02/17/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lessons From A President's Day Accident


Alice Lowenstein in the years before her car accident.

My parents almost died in a car accident on President's Day 1986.

Driving back to Boston on a snowy New Hampshire road, the car my father was driving swerved into oncoming traffic on a two-lane road.

A car with a snow plough on the front hit my mother's side.

Her seatbelt saved her life.

The only reason the paramedics gave her even a one percent chance of living was that they were already out on the road, heard the crash and responded immediately.

I flew back from attending college in California to be with my family.

I will never forget the first time I saw Mom in the hospital.

I had already visited Dad, who, although frail in a way I had never witnessed before, at least could speak.

I walked down the white tiled hallways, absorbing the hospital's antiseptic smell.

Having worked the previous two summer processing blood gas samples at my father's laboratory, I knew that the Respiratory Intensive Care Unit where Mom was staying was for severe cases.

I walked in, shuddering involuntarily when I approached the bed, which was enclosed by a screen.

I braced myself and looked.

Her eyelids were purple eggplants that covered her closed eyes. Tubes snaked in and out of her body. A respiratory machine pushed air into her lungs though a diamond-shaped hole that had been cut in her throat. The machine hissed inexorably, each push up and down illustrating her utter dependence on it for her tenuous hold on life.

I hated the machine.

I spoke softly to her.

"You'll get better," I said, desperation creeping into my voice. "You'll be out of her soon. Look! You just moved. See? I told you. All right, Mom!"

More hissing from the machine.

No movement from Mom.

The same hospital smell.

I kept talking and talking, telling Mom her that I knew she would get better, that she soon would be gone from this room. I uttered words that I did not believe in my heart, but had to say because the alternative was too terrifying.

Visiting Mom for the first time was one of the hardest things I ever did, yet it was harder still to come back for the second, third and thirtieth time.

But my brothers and I did just that as Mom began the achingly slow, sometimes backward-moving, process of healing.

At age 48, she had to relearn basic physical functions like how to stand, walk and control her bladder.

The massive closed head injury she sustained meant that she had to learn how to talk again as well as how to conduct herself appropriately in social situations.

Due to extensive medical support, an array of caregivers and her tenacious will, Mom has not only recovered, she started a non-profit organization, Vital Active Life After Trauma, to help others who have endured head injuries and other blows.

She writes prolifically to this day about her experience and the lessons she has drawn from them.

Although she and Dad split shortly after the accident, they have found in divorce a peace and a harmony that often eluded them during their 27 years of marriage.

And, while she has had health troubles, most notably a failing heart that led to a pacemaker installation and a hip replacement in 2010, Mom is probably now, for the first time in nearly three decades, at a similar health place to many of her peers.

The anniversary provides an annual occasion for reflection.

The lessons of the accident, are like a kaleidoscope, shifting constantly depending on the rotation.

The initial insights I drew were about how to rally and stay steadfast during a storm.

Now a year older than Mom was when she and Dad crashed, I am more viscerally aware of life's fragility and finitude, and of the importance of savoring daily gifts.

So on the day that our nation celebrates the births our first president known as the father of our country and an Illinoisan who kept the union intact during its most searing conflict, I give thanks for Mom's survival, for the paramedics who rescued her from the car, and for the battery of people who have helped her heal.

I am grateful, too, for the abundant meaning that comes from understanding the present moment in light of the journey we have taken to get there.


With Mom in the summer of 2014.

NOTE: Some of this material appeared previously in my book, On My Teacher's Shoulders.