve always been so cautious out there. In all my years riding I’ve always been able to prevent serious injury by just making sure I’m seen, and if I’m not, making sure I relinquish the right of way as gracefully as possible. Perhaps with just one flip of the bird or the occasional unheard cursing of the driver. But still here we were. I kept trying to remember while not looking at my leg that everyone has accidents. People in cars have accidents and people on bikes have accidents and that is the thing called life that I’m not above or separate from somehow.
Madison’s phone rang. The doctor looked at me and said, “Don’t I recognize you? Do you ride in PMTNR?” PMTNR is the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride, that goes out from Plaza Midwood in Charlotte every Tuesday night (rain, shine, sleet or snow) at 8:00. “Yes, I do.”
“Pam?” Madison answered her phone. “Yes, we’re here at the hospital. Yes, she had an accident. Yes, she’s alright. She’s getting stitches.”
The Doctor looked up, a little bit stunned. “Is that THE Pam?”
Madison and I said in unison, “yes, it’s THE Pam.” He looked impressed. Pam is the founder of PMTNR, who would probably give her life’s blood for that ride. She makes sure it goes out every week with lights and helmets. We stop at a local business that support cyclists (usually by sponsoring bicycle benefits, which is a discount program for riding your bike), and we ride about fifteen miles. She’s also somewhat of a local biking celebrity. Her picture graces the cover of the new Charlotte bike route map and she teaches a class on cycling safety.
After some discussion with the resident, the doctor left and the resident started giving me shots. Todd called. I met Todd cycling in the late summer/early fall and we’ve been dating since December. He’d texted earlier to see if I’d gotten home safely, and I’d texted back that I hadn’t, and was in fact in the hospital.
“I just saw your text, and told them I had to step out for a minute. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. They’re starting to work on my leg.”
“I was just riding on freedom like always. There was a car, and he was stopped waiting to make a left turn. He was stopped so I kept going, and then he started going and he never saw me. He never slowed down.” The part about how he never slowed down was important to me for some reason. It felt weird that you would never see the person, that a whole human could be absolutely invisible to you. When someone is right in front of your windshield, you should see.
“Did he stop? Was it a hit and run?” This is common with cyclists. Drivers hit them and leave the scene.
“Are you going home tonight?”
“I think so.”
“I’m so sorry this happened. I’ll come in the morning.”
Ok had become a very important word this evening. “I’m okay. I kept saying it to myself. I kept pretending I was on the outside looking in and I told myself what I needed to hear—what they teach you to say in First Aid. And I told everyone else what they needed to hear. That night all of us needed to hear “Okay.” And also, there was the obvious part that being not dead, and not unconscious, also meant okay to a certain degree. Again, in the not being dead department, as broken and raw as I felt, I was definitely Okay.
In the end I was given shot after painful shot of lidocane so that enough skin could be “freed up” to cover my wound. They cut under the skin and they pulled, and they cut some more and they pulled some more. There were more shots (one of them made me scream), and there was more cutting and pulling. In the end the ER Dr. held my skin together so the resident could stitch it because there still wasn’t enough free skin to cover my leg. In the end it was midnight and I limped toward the exit of the hospital so slowly and stiffly that Madison had to keep circling around for me. It reminded me of how sometimes you get behind a really old person or someone with a serious disability and then you just have to wait on that person to go. You can’t be a jerk about it because they can’t go any faster, but there you are, hoping you can eventually find a way to squeeze through. Except Madison waited, because you can’t leave your Mother behind, and I made it down the hallway feeling about ninety years old with her stopping every few seconds to wait for me, the way she may someday find she always has to do. I made it to the exit with Meg waiting for us outside. In the world there is this human being called Meg and she’s been stitching us back together since I moved to Charlotte. I’ve called her when I couldn’t call anyone. I’ve called her for every emergency we’ve ever had, and she’s just that person who comes, always with great love and grace. Somehow she stitches us up again and puts us on our feet in ways that I didn’t think were possible. For many years now, whenever someone has asked for an emergency contact, I have listed Meg. When asked what is her relation to me I always say, “Friend,” but that doesn’t seem to cover it. During that whole night she watched over us both because after all these years, she is just our family and when we need help, she shows up.