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I didn’t realize how much one choice could affect your whole life forever. One crucial decision can send your whole world crashing down around you – and when it happens you have no idea what to do.
I attend a small school in Iowa. There are about 150 people in my entire high school, which means everybody knows everyone else, teachers included. I have seen posters around my school about drinking and driving, wearing a seatbelt, texting while driving and how making the right decision can save you from being hurt, or worse yet, killed. Most of the posters show smashed cars, kids forever paralyzed in wheelchairs, or crying students and parents. I’ve seen people look at the posters before but I don’t think they really realized how real all of it was until a few months ago.
It was a cool morning in early October. October fifth to be exact. School had been in session for a few months and I was happy it was finally Saturday. I had spent the whole week solving geometry problems, writing papers, and going to volleyball practice. Needless to say, I was ready for a Saturday spent shopping with my best friends, Mak and Payton. We had been friends since elementary school and although we have had our fights, we have remained extremely close to one another. We were practically inseparable.
I got up to my alarm at 7:15 and got in the shower. As I washed my cropped, blonde hair I thought about the day to come. Payton was going to pick Mak up first, then pick me up at nine. We were headed to Rochester, Minnesota, about a 45-minute drive North. We had planned to go to the Mall and then eat at Applebee’s. After eating we were going to get our nails done and then if we had any last minute places to stop we would. I planned to be back home at approximately three, just in time to go to my cousin’s ballet recital.
I turned off the water, grabbed a towel, and stepped out onto the cool bathroom tile as a knock erupted on the door. Not sure who it was, I wrapped my towel tightly around my body and unlocked it. My mom rushed in with my little brother, holding a bucket up to his face. “Gross…” I mumbled as I left the bathroom and crossed the hall to my bedroom.
I share a room with my younger sister, Isabelle. Normally, she would still be fast asleep in bed, but she was at a friend’s house for the night. I put my robe on and started to blow dry my hair. Just as I finished my make-up and began to choose an outfit, my mom knocked on the door asking if she could come in. I replied, “Yeah, come in.”
“Hey,” she said. “I think I am going to need you to stay home with your brother today. It might just be his ‘pass-out thing’ but I would rather be safe than sorry.”
By ‘pass-out thing’ she meant neurocardiogenic syncope. Chase had been diagnosed with it at an unusually young age and we had grown pretty used to the regular puking and fainting.
“But, Mom,” I started. Then I remembered that she had an important meeting to attend that morning – one she had been planning for weeks and could not miss for a sick kid. Dad was gone fishing until Tuesday. “Actually,” I started over in a persuading voice; “I have plans with Mak and Payton for the day. It has been a long time since we’ve hung out and I’m really looking forward to it. Do you think Grandma Ann could keep an eye on him?”
“Hmm…” she thought for a while. “I really don’t like leaving him with your grandma all the time, but it isn’t really fair to ruin your plans either. I’ll give her a call and see what I can do.”
Mom walked out, gently shutting the door behind her. Happy with the response I had gotten, I choose a pair of jeans and a yellow V-neck shirt. I got dressed, then walked out into the kitchen, where Mom was just finishing her conversation with Grandma Ann on the phone.
After she hung up she said, “Ann agreed it would be fine if Chase came over. Bless her heart, she is such a nice lady.”
I ate an apple as I told mom about my plans for the day. Chase laid colorless, a common symptom of NCS, on the couch. I asked him how he felt and he said, “Okay” in a flat tone. You can definitely tell when he isn’t feeling his best. He is usually a talkative, energetic boy, full of life and funny stories. But when this happens, the poor little guy is completely drained.
I grabbed my cell and my purse and slipped on a light, button-up jacket. It was 8:58 and Payton was pulling into the driveway, right on time.
Mak was sitting in the front seat so I took the back seat behind her and buckled in. We said our hellos and started talking about anything and everything that came to mind. If anyone could carry on a conversation forever, it was us. The radio was on, but turned down low.
“Wanted” came on the radio. Mak reached over and cranked the volume, interrupting our conversation about the upcoming basketball season. We sang the song as loud as we could – Mak and I danced – but Payton, a careful driver, kept both hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.
Immediately following the song came a message from the Department of Transportation that I had heard a lot recently, “Buckle up or eat glass.” Simple and short but it got its point across - to most people at least. I had noticed that Mak didn’t have her seat belt on, and as much as it bothered me, I didn’t say anything.
“Oh…” Mak said as she quickly turned the radio off and pulled the belt across her chest. Payton and I exchanged a glance in the rear view mirror.
After a fun filled morning of shopping we sat at a raised table at Applebee’s, talking about how pleased we were with our day so far. I had gotten a new top and two new books. Payton had gone all out and bought practically anything that fit her short, skinny body. Mak had settled with just a few pairs of earrings.
Finally, the waitress brought us our food. We had ordered our favorite, Spinach Chipotle dip to share and a chicken wrap with fries for each of us. It was really weird that we all loved the same foods, but we just considered it another unique feature about our friendship.
We finished up eating, split the bill three ways, and headed to City Appearance Salon and Spa to get our manicures.
The crowd outside the salon seemed to have grown while we were getting our nails done. I had chosen a pale yellow color while Payton and Mack had both gone with different shades of blue - Payton’s was dark and Mak’s was bright.
We made our way through the crowd and walked out to the car carrying our bags full of our new buys. Once in the car, conversation flowed as usual. School, tests, sports, parents, friends, boys, books, you name, we talked about it.
We were traveling Southwest on a nearly abandoned two-lane highway when we heard the DOT message again, “Buckle up or eat glass.”
Payton and I were both buckled. However, Mak, once again, was not. In fact, she was sitting with her back against the door, facing Payton. Payton and I exchanged another look in the rearview mirror. I knew what she was going to say so I gave her a look that said, “Go for it.”
“Mak,” Payton said in a soft voice. “Please?”
Mak, already knowing what Payton wanted, said, “What are you afraid of?” Mak had a way of getting her point across most of the time, but I knew this was an argument she couldn’t win. “You are like the safest driver I know. You won’t crash. We have traveled this exact same route like 1,000 times,” she exaggerated. “Nothing has ever happened before and today isn’t going to change that. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
“No,” I butted in, “I am definitely on Payton’s side this time. Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean something bad can’t happen now.”
Looking back, I am not sure if it was a crazy coincidence, some freak of nature, or an act of God, but just as I had finished speaking, we all gasped, seeing the same thing – as we came over the top of the hill, another car was coming at us. On our side of the road.
All I can remember after that is the sound of our horn blaring in the open country. Someone – or maybe multiple people – were screaming. And Mak, horror written all over her face, was reaching for her seatbelt.
I woke up, taking sharp, painful breaths. Our car was sitting upright but the top was smashed in, invading what little space I had. My lungs felt like they were ready to collapse and my seatbelt felt as if it was strangling me.
I tried to move my head to see Payton and Mak. As much as it hurt, I managed to move enough to see Payton. All the windows were cracked but the front window was completely gone. There was glass covering the hood of the car and the dashboard. That’s when it really hit me. Payton’s seat was mangled all around her lifeless looking body. Bones stuck out in funny places, glass covered her lap and stuck in her skin, everything around her was saturated in blood. Another painful motion to look at Mak - but her seat was empty.
I started to panic. Questions raced through my head. My heart beat faster. My breaths became sharper. I tried to think. The only thing I knew was that I had to get help. Then I remembered my cell phone was in my purse. My mind raced as fast as my heart. Find the purse. Find the purse. I saw it. It was just out of my reach. I stretched my left arm to reach for it. Pain shot up my arm and down my back, traveling all the way to my feet. That’s when I realized I could barely move my fingers. What was wrong with me? What was happening? I used my right arm to grab the strap of the purse and unzip the top pocket. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the three numbers that may have saved my life. 9-1-1.
After that, things are pretty blurry. I remember talking to the 9-1-1 operator. Her voice was calming and she told me to hang in there. I remember flashing lights and blaring sirens that hurt my head so much. But the thing I remember most was one of the police officers saying, “Three have been pronounced dead. Two teenage girls are in critical condition. We are sending them both by life-flight to Mayo.”
The next thing I knew I woke up lying in hospital bed. My leg was in a splint and an immense pain ran through my whole left arm. As I slowly opened my eyes I saw my mom quickly stand up and come rushing to my side. My dad followed right behind her.
“What is going on?” I immediately asked. “Where is Payton? Where’s Mak?”
I looked deep into my mom’s eyes and realized they were starting to fill with tears. I knew instantly what that meant. “They didn’t make it, honey. I am so sorry.”
Tears welled in my eyes. I didn’t even know what to think, my less say. They had said there were two teens who were still living. How could this be? Why is this happening? Confusion and fear overwhelmed my weak body. I struggled to keep my eyes open and senses alert. Finally, I gave in and fell into a deep sleep.
I drifted in and out of sleeping for the next few days. When I woke up again my whole body ached. My leg was in a cast and my arms were wrapped in bandages.
“Are you in any pain, sweetie?” My mom asked.
I slowly shook my head no.
“Are you sure? We have been giving you fluid and some medicine for the pain through IVs but it’s been almost four days since you have been responsive.”
Someone knocked on the door and the doctor came in with a nurse behind him. She started to unwrap my arms as the doctor looked on. He asked me a few questions, obviously trying to distract me from the sight of my arms. It didn’t matter though because I had already seen them. A lump grew in my throat. They were mangled. The cuts were deep, some of them bonded together with stitches. On the back of my left hand was a row of stitches, all the way down to my wrist.
The doctor was really nice although I didn’t like what he had to tell me. After asking about the amount of pain I was in he told me that I had shattered my hand, broke my leg, received 84 stitches, and had a severe concussion, not to mention all the bumps, bruises. However, all of the physical injuries couldn’t compare to the emotional condition I was in.
Over the next few days I began to improve. On the outside, at least. At fist I wasn’t allowed out of bed, but after a few days I could get into the wheelchair with a lot of help from the doctors.
“You will never believe how worried I was about you. I am so glad you are okay. I thought we were going to lose you,” my mom was telling me one day while sitting by my hospital bed.
Suddenly memories of Mak and Payton came into my mind. My two best friends in the whole world were taken from me in a matter of moments. My eyes began to fill with tears and all of a sudden I felt like the weakest person on the earth. My body shook as I sobbed. My mom came behind me and wrapped her arms around me. I couldn’t control my emotions, and in a way I didn’t want to. I wanted to let it all out.
I sobbed until I couldn’t cry anymore. Mom tried her vest to comfort me but I was lost in my own mind. I remained sitting in my wheelchair by the window, staring out into the blue sky. I started to imagine my life without Payton and Mak. As I looked deeper into the sky I imagined them both in heaven. I could imagine Payton playfully scolding Mak for arguing about not buckling her seatbelt and then saying, “I told ya so!”
Then I remembered the police officers words, “Three have been pronounced dead. Two teenage girls are in critical condition.” There were only three of us in Payton’s car. Who were the other two? I wanted answers.
Without hesitating I asked Mom to tell me the details of the crash.
She looked at me with worry in her eyes and said, “Are you sure that you are ready to hear this?”
With confidence in my voice I said, “Yes.”
“Well,” she started, “Right after you left I got a call from your father. He said the fishing was going great and they were having a good time. Already running late, I got Chase in the car and ready to go to Ann’s. You know your Grandma, she likes to talk so ended up staying there longer than I planned to. I drove to work as quickly as I could, which I now realized was a bad idea. My meeting went well. It started at 10:30 and we were done by 1:30, earlier than I had expected. I finished up some last minute things at the office and then drove back to pick up Chase. She told me that Chase had been fine all day and had even eaten lunch. I was relieved that it was nothing contagious and that the little lad was feeling better. By the time I got home it was about 2:30. I had just taken my shoes off and unpacked my lunch when the phone rang. I figured it was probably Shelia from work so I picked it up. When I heard the voice on the other end I was immediately filled with fear. That’s when the officer told me that you had been in a fatal car accident. He tried to calm me, but I was really worked up. As I was talking on the phone, Isabelle walked in. Trying to maintain a calm composure so I wouldn’t scare her, I told her to please watch Chase and I would call as soon as I could and explain everything. I grabbed my shoes, ran out the door, and got in the car.
The officer had told me the location of the accident and I got there shortly after the ambulance had arrived on the scene. As I stepped out of the car there were three things that caught my eye: A blue Ford Fusion sitting on the left side of the road. Payton’s car was on the right. Looking at both cars made my heart skip a few beats. They were so smashed up and I couldn’t believe that anyone could be living inside either one. The thing that really caught my eye, however, was the body laying about 15 feet in front of Payton’s car. I shot a prayer up to God as they covered it with a white blanket – ‘Please don’t let that be Tess.’
An officer approached me and asked who I was. I told him I was Tess’s mother and he told me what they had predicted had happened. The guy driving the Ford Fusion was drunk. We later found out he was nearly three times over the legal limit. Other drivers reported he was driving all over the road. As he met Payton’s car over the top of the hill, they collided. Payton had tried to swerve to miss the impact, but her car still took a hard blow to the driver’s side. Payton’s car then rolled once, landing upright in the ditch. They Fusion ended up rolling twice, landing on it’s top. There had been an infant in the car who was killed along with the driver, instantly.
The officer told me that there were three teens in the other car. One, who was apparently not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the front window, also being killed instantly. The driver was still giving a pulse, but barely. They weren’t sure if she would make it, but they were doing everything they possibly could. The other teenager in the back seat had been the one who called the 9-1-1 operator. She was unconscious right now but was in the best shape of the two who were still alive.
The officer then shook my hand and walked away. I stood there thinking to myself, ‘Tess always buckles up. That has to be her in the backseat. Oh, God, please let Tess be okay. Please let Payton be okay. Please let this be okay.’
I was more scared at that moment than any other moment in my whole life. I dialed your dad’s cell phone number and explained the situation, barely being able to hold myself together. He tried to comfort me through the phone and told me that he was coming back as soon as he could.
An EMT came over and told me that they were life-flighting the two of you to the Mayo Clinic and I could ride with an officer there with you. I climbed inside the officer’s car and we were on our way to the hospital. In a very short time a chopper landed on the road and they loaded your stretcher inside. Another chopper was on its way for Payton.
When we arrived at the hospital they rushed you into an emergency room and I could no longer see you. Worried, I found an EMT who was also in the helicopter and asked him to explain to me what was going on. He told me that they couldn’t be sure of everything that was wrong, but they knew you had shattered your left hand and it would need surgery as soon as possible. You had also broken your leg and needed stitches from multiple glass cuts. They still weren’t sure of any internal injuries.
I took a seat in the waiting room and prayed. I didn’t know what else to do. I was so scared, Tess. You have no idea.
Your dad found a ride from the airport to the hospital and had arrived around 7:00 P.M. I filled him in on everything and I cried as he held me close. He was scared, too.
An hour later you were out of surgery and we were able to go see you in your room. You had stitches in your arms and seven on your left cheek. You looked so small and battered, but that didn’t keep your dad and I from being happy at the sight of you.
The doctor came into the room after we had a few minutes with you. That’s when he broke the news to us. ‘Your daughter is a miracle. I am not sure you realize how minor her injuries are compared to what they could have been. She is an amazing girl and the only survivor to live to tell this story.’
‘What?’ I asked him, ‘But Payton was flown here, too.’
‘Yes, Darcie, she was. We did everything we could but she didn’t make it.’ With that he walked out of the room, leaving your father and I in shock.
Many people came to visit you on Sunday but you didn’t wake up at all. We were worried, but the doctor said that after everything you had been through, a couple of days of rest would be good for you. On Sunday you woke up a little and the first thing you asked was where Payton and Mak were. That’s when we broke the news to you. You looked like you were going to cry but you fell back asleep.
You were in and out of it until today, and we are so glad to have you back,” she finished.
Not sure how to react to everything that she had just told me, I asked when the funerals were going to be.
“They will both be Friday at the school.”
“I think I would like to go. I need to say my final goodbyes. This is so hard, Mom. Can you please ask the doctor if it’s alright?”
“Yes, baby, I will,” she replied.
Dad came with Isabelle and Chase last night after he got off of work. I was too tired to interact or talk much. It was still a good feeling to have the whole family in the same room.
This morning I woke up to the sound of hushed voices and was surprised to see a bunch of people standing amongst the balloons and flowers that filled my room. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even teachers and friends from school were there.
I was feeling pretty good and I smiled as everyone came over and gave me a hug.
I was happy that everyone had taken a day to come to see me and they will never know how much it meant to me. At the same time, however, I was disappointed. Did it really take something tragic to bring a family together?
Everyone left in early afternoon leaving just Mom, Dad, Isabelle and Chase. Isabelle and Chase put on a skit for me to make me laugh. It was so cute and it worked. I knew right then that I was blessed with an amazing family and that somehow, I would make it through all this.
The doctor gave me permission to leave for a day to attend the funeral for Payton and Mak. He also said that if I kept improving at this rate I could return home on Sunday and probably go back to school by the next week. Knowing I had a long day ahead, I went to bed before Dad had even taken Isabelle and Chase home.
The nurse helped me get dressed and climb into my wheelchair this morning. I went downstairs, picked at my breakfast and Dad helped me get into the car. I was really nervous to be back in a car for the first time since the accident but I knew that I had to do it for Payton and Mak.
The funeral was held at the school. The bleachers in the gym were pulled out and there were rows of chairs covering the floor. Through the rows of chairs was an aisle for those who went up on the temporary stage to say their last goodbyes. I had asked Mom and Dad to bring me early so I could see them one last time.
Mom wheeled me in front of the stage where both caskets were located. They were still open and I was able to see their faces and torsos. As we got closer a lump grew in my throat and my eyes started to swell with tears. Losing a best friend is one of the hardest things that can ever happen to you. But losing both your best friends – at the same time – is nearly unbearable.
We arrived early so there were only a few people in the gym at this point. They all stayed in the back, allowing me to be alone by the caskets. First I looked at Mak. Her face wasn’t even legible. I wanted to yell at God for letting this happen to such a beautiful girl. She had on a red sweater and the heart-shaped necklace that I had given her for her fifteenth birthday.
Tears pouring down my face, I rolled my wheelchair over to Payton’s casket. Her long, dark hair laid perfectly across her shoulders. She had on a red dress with a black shawl. She looked so peaceful and as the tears continued to roll down my cheeks, I whispered, “I don’t blame you for anything. I am going to miss you so much. Save a place for me in heaven.”
I looked over at Mom, hinting for her to come help me find a seat. We ended up sitting in the front row. As the pastor began to speak I looked around at all the people who had come. Most of the teachers were there and I think practically all the student body. There were students that I recognized from other schools and a lot of people from different local churches. It was amazing that these two girls had an impact on so many people.
Many people went to the front and spoke about Payton and Mak. It seems like each time a new person finished telling a story I cried harder. I looked over to see both of my parents crying, and from behind me I could hear Payton’s little sister, Emily, sobbing. As hard as the stories were to hear, they slowly began to comfort me.
After the funeral many people approached me telling me how strong I was and to keep my head up. It was really good to hear that there are people who have my back, no matter what. I didn’t know there was so many people who were worried about me and wanted me to know they were there if I needed anything. From all the people, however, there was one person whose story would affect me forever.
When she approached me she was wearing a dark purple dress and had her long dark hair pulled back in a low, messy bun. I had never seen her before but I could tell that she had been crying.
“Hey,” she said as she approached me. “You’re Tess, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied wiping another run away tear from my cheek.
“I heard about your story. Actually, my mom was one of the EMT’s at the scene of the accident. First off, I would like to say that I am so sorry that all this is happening to you. I know what you are going through.”
“Thank you,” I said, continuing with a question, “You do?”
“Yeah,” she said. “If you want we could go for a walk and find a quiet place. Then I could tell you about it. I have a feeling you will be able to relate.”
My lungs were begging for some fresh air so I agreed.
We exited the school out the back doors trying to avoid the packed parking lot and roads from all the people who had attended the funeral.
She started off by saying, “My name is Brooke Keegen. I am sure that you have never heard of me but I think we played volleyball against your team one time. Pretty sure you beat us, too!”
I smiled and she continued, pushing my wheelchair in front of her, “I am now seventeen years old, but my story happened a few years ago. Actually, it happened on my fifteenth birthday, March 29th. I had just finished eating out with three of my cousins. We had a very close relationship to one another, and most of the time we thought of ourselves as sisters rather than cousins. We were on our way home and my oldest cousin, Robyn, who was seventeen at the time, was driving. She had a boyfriend who was really good to her, but she made sure that we were always first priority. She was texting him. That’s when it happened. She crossed over the centerline and we were hit head on by a semi-truck.
Robyn and Kayla, who were sitting in the front seat, were killed on impact. Demi, who was sitting in the back next to me, was pronounced dead later that night. I was in a coma for 12 days before I finally started to recover. After that, I had months of healing, emotionally and physically. It was by far, the hardest thing that I have been through. When I heard about your story, I knew that it was my chance to help someone out.”
She stopped pushing me and walked in front of my wheelchair, looking deep into my eyes. I was caught with no emotion. Tears were streaming down my face but I didn’t know if they were from sorrow or relief. Maybe it was both. As I struggled to find the right words to say, Brooke wrapped me in a hug, allowing me to let go of everything for the moment.
She loosened her arms and looked me in the eyes. “Everything will be alright. You are not alone and you will make it through this.” And for some reason, I believed her.
Little did I know that Brooke would forever change my life that day. She has become one of the most influential people on my long road to recovery and we have made so many memories together. We were brought together by pain and suffering and bonded through painful memories and tears, but there is only one way to describe our friendship: Love.
As much as I miss Payton and Mak and wish that day could have gone differently, I have learned so much from the accident. Never take anyone for granted, no matter what. They can be gone before you know it. When you’re unsure what to do, pray. God will listen. Even if it seems like it, God won’t give you more than you can handle, keep your chin up. But most importantly, everything in life happens for a reason.