I lost my father in 1989 to a fatal car accident. I arrived at the scene of the crash shortly after it happened. I was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in 1989 and was on duty the day it happened.
The last time I saw my father alive he was standing in our driveway, waving goodbye as I backed out onto the road, heading to work on that warm, muggy May morning.
Looking back, there was something different in his eyes that morning. There was a spark, a twinkle that accented his smile and silver hair. His blue eyes radiated a peaceful soothing feeling as he waved goodbye. He stood waving until I rounded the corner, out of sight. This vision is burned into my memory.
My shift was into the third hour that morning and my unit was sent to an emergency call to the north end of the county. My father’s crash happened shortly after that, just west of town. While I was en route, the supervisor took the call at the base and made a quick decision, thankfully, to continue my unit onward north deciding not to turn us around to respond to the crash. I was barely far enough away to not respond the quickest. A second unit was dispatched to the crash scene.
After I arrived back to the hospital base, the ER was in shambles. All “Hades” was breaking loose due to the multiple victims brought in from the wreck. Through the chaos, another call came in from the coroner at the scene of the wreck. “Can you send a unit to this MVA? (Motor vehicle accident) I need assistance with transport.” Normally, ambulances do not transport fatality victims. Coroners have their own vehicles for transport, but on this day, his was out of service for repair.
My partner and I saddled up in the ambulance and drove west to my father’s crash scene. As we arrived, I saw an unrecognizable car lying belly-up in the ditch. Lights flashed wildly from the fire trucks, highway patrol units, and rescue vehicles that were parked randomly along side of the highway. The highway was shut down to through traffic. Skid marks, automotive fluids, and glass was scattered everywhere.
As I stepped down from the driver’s seat of my ambulance, every rescuer on the scene instantly stopped working and glared at me. Being a small town we all knew each other, but something was wrong. I saw it in their eyes and in their frozen stares.
Ignoring the black-hole feeling in my gut, I vaguely reasoned they were looking at me intently because I parked my ambulance in the wrong place or something. It was not normal for ambulances to do what we were being asked to do, and that in itself was awkward. But my partner and I started toward the upside-down car anyway.
Vernon Wells, the coroner, was the only person to move. He stepped quickly toward me and intercepted my path. He was a very tall, thin, polite, white-haired man. He’s known me all my life and knew my father even longer. He stood erect, positioning his tall thin frame, blocking my path to the wreckage.
He is the one who called us out here so he was about to fill us in, I thought. He jerked his white cowboy hat off his head and held it over his chest. He let out a long deep breath. He looked at the ground then back up to me. He paused a second longer, then asked, “Lance aren’t you T.D. Smith’s son?”
“Yes sir,” I told him, puzzled why he asked such a question. I thought maybe being a Smith among the many Smiths in the world he could have easily confused the lineage.
“Uh, Yes, sir,” I commented again before he spoke again, “You know my dad, he retired from South Central Bell a while ago...”
He interrupted, “Lance, I’m so sorry.”
“That’s Ok,” I told him thinking he was apologizing for not connecting me to my dad.
“Lance,” he repeated intently. His voice was stern and dead serious as he looked into my eyes, “I am sorry Lance, your dad, T.D. was a passenger in this wreck and did not survive it.”
What? My instant denial needed proof, more evidence! I tried to look over his shoulder at the wreckage but he blocked my glance with his body. My next impulse was to shove past him, climb through the broken windows of the car and see for myself. Vernon put his hand on my shoulder. His touch seemed to release my need to see any further. He and all of the rescuers did not want me to see this, not like this.
My knees weakened. I took a deep breath. All the rescuers abandoned their positions and walked up the embankment toward me. Each removed their helmets and put a hand on my shoulder as they walked by. They shook their heads from side to side and most of them looked down at their feet, not saying a word. A few of them, barely audible said, “I’m sorry man, so sorry.”
As I stood there, I felt my father’s spirit. He was one of the only few real men I’ve ever known. Still wanting to make him proud of me, I held back the tears. But I hurt deeply like I never hurt before. This was the moment that the vision of him waving goodbye to me from the driveway seared into my mind. It is very clear, still to this day.
Mr. Wells led me to his car. We left the scene and he drove me home. The following days were a blur. That was over sixteen years ago.
Looking back, I think somehow my father knew that humid, May morning was our last together. It was his time to return home. His wave was different, his smile more loving, his blue eyes, brighter. I wish I had slowed down that morning long enough to hug him, and tell him, I love you.
Now, being a father myself, there are days, and holidays I miss him dearly. I wish he could have had the chance to see his grandchildren. They both have his blue eyes.
As emotional and surreal as that day was in May, it left me with a positive, life-changing lesson. Each mundane morning my wife and I head off in different directions to work and my kids off to school, we say goodbye. But I instinctually hug them and make sure the last thing I say to them is, “I love you.” I never know when this morning may be the last.
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