I almost died on a quiet New Jersey highway when my son was just that little speck of two-week-old cells taking hold inside. It wasn’t the exaggerated, “Oh, girl, I died when I saw him at the bar,” or an “Isn’t that sweet little jacket just to die for.” It was almost very, very real. It was the almost-died where tiny lights flash in your eyes, the air smells different, your ears echo the sound of tires and the breath of the person sitting next to you over the sound of the blood sitting still in your veins.
I’d landed in Jersey sometime around 10 or 11 pm. I had my business travel down to a science at this point — land, hustle my tightly packed little carry-on over to a cab, somewhat memorize the directions to my hotel from the airport just in case the driver took me on a ride. I’d always just hop in the back and watch whatever city I was in for a few minutes at night, planning in my mind the steps for the next day.
But for whatever reason this night in New Jersey, I got into the front seat. The driver had one of those cab vans, and it felt awkward to sit in the way back. I asked if I could sit in the front, and he said sure. We started talking, and if I recall, my driver was from Senegal. He had a lovely accent, his voice smooth and sort of comforting after a long flight. I remember that he had a wife and three daughters, their pictures taped to the dash.
He might have been shy at first, with this outgoing woman sitting in the front seat of his cab. My job was talking to strangers, making them like me, helping to motivate them, train them, so I wasn’t shy. He asked me questions, and I answered with the honesty that can sometimes only be shared with a total stranger on a dark New Jersey night.
We drove and chatted. His cab smelled of incense. He had a brightly patterned blanket or cloth over his seat back. We approached the hotel, and I could see the Holiday Inn sign off to the side.
“Oh, so sorry, so sorry. I passed your turn. I’ll turn around, it’s ok.”
I think he felt genuinely bad that he’d missed the turn, guilty. In my replay of those minutes, I think he felt happy we were having this conversation, perhaps a rarity for him, and felt flustered that now I’d think he was just trying to run the fare up by driving me around in a circle. I didn’t think that of him, but I was in this weird open emotional space that evening. As soon as we missed our turn, I felt bad for him. I thought, well that’s a hard job, to be doing your best and have people think you are cheating them when it’s just a wrong turn or a closed road.
Then he said “I’ll turn around here.”
And I looked out my side window.
There was a semi-truck pointed right at us as my cab driver turned across two lanes of the highway. Its lights shone through me. And though as I write this today I can hear the engine, at the time I could not. The road was empty except for our two vehicles.
I didn’t hold my breath, though I don’t recall that any part of my body moved. And then for a millionth of a second, right there in the middle of the lanes, the cab driver took his foot off the gas. And I almost felt myself looking at myself from another place as our cab decelerated, and I kept staring at the truck.
I love my life, I thought.
All I could do was whisper, “Go.” And he did. We crossed just as the truck crossed, and the cab shook, and the driver turned our cab around on the side street, and only then did he pull over and stop. He turned the engine off, and we sat there for what felt like minutes, but was really seconds. Just as his driving in front of that truck happened in seconds.
In those hour long seconds that passed next, the space inside the cab filled with all the unsaid words of the rest of our lives, and the silence of what had just passed. Grace happens in seconds, in breath, in the sparse words between two strangers in the middle of the night on an empty New Jersey highway.
Grace also happens like this: at my hotel very early the next morning, I took my waking temperature and it was high. I was not taking my waking temperature in an attempt to track my cycle for baby-making. In fact, I’d just about given up on traditional baby-making.
A year and a half prior, we said let’s make a baby and we made one that very weekend, and this was such a happy thing because after breast cancer at 28 and various drugs to protect my fertility (we hoped, we prayed), it seemed so very easy. And then I miscarried at 11 weeks. And then we started trying again, and it didn’t happen that very weekend or the next or the next or next or next. And probably a year had passed since we started charting and testing and tracking and trying the second time. So we’d made an appointment with the fertility specialist, which was to happen the next week after I returned from this business trip.
Only I’d just that week right before my business trip seen my naturopath, and said, you know, if I go down this road of fertility assistance, I want to be as healthy as possible going into it. So she did some tests, and suspected my thyroid was off, so she had me testing my waking temperature, to see. So that very next morning, after I almost died in that cab, I took my temperature, and it was high. And I thought to myself, well. I’m pregnant. I knew.
I finished the business portion of my trip. And then I did skip out the last day and take the subway into Manhattan. For the first time ever I enjoyed four hours of one of those cities I always just flew into at night and out of in the early morning.
The next morning I flew home. I stopped by the Rite-Aid on my way back to the house and bought a package of pregnancy tests. I parked the car, left my suitcase in the trunk, walked to the upstairs bathroom and peed on a stick. As I watched the line form first a minus and then a plus, I said to myself, well. I’m pregnant. I knew. I walked downstairs to tell my husband. He was in the back yard. He looked at me, and asked, how was your trip? I have something to tell you, I said. You’re pregnant, he said. He knew.
I tried to tell a few people about the almost dying, but no one took it in or thought much of it. Oh, sure, your cab driver swerved in front of a truck, happens to us all. You see, it’s near impossible for people to take in death at the same time they’re taking in life. I was growing a baby then, and that was all that mattered.
There but for the Grace I go. And now, right here, where I am supposed to be.