By Rachel Dowda
I have a few pictures of my legs from that day. I was so happy, exploring the city, riding my bike to coffee shops, listening to open mic shows, setting up my hammock in the midst of spanish moss in the park. While lying in my hammock, I took a photo of my legs and feet, resting happily, feeling free and so at peace. Now I look at that photo, seeing curves and muscles in legs that no longer feel like mine. Legs that slept without dreams of accidents, without waking up in a panic, reliving it all over again.
Today I became overwhelmed with anxiety, trying to eat and work but feeling my heart burst out of my chest, my leg bouncing anxiously, my fingers tapping. Last night a friend mentioned how I fidget and bounce and tap; I guess it’s the only way to relieve energy when I feel like my heart is running a marathon, beating so fast it might bust out and start running laps around the room.
But in those photos, I was so at peace.
I remember eating blueberries in the park, secretly taking photos of lovers lying close to each other in the grass, feeling like there was hope for me. Those feelings felt like Christmas in my body, since I had been sad all summer, well, really all my life. Anxiety, depression, self harm, and an eating disorder were always in the background, affecting all areas of my life. But for the few days in Savannah, I felt hopeful. Hopeful that I hadn’t run out of time, that good things are ahead, even like my body was beautiful pedaling my way through a new city that was worthy of being explored. I went to a coffee shop across the street, getting a cold brew and a muffin, feeling okay with nourishing myself, since my legs had just ridden around the city, and swung in a hammock. All of a sudden I realized I was in the middle of an open mic show, and I listened to the local talent (and not so talented). I can still see it all.
I decided to go home because I wanted to sit and write about all the good feelings I was experiencing. I wanted to take out my laptop and remember everything that was happening. Leaving the coffee shop, I saw a little book box nailed to a tree; an opportunity to take a book and leave a book. I opened it and touched all the spines, scanning the titles. Nothing interesting. Then I got to it. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; my all time favorite book and favorite author. In Alabama I would curl up in bed in my treehouse trailer, and reread my favorite chapters over and over, multiple times a month. She made me feel okay with being human, giving me encouragement to be kind to myself, that I was worth celebrating, to treat myself like a beloved relative, like my favorite aunt who is quirky and maybe slightly overweight. I have multiple copies of this book, since I love to give it to people who are experiencing shame or the inability to be okay with feeling emotions; with being human. I didn't have any books to leave, but I figured it was okay to still take, so I slipped the book into the basket on my bike, in the middle of the sticks and string and my backpack and leftover blueberries.
On my way home, literally feet away from the apartment, I stopped at a crosswalk and pressed the button to cross the street. The little walking man lit up, I looked both ways, and began to pedal. I got to the median, looked again, and started to cross the second half of the street. I don’t remember much, except I heard a crack and a thud and myself gasping for air. A pick up truck had hit me and drove away. Lying in the middle of the road, my mind began to clear enough for me to realize that I was on the ground, that my leg was pointing in the wrong direction, and I no longer had shoes on. There was nobody around. My body was on fire. I couldn't get up, but was still laying in the middle of a busy intersection, my bike and backpack contents scattered across the lanes.
I started to cry, feeling terribly afraid and alone. I tried to sit up, but it was like the connection between my brain and my body was broken, like my body had her fingers in her ears while my brain was screaming, GET OUT OF THE ROAD! My legs, the ones I worshipped earlier, wouldn't work.
Then, in the middle of my panic, I heard a voice above me. I looked up. There I saw a tall young man, with gold teeth and dirty clothes getting down on one knee. He looked rough, and smelled like he had just taken a bath in whiskey and pot. I have to admit I was a bit nervous seeing him over me, I would have rathered a middle aged "dad" type figure, or even better, a paramedic. But he took charge, and shouted at another man to call 911. Before I could stop him, this stranger picked me up like a small child, and cradled me gently, my head against his chest. My whole life I have felt so heavy, refusing to climb on friends’ backs for pyramids or piggy back rides with boys I had crushes on. But this man picked me up like I was the lightest girl in the world. He held me gently but securely, and walked across the street to safety, lowering me on the stoop of his rundown house. With one hand he elevated my leg and with the other he squeezed my hand, calling to a nearby kid to go into the house and bring out a cushion. Gently, he propped my leg up and got me a glass of water, all while never letting go of my hand, speaking soft words of encouragement: "You're so brave. You're doing great. I can't believe that jackass drove away, Imma kill him for you".
A crowd started to gather, but my rescuer never left my side. Suddenly, you could hear a siren getting closer, and I felt so much relief to know help was coming. My new friend looked alarmed. "I gotta go. There's a warrant out for my arrest and they're gonna recognize me," he said as he fist pumped me and smiled, "feel better soon miss. Imma look out for that truck! He better hope he doesn't run into me!"
I was being put into the ambulance, when a stranger pushed past the nosy crowd, came up to the truck, and said, "ma'am, I found this book in the road and I'm assuming it's yours. Do you want it?" Tears ran down my face; not from pain but because in the midst of all the commotion he had picked up Traveling Mercies and thought it was necessary to bring to me, interrupting the paramedics’ work and my pain. I carried that book in my lap all the way to the hospital. Traveling Mercies. Enjoy the journey, come home safe. My whole life, when we went on road trips, my parents would pray for “traveling mercies” while pulling out of the driveway. Riding to the hospital, I was literally carrying Traveling Mercies on my lap, soaking it up through my skin, like the iv that was pumping morphine through my veins.
Traveling mercies while being carried out of the road. Traveling mercies while being driven in the ambulance. Traveling mercies in the trauma unit, while being strapped to boards and wearing a neck brace; traveling mercies in surgery where the surgeon had to put a rod, plate, and six screws in my leg; the week in the hospital; and the nine hour car ride home. Traveling mercies for the rest of my adventure called life.
Last Spring, my friend Jimmie bought his kids some ducklings and chicks, and to my delight, they named one of the ducks after me. Over the weeks, Rachel Duck grew and moved from the little box in the house to a chicken coop. One day, I found out that the kids had released her into the wild-the beach at the tip of the property. I would always joke, since the kids really couldn't tell the ducks apart, that Rachel Duck was whichever one ended up living the longest. A deep (maybe silly) part of me really wanted the duck to survive, to live long and be happy, since in a way, it mirrored my current condition-being released into the wild, letting everyone see what it’s made of. I would go and sit on the shore and watch her, whispering in my own way, “Traveling mercies, Rachel Duck. You will survive. You will flourish.” And I wasn't not sure if I was talking to myself or the duck. But she will survive. And I will survive.
Completely safe. Completely cared for.
I was supposed to move away at the end of the summer, but the accident kept me home. I was so disappointed, I hated that I had to move home because of my broken brain in the first place, and now I was forced to stay longer because of a broken leg. But this past year I ended up starting a business, becoming a full time artist, and starting recovery for my eating disorder. This year has been a year of both adventure and rest, healing and growing. Looking back, I wouldn't have changed a thing.
I am one who is blown by the wind, by Spirit. Wind has blown me home to get better, but soon she’ll blow me somewhere else. Isn't that how we are supposed to live? A wind blown people. Not storms, but breath. Traveling Mercies in this breath. This wind.