In my previous writing for JewishSacredAging.com, I shared how a moment in time changed the lives of so many of my family and friends when my parents and I were in a fatal car accident that killed my Mother and Father.
I have always look back at this horrific event preceded by what I call a mitzvah by my parents, who late at night drove three San Diego AZA friends of mine who were in Los Angeles for a conclave, to the LA bus depot. The three teens surprised me with a late Sunday afternoon visit and my typical Jewish Mother invited them to stay for dinner, “How can they take such a long bus ride without having dinner first?”
The irony of the evening was IF the bus depot was in a better part of town my Dad would have allowed me to drive the boys myself, IF we would have left five minutes sooner or later, and IF the bus could have been on time and not late as it was, the accident may not have ever happened. Destiny? Fate? Bashert?
I have been plagued since I was 16 years old as to WHY my parents had to die at 38 years old, leaving me and my two younger brothers alone. At not yet double their age today, I have finally decided, there are NO answers to most of our perplexing questions in life. But we have to find ways to reconcile them so as to live a pain-free, non-angry life.
700 hundred people attended my parent’s funeral. I was not one of them. I was in White Memorial Hospital, for 17 days, a Seventh Day Adventist facility in East Los Angeles. While in the ambulance, I overheard the drivers discussing if they should take me to White Memorial or County General Hospital and I yelled, “White Memorial!” I cannot answer the question as to why I had the presence-of-mind not to want to be at County General but in back of my mind that is where criminals went. As a kid who did not like doctors or hospitals, I was scared with anticipation of arriving there that night but was soon put at ease with realizing that some of the nurses wore habits and were nuns. They spoke in almost hushed whispers. It had a calming effect on me.
My seven year-old brother also did not attend the funeral and as he describes his memories, no one sat him down in the first few days after the accident to tell him what had happened. He only saw masses of people and food streaming in and out of our house for a week but he was sent to school each day as though all was normal. He finally heard some kids talking at school about the accident! That is how he found out his parents had been killed. Psychology and grief counseling were not there for any of us in 1962 and consequently has left a mark on all my family and friends who were touched by this tragedy.
My 13 year-old brother, who had just months before been Bar Mitzvahed—what a blessing for all the family photos we have—was the only one of the three of us at the funeral. Even after therapy later in life, he can barely speak of the moment the police came to our door to say there was an accident, his running across the street to the rabbi’s house, the funeral and shiva time. He went to a minyan for one year with our rabbi. There was a moment in the day of the funeral when our eldest uncle came up to him after the service and said to him, “Brave little soldier, you didn’t even cry!” Consequently, my dear brother kept the “brave little soldier” face for over 20 years. When he finally went to a therapist for the first time, he called me up and cried, “I feel like a garbage disposal that has never been turned on!” I am sure my uncle meant good but a moment in time and the power of words can harm the inner soul.
For the deadliness of the accident, I suffered a slight concussion, cracked pelvis bone, many awful bruises and the whites of my eyes were scarlet for six months but I have never had bad dreams or visions of the actual crash. A therapist told me it is most likely I did not see the impact as I had been sleeping, leaning on my Mother’s shoulder and probably blanked out until I awoke on the sidewalk.
My life experiences have taught me that people come in and out of our lives for reasons we may not understand until after the fact.
After a few days in a private room, the doctors moved me into an experience that I believe formed how I would live the rest of my life. I also believe the doctors knew exactly what they were doing when they transferred me to a room with an 18 year-old girl who had been in the hospital for 10 weeks after being in a car accident.
Randa McCall. A name out of fiction. Just saying it puts me in another state-of-mind.
Randa McCall had a broken neck.
Because of the nature of her injuries she was strapped to a flat board that was attached to a metal circular contraption that looked like a giant hula-hoop. The procedures for her recovery included two 50 pound sand bags hanging from pins inserted into either side of her head and daily the doctor would prick pins and needles into various parts of her body to see if she had any sensations. Whenever the doctor pricked her my entire body would scream out in pain for her. Randa felt nothing from her neck down. By using a remote control—I had never seen one before!—she could rotate herself to be up-right, on her back or flat on her stomach. Every time she would flip herself around to these different positions, I felt like I was on a roller coaster and I was petrified she was going to fall out or over!
I know with all my heart that spending the next several weeks with Randa McCall saved me from what could have been a very negative and angry attitude towards the future.
Because Randa was continually pricked with sharp objects, I learned the most valuable lifelong lesson on how I approach making decisions during this time:
I wear decisions on my naked skin like they were wool or silk…if it itches like wool I know it is not a good resolution…if the decision feels soft and smooth like silk on my skin, than I know it is the right solution.
Our room had become known as the “zoo” all over the hospital because between the two of us we had dozens and dozens of stuffed animals and flowers. Nurses, doctors, the nuns, patients in wheel chairs and visitors would stop by to see the two teenage girls in the “Zoo Room,” as we were affectionately called. Randa had a six foot gorilla sitting in a chair which made our room a special sight-to-see!
The first few days in the “Zoo Room” I was quiet and sullen. I wanted to go back to my private, quiet room and be alone. Randa was a talker and laughed a lot. At first I couldn’t understand why and how she could laugh so much. To me, nothing was funny. But slowly she won me over and there were times I felt guilty that I was having fun. We would burst into laughter every time she would press her remote control because it would change the TV channels! Can you imagine? TV clickers had not yet been a household item! We were two typical teenage girls giggling and talking about normal teen stuff. I honestly believe now that the doctor gave her an assignment, me, and Randa got an A+!
Randa was a missionary. She had spent the previous summer in Mexico building houses for poor people. She didn’t smoke, drink, use profanity and was discouraged to even date. Her parents had recently divorced, her dad leaving the family for a woman her older brother’s age. Upon her return home from her incredible experiences in Mexico, she and her mom were in a crash on an LA freeway outside LAX.
Randa never complained and I mean never. Though, her greatest pain was that her father had never come to see her in the hospital. He had called only twice. She didn’t talk about it and had mentioned it to me with deep sadness. She was a religious girl so adultery and divorce were beyond her comprehension. And for me, I couldn’t believe she had a father who would not come running to her side.
Then, again, a moment that changed everything for me.
About 7:00 one evening, Randa’s bedside phone rang. As I heard her say, “Daddy!” with such surprise, she rotated her board from a back position to standing upright. I never got used to seeing her like that because I always thought she would fall flat on her face! But for the next hour, Randa stayed in a very tall posture, speaking through her tears, with honesty and from the heart, telling her father, “Just because you divorced mom, doesn’t mean you divorced me.” She very directly asked him why he hadn’t come to see her.
I wanted to get up and leave the room so she could have her privacy but I had not been out of bed yet and couldn’t even stand up. I hid under my covers for over an hour. When she finally hung up, the room was silent except for Randa’s quiet sobbing.
While hiding under my covers, my reaction to the phone call was enraged anger! At Randa! All I could think about was how lucky she was that she had a father to talk to! Of course, I did not know the other side of the conversation but I heard how hard she tried to convince her dad that he still had a daughter who loved him and wanted him in her life. After some time I came out from under the covers, looked over at her and said, with emotion,
“At least you have a dad to talk to!”
Without missing a beat, and full of vengeance and feeling of abandonment—by me—Randa pressed her clicker so she was on her stomach and could see me directly from her right side. With more anger, resentment and emotion than I had ever heard from this stranger, she yelled at me,
“BUT AT LEAST YOUR FATHER DIED LOVING YOU!”
These words changed my life forever.
How many times in over 52 years have I repeated what Randa had said to me, for that was the moment that words altered my life and made me realize my parents didn’t leave me and my brothers because they wanted to or that they didn’t love or care about us; it was their fate to die at 38 years old, still together after 26 years of knowing each other, leaving a legacy of a real love-story and all they had taught us. How lucky I was to know that we had been loved, cared for and given so much security.
I knew that I was luckier than Randa McCall.
Randa had one goal. To WALK up to my front door on Christmas Day, only five weeks after I left the hospital. With great determination, pain, physical therapy and faith, on December 25, 1962, Randa McCall walked with hand crutches to my front door and rang my doorbell! We hugged and cried and I’ll never forget that incredible moment. Months later she threw the crutches away and went off to college and became a social worker. I attended her wedding some years later and she eventually had children. Somewhere along the way, she moved out-of-state and we lost touch with each other. I’ve never been able to find her.
Randa McCall, a name out of fiction, but the most real person I have ever met. I think of her often and hope she is happy.
I was out of school for three months, on crutches, couldn’t leave my house. I had a home tutor, friends came to see me but nothing was ever the same for our family. I live with my parent’s death every day and all the lessons I learn stem from that experience. Every lovely sunset, a colorful flower, beautiful music, a great meal, my children and grandchildren, they all take me home, from where I came from, what I was taught. And I know how fortunate I was to have two incredible role models as parents.
My parent’s death is my measurement for all the good, all the bad in the world. I’ve tried to be mindful of what battles to fight and what ones to let pass. I’ve worked hard to be a parent who listens, gives a voice, daily tell my kids how much I love them and never ever forget what it’s like to be a kid with overwhelming feelings and emotions. I’ve learned to be more tolerant and extend empathy to those who are different, because since the accident, I felt different. I had no parents.
My Dad used to say I asked WHY too much. I have never stopped asking the questions, looking for answers. I couldn’t be without Google, I can’t believe how many answers I get from Siri daily! But I have finally stopped asking the “Why were my Mother and Father killed? And WHY was I left alive?” What’s meant to be? Randomness of chaos? G-d’s will?
I now know there is no answer, never will be. It just was, it just is.
And I’m at peace with that.
As a Baby Boomer Bubbe who still feels 18 but has four grand kids to prove this is the 21 Century, Sandra writes to leave a legacy for the next generations. Her belief that these precious kids need to know their cultural and family’s past in order for them to live their future is all the muse she needs!
She has a Master’s Degree in Psychology and Cross Cultural studies, has written a family history, personal memoir and is completing her first novel.
Her grandmother’s journey to America and life is her source for her deep belief and love for Judaism.