When I was 12 years old, I nearly died.
At the time, my two older sisters and I lived with our mom in the San Bernardino Mountains, about 2 hours east of Los Angeles. It was Easter Sunday, and we’d gone to visit my grandmother in L.A. for Spring Break. Grandma and Papa had dropped us off at the bus station in downtown L.A., and Mom came to pick us up at the bus depot in San Bernardino.
My mom, God love her, was a terrible driver. She was a lead-foot, not only on the gas, but on the brake as well. She drove “down the hill” (from nearly mile-high Blue Jay to San Berdoo’s thousand foot elevation) screaming around those mountain curves, most likely with her foot on the brake most of the way.
She picked us up at the bus depot, me and my sisters still wearing our Easter dresses. We tucked our luggage and our basket of Easter eggs in the trunk, then Mom headed back up the hill. My older sister Debbie sat in the middle of the car’s bench front seat next to Mom, and I sat next to Debbie by the door. Our oldest sister, Linda, sat behind me in the back seat.
Mom might have used less brake going up, but the brake drum nevertheless got hotter and hotter until about halfway up the hill, the heat actually blew a tire. We pulled into a nice, level turnout and a kind passerby changed the tire for us. The gentleman told my mom she better let the brakes cool before continuing on home. We sat around for what Mom thought was long enough, then pulled out again.
Me, Debbie, & Linda celebrating Linda’s birthday with a Barbie doll cake.
I don’t remember if there was a smell, or Mom could feel the heat through the brake pedal. In any case, she decided to pull over into another turnout and let the brakes cool again.
Except this turnout was sloped. The car started rolling backwards. The brakes were well and truly fried and no amount of stomping on Mom’s part would get that car to stop. The car just kept rolling toward the edge where the mountainside plunged down a couple hundred feet of steep embankment.
For some reason, Mom didn’t think to try the emergency brake. I suppose it might not have worked anyway. She was struggling to put the car into park. When that didn’t work, she jumped out and tried to stop the car with her body. The car knocked her down and partially rolled over her. Not with its full weight because at that point, the rear of the car was already over the edge, so the front end was partially off the ground.
While Mom was fighting to stop the car, Debbie had gotten the passenger side door open and was yelling at me to get out. I remember sitting sideways, my feet hanging out of the car, watching the pavement roll by under my feet. But I was frozen. Debbie couldn’t get me to budge. All the while, Linda kept yelling from the back seat, “I can’t open the door! I can’t open the door!”
We were all about to die. And then a miracle happened.
The car stopped. Linda got her door open, I finally scrambled out of the car with Debbie close on my heels. When we turned back to the car, we realized it had stopped with one front tire hooked to the berm that edged the turnout. That berm wasn’t even a foot high.
Mom was banged up but nothing was broken or needed stitches. We three girls were perfectly fine. The car was towed out of its predicament, and it went on to suffer through more of my mom’s abuse. The Easter eggs ended up rotting in the trunk because we all forgot they were in there, a fact that we girls chortled over for years to come.
Yeah. A miracle. That my mom wasn’t hurt more badly. That we girls didn’t flip right over the edge, none of us seat-belted into that pre-airbag car. That Debbie and I didn’t bail, and the car didn’t flip with Linda trapped inside. All those possibilities make me shudder now.
Oddly enough, as dramatic as this experience was, I’ve never used it in a book. I’ve probably used the fear, the panic, the horror of it without consciously realizing where I might be pulling it from. It became a story that we all found hysterically funny because it did have a happy ending.
In this case, reality was much better than the what-ifs. Thanks to God and miracles.