Accidental Blessings

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Accidental Blessings

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
~Albert Einstein

Behind every book, every movie and every work of art exists a “how we got here story.” Some are brief, and some are long, but regardless, there is always a journey. Typically, journeys are fraught with ups and downs, strung together by some odd series of coincidences that later take on some greater meaning. They are also usually full of reasons to be grateful that we can’t always see at the time. But if we examine any of life’s stories, even the ones defined by huge challenge, there really are silver linings on every cloud—better known as “blessings-in-disguise.”

The story of how Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings came to be is no exception. It began with me as I woke up, pinned underneath my silver Ford Escort at 5:30 A.M. on July 3rd, 1981. The tire was holding me down by my hair and the sleeve of my white peasant blouse that I had put on the evening before. At nineteen years of age, I had no idea that l wouldn’t live forever; nor would I have believed it if anyone had told me so. I had fallen asleep while driving with my two best friends in the car, under no influence other than exhaustion. There, underneath that tire, my entire world changed.

I had no pain, as my body was in shock. What I did have was a strange numbness in both of my legs. I wanted very badly to get up, walk away, and explain to my parents that I hadn’t meant to dent the car. Because I was under a tire on the passenger’s side, my only vantage point was to turn my head to the right and look underneath the vehicle through to the road. I could hear my friends’ faraway voices calling for help—but all I could see were their two sets of legs, running in the middle of the parkway.

Seeing those two sets of running legs crystallized the purest moment of gratitude that I had ever experienced. In that singular moment, I understood two things: I was alive, and my two best friends had not been hurt—I was grateful.

As the paramedics lifted the car off my body, the lack of feeling in my thighs quickly turned to blinding pain. I had severely fractured both of my femurs, several ribs and my nose. I was lucky, although that is not how my parents felt when they got the 6:00 A.M. call that I had been in an accident. All they heard before driving the thirty miles to the ER was “Your daughter was alive when we put her in the ambulance.”

For my parents, history was repeating itself in the form of a nightmare. Thirty-eight years and eleven days earlier on June 22nd, 1953, they had flipped their convertible, driving from New York to Virginia on their honeymoon. Like me, my twenty-five-year-old father had been pinned under the car, fractured a femur and broken some ribs. He’d sustained other serious internal injuries that made his recovery in 1953 much more challenging than mine. My mother couldn’t help but question: How could the same accident be happening again; what was the reason?

I had heard about my parents’ accident my entire life—how they had nearly died together after just being married, how my grandmother had moved in with the local postman so that she could care for them daily, and how the only way my mother knew my father was alive was by hearing his screams each morning as the orderlies turned him over in bed. Now, it was all happening to me.

My own first days in the hospital were a blur of intensive care, being strung up in traction, and all kinds of theories about my treatment and my fate. My parents barely left my side—their own experience in the hospital had left them terrified that something even worse might happen if I were left alone. On the fifth day, I woke up with a slight fever and a piercing pain in my back. The nurse placated me, saying I had probably pulled a muscle when I lifted myself up in my bed with the traction bar. By midday the pain was excruciating, my fever was rising and breathing had become difficult. The overworked staff was nowhere to be found when I began coughing up clots of blood, but my mother was right there. I heard her in the hallway, demanding that somebody bring me oxygen. She insisted that I was having a pulmonary embolism, and if they didn’t help me soon, I would die.

My mother knew this because of a “coincidence”—only two days before, she’d read someone’s firsthand account of having an embolism. And there I was, having one, right before her eyes.

It was hours before the doctor came, confirming my mother’s fears. If I survived the night, the odds were that I would probably live. For me, the pain had become so unbearable that I no longer cared. My father spent the night whispering softly to me, trying to assuage the pain as I drifted in and out of consciousness. When I next opened my eyes, the sun was filtering through the hospital blinds and my parents were still sitting in chairs beside my bed. We’d come through it together.

In the space of one week, my world had gone from predictable and safe to “all bets are off.” Would I walk again? Would my legs ever be right? Would my lung heal from the embolism? Thoughts like these dominated the minds of everyone in my immediate world. Yet, something else was stirring inside me. I was a young woman faced with the possibility of being handicapped for life, and somehow, I was grateful.

I had “woken up” under that car in more ways than one. No matter what the doctors said that was ambiguous, overwhelming or frightening, I heard another voice—one that kept reminding me that I was still here. My friends weren’t injured, we had insurance, and my family had come together as never before to help me heal. Yes—I had moments filled with anger, fear and self-pity. But as my recovery continued, my gratitude grew to such a degree that I began to understand: there was a much bigger reason that I had survived.

Three months later I was discharged from the hospital in a full body cast. The joy of my homecoming was eclipsed by sorrow; one day earlier, my adoring grandfather had suddenly died. My grandmother moved into our home, and sat vigil by my bed, just as she had done thirty-eight years before with my parents.

In March of the following year, I took my first steps with no crutches, walkers or braces. My legs were miraculously the same length, and would eventually run anywhere life would take me. Things that I had taken for granted, like sitting on the toilet alone or getting dressed without help, had become momentous occasions. My parents and I had bonded in a way that I could never have imagined, and I had become incredibly thankful for waking up each day. I had glimpsed Life’s Big Picture, and while my mother will say she didn’t need to go through it twice to understand the lesson, I felt truly blessed.

I also knew that it was part of my path in life to somehow share what I had learned.

Fast forward to July 3rd, 2009—exactly twenty-eight years to the day that I woke up underneath the tire of my car, I was getting much different news about my future. After months of typical contractual back and forths, all the terms of our agreement with Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing had been settled—on the anniversary of my accident. Was this even possible? My business partner Laura and I would be co-authoring this book, and launching the Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings board game for the 2009 holiday season—my life had come full circle. And now I would have the opportunity to share my feelings of gratitude with a large audience of Chicken Soup for the Soul readers—what an incredible way to spread the message and share the gift of my accident.

When I considered the entire journey from my parents’ story to my own, and what was now happening with this project, beginning on this magical date, the undeniable synchronicities confirmed what I already felt in my heart—there really are no “coincidences.”

Talk about counting your blessings.

~Elizabeth Bryan

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