I never saw her face.
She wore a soft, yellow shirt.
She spoke, but I didn’t hear the words, just murmuring.
She sank onto the glass-strewn field next to me to wrap me in her strong, tan arms.
I never thanked her.
The hazy memory of her trickled into my mind a few weeks ago at church, as our priest spoke of taking one wrong turn, one haphazard glance away from the road, and the places that mistake will take you.
It was a metaphor, but I could literally relate.
In the summer of 1997, I was in that weird purgatory between high school and college. A few more weeks, and I’d be a college freshman at Penn State. And I had those summer weeks to work off the tuition bills.
So I put in long, sweaty hours at a local factory.
On the afternoon I met her, I was headed back to work for second shift. I took the back way, along curving country roads. I had just punched out at the factory less than eight hours before, after finishing third shift. I felt ancient, my hair net and ear plugs beside me in my car, the radio blaring to keep me awake, a water bottle too big for the holder toppling precariously onto my lap and then the floor.
I bent to grab the bottle from the car floor. The wheel bent with me. I think I might’ve pressed on the gas, too.
When I sat back up, I was on the wrong side of the road, about to ram into the fence guarding a cow pasture. I whipped the wheel to the right, too hard. I slammed on the brake, hitting the gas instead, and sent the car barreling up the side of an embankment.
Seconds later, I hung from my seatbelt, staring at a spider web of cracked windshield. A high-pitched, scratchy siren rang in my ears. A few seconds later, I realized it was my own screams.
My mind struggled to wrap around the reality that I was hanging from my seatbelt. That my car was on its side, with the passenger side crushed against the road. The radio was still on.
I fumbled with the key. Was the car going to explode? How was I going to get out? I snapped the seatbelt open and scrambled through my open window. A hand appeared; a big, callused hand. I grabbed it, and he helped me jump down. “Is anyone else in the car?” The gruff voice was shaking.
Was anyone else in the car? I had to think. “No, just me.”
Something like sand filled my mouth. When I spit it onto the side of the road, I saw it was glass. I ran my hands through my hair and filled my palms with shards.
I sank into the field.
Around me, a police car and an ambulance arrived. An officer emptied my purse onto the top of his cruiser and combed through the contents. Was I going to jail? People stopped and pointed at the mangled mess of car. My car. My dad’s car, actually.
I heard that strange wailing again and realized again that it was me. I clenched my jaw shut.
My body shook. Legs, arms, hands and feet quivered on their own. Sobs burst from my mouth.
They asked me questions. Where should they tow the car? Did I need to go to the hospital? Did anything hurt? Who could take me home? Where were my parents? What was their phone number?
I didn’t know any answers. I sobbed and felt so very, very alone; so childish; so stupid, sitting in the field by the wreckage of one wrong turn of the wheel.
One mistake. One second of my eyes off the road.
And that’s when I met her.
That’s when she sat beside me. That’s when she wrapped her arms around me and held me together. That’s when she cradled my head against her chest.
I stained her yellow shirt with my tears, and slowly gathered strength.
By the time my grandparents arrived to take me home (my parents were at dinner in this long-lost time before cell phones), I already had called in to work and accepted a stern warning to be more careful from a police officer. My neck already began to ache, and I knew I’d be going to the doctor later that day.
I never thanked the woman who held me together.
I don’t know her name.
I never saw her face.
But I know now, 13 years later, that she must’ve been a mother.
At least, she was in that moment.
Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 7, and son, Benny, 3.