It was November 24th, 2000—just another Thanksgiving morning. It was also the day I died. But wait, let’s backtrack a bit.
Two months earlier I was just living my life, doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted. I was 24, single(ish) with suitors out the wazoo, making really good money, and the owner of my very own farmhouse on four acres in a quaint, tiny little town called Whitewater, KS.
If you asked me back then, I would have told you I was doing well. Looking back, I would tell you my life was full, but my heart was a bitter and cold abyss.
That ‘me’ was the product of years of abuse at the hands of those very people who should have loved me and protected me with their lives. I didn’t care very deeply about anything or anyone but me. I avoided deep emotional connections and swore I would never bring children into this disgusting world. I built indestructible walls around my heart because it was easier to be aloof than vulnerable, and I desperately tried to drown the pain with random stuff, some good and some very bad, but all insufficient.
And God? I hated him. I grew up in a straight-up, adamantly atheistic home. I was raised to refer to Christian neighbors as the ‘whack jobs next door’ and believed all churches were self-absorbed cults. If there was a God out there, he certainly didn’t have anything to do with me. There was just no way for me to correlate a ‘good’ God with the terrible things that had happened to me as a child, and if there was a God that allowed them to happen, I didn’t want any part of that kind of God anyway.
I was extremely popular with ‘the crowd.’ I knew exactly how people ticked and could manipulate them like Play-Dough. People loved me. I was exactly the person each and every one of them wanted me to be. In fact, I was whoever I needed to be to get whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. But I didn’t love anyone, not even myself.
A lot of people called me ‘friend,’ but no one really knew me. Just the way I liked it. And that’s where I was when I met a guy. There’s always a guy, right?
This guy was different than the others, somehow. He treated me like I was precious instead of some object to be pursued. He offered me friendship without expectation. He could play guitar and wrote love songs just for me. He paid for my meals and stopped by just to say hi. And in his spare time, he did nice things for other people like building sidewalks for hospitals and barns for orphanages . . . for no discernible reason whatsoever.
What? Why, would anyone do that? Because of some guy named Jesus, apparently. I didn’t like it. Everyone I had ever met wanted something, to use me, but seemingly not him. Though, I was understandably intrigued, I was also suspicious. After all, he was one of those ‘whack job Christians.’
And there was something else too.
All of my life I had known something inexplicable. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to die before my 25th birthday. True story. It didn’t scare me. Honestly, I didn’t even care. It wasn’t like I hadn’t flirted with death my entire life and had, at times, even invited it in.
But I could see no reason to involve myself with some guy, especially one this nice, two months before my 25th birthday and impending death, which could feasibly happen on any given day. I even told him this fact, that I was going to die, though I don’t think he actually believed it.
He was a persistent little bugger, however, and as the days wore on, he grew on me despite my best efforts to keep him at arms’ length. That’s the thing about kindness: you can fight it all you want, but if persistent enough, it will eventually win. Then he did the unthinkable; he invited me to come meet his parents in New Mexico for Thanksgiving.
I had no other family, nowhere else to be, so despite my better judgement, I finally agreed. Did I mention that he was ridiculously persistent? What can I say, I liked the guy in spite of myself. Late on November 23rd, after pulling a long and exhausting double shift at work, we piled into my little red, Chevy S-10 pickup with the hard-top covered bed, cranked up the radio to Lonestar’s What About Now, (appropriately enough) and headed out for a fun-filled weekend.
He drove for a couple of hours before we finally switched seats and he let me have the wheel. It was well after midnight by this time. He stayed awake for a bit with me, laughing, chatting, and generally enjoying one another’s company. As we passed through Amarillo, TX, I gleefully belted out Amarillo By Morning (he had never heard the song before, the travesty). Shortly thereafter, he laid his head down on the middle console and fell soundly asleep.
Amarillo By Morning was the last thing he heard before . . .
The accident occurred about thirty minutes past a little spit in the road called Tucumcari, NM. The fog was like a dense pea soup that night. As we crossed the New Mexico state line, the visibility was just barely beyond the hood of the car. Then the sleet started falling too. It was like a hypnotic dance, lulling me to my death, and his.
I had been driving for about six hours. I remember thinking I was getting tired and that we needed to switch soon. I distinctly remember passing a sign that announced the next town in one mile, and I decided I would pull over there and let him finish out the trip.
We never made it. One minute I was awake and then the next my body shut down. Just. Like. That.
The next thing I remember is awakening to the screech of the tires on those terrible, warning bumps on the side of the road. To this day, the sound of them sends me straight into full-blown panic attack mode. When I realized that we were headed off the road into the center median, I over corrected back to the right, and then jerked the wheel back left to keep us from going off the road on the other side.
And then we were airborne at 85 miles per hour.
I flipped that little truck over and over again, five to six times, before we finally ended upside down on the roof and slid another fifty yards or so down the highway, leaving a half mile of debris strewn behind us. I can still, to this day, hear the sickening sound of metal being twisted to its capacity, taste the blood welling into my mouth, and smell the putrid odor of hot oil and burning paint.
But the sound I remember the loudest, the one that brings me to my knees, was the terrifying, deafening silence that followed, when all the other noise stopped. Because in that moment, I knew he was gone.
And it was my fault. I had killed him.
It was Thanksgiving morning of the year 2000. My 25th birthday, the date I was not supposed to live to see, was November 25, 2000 – the next day.
Though the next minutes were total chaos, I remember every single moment like a vivid still-frame in my head. I remember the sound of my own hysterical voice screaming his name over and over and over again. And I remember the feeling of utter relief that washed over me when I heard his voice beside me, calm, steady, alive.
He should have died that day, I should be living my life with the guilt of my mistake weighing upon my shoulders, but God’s hand was firmly upon him. If he would have been laying against the passenger door like people normally do, he would have been decapitated on impact because we rolled his direction first, and the roof of the truck was crushed in all the way to the seat on that side. His position, however, spared his life. Somehow, by the hand of an angel thrust between him and the mangled metal, he had been left just enough room for his body.
He somehow, miraculously, managed to crawl out the shattered back window of the cab and scoot out on his belly from beneath the bed of the truck, which had been twisted nearly off it’s frame. I remember the utter terror in his voice when he first looked up and saw the white dotted line marching down the road in front of him. We had come to rest completely across the center line of the highway in low-visibility fog and sleet, and he knew that any second another vehicle was going to appear out of the impenetrable fog and barrel into us.
“We’re on the center line. We have to get out of this truck now!” He said it calmly, but the terror in his voice was impossible to disguise.
I remember hanging upside down by the seat belt, the blood dripping into my eyes; yet, there was no pain, only shock. He grabbed the driver’s door of the truck in adrenaline-driven determination and ripped it open. It shouldn’t have opened in it’s twisted state, but it did. Somehow it did. He got me out of the seat belt and dragged me out of the truck. Somehow we limped to the side of the highway, mangled, bloody. God must have been carrying us that day because it was a humanly impossible feat. My feet were bare as we limped across the road strewn with glass, metal, and the remnants of our lives. It’s the last time I walked for a very, very long time.
I remember seeing the bone sticking out of his right elbow and his blood gushing everywhere as he laid me down on the freezing pavement on the side of the road. The sleet was coming down in sheets, and it was well below freezing outside. I remember calling to him as he walked around in his own shock, gathering up our belongings that were strewn across the highway, his bone exposed, his elbow bleeding profusely. He wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t stop. It’s funny what shock does to a body.
I remember the grisly sight of the remnants of that truck lying upside down in the middle of the road and our things strewn haphazardly amongst the metal and glass as far as I could see. It all seemed so surreal and disconnected; like I was watching it all from above.
And I distinctly remember the cars, one after the other, driving slowly by in the grassy median because the road was completely impassable, their faces pressed curiously against the glass, gawking at us out their windows but not bothering to stop. It’s actually one of the most grotesque and horrifying memories of the day – the cold expectation of their faces as they stared in morbid curiosity from the warm safety of their vehicles at the scene, both hoping and fearing to see the unthinkable – like we were just an interesting sideshow on the way to their happy, comfortable Thanksgiving tables. To this day I wonder . . . why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you help us?
I remember lying on the frigid pavement in the shoulder of the road with the sleet pouring down on me for what seemed like hours. I knew in my head that I should have been cold, but for some reason I wasn’t. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything.
I remember the Wal-Mart truck driver, the first person who cared enough to stop. I remember him taking off his own coat and covering me with it, standing out in the bitter cold unprotected to protect me. I remember his voice but not his face. I desperately wish I could remember his face . . . I think it must have been the face of an angel.
He was talking to me about anything and everything. He just kept talking and talking in this calm, soothing voice, begging me to stay with him and telling me that it was going to be okay, though I’m not sure he believed it. And I remember him telling me when I tried to sit up, “Don’t move. It’s really best if you don’t move. And, honey, just don’t look at your feet.”
Then there were eventually others, complete strangers, bringing piles of coats and blankets from their cars and off their own backs to lay over me, their hands holding me in the storm, talking gently to me, trying to warm my frozen fingers . . . but not my feet. No one could seem to look at my feet. I knew something was terribly wrong.
There was some debate as to whether they should carry me to the warmth of one of their vehicles, but they were scared to move me because of the potential for internal and likely spinal injuries, so they gathered around and sacrificed their own warmth and safety to love me, a complete, undeserving stranger on the side of a cold stretch of New Mexico highway. I remember a circle of featureless faces staring down at me with concerned eyes, shielding me from the sleet with their own unprotected bodies and keeping me awake with their words.
We were in the middle of nowhere, and it took over 30 minutes for them to arrive, but arrive they did. I remember the blaring sirens, the flashing lights, and the brave men and women working diligently to stabilize us both. I remember the backboards, the kind hands, the gentle but urgent voices. I remember being loaded into the ambulance next to my guy. And then I remember someone playing the terrifying, original 9-1-1 call and transmission for help and losing it. “We need Life Flight en route immediately. Please be advised that both passengers are believed to be deceased at this time.”
And I remember the officers asking me who they could call, who my loved ones were, followed by my heartbreaking answer. “There’s no one.” That’s the first time I cried. That hurt. There was quite literally no one that would care if I died that day. I had lived an empty and broken life that made sure of it.
I remember. God, never let me forget.
To this day, my husband is all sorts of kind when he tells the story. “We were driving, and then we were sleeping,” he says, never wanting to make me relive the guilt of that night. He is too kind. The truth is, I am the ‘we.’ I was driving. And then I was sleeping.
It was my day to die, and by all accounts I should have. And I nearly took the love of my life with me, but God had different plans for us. He is the God of second chances, the God of Grace, and the God of redemption. You see, it was on the side of a frozen strip of desert road with the sleet pelting me and strangers holding me amidst the flashing lights of ambulances and police cars that I finally realized I wanted to live. It’s the beautiful place where I found Jesus, although I have a sneaking suspicion He was always there with me, even when I fought it the hardest.
I ended up wheelchair bound for about three months following the accident. When we had slid down the road upside down, my bare feet had been ejected through the windshield and caught between the hood of the car and the pavement, ripping off all the skin and flesh down to the bone, turning them into a blender of glass, asphalt, and flesh. His elbow had been impacted by the breaking window or perhaps the twisted metal when we rolled and was split wide open several inches, leaving the bone exposed. He couldn’t use it for quite a long time.
The police officer called it one of the most horrific crashes he had ever seen. By all accounts, he declared firmly, we should have died. Yet, against all understanding, reason, or probability we lived.
However, I did die that day; I died to myself. Everything changed. There are moments in your life that define you, make you who you are; this is one of mine.
I know now that every breath I inhale is an undeserved gift – each and every one a second chance that I never should have had and certainly did not deserve. It is only by the grace of God that I write these words to you; only by the wondrous grace of God that I am alive. And I refuse to squander a gift that infinitely precious.
I vowed the day I died to live. I want to do whatever I can to change the world for the better, to leave it all on the table, to make a real difference in every life that intersects with mine, to tell those who feel unlovable that they are fiercely loved, to tell failing marriages they have a second chance, to assure those who are alone that they don’t have to be, to teach those who are letting their lives pass by in drudgery that they can and must F.L.Y.! I know, I have been there. There’s more to this life. Infinitely more.
That’s the core of my being – what makes me who I am.
I live my life to its fullest now, knowing that the very breath in my lungs does not belong to me, but to him. I will love fiercely and fear not the war, knowing that the length of my days do not belong to me, but to him. I will speak freely of Jesus knowing that in my darkest, loneliest, most forsaken moment of my life, He held me tight. And I will live in awe of Jesus knowing that, when I denied him the most, He held on the hardest.
Every year at Thanksgiving I am reminded of these things:
How thankful I am for every breath. How thankful I am for the children that shouldn’t have existed. How thankful I am for the husband that I almost lost before I had him.
And I am thankful that, after all I have done wrong in my life, that God in his infinite wisdom still loved me enough to allow me to die, that I might really and truly live for the first time in my entire life. Because that is exactly what it took to open my wide-shut eyes and soften my heart of stone.
This, my friends, is my Thanksgiving story – the story of my life…and of my death. And I am eternally thankful for it and for you.
Angelia J. Griffin (a very thankful pilot wife)
Just Winging It: Prayers for My Pilot Wife (autographed)
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Captain on the Road; First Officer at Home (Gold Bars) Soft Jersey Tee