That Girl Away

Taken last week in front of a restaurant that I didn't eat at on Long Island.

This is the story of the worst vacation ever. Today is also the anniversary of the last day of that vacation. 

Every summer from the time I was seven years old until I was eleven years old, my best friend Amy would fly from California to my family’s house on Long Island for two weeks. You see, our parents were best friends since before I was born and Amy and her family were in the waiting room when I was born. From that moment on, Amy and I were inseparable (except of course when we were actually separated by an entire continent which sucked). 

So these vacations were some of the only face-time we got to spend together and they were sacred. However when I was ten years old, my parents started letting me fly across the country to California on my own to go stay with Amy for a week and then she’d fly back with me for a week in New York. I was always born to fly solo, you could say!

In August 1997, I was in California and I don’t remember which day it was of my trip and I think we were on our way back from the beach or a water park when our car was T-boned and my life was forever changed. 

Because it was so life-changing, I wish I remembered more details. But I can’t.

Amy was driving so she was in the front seat. I don’t remember who else was sitting where, but there were five of us in the car, four in the back including one of Amy’s friend’s little sister sitting on the floor and then Amy in the driver’s seat and one of her friends in the passenger seat. I was next to the door in the back seat that got hit by an oncoming car.

Amy later recounted that she got out of the car after it happened and saw the state that I was in (comatose? Dead? She didn’t know), and ran over to the woman who was in the other car to grab her cell phone to call 911. 

I think my parents were called that night when Amy’s parents knew what they could tell them when they called after talking to the doctors. They immediately hopped on the next flight out once they were informed that I was stable, albeit in a coma.

It turned out that I had sustained a traumatic brain injury. I don’t remember the details and I don’t really remember much. I was still in a coma when we were flown back to the East Coast on a private medical jet and I don’t remember waking up in my hometown’s hospital either.

Eventually, I woke up and I was transferred to a nearby hospital that had a supposedly fantastic rehabilitation program. I wish I remembered waking up because apparently, I couldn’t remember how to talk, but I’ve been told I remembered every profane word I’d ever heard and had no problem spewing it at the doctors and nurses who couldn’t make the tiny TV attached to my bed turn to Nickelodeon (because they only got 13 channels). I imagine that I was really confused and that’s why I was cursing my head off. I was on vacation in California with my best friend the last time I’d been coherent, and now I was in a hospital, unable to walk, speak, or master basic motor skills.

Over the next 8 weeks, I learned how to walk and talk again, in addition to basic skills like brushing my teeth, using utensils, and write with a pen, among everything else. The doctors were amazed by how quickly I was recovering. 

I remember receiving a photo album from my 6th grade class with photos from the year thus far that I was missing. It was the only time I’d ever missed the first day of school. So much for my perfect record! I’m assuming that I was sad seeing all those photos. 

I also got a huge card from my classmates and in it my good friend Zach from my 5th grade class has written, “I saw Rent this summer!” We had bonded the previous year over our mutual love of Broadway shows and I’d be remiss to leave out that we were slightly competitive over who saw more shows. (We were 11, so it was probably only 2 or 3 a year at that point.) 

Earlier that year, my parents had said I wasn’t allowed to see Rent, despite having received the cast recording for my 11th birthday earlier that year. Subconsciously, a note was made that my goal after getting out of the hospital was to see Rent by any means necessary. (Spoiler alert: my neighbors gave me tickets for my 12th birthday in 1998.)

When I’d gotten most of my speech and motor skills back, I started having daily sessions with a teacher who worked at the special ed school that was attached to the hospital. My hospital teacher was in contact with my elementary school teacher from my actual school where I should’ve been attending already so I could keep up with my classmates.

I don’t remember much about the kids who I met while I was in the hospital. However, I do remember that my longest roommate was a 15-year-old who’d had a stroke and didn’t have any control of the right side of her body. She was nice. I felt bad for her and that she had to learn how to write with her left hand now. How silly is that? Thinking about a 15-year-old having a stroke now, I’d first ask, “HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?” and not be so focused on her having to learn to write with her left hand. 

I also remember a 17-year-old boy, named Mark, I think, who’d been living in the hospital since Memorial Day when he fractured his neck in the undertow at the beach. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he did have to wear one of those head/neck braces ala Regina George at the end of Mean Girls. I remember I was SO JEALOUS of him because he had a laptop. And I also thought he was really cute – of course, he was an older guy! He was discharged shortly before I was in October. I wonder where he is today.

I was rehabilitated rather quickly, so the doctors said, since they didn’t know if I’d recover at all, and two months later in mid-October, I was discharged from the hospital. 

I continued therapy as an outpatient though. I traveled via bus to the hospital every day for hours of physical, speech, and occupational therapy, in addition to my schooling. Finally, after the February winter break in 1998, I rejoined my class in my elementary school. 

I was given extra time for tests and time during the day in the ‘resource room’ if I needed extra help on my school work.

But spoiler alert: I didn’t and I was bored in the resource room more often than not. I never needed extra time on my tests, and I graduated from elementary school with honors in math and English. 

It might sound silly but I wish I remembered more of my time in the hospital. It was 22 years ago after a brain injury so I have to cut myself some slack. My mom did keep a journal about my recovery though, I think there are kittens on the cover, and I’ve never read it. I wonder if reading if it’d be back any memories.

I think I can safely say that was the worst vacation I have ever taken.

Luckily, this whole experience didn’t scare me off traveling. I was too young to be scared. My recovery was extremely easy, to everyone’s astonishment, and I bounced back (probably because I was eleven). 

In hindsight, I didn’t realize how bad my condition had been and I also took for granted how lucky I was. I probably still do. I can say, “I was so lucky!” endlessly but it doesn’t mean I really understand that. Can you ever truly understand something that had a profound impact on your life if you can’t remember most of it? I honestly wish I remembered a) the accident itself and b) my time in the hospital. 

I’ve talked many times about my fears I sometimes have when I travel, but they’re usually just in my head (as so many fears usually are). I wonder if subconsciously the accident made me willing to travel by myself because the worst had happened and I’d survived. 

I’m truly thankful for the accident for this reason. For making my life what it is today and for making me brave enough to continue to travel by myself. My wish is that my little blog here is able to inspire you to travel freely and by yourself (if you choose to travel solo) sans fear, without having to go through something like I did.

May all your travels be easy, but keep in mind that things can change at any intersection.


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