There have been a lot of accidents.
When I was nine, I decided to make my mother a pot of tea as a surprise. I knew very little about tea, but I knew you made it in a teapot, with hot water. I filled her brown ceramic teapot with water and put it on top of the stove and turned the burner on. I started looking for tea. A few minutes later, the brown teapot that my mother loved cracked and water spilled on the flames of the gas stove.
That was an accident.
But I did not give up. Next I got a big Pyrex measuring cup, one we used to heat things in the microwave. I filled it with water and put it on top of the stove and turned the burner on. A few minutes later, it cracked.
Was that an accident? Or did I make a mistake?
My father killed himself, but I didn’t know that for a long time. I just knew he’d died somehow, and it had something to do with his car. Once at camp a girl cornered me. How did he die, she wanted to know? Was it an accident? A car crash? A plane wreck? Yes, I wanted to say. Yes. It was an accident.
I had just checked out a stack of books from the library about horseback riding. I was living at my mother’s house and taking an undergraduate class, though I had already graduated from college, and I did not have a job other than teaching Latin to sixth graders a few hours a week, but I had decided that the key to my future was learning to ride a horse. A normal person, I suspect, would, in 1999, check the phone book and call a stable, but my idea was to start by reading some books. I had them in the back seat of my car and was excited to read them when I got home.
I saw the red light, so I hit the brakes. I did not, somehow, see the pickup truck that was in front of me. It was a cream colored truck, a bit older. It did not suffer a dent, at least not that its owner could see. He was very nice, much nicer than the police when they came. The first six or so inches of my car were crunched in, folded up like a straw wrapper that you slide down the straw, only my car couldn’t be expanded again by dropping Coke on it through a straw. I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I got the car towed. I talked to the cops. I got home. I think possibly the guy with the pickup truck gave me a ride.
The Art of Losing
When I was thirteen, my friend and I took an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York. We stayed at my grandmother’s house in the suburbs the night before. That morning she urged a coat on me. I didn’t think I needed a coat. It was June. “Your father liked to wear this coat,” she said. I took it. My friend made fun of me later, but I couldn’t be parted from it. It was a navy blue poplin windbreaker, cut a little like a jean jacket but without as many seams. I lived in it. Except it was June, and at some point it was warm, and I took it off and left it somewhere. I never found it again. I thought maybe my friend was smarter than I was. She knew you shouldn’t take presents from an absent father. They wouldn’t last.
To Escape Notice
In Greek and in Latin, there is a verb that means, “to escape notice.” It shows up all the time, especially in Homer and Caesar. Enemy troops are always escaping the notice of commanders. Things are always sliding. Accidents happen, just like that. I never could get the hang of this verb. I was going to be a writer, after all, one of those people on whom nothing is lost. Why did the ancients let so much escape their notice? What the fuck? Who said things like that?
I had such trouble with this verb that I could never remember it from time to time. I was constantly looking it up in the lexicon and then saying, “Oh, that word. Who says that?” It escaped my notice that this looking up was ironic.
I still can’t remember the verb, not in either of the languages I once studied, but a great many more things have escaped my notice. I tell people I’m detail-oriented but only if the details interest me. It escaped my notice that I had put someone’s hours in the wrong column of a timesheet when I submitted it once. It escaped my notice that there was a car behind me when I was backing up in parking lot, again and again. It escaped my noticed that I kept dating men exactly like my father.
Google search: define: accident: An event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause. “The pregnancy was an accident.” Synonyms: (mere) chance, coincidence, twist of fate.
I was thinking about my pregnancy when I started writing this, but I didn’t know that Google would be thinking about it, too. Did I get pregnant “without apparent or deliberate cause?” Does anyone, aside from the Virgin Mary? I had sex. That is what causes pregnancy. It does not seem to matter—at least in my case—if you try to stop it.
An accident seems like a poor way to define a child, and yet we do it all the time. Even the OED has something on the subject:
Colloq. An event which leads to an unplanned pregnancy, the pregnancy itself; a child conceived or born as a result of an unintended pregnancy. Cf. mistake.
If almost fifty percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended, then are not all the children born from those pregnancies accidents? Or can you un-accident an incident? Can you decide that, having decided to have the child, it is no longer an accident? It is fate? It is meant to be. I’m unclear on that, too.
The OED definition doesn’t start out that way, though. It starts like this:
Accident. From Latin accidens. Something that is present but not necessarily so, and therefore non-essential. Something that happens or occurs. An irregular feature in a landscape, an undulation. Unexpected or unforeseen circumstance; chance, fortune; (contextually) mischance. In generalized use: an unfortunate and typically unforeseen event, a disaster, a mishap.
I looked up the Latin, too:
Accidens, from accidere, made up of ad + cado, to fall upon, fall to, reach by falling; to befit, to take place, to befall.
It seems important to note that once upon a time, an accident was merely something that happened. Lawyers and insurance claims adjusters were not involved. No one ever said, “Didn’t they use a condom?” Accidents were simply present as part of the landscape.
“Accidents Will Happen”
“Accidents Will Happen” is the name of a song by Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell that is played in episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine whenever the trains have an accident. If you search for it on YouTube, you’ll find dozens of Thomas fan fic videos, train crashes acted out by small children and then edited by their parents to include the soundtrack. My favorite one even has credits: Camera—Mommy.
My son was obsessed with these videos for a long time, and we watched them over and over, trains crashing, going off the rails, wandering off course, engaging in disaster. But the actual message of the song is two-sided. Accidents will happen if you don’t pay attention, it says, on the one hand—“If you don’t concentrate on the thing that you’re doing”—but it also invokes fate—“just when you think that life is okay, Fate comes to collect.”
But it also advises you not worry. Accidents will happen, it insists. “You gotta pick yourself up and dust yourself down, / Put it down to experience!” Keep going. Don’t take it all to heart.
I hate experience.
Experience is the name people give to their mistakes, said Oscar Wilde. But I don’t think he thought he made a lot of mistakes. Loving men wasn’t a mistake on his part. I do not defend my behavior, he also said: I explain it.
I assume my father planned to kill himself. He drove to a store to buy some tubing. He had the car, and a garage. My mother had left the house for the night. I was with my grandmother, in another state. A friend of mine, another “suicide survivor,” as they call us, told me once that someone told her there’s only a five minute window in which someone will actually decide to kill themselves. As if that was suppose to make her feel better. As if somehow, had it not escaped your notice that the person was about to commit suicide, you could have stopped it.
I have had a lot of experiences, but not all of them were due to my mistakes. Nor were all of them accidents. I spend a lot of time thinking about my father and my child, and how they will never know each other. My father would have come down on the side of mistakes, I believe, not on the side of accidents. He was obsessed with the Greek concept of error, hamartia. It doesn’t mean a fatal flaw, the way we so often now read tragedy. It means an error, a mistake. The tragic hero wasn’t tragic from birth. He was human. He made a mistake. He wandered off course. He got lost. But it wasn’t an accident.
Is it as simple as that? My son was an accident; my father made a mistake. I am not sure where that leaves me. I am the passive of the verb: the one on whom things fall. It is no more comforting a position.
When he was two-and-a-half my son had an accident at an escalator at O’Hare airport. He was throwing his Thomas train on the escalator and watching it come back up and then grabbing for it. I was trying to grab for it first, but he was too quick for me, and the pad of his pinky got caught in the escalator as it was coming up and cut badly, enough that he needed three stitches, though it was not, as they doctors were quick to point out, nearly as bad as it could have been. He could have lost a finger, they said. Or mangled his whole hand. We’ve seen escalator accidents, they said, and they are bad.
I think they used that word, accident. I use it too, when I describe the day to people. But of course I am convinced it was not an accident. I am convinced it was my fault. It was my failure to act. It was because I did not move quickly enough. It is because I was not right there. It was because I let him near the escalator. It was because I let him play with trains. We didn’t go on our planned vacation, and it was all my fault, not an accident at all.
The other voice in my head tells me it was, that the definition of accidents is that we cannot plan for them; they simply befall us. But I am a mother, and I want to keep all the bad things from happening.
Oedipus wanted to keep the bad things from happening, too. It is generally thought (at least since Freud) that Oedipus was a man who wanted to kill his father and sleep with his mother. But he didn’t want those things at all. He was fated to them. He did everything in his power to do differently, and those around him tried to assure that he would not do the thing he was foretold to do. But of course all the plans backfired. He was sent away and didn’t know who his father and mother were. He killed his father in ignorance—one might say by accident. But he didn’t think it was an accident. He blinded himself, that he might not see what he had done. The Greeks were a bit merciless in their view of the world.
Of course, many mothers believe they can keep all the bad things from happening. I assume they are the ones most shocked when their husbands leave, or they lose themselves, or their children grow up to do heroin. Relax, I want to tell them, as a poem I love says, “Bad things are going to happen.” And, as another friend says, the great wheel of tragedy comes around to everyone eventually. It’ll get to you, too. I picture the great wheel of tragedy as something like a cross between a steamboat paddle and the giant thing they spin on Wheel of Fortune. It churns the water and flips through the flaps, and every time it lands somewhere, and then it always spins again. Up and down the river, round and round and round. I do not know if the game show version is random. I assume not; I assume it must be rigged for maximum drama and excitement. In life the wheel seems rigged to bring the maximum amount of tragedy to some while leaving others just barely touched. But it does touch everyone. It falls to everyone eventually. Don’t take it all to heart.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.