Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Seeing the Headlights

    Six years ago today, in the early morning hours of April 5, I hit a patch of highway ice while driving to the airport in an unexpected snowstorm and spun out sideways. My car was totaled, with all of the damage to the driver's side door. I survived unscathed. I did not get whiplash. I did not miss my plane.

    My car turned around 180 degrees so that I was looking back at an 18-wheel truck coming toward me out of the snow while I was sliding sideways into its lane. There was nothing I could do in that long moment but watch the headlights coming toward me. Either I would slide in front of those headlights, and that would be the end, or I would slide just slowly enough to miss the truck.

    In the end, I was almost slow enough. The metal step on the truck's cab gouged into my driver's-side door, buckling it inward and sending me caroming in another direction until I finally spun to a stop in the middle of the highway. Snow was falling through the foot-wide gap that the crumpling door had left between my window and the car roof. The difference between life and death had been two or three feet. I was alive.

    After the wreck had been towed away and the cops had taken their report, they dropped me off at the airport with my bags, and then some time later I was standing in the California sunshine at an academic conference. Later that afternoon, California time, I took part in my scheduled seminar. Our death always follows close behind us, just over our shoulders. For a brief moment I was forcibly turned around so I could see its headlights, and see them pass, and then it was back behind me again, hidden from direct view.

    Because hindsight creates the illusion of order, it looks to me as if the seeds of the last six years were already around me on that day. The seminar I took part in, and the response to the paper I had written for it, formed a turning point that began the last six years of my career. That paper became my most-cited article, and part of my book. When I went off to the same conference this year, the book was freshly out in paperback and the colleague who was covering my graduate class decided to assign my students that article. I had allowed myself to stall professionally; the jump-start came on the day I lived through the accident.

    And that weekend in California I also happened to see, for the second time in my life, a person whom I later married but who was then only an interesting but skeptical stranger. That weekend was nowhere close to a beginning for us, but was a chance for me to make the all-important second impression, persuading her that I was at least not a full-time jackass. (The second impression is pretty important if you're me.) I suspect that it was on the last day of that conference that she decided I was socially tolerable. I suspect this because she has repeatedly informed me that it is so. And the last remnant of that early-morning trauma, a lurking anxiety about driving in the snow, began to dissolve later as our commuter marriage gave me strong reason to travel winter highways again.

    The six years since I saw those headlights have been full: a book, a career, a house, a marriage. Six years of things I would have left undone. Six better and fuller years than the six that came before it, surely. I don't think my accident was providential, or that the last six years have been specifically part of any plan. Two or three feet further to my left and there would have been no planning left to do. But seeing the headlights puts some things in sharp focus. What you want, and what matters to you, become very clear. A couple hours after I had almost been killed, what I wanted most in the world was to go to my Shakespeare conference. (On the other hand, I absolutely did not want to go home to my apartment and spend the weekend there without structure. That idea would have been terrifying.) That may be a sorry truth about me, but it is the truth, and apparently pointless to deny.  For better or worse, that is who I am.

    I don't believe that things happen to me, personally, for a reason. God's plan is not focused on my career. But seeing the headlights can put you in touch with what you want from your life. And if you glimpse the Angel and it passes you by, you should take that as a reminder. It's worth it to live.



    Nice work Doc.  Nice to know that sometimes you really do know what you have before it's gone, even if it takes a couple of ominous-looking headlights heading your way.

    In 1983 I was in a serious climbing accident, I'd fallen 45 feet, I was in the Rockies, just outside of Boulder, Colorado. It was life changing, and boy did I break some bones.  Yes it can all be over in just a blink of an eye, so while your here you have to make it count.  In fact my husband who was just my D&D and pool playing partner ended up being so much more after that accident. He wasn't an ass all the time, he was a nerd!

    What a great blog Doc, I read it while I was waiting for my ferry last night. It's really good.  Thanks for sharing it, really.


    Well said, Doc.   For me, the 'seeing the headlights' moment was being diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis at age 34.   My youthful feeling of invulnerability had officially been stripped away.  Realizing I actually had a serious disease with real consequences, forced me to begin to see things as an adult; something I had been stubbornly resisting up to that point.  

    Thanks Bruce, Tara, and MrS. I'm glad you liked the piece, and very glad that you escaped your own close calls. Death really is just a step or two behind us. It's a wonderful thing when we don't die.

    Very true. Almost dying, and then not dying for a while, is one of the best things to do in life. I've had a few really scary highway experiences, had a knife to my throat, and once clung to an overturned boat for several hours. Good times. Glad you survived, Doc. For all their flaws and disappointments, the past six years have seemed worth living for me too. I'm up for another half-dozen or so.

    Great piece, Doc.  I'm glad you made it and if it changed you for the better, I'm glad of that, too.  (Though I'm sure you were just fine before it, too.)

    That is some fine writing.  Thanks for posting it here.



    Moments of intense clarification heave us out of the mundane. We need them.

    You know, I think most of us figure our lives go in pretty much a straight line, point A to point B and so on until there is no point anymore, but really our life path is loaded with sharp corners and hairpin turns and spins that stop us cold and catch us blinking into the headlights.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing and deserves a good ponder or two because we've all had our life or death moments.  Heck, riding in a car without your seatbelt on is considered living on the edge these days. What could have been is just as interesting as what might be.

    Latest Comments