By Stacy Hawkins Adams
Last weekend I had a headache that wouldn’t abate, and it led my thoughts back to Melissa – a woman I’ve never met whose choices on a summer evening long ago forever changed mine.
Melissa, you see, is the drunk driver who slammed into the car in which I was a passenger 25 years ago.
That night in Albuquerque, N.M. left me with an injury that to this day prevents me from sleeping with pillows. Which brings to me to reason I was thinking of her this past weekend.
I did a simple thing: dozed off on a few fluffy pillows as I propped myself up in bed to watch TV. When I awoke the next morning, my consequence was a throbbing pain above my left temple and behind my left eye.
I don’t get migraines often, but I recognize them when they arrive, and I could tell immediately that this one was connected to the pain radiating down the left side of my neck and to the knot of muscles that had formed just below.
Ah, the pillow. How could I forget?
Ah, Melissa. How could you drink and drive?
The summer that Melissa’s car rammed into the one in which I was a passenger, I was a rising college senior in the middle of a newspaper internship in Albuquerque, simultaneously honing my journalism and independence skills.
I had two awesome roommates, including one who was (and is) a professional singer. When an opportunity arose to serve as one of her backup “artists” in a karaoke performance (the only way I’d be asked to do this, mind you), how could I say no?
A group of us had just pulled into the Air Force base where our dining spot debut would take place. As our driver paused to check in at the security gate, Melissa’s vehicle plowed into the back of us.
Thankfully, I and my fellow passengers survived the crash, which, in Albuquerque at that time was no small feat.
According to prevalent news reports that year (1992), more alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita occurred in New Mexico than in any other state. Thank you, God.
Melissa’s actions knocked the car in which we were riding several hundred feet from its resting position and left it totaled.
I was the most severely injured – receiving a fractured nose from having the driver’s seat break loose on impact and slam into my face and being tossed around like a ragamuffin. I left the hospital with two black eyes and a severely sprained neck that I would protect with a brace off and on for years to come.
I was angry at Melissa, long before I knew her name. All I knew then was what her actions had cost me: My journalism internship ended abruptly. I spent the rest of my summer alternating between pain-filled periods of rest and physical therapy for the cervical sprain. I returned to my senior year of college still in physical therapy, which continued well into the fall, with lingering pain and forced rest cutting short outings with friends and opportunities to celebrate life before full-fledged adulthood.
I was still angry at Melissa a few years later, when a minor fender bender caused the neck sprain to flare at just the wrong time – days before a friend’s wedding. Ensconced in a new neck brace with my name on it, I spent her special day in bed with muscle relaxers instead of enjoying celebratory fun.
The anger lessened to frustration over the years as I participated in exercise classes and repeatedly sat out on sit-up routines that put too much strain on my neck, because my core wasn’t quite strong enough to lift me.
And as I matured and considered some of my own missteps and mistakes along the way, I thought about Melissa with fewer and fewer waves of judgment.
I was 21 when the accident occurred and so was she.
I had been in a car with new friends that evening, heading to a fun outing. When emergency medical personnel pulled her from her vehicle, they reportedly discovered that countless beer cans had been her companions.
With the expansion of heart that accompanied my becoming a first-time mother at age 27, the judgment ceased. Unconditional love for another will do that to you.
And as my work as a journalist gave me opportunity after opportunity to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life and tell their stories of tragedy, challenge, triumph and resilience, I embraced the reality that life doesn’t always happen for us – sometimes it happens to us.
That truth ushered in sympathy. I began to wonder what had become of Melissa.
At the time of our accident, drunk driving laws in New Mexico were fairly lax, and I don’t recall her serving any jail time. While she was forced to cover my and my friends’ medical and related expenses, she likely didn’t suffer other consequences.
I wondered, however, did her conscience bother her? Did she treat that serious accident as a wake-up call? Did she give herself a second chance?
I began to hope that just as I had changed and grown and sought to embrace my best self over the years, that she, too, had managed some measure of metamorphosis.
Today, as I lay here writing this reflection, with a heating pad on my neck and shoulder and pain meds nearby, I hope and pray so.
Like me, I hope she has gone on to have a full and meaningful life – one in which she shares the story of that night as a lesson learned, as a place from which she transformed.
I hope that the recurring pain I still experience every so often isn’t for naught, and that she is still alive and well somewhere, advising others to never drive while under the influence, because it can lead to real suffering for real people, other than oneself.
If I had the chance to encounter Melissa again and officially meet her, I’d tell her that while I hate the flare ups and radiating pain I sometimes experience and I hate her long-ago choices, I don’t hate her. Doing so would require too much energy and too much heart space.
Instead, I’m thankful to have been one of the ones who survived when so many victims of drunk drivers didn’t. My hope is that wherever Melissa is and whoever she has become, she feels that same humble gratitude – for my life and for her own.