50 Stories, Week 35: My Worst Fourth

In the summer of 1994, I was working at a safari travel agency in downtown San Francisco doing admin work. The office was on the ninth floor of the historic Shreve building, a downtown icon that survived the 1906 earthquake, and quite small by late 90’s American standards. The intimacy provided a quick study on each other, and my colleague Annie and I became fast friends, despite our two decade age difference.

For the 4th of July weekend, Annie invited me and my boyfriend Richard to come to her house in Forest Knolls. We jumped at the chance to get out of the foggy San Francisco summer so we packed up our backpacks and headed out on our bikes for the ferry to Larkspur. From there, it was a long but beautiful ride along Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Richard was a great cyclist in my eyes. He’d got a job as a bike messenger when we moved to the city six months earlier, and had built strength zipping up and down the hills of the city. I could carry my own, though, and I loved being out on those windy roads.

After two relaxing days of hiking, bbq, and hanging out with her family, we packed up to head home. On our way to the ferry, about twenty minutes out from Annie’s house, Richard was quite a bit ahead of me. I lost sight of him at the curve before the Loma Alta preserve, so I started going faster to catch up. It was a gorgeous day and I felt carefree and unencumbered, pedaling like a child racing to catch up with friends. As I turned the bend, hoping to see him ahead of me, I caught the edge of the pavement and ended up off the shoulder, out of control.

The next thing I remember is watching tree branches sway, the clouds passing slowly in the sky, and then the echo of a man saying, “Can you hear me?” I couldn’t identify the voice and had no inclination to move my body. But as he began to put his face in mine and obstruct my view of the sky, I realized I was laying on the ground. Apparently, I’d ridden right into the side of the hill, and was thrown from my bike. The entire right side of my body was scraped up, and as I put my hand to my head, I felt a solid two inch crack in my helmet. Then I went back to peacefully watching the sky. How incredible the brain is, to remove our pain when we’re literally incapable of managing it. Meanwhile, the man who was looking after me had brought over a cooler from his car, along with a car phone. He was just fishing out some ice and simultaneously opening his phone when I heard the sound of a siren. Someone else must have seen my tumble further down the hill and called the local volunteer fire department. I have the haziest memory of a man in a blue short sleeved uniform leaning over me, smiling, and then laughing. I thought he was very nice to look at and then more sirens and then he was walking next to me as I was floating in mid-air, being put into an ambulance. I felt a wave of panic and I remember trying to tell them that I wasn’t alone but because I was, in fact, alone, they just thought I had a concussion. They were right. 

Richard had apparently barreled down the hill (probably also enjoying the feeling of wind in his hair and not a care in the world,) and it took him a while before he realized I was no longer with him. By the time he rode back up the hill to find me, they were putting me in the ambulance. He used that kind man’s car phone to call Annie, who came to get him and our bikes, and take him to the hospital. I ended up at Marin General where I had a CT scan (and consequently spent the next year begging them to forgive my hospital bill because I was a college student with no insurance.) I was told how lucky I was that I’d been wearing a helmet. I don’t remember much until being rolled back into the room after the tests, then I really came to. Apparently, while in my post-traumatic haze, I had asked the EMT to marry me. He came by to check on me and make sure my offer still stood. It was embarrassing but also adorable.

After a night of being roused every two hours to make sure I didn’t slip into a coma, I woke up the next morning covered in hives. It turned out that I had fallen off my bike straight into a patch of poison oak. I ended up back at the ER, as I have a terrible allergy to the urushiol family and I was a mess. First, they gave me a shot of Benadryl and then a shot of epinephrine. The poison oak symptoms started to subside but my heart felt like it was stopping and starting and thumping. Turns out I have benign heart arrhythmias called pvc’s (premature ventricular contractions.) I’d always suspected something was a little funky with my heart but it took a bike accident and some poison oak to figure it out. 

I still believe that there are no accidents in life. There are the choices we make, the consequences, and then ideally the lessons. Whether or not we learn them is up to us. I can see upon reflection that I have often had the same lessons repeating over and over again before they sink in. My resistance isn’t stupidity, it is hope – that things will work out differently than they have in the past. One day I may be right.

Nature Summer

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