By on August 12, 2014

I did not know her well, but well enough to call her colleague and fellow yoga practitioner. Our paths had not crossed for a couple of years until I heard the words a few days ago, “Cary Fairchild was taken off life support”.

My breath caught in my throat, and the cells in my body began to howl so deeply in my being, a raw pleading to the moon and beyond the space between stars. My mind’s eye could see Cary’s beautiful face, alabaster skin, and dark waves of curly brown hair always holding a flower or feather to signal she was one of a kind. A woman deeply committed to pursuit of social justice. She loved teaching yoga to patients at the state hospital.

I met her many years ago her at a weekend yoga retreat. She spoke of eagerly awaiting the arrival of her first grandchild. The child must be a teenager by now. Her face glowed with anticipation and love. Her being brought connection, safety and ease to the group as we sat on our yoga mats in the dark space surrounding a lighted candle.

Now we are connected again by experience traveling the same stretch of highway. This time it is an experience I hoped I would not have to share with anyone.

June 1996. It was a bright sunny Saturday morning, and I was ready to be home. I called my children and spoke to the babysitter to let them know I would be with them by lunch. I had been traveling and after a night of sleep was ready to make the last leg of the journey down the freeway, across the ancient coastal mountains, through valleys of tall pines and to the final rise that brought the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean stretched out with mist and diamond reflections of sun and water meeting rocks and shore.

It was early morning traffic and I was accompanied by the flow of tractor-trailers carrying goods to all the corners of our state and beyond. I pulled into the left lane to pass one of the slower moving behemoths. It happened so fast my nervous system never really registered the reality until all movement had ceased.

A flash to my left signaled that something had burst through the rose bushes that separated north and south flowing freeway travel. At 65 miles an hour, my synapses could not make sense of the input. My car started to move in ways I could only recognize from carnival rides as a child. I used my arms to brace my body from the jarring left and right roll.

It does not surprise me that I heard a “message”. I don’t know what Cary heard. I heard “put your head back and relax, this is not the day you will die”. My mind had enough time to generate the thought and argue back, “Not likely, I am going to die”.

The movement stopped and I was dangling in the air by my seatbelt. I have no recollection of the face or even the sound of the voice of the brave man who must have climbed up to find me and in great peril released me to drop to the safety of ground. Warm dew drenched earth. I had lost my glasses and the sun was too brightly illuminating a scene I did not want to see. I dropped into the comfort of earth, eyes closed, listening to a woman who asked if I knew Jesus.

I heard the voice of the medical technician who asked if I could move my left arm and hand. That question would be asked many more times as she administered a soothing substance that allowed me to float into and out of reality. I was in a helicopter flying to somewhere. The same medical technician spoke into her radio, reporting that three people had not survived.

The hospital interns apologized for their probing as I insisted my left arm must be broken and they kept repeating that the x-rays showed no broken bones. Surgery would show the damage to my left elbow and the need for re-attachment of muscle and tendons to bone.

I woke to find my children at the end of my bed. My voice was not well connected to my body and I tried to explain that I was o.k. It didn’t sound familiar or convincing. Someone asked if I would be willing to speak to a news station. In my morphine haze, I must have nodded. I told them I wanted to get dressed first. I didn’t have any clothes.

The Channel 6 man was amazingly familiar. A face I had seen on the nightly news. He seemed kind, soft-spoken. I asked why he wanted to interview me. He told me I was a rare survivor of this type of accident on that stretch of highway. I must have told the nightly news audience that I had had no time to react, that the oncoming van had jumped the median strip, burst through the rose bushes and I could not make any defensive moves. All that was left of my car was the capsule where my seat held me in its security. All else had collapsed into an unrecognizable mass of metal, shattered glass and plastic.

My family propped me up in bed to begin the long process of healing. They had continued with the routine of their lives when our phone rang for the first time since I had been released from the hospital. The voice belonged to a manager from the state Department of Transportation. He was clearly concerned.   He had heard me say publicly on a nightly news broadcast the accident had been caused by the lack of a barrier in the middle of the freeway. He explained that the roses cut the glare of north and southbound headlights. He challenged my assumption that if there had been a barrier the van would not have burst into oncoming traffic, but rather would have been contained in the lane and possibly other vehicles would have had time to avoid such a serious collision. I could hear fear of litigation in his tone, and my own pain made it difficult to contain.

For the past 18 years I have traveled that highway again and again. In the beginning it made my palms sweat and I would feel my heart race. Over time I noticed a metal cable barrier was installed where the rose bushes had been removed. I have learned to smile at that mile marker and know that the barrier would make a difference. That comfort was shattered yesterday when I read in our daily statewide paper that the few remaining miles without a barrier are where Cary Fairchild and Dr. Steve Fritz encountered the end of their lives during their daily commuter route between Portland and Salem.

As a social worker, every day I confront the fact that many Americans and Oregonians don’t like to pay taxes, especially if the money goes to benefit the poor and the needy. And this is another instance of an unmet need that has been staring us in the face, and haunting me, for nearly 20 years.

As the moon crested the mountain range to the west, and the night sky chilled with the coming of autumn, I sat in my bed last night hugging my knees, and howling into the darkness. Could it really be that the Department of Transportation has had to stretch its budget over almost 20 years and could not save another life?

I howl out to a planet that feels the loss of a woman who fought for justice. I cry for the loss of a woman who brought precious minutes of ease, calm, contentment to a world that is agitated and restless. Her death is a tragic loss to our therapeutic yoga community.

Soon I will write checks to both the state and federal government to cover my estimated quarterly taxes with the hope that these precious dollars will be spent somewhere saving lives of people I do not know. In the meantime I will continue howling to the stars for our loss.

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Katherine Calvert Counseling is a private practice led by Katherine Calvert, LCSW. Katherine Calvert has built her practice from decades of education and applied experience working as a direct service provider in schools, hospitals, and counseling clinics. She holds a Masters in Social Work, is trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Imago Therapy, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Her practice is a warm, safe and inviting space in the Portland, Oregon area.