“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Russian novelist and short story writer
Up until recently, I would’ve never understood these words in the way that I do now. I have been characterized by seeing the world through rosewood-colored lenses, but lately my vision has become most notably colored in by one of toska’s many shades. This anxiousness has been on the rise for quite some time now and as it comes to a peak, I am beginning to understand that toska is hardly capable of leaving quietly, without confrontation or even with the intention of closing the door behind him. Through this understanding, I write with the intention of turning restlessness into salable prose.
Someone is Waiting for You
As human beings in a self-centered generation and even in past ones as well, we become stuck on the dates of importance in our lives. From grave stones to birthdays to weddings to the worst days of our lives to the days of national devastation, we are continually fixated with dates. I, myself have a few dates I’ll never forget, either by choice or by pain, but thus far none of those dates hold in remembrance because of joy. Pain has always marked my memory and as I develop this thought further, you will soon find that March 6, 2011 is one of those dates.
Although joy has never made much of a numerical appearance in my memories, there was a peaceful time before March 6, 2011 that I remember quite well for several reasons. One of which being that in January of this year, I fell into some money for something I went through years ago. Having financial security put my mind at ease and lightened the burden of living paycheck to paycheck. I was working at Target, a frustrating job to say the least, but my time there was made more appealing through the kindness of select co-workers and customers alike. On March 2, I received a job opportunity through Arc of Monroe where I would work with families who had children with developmental disabilities and special needs. This is an arena of work I have always aspired to so when opportunity knocked, I didn’t hestitate to answer. Things at home have never been perfect, and that’s another story in and of itself, but during this time there was a notable sense of peace moving through every area of my life, and my relationships at home were no exception. There were also many spiritual aspects of this time that I believe produced a happiness that was based more internally than externally. Sometimes I ponder whether or not I make these few months out to be better than they were. I try to remember what kind of stress I might have been going through in order to weigh my contentedness. But as I was discussing with a good friend last night, when your peace is based on an internal level, what’s going on externally is almost completely irrelevant to the capacity for which you feel and express joy. I believe that’s why those few months are so precious to me in hindsight, and also why I use this time as a spiritual bookmark to assess where I am now.
On Sunday, March 6, 2011, I woke up a little later than usual. I strive most Sunday mornings to attend the 9:30am bible study at my church which is located nearly an hour away from my house. The snow had been melting for the past couple weeks, so it was rather shocking to look out my bedroom window to see all white roads. But the snowflakes weren’t falling and it looked like a thin layer to me so I proceeded to get out of bed. At the time, my friend Brian didn’t have a car, so I would give him rides to church most days. I called his house, making sure he was up and ready to leave. His mother answered and asked me in disbelief if I was really going to church when the roads were so bad, and informed me that her son wouldn’t be joining me because it wasn’t safe. Brian’s mother is the worrying kind and she’s forbidden me to leave her house countless times before because of mild road conditions or a thunderstorm. I tossed the sentiment in a folder in my mind, labeled especially for mothers and their paranoid nonsense.
After realizing that I had more time to waste without the added trip to Brian’s house, I made a quick stop at a gas station down the road to grab an Arnold Palmer. As I slid back into my car and started it up, I almost shifted into drive when I had a brief and momentary flash of all the reasons that remind me to put on my seat belt. As I reached Mumford, the next town over from mine, I realized I left my phone and iPod at home. In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have mattered and I would’ve kept driving, but it was already 9:17 and I wouldn’t make it in time for the Bible study. My logic was that if I wasted a little time by driving back home and getting my possessions, I could arrive right on time for the 10:30 service.
Mumford is often described as a small and sad excuse for a town, but anyone with an appreciation for what is old and still good can soak in some of its rustic, timeless architecture. And surely no one can deny the beauty of this town’s forestry feel. With most of its streets lined by trees and running streams, rather than guardrails splattered with amateur graffiti, there are definite signs of nature still untouched and untainted by man. It is in the spring when these trees are full bloomed and these shallow streams are shimmering in the sunlight that I find this landscape most pleasing. You can seemingly take a deep breath of God Himself as you drive along those quiet roads with the windows down, submitting your attention to the intricacy of His creations.
Unfortunately on this cold and overcast winter day, I did not see Mumford for its beauty, but rather for its dangerously unplowed roads and its threatening streams which were now made to look like deep, fast flowing rivers due to the snow. I observed this as I turned off the main route and onto George Street where I would head back to my house using Spring Street. I soon realized I wouldn’t be able to safely make the turn onto Spring Street at the speed I was going, so I drove past it and turned around in an empty driveway to make my second, much slower attempt at the turn. I was hardly going 15 miles per hour this time but as I began to turn right, my wheels locked up and the brakes weren’t doing anything useful. I began to slide across the road.
Those few moments spent skidding across the road, when I had no control, were the worst. Pure terror started to lock into my bones as the river got closer and I could feel the instant adrenaline painfully coursing through my veins in a way that seemed all too familiar. I couldn’t decide whether or not to close my eyes or force them open. I couldn’t make sense of what decisions really mattered anymore. The car lurched forward towards the road’s ledge as it began to nose dive into the water of the once serene-looking stream, and I was suspended in the air for what seemed like a lifetime as the laws of gravity determined my car’s flipping pattern. My fingers tightened around my soft, gray steering wheel cover as I watched in fear as the whole world began to turn upside down. The car finally landed roof-first into the creek.
For a split second, there was a perceived momentary silence. The calm before the storm that is so often depicted in literature takes on a whole new meaning to me now. I can’t recall if there was glass shattering sounds prior to this silence but after only a moment of discontinued motion, all hell broke loose. With my eyes peeled back in anticipation and my ears attentive to the sounds of glass breaking and a low groaning of car materials shifting, I looked ahead at my windshield for the source of the cracks and then up at the roof. My head was only inches away from it. Grateful that I wasn’t any taller, I observed that my sun roof was lying on top of underwater plants and weeds. Water rushed in out of nowhere it seemed. My mind was filled to the brim with instructions and thoughts I couldn’t comprehend. I was in shock yet I settled into survival mode in a matter of seconds. It didn’t take many moments to realize I was hanging upside down and my seat belt was cutting into my skin. I scrambled for the buckle, trying to figure out what side it was on. I found it on my right and as I jammed my hand against it violently, it wouldn’t give way. Water was filling up fast and I could feel the bitter coldness against my scalp now. A fleeting thought slipped by my attention: I was going to drown if I couldn’t get this seatbelt off. I rejected the thought born out of fear and began pushing harder against the release button. My eyes were now submerged in a world lived underwater as it came loose and I flipped out of its binds. In this moment, I realized there was a very loud, consistent horn sounding from somewhere unidentified. I couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from my car like some faulty security measure or if the sound came from outside of my own vehicle.
I began scrambling to find the door handle and as I pulled it, pushing against the door, I figured it wasn’t moving because it was locked. Disorientation settled in as I tried to reassess my environment accordingly. Everything was on the reversed side, upside down as I was kneeling around facing upwards now, once downwards. I tried to fit these thoughts through my brain as I searched for the unlock button. The water hadn’t filled past the windows yet so I knew the electric should still work. I began frantically pushing buttons, hearing very frustrated and forced electronic noises around me. I accidentally pushed the window button at some point, opening another gap for water to rush in faster. I knew I had made less time to escape for myself. I wore soft boots that day which were more like slipper material, not really winter apparel, but they were more of a fashion statement that day rather than a smart weather choice. I didn’t realize how this worked against me, as I held the bottom of my seat, which was above me, leveling my body above the water so I could get enough momentum in my kicks to break the glass of the window. My first kick did nothing but send pain up my leg, and by the time I tried a second and third time my legs were completely submerged in water. Hopelessness began sinking in as the water drained the power from my kicks.
I let go of the seat, letting myself come to a rest for a moment. I observed the strange sight of my dome light shining through the water beneath me, but I hoped that the light was not an indicator of my fate. For a brief moment, I remembered the Armor for Sleep song, “Car Underwater” and released a strange, nostalgic laugh. For the first time since the chaos began, I noticed the pain in my chest and realized I was hyperventilating. I knew that the water was cold, but it felt painful to me like the shock of hot water as you lower yourself into a bath tub. Although these moments play slowly in my mind as I look back on it, I know that they only could’ve lasted a few seconds at best.
Despite the notions of impending death creeping into every crevice of my mind, I continued in my struggle for survival. I climbed over to the passenger side of my car and tried to locate the door handle in my last, exasperated attempt of escaping. As I wrapped my fingers around it, I heard muffled screaming and then deeper, more masculine yells from behind me. I whipped my head around as two hands yanked open my driver side door just a few inches, which was apparently as far as it would open. I moved towards them and as I peaked up into the blinding light of morning, I saw two men’s faces. Faces that in my chaotic state, I didn’t have the ability to recognize or comprehend. But they were faces, living, beautiful, shining faces painted with expressions of concern and compassion and not only that, but for me, a complete stranger. They reached their hands in and grabbed hold of my own hands as I went to grab for the side of the door, and I felt a calmness wash over me as I saw the terror in their expressions and heard the concern in their voices. They asked if I was alright, if someone else was in the car and whether or not I had been wearing my seat belt. Somewhere within these simple and futile exchanges, something in me changed. It no longer mattered to me that I could die, because this meant that I wasn’t going to die alone, and I really didn’t believe too surely that my time was up anymore with the only imminent threat being hypothermia.
The older one whose name I now know to be Billy Lemen, assured me that I would be alright and that they would get me out of there somehow. He asked me how old I was and I said, “Twenty,” in a shaky and unsure tone of voice. He smiled and replied with, “Me too,” and I tried to find comfort in the common ground. I could tell how hard he was trying to take my mind off of things while help was on the way and I felt bad that I couldn’t mask my fear or my disorientation. At some point during this short exchange, his younger brother, Jed who I went to school with, disappeared and when he had moved aside, I saw one or two women standing in the road. I put my head down in embarrassment for my helpless situation. Helplessness did not sit well with me.
As chaos seemed to melt away and conscious thought began to make an appearance, I looked around my car thinking only of my now destroyed possessions, trying to figure out what I had lost. My New Living Translation Bible floated past my sight and I felt a twinge of sadness. Despite my now seemingly calm state, one of those men made the small mistake of pointing out that I was bleeding. As my attention came away from my possessions and back onto my body, I looked frantically around myself to find the source. I realized with growing anxiety and an increased awareness that my back felt unusually warm and tingly. I feared the worst: There could be a shard of glass lodged in my back and I was going to bleed to death.
I quickly lost track of time and occurrences after this point, but I know that the time they spent with me wasn’t very long until the fire department showed up and was able to lift my car out of the river enough so that I could escape. The rest of the story is quite typical. I was admitted into the emergency room at Strong Hospital, diagnosed with moderate hypothermia, and left alone to myself with a rather interesting character to share a room with. I found out that the blood Billy had seen was probably from all the cuts on my hands. But the largest injury I did sustain was a deep cut down the center of my back, which explained the warm, tingly numbness I had feared earlier. After six hours in the hospital and an intimidating phone call to my parents, I was released to the loving arms of my mother. The next few months held only uncertainty, frustration and doubt. I lost all of my savings when I had to buy a new vehicle, I was let go from my job at Target directly because of the accident and I lost sight of the victory I have in Christ for a time. Metaphorically speaking, it took a while to learn to stand again and I am still pushing myself into newer and bigger steps every day.
I have been blessed to see the Lemen family as dear friends now. This experience has tied them close to my heart forever and I will never forget the deeds of any of them, especially the warm kindness of Billy and Jed’s mother, Shelly. In an indirect way, I owe my life to her. I believe that her relationship with God is the direct cause of her sons’ innate character and their courageous acts. In retrospect, this nightmare has also done wonderful things for my faith. I believe now more than ever that there isn’t a single moment of our lives that slips by God’s attention unnoticed and uncared for. I know that not everyone survives, and I believe this is the root of the tension in my soul: God has a purpose for my life and now I am left to myself to search it out.
I hope that the reader will find patience with me when I say that I don’t know all the specifics of why this piece needed to be written. I don’t know all that I’ve taken or can take away from this. I do know that when everything was at its darkest, and I was feeling suffocated in the fear plaguing my mind, there was a light and an illumination, and the faces of those men pulled me through. Sometimes all we need to get us through the tough times is a face. One painted with concern and compassion. Whether it be a friend or a complete stranger, I encourage you to react when you see someone suffering, someone who needs help that you can give, or someone who just looks beaten down by life. Be the face that pulls someone out of their darkest hour. I now know that God made everyone capable of being the best version of themselves so that we could better love and serve the world. You never know when you’ll need someone to love, help or serve you, and when that time comes, you can know that God is sending someone out for you because you allowed yourself to be sent out for others.