Happy to be Alive Day

We don’t do Valentine’s Day, my spouse and me. Too…stupid. We have never needed any special day on which to shower each other with love. If anything, we could use a Tone It Down Already, Would Ya Day. But there is a day in February we mark each year. It’s February 20. We call it Happy to Be Alive Day.

Eleven years ago right about this minute, we were headed home from the East Coast Music Awards in Sydney, Cape Breton. It was unseasonably warm and sunny as we packed up the car. And all down Kelly’s Mountain and along the Causeway it was a strangely lovely day. But as we started to get in toward Antigonish, there was a sudden change. The sky got dark,  a snow squall sprung up. And just outside a wee place called Monastery, we hit a patch of black ice and I lost control of the car. We started to slide into the oncoming lane of traffic—that part of the TransCanada Highway isn’t twinned—and as I made eye contact with the driver of the pickup truck speeding toward us, I started to realize that maybe this was it. I did what any panicked driver would in that situation and wrenched hard on the wheel. That snapped us back into our own lane, and spun us around a hundred and eighty degrees. We connected with the guardrail on the driver’s side. The guardrail acted as a lever that flipped us up into the air. Kev had taken off his seatbelt about ten minutes earlier to get out his notebook because he was writing a song. As our wheels left the ground and we began to sail over the guardrail I yelled at him—because if you’re pretty sure you’re about to die, you definitely want your final words to the one you love to be screeched and nagging—I yelled: Oh my god, YOU’RE NOT WEARING YOUR SEATBELT. And I watched as he was lifted out of his seat and disappeared from view.

When the car landed on the ground on the passenger side, I watched the sideview mirror snap off. The guardrail collision had already taken out my sideview mirror. Because I couldn’t process the life or death facts of my situation, I focused on the car repairs this collision was going to necessitate. One sideview mirror was—what a hundred bucks? So, now we’re at two hundred bucks, my mind chastised me as the car bounced and lifted off the ground again. How far will we roll, I wondered. Does this end with us in the trees? Is there water down there? Big rocks? When will the car catch on fire? How badly hurt is Kev? Where did he end up, anyway? Then, bang, we hit the ground once more, this time upside down. I dangled from my seatbelt, trying to comprehend the events of the last few moments. It was deeply, deeply quiet in the car. I couldn’t exhale. And then, before my eyes, the entire windshield shattered in little spidery cracks, and I was overcome. “Holy shit, Kev,” I said, in a self-accusatory tone. “I totally fucked up our car.”

He told me later that’s when he knew for sure we were both alright. The next few moments were a blur of helpful, terrified fellow motorists arriving at my side, yanking me free of my seatbelt and hauling me out the window, probably also afraid the car would catch fire—and no doubt, now that I think of it, expecting to find gravely injured people in that wreck. Kev wriggled out a window somehow. He’d sailed out of his seat and somehow survived all that rocking and rolling, coming to rest on the dome light when the car finally stopped moving. We stood dazed in the snow for a moment, eyeing each other. And then we did a spontaneous little jig. All our limbs were attached and working. It defied reality. He broke a nail on his guitar-picking hand. An infinitesimally small piece of windshield glass somehow made it up my sleeve, through three layers of shirt, sweater and jacket, to just barely scrape my right elbow. The car was a write off. But we were fine. Better than fine. We were ALIVE. Totally euphoric.

We hauled all our belongings to the side of the road and waited for the cops. They were busy that afternoon. There were dozens of collisions along that stretch of highway. Against their wishes, Kev loaded all his instruments (and I do mean all of them—bass, amp, drum kit, acoustic guitar) into the cruiser and we packed ourselves in, too. The cops dropped us off at Chuggles in Antigonish, where we could get a drink while we waited for Parker to drive from Halifax to get us. We called our parents and told them about the crash, and that it was okay, that we were okay. That we were alive. We heard a song on the stereo by a local band. “Bass player in this band died a few years ago,” Kev said. “How?” I asked. “Car crash,” he said. We bugged our eyes at each other and ordered another drink. And caesar salads. And steak. And cheesecake. He wrote a song. I got an idea for a radio show. I squeezed his hand as hard as I could, and he squeezed back, harder.

When we finally got back to Halifax, hours and hours and hours later, the house was dark and cold. The battery in the thermostat had died sometime over the weekend and the temperature was a chilly six degrees. We put in fresh batteries and got into bed, burrowing together under the covers. How are you, we asked each other. Happy to be alive, the inevitable answer.

And so, from our house to yours, Happy Happy to Be Alive Day.

ps: One thing making me happy to be alive today is this great blog about books. Thanks to Naomi for the lovely reviews of both Fallsy Downsies and Homing!


9 responses to “Happy to be Alive Day”

  1. This is an amazing story, Steph. Thank you so much for writing it and for facilitating a good little cry just now. Wow. Isn’t life amazing?

  2. You bring back my own memories of falling asleep driving late at night (Wreck Cove to St. Margarets Bay leaving at 10pm seems easy when you’re 20). How time slowed down. How I saw one of my bracket mounted speakers fly, in slow motion, past my head, through my windshield and skip off up the middle of the 103, highlighted by my still working headlights. And how good that seatbelt felt, holding me in my seat, the one stationary thing in a world of sudden chaos that ended in a smoking burnt rubber silence. At almost 3 am. Alone, on my wheels but immobile, doing a point by point body check to see if all parts were still there and in working order. I released the belt, opened the door, got the aforementioned speaker off the road, and then went back to try to get the flashers to work and push my twice (or was it thrice) rolled Corolla off the highway. That was when the RCMP came by, helped me finish that pushing, called the local garage to come get my car, and drove me home, a short but memorable end to my journey.

  3. I love the idea of a Happy To Be Alive Day – I just might have to adopt it.
    And, thanks for sharing the link to my bog! Reading your books made me happy to be alive. 🙂

  4. An evening, driving from my parents in Sydney, to Invernes, coming around the corner to the Seal Island bridge while taking a few seconds of nap time. Woke up on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately I was by myself on the road, but now whenever I feel that “my god I’m sleepy” feeling, I pull over for a nap or a Timmies.
    Glad you and your man made it through your accident. Happy glad I’m alive day

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