Tragic accident brings perspective about our fragile lives

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Two family members perish in a vacation accident, and that makes you think.

By Steve Doyle

How many times has it been you? Awaken early, pile into the car and head down the road on a family vacation, excited, weary from a long preparation time, plotting a shortest-possible course across perhaps foreign territory to arrive at your destination.
Your anticipation is racing through your veins, adrenalin pushing it like a chemical locomotive, and you keep your eye on the ever-larger dot on the map as you dash toward its fullness, following that beacon to a place of joy and wonder and happiness.
Then after a few days, perhaps a week or longer, you rewind that process, only more tired, perhaps even weary, and much less energized because this is the long trip back home, where the arrival isn’t nearly so seductive.
Again, you arise and shove everything that was packed neatly but now seems like so much dirty laundry into every nook and cranny and hit that snake of a road. You are hopeful of making good time, of getting a chance to rest before resuming your good life.
And maybe something happens along the way: car trouble, road closures/detours, traffic jams, bad weather. You curse your bad luck, endure the time lapse, and press forward.
But you never gave a thought to how good you really had it.
At least that’s what I was thinking Sunday and Monday as details of the horrible accident in the Florida Panhandle became tragically clearer and agonizingly too real.
A family from here in Shelby County was headed north from their vacation in Florida. They were on the narrow and direct route, not the wider, clearer interstate highway.
Another vehicle edged across the center line, and, a few seconds later, thousands of us have been touched by our worst fears.
Are you like me in thinking, But for the grace of God go I?
I won’t deign to try to place myself inside the circle of the Phillips and Miller families. I don’t mean any disrespect for the horror they have seen, heard and must face. I can’t imagine how much pain they are feeling, the pressure, the questions, the incredible, knee-buckling trauma of it all.
But for the Grace of God go I.
There have been so many vacations, trips, getaways, so many times I’ve taken off just like this family did.
Sometimes in the black of night after very little sleep, sometimes in the evening after a long day of work, sometimes in poor temperament and in bad weather and in every other aura of negativity.
A long drive at high speed is dangerous at any time, even if you’ve slept 8 hours, had a good breakfast and everything is in order.
Imbalance that equation, and a negative easily can become the primary factor.
But that’s the way most of us were raised, before we could and would allow airplanes and trains and even buses to take us places.
Children of the 1950s were children of the automobile, of the backroads, the shortcuts and the breakfast stops in specific places.
You thought nothing about getting up at 3 in the morning so you could arrive after a 15-hour drive with some daylight left to enjoy family or scenery or just decompress before pumping air back into your balloon.
Doesn’t it all now, given this indelible, ineffable impact that smote our community so painfully this weekend, seem like we were gambling?
We were. We rolled the dice, trusted in the odds and presumed we would be just fine.
We presumed our superhuman abilities were sufficient to face the adversities of fatigue, of coincidence, of the ironic twists that can confront the open road.
We were willing to gamble on narrow highways to get past slower vehicles. We trusted no farm animals would wander from pastures, no deer would jump from clearings, that no one else would make a mistake and invade our space.
There have often been times when I have thought that commuting daily on an interstate highway, driving maybe 80 miles per hour just a few feet from some other human in a similar human-built machine, that we were in more peril than if we had leapt from an airplane with a parachute, dived from a cliff into the sea.
For at least in those two, we relied on our own skill and knowledge of the elements and not on the imperfect judgment of the next driver, the frailties of engines and chassis built by weary workers, of tires molded by machines, of the fickle finger of fate pointing its ugly digit at someone nearby.
But for the Grace of God go I.
Please forgive me if this seems like proselytizing, but I am a believer in God’s hand in everything. I also quite clearly believe that we humans don’t understand but about 10 percent of why his hand acts, at least not when it happens.
I can’t begin to imagine how the Phillips and Millers are grasping that now. Shelby County is a God-fearing community, and we know the family is showered with prayers and well wishes from every foundation of belief.
But we struggle to understand what led the young woman to drive her car across the center line in the early morning hours. We struggle to explain why it was ordained that this family of our loved ones would be in its imminent path.
We don’t know why God would take home two of them and leave the rest to struggle with life and loss and these overwhelming questions, the overwhelming sense of despair.
Sometimes, it would seem, to be spared would be worse than to be taken.
They are left only with the largest question we as humans ever face:
But for the Grace of God go I.

Read more of Steve Doyle’s columns at www.SentinelNews.com/columns.