The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Totally Hosed


I hit a 91-year-old man with my car Saturday night. There’s no other way to tell this story but to spit it out. I hit a 91-year-old man and the guilt and shame and feeling of being wrong and flawed to my very core does not want to leave. The words, the images, keep repeating in my head in Technicolor with full Dolby audio and real-life smells like some kind of sadistic loop. I hit a 91-year-old man.

I was driving down a dark street just a block away from a bustling urban area when, out of no where, he was in front of me, tottering across the street with a cane, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I don’t think he even glanced in the direction of my headlights. I slammed my brakes as hard as I could and yet, the nightmare still unfolded. His body (his head?) slammed against my windshield star-bursting the glass. The smell of brakes filled the air. He tumbled to the asphalt in front of my car where he lie unmoving, almost in a fetal position, before me. It happened just like in a movie in which a deer is suddenly on the windshield and the driver has no ability to stop the moment from unspooling.

I flew from my car with the howl of a banshee. Help! Someone: Please. Help! In that instant, I believed I had killed him. And that my life, as I’d known it, had just ended. It’s like falling off a cliff (or so I imagine.) One moment, everything’s fine. The next moment, nothing will ever be the same again.

I hit a 91-year-old man.

Bystanders gathered. A young Armenian man came to help and put a jacket under the older man’s head. A woman called 911. I couldn’t do a thing but stand there and twitch. I had taken a Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED course only days earlier and knew what I was supposed to do in this situation: Identify myself as someone with first aid training and ask the man if I might help. I could not even approach. I walked back and forth between my car and near to where the man lay, unable to do anything but shake and cry. The young man caring for him stopped his ministrations long enough to tell me that I needed to calm down and breathe slower. Sirens wailed, red and blue lights filled the pitch-dark night. That young man served as an interpreter for the older Armenian man who spoke no English. I didn’t realize until later that he’d been able to speak to those helping him. I was still certain he was dead. One of the bystanders brought me a bottle of water. “It’s going to be okay,” this nameless, faceless person told me.

A female police officer approached. What happened? I told her. Was he crossing left to right or right to left? I had no idea. I was just driving and suddenly he was there. Using your phone at the time of the accident? I had the ear buds in and was listening to Pandora, and if the truth be known, I had glanced at a text message ten minutes earlier – I was guilty of that. But at the time of the accident, the phone was sandwiched between my legs, pumping out music by Gaslight Anthem. She brought me a second bottle of water and asked for my license, registration and proof of insurance.

A male police office took photos of my car windshield. How those photos might turn out, given how dark the night was, I don’t know. He measured my skid marks. How fast were you going? I didn’t know. I’m not a speed demon, was not in a rush to get anywhere; odds are I was going the speed limit, maybe a mile or two above it. The male officer put his hand on my shoulder. You must have good reflexes. Your skid showed you tried to stop. Both officers, independent of one another, told me the same thing: This is why they’re called accidents. And while I appreciated their desire to help me feel better, I needed and wanted something else entirely: I wanted to be told unequivocally that it wasn’t my fault. I hit a 91-year-old man.

The paramedics, meanwhile, were rolling the old man onto a backboard, attaching a cervical collar, asking him if he knew where he lived. He was clearly alive. One of the officers told me that he didn’t seem to be hurt. No blood. No broken bones. He wanted to go home, not to the hospital.

How can a 91-year-old man suffer a trauma like the slam of my car and not be hurt?

Come to think of it, what was a 91-year-old man doing in the middle of a dark street in the middle of the night alone? With the sizable crowd that gathered, no family members appeared, no one seemed to know him. I answered more questions, called my friend Kitty to ask her to come and be with me. I still could not stop shaking and repeating to anyone who would listen: I thought I killed him. 

The paramedics put him in the ambulance and were taking him to LA County Hospital. How could I find out his condition? The female officer gave me her card with a case number handwritten on the back. Since tomorrow was Sunday and Monday would be a holiday, the police department’s communication’s staff wouldn’t be in until Tuesday. I could call and learn his status then.

We see this all the time, she tried to reassure me. We had one of these just earlier tonight, a few miles from here.

Then she said I could leave. How could that be? Surely, they needed to arrest me. But I got into my car and tentatively pulled away. I had driven less than a quarter block when she pulled me over. Please get out of the car and follow me. Now was the time she’d arrest me. Here, finally, the moment of truth!

I hit a 91-year-old man.

I didn’t smell alcohol on your breath, but for protocol’s sake, I need to give you a field sobriety test, she told me. Please, test everything you can, I wanted to say. Every inch of me was shaking violently, but I was as sober as it’s possible to be. I am a recovering alcoholic with nearly 24 years of sobriety, I told her as she instructed me put my ankles together and follow her pen back and forth with my eyes. I wanted all the proof possible to forestall the horrid feeling in my gut.

I was guilty. Of what, exactly, I didn’t know. But every fiber in my being was waiting for her to pull out the handcuffs and drag me away. Certainly, you can’t plow down a 91-year-old man and not be guilty. But she finished the sobriety test and told me for the second time I could go.

I went to Kitty’s house a few blocks away and cried and called my insurance company and felt the guilt building. Maybe I hadn’t been on the phone at the time of the accident, but how many other times had I used my phone in traffic? Surely, that was evidence against me. Only days earlier I’d bragged to a friend that I had a perfect driving record – no accidents and exactly one moving violation that was more than 20 years old. Maybe this was divine retribution for that hubris. Plus, I’d been stupefied by grief only hours earlier. The day before, I’d learned that my dear friend’s two-year-old child had died – expectedly – from a fatal illness, and I had spent that Friday in deep mourning. The night of the accident, I was returning home after the memorial for the 21-year-old son of friends, a young man the age of my children who’d taken his own life. Hearing the young man’s buddies speak so eloquently of him, and then holding my friends, his parents, as they shook with their own grief, was sill fresh on my skin. Had I been too addled with grief to be driving?

I hit a 91-year-old man. Worse, still, was the old guilt that jumped right to the surface. I was oblivious to its presence until Kitty pulled me up short. As I blathered on about how I must somehow be to blame, she cut me off. You are no more responsible for this accident than you were for your mother’s illness. Her eyes burned into mine. You could no more stop your car from hitting him than you could have made her well. Kitty, like me, shares a history of maternal mental illness rife with traumatic institutionalizations, violence and suicide attempts. She knew exactly what the voices in my head were telling me.

Later that night, another friend who knows my history did me a similar favor when she, too, spoke firmly. You are as sane now as you’ve ever been and you cannot afford to give these voices room in your head. You simply cannot let them take over. Though it has been years since I’ve questioned my sanity – and to be honest, have never come genuinely close to losing it – as the child of a mentally ill mother, it’s hard not to fear such things. 

I lay in bed that night, my heart hammering, praying for sleep and seeing the nightmare images over and over again. And then the words of one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace – who, alas, also suffered from mental illness and committed suicide at the age of 46 — came to comfort me. In a commencement speech he gave to Kenyon College, he told graduates about the real benefit of an education. “Teaching you ‘how to think’ is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea,” he told them. “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

So I began to construct meaning, separate from the feelings that were flooding me. Kitty had pointed out evidence earlier in the night: The accident had taken place in a heavily Armenian neighborhood where people are joined tightly by culture and stand up for each other. I was clearly not Armenian and had hurt one of their own. Yet, not a single person from the huge gathered crowd accosted me, yelled at me or in any way challenged me. Rather, they brought me bottles of water and told me it would be okay.

Every time the words and images provoking guilt intruded — I hit a 91-year-old man — I countered with a piece of evidence.

Though the police officers never used the exact words I wanted to hear – this was clearly not your fault – everything else in their actions and words spoke to that reality. The officer that had given me the sobriety test had done so, in fact, only as an afterthought since I had apparently seemed clear-headed and responsible in the moment. At the time of the accident, I had not been using my phone, nor had I been reckless in my driving. I had simply been human.

It’s Monday now and I still don’t know the condition of the man; I can call tomorrow and find out. I pray that he was released that night and that, if he suffers cognitive impairment that would have put him in the middle of a dark street in the middle of the night, this accident helps his family seek the help he needs. I pray that he’s still alive because a part of me is convinced I killed him. And I pray that I may be free of the guilt that sticks to me.

I hit a 91-year-old man.

But I’m not there yet. The sound of sirens in my neighborhood sets off flashbacks; the red and blue of police lights makes my head spin. I know there’s no one who can tell me what I desperately long to hear –that I’m not to blame – so I guess I’ll have to settle for knowing I’m human and in many situations am powerless to stop bad things from happening.

I did not have the power to stop my mother’s mental illness. I did not have the power to stop this accident from occurring. But I was given the power to arrest my own alcoholism and God knows, could easily have killed someone long before now had that not been the case. Thanks to friends, I’m learning to stop the destructive, guilt-focused thinking that tries to pull me down. I hit a 91-year-old man. I don’t know that I’ll ever be free from the inklings of guilt that surrounds this incident, but maybe I can embrace that simple fact that bad, tragic things happen to even the best people and that I was, and am, doing the very best I can.

So, yes, it’s true: I hit a 91-year-old man with my car Saturday night. It was a horrible, haunting disaster that occurred by accident, via human error. Because the truth is, we’re all flawed and make mistakes.

I say this over and over again.

But the whispers are still there beneath my protestations of innocence. I still don’t fully believe I couldn’t stop my mother’s illness, cannot completely embrace that degree of powerlessness. How am I to make peace with a world filled with such random horror? I’m trying, but cannot fully let go of the what if’s – what if I’d taken a different way home, what if I’d not stopped to visit Kitty instead of going straight home that night, what if? Because if I admit I’m that powerless, than I also have to make room in my heart for the tragedies that happen to others – babies who die of neurological disorders before their third birthdays, and young men who kill themselves because the pain of living is simply too great – and know that such things may visit me, too.

So the choice of how to think about this accident, how to construct meaning from it, is mine alone on an uncomfortably deep level. If I’m not in control of accidents and mental illness, then bad shit can happen to me and the ones I love at any moment. And if I am in control of such things, I’m hosed by guilt. Which will it be?

Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is More from this author →