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Lessons Learned From An SUV Sliding From A Sierra Cliff

It was dark, and I was driving alone up a steep incline on the side of a Sierra mountain. All three car seats behind me were empty. On the third hairpin curve, I could just catch the glow of our rental home above. Angelic snowflakes floated from a luminous sky, kissing my windshield, collecting along black pavement. The darkness, towering evergreens, the frigid air, and the steep incline, all felt somehow fateful. On NPR, a prayer whispered through the radio—a giving of thanks, a plea shared at a public memorial service, held for the kids shot and killed in Sandy Hook. A tear crept down my cheek, and the wheels of my shiny Suburban begin to hiss and spin.

My husband and I had traveled to lake Tahoe with our kids ages 6, 5 and 3 to ski, sled, walk, make snowmen—but we hadn’t left our beautiful rental home for the entire weekend. We’d been holed-up atop a tall peak with a long, winding driveway below. We couldn’t leave because my oldest was not well that weekend. His special needs (we hadn’t been given a name for them, exactly) were preventing him from tolerating the cold, from walking out the door without collapsing into a heap. He was throwing everything in the house. He was crying, racing around. He (and we) were a disaster.

I’d driven about three miles to the nearest market to grab groceries, and while away, the snow had started. Racing down aisles, I tried to track snow accumulation through windows lined with sleds and firewood for sale. At that time, worrying was akin to breathing for me. I was a mother, a combat soldier watching for family snipers. This can happen to a mom, especially when she has three children in three years, one with special needs struggling in ways impossible to describe here. I worried about my drive back, about my husband at home trying to manage the three alone. I worried about how we’d make the weekend fun by the next day, how we’d drive home and stay sane, how we’d help our child who could barely go to school, how we’d help our family feel better. I admired (or envied?) everyone in the market who appeared calm and happy. The shoppers milled about, not appearing to think about snow-covered roads. Nobody even looked even slightly worried.

So when I felt my wheels spin that night, while hearing a prayer for countless children and teachers lost, I decided I’d had enough. I would stop. I would hold on to what I had. I would not risk the short drive. I could walk. I braked, and my car halted. I shifted to park, engaged the emergency brake, turned off the ignition, and swung opened the massive door of my Suburban. That’s when I felt the SUV slide backwards.

With one foot outside feeling pavement slide beneath it, and the rest of my body still inside the now backward moving car, I double-checked the gears. Yes, the car was in park. Yes, the emergency brake was engaged. I re-inserted the key. I pressed on the brake, but the car picked-up speed, seconds passed, and my frantic mind felt I must be almost to the edge of the cliff behind me. My thoughts flipped, somersaulted with predictions. My hands grasped at the wheel, the key. My eyes could not make sense of what was about to happen. I was alone. No one could tell me what to do. My backward speed increased. The cliff would come any moment.

And so I jumped.

My hands and feet and legs departed from car. My fingers and knees fell on cold snow, sliding against the sound of the car rolling. Time slipped, I turned, partially upright, to catch the enormous planet-like headlights of my Suburban shine nearly on me, glare even, before disappearing off the edge, into the darkness. The car became a spaceship, overturned, then gone. I heard crunching, more crunching, echoing against the sound of branches, of snow packing earth, and then I heard nothing but my own scream, my boots racing up the driveway, my shriek wrapping around the bend, up the hill, my panting, my yelling. I remember flinging my head back to the sky, and for the first time yelling to God “Thank you for my children,” I hollered. “Thank you for keeping them home.”

I heard more screaming. It was coming from me. From my lips, my throat, my belly. My fists were on the wood door, pounding, slamming for help. My daughter’s diapers and big blue eyes appeared. She’d somehow opened the door. “Mama?” she said. I passed her, ran howling to my husband. "Find what had happened to the car," I pleaded, imagining the victims who’d been killed, who’d been smashed by my car, as a road was far below the cliff where the Suburban had fallen.

I learned that night that the Suburban had slid backward, hitting and damaging only a couple of trees before ricocheting, turning and landing upright, partially down the steep edge of the mountain. I learned that children will hug you when you cry. My massive vehicle had found a precious little landing to hold it that night. No one had been hurt. The snow continued to fall, the stars tried to shine through blankets of quiet white, and I unwrapped myself from my ball of fear, recovering eventually, over time.

Six years later my children are well. My family skis, sleds, hikes, bikes and lives in Switzerland, of all places. We get out of the house, every day and do things I never dreamed of. Sometimes we stare at the moon, we stretch our tongues to catch the snow, the rain. We watch spring come, and sometimes I return to my memory of my race up that icy road. I recall skidding, finding my feet against a massive steep surface. I remember my scream— alone. I recall yelling at the sky, believing, without a doubt that I was unequivocally heard that night. I remember the light of a moon, the spotlight on my gifts— my children, my husband, my family atop a mountain, alive.

I try to hold this memory close now, even when it’s dark, when the news on the radio horrifies me, when we have hard days. I try to hold it then, even on the toughest nights.

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