A Road-Trip, a Crash, and a Reality Check: 48 Hours in the Life of a Parent

It was supposed to be a simple weekend trip to Cincinnati. A quick visit to the in-laws and back to Chi-town on Sunday for some rest and the usual prep-for-the-week activities. Little did I know that the drive home, typically a five-hour zip through, would be the reality check I never saw coming.

The trip down to Cincinnati was a breeze. Or perhaps you could call it the married-with-young-kid version of a breeze. During the few hours it took to get us to Cincinnati, I experienced a spectrum of emotions that even Cybil would envy. One tender moment with hubby about finally having time to re-connect quickly became a rant about his work schedule, which quickly became an apology as I admitted how much I missed him during his weekends away, which then turned into another outburst of frustration when I called him out on his aggressive driving. By the time we reached his parents’ house, I was already exhausted.

Fast forward 40 hours and there we were, back in the car and ready for the return trip home. Our daughter had soaked up every single second with her grandparents (and loved playing with daddy’s toys from when he was four, which is great, since just about every one of his childhood possessions is still in their house), and we’d also managed to squeeze in a quick visit with the great-grandparents. As Ohio blended into Indiana and we ticked off mile after mile on the long, seemingly endless stretch of I-65, I couldn’t wait to get home. I kept glancing at the GPS impatiently, waiting to break the two-hour mark until Chicago. Then, I thought, we’d be close.

Suddenly – BAM! Smashed from behind, our car lurched forward. At first, I couldn’t understand what had happened. Why did my chin hurt? Why was my daughter crying? Why did it seem time had completely stopped? Then I got it, we’d been hit.

Now I’m usually semi-cool in tough situations. But a smashed up, broken-down car in the middle of Indiana, with a child in the back and nothing around us but corn? That’s pushing things.

We put our emergency plan into action. Oh, wait, we had no emergency plan. In fact, we had absolutely no idea what to do. Call 911, you say. Oh, yes, we did that, but 911 was out of service. Yes, that is correct; 911 was out of service. Giving up on them, we compensated by calling anyone and everyone else we could think of: insurance, family, and AAA, who couldn’t decide which state to connect us to (AAA membership purchased in Ohio, we live in Illinois and the accident was in Indiana). 

After an hour on the side of the highway, with weather alternating between a stifling 100 degrees and torrential downpour, a tow truck finally pulled up. The driver tells us he’d be happy to drive our car up to Chicago and, with a $540 swipe of our credit card, he takes off with our car resting sleepily on the truck bed. It’s not until he pulls away that I realize this stranger has my car and all I have is his first name. No phone number, no company name, nada. 

Then I look behind us and see a 1987 sky blue Crown Victoria rolling up. In between rust stains is a haphazardly glued sign on the driver’s side door that reads “Kristi’s Taxi.” A woman about as round as any human can be, with a spiky mullet and a cigarette neatly tucked behind her right ear (and an asthma inhaler tucked beneath the car visor) gets out and introduces herself as Shelley. 

Shelley’s the only game in town, taxi-wise, and she’s apparently the one who will drive us an hour south to the Indianapolis airport so we can rent a car and head back up north, past the exact spot where we’re standing. I grumble about another 4-5 hours of travel, to which Shelly responds gruffly and half-jokingly, “I’ll drive you to Chicago.”  “How much?” I respond, also half-jokingly, thinking there’s just about no chance her car can go over 50 mph without losing a few essential parts. 

Twenty minutes later, our bags are stuffed in her car, I’m in the seat next to her, and we’re on our way home to Chicago. You’d think that this is where the story ends. That’s what I was hoping, too. But no, it only gets better. 

In the four hours it took us to go 100 miles, we encounter tons of traffic and a storm that Shelley deems too dangerous to drive in. So there we are, pulled over on the side of the road – again – as the Crown Vic leaks in water on all sides and cars fly by us. Then there’s a highway closing, a detour gone awry, a very bad case of psoriasis (don’t even ask), and Shelley’s deep fear of city driving. 

Finally, five hours after we expected to arrive, we pull up in front of our apartment building. At that point, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. As frustrating and hard as the day was, it made me realize that in one split second life can change completely and irrevocably. That we can go from impatiently waiting for two hours to end to simply feeling grateful to be home and safe. As I looked at my family lugging their bags into the building, I felt so darn lucky. 

That feeling has stayed with me for the last few days. I’m not as hyper-focused on the laundry that needs to be done, the TV that’s been on too long, or the extra pieces of dark chocolate I’ve ingested (c’mon, I so deserve it). As with all post-dramatic events (since the accident had more drama than trauma), this Zen state of mind probably won’t last forever. But I'll enjoy it while I can. Sometimes, even a little fender bender goes a long way in the life of a parent.

~Wendy Widom, Partner, Families in the Loop

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