A Hopeful Project, a Loss of Control, a Change in Direction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Death looked like a rising tide of white lights that Saturday.

Silent and bright, an intrusive burning blur, an arc of headlights faced our Jeep Cherokee on the San Diego Freeway at 7:30 p.m. as we slid backward in a hushed and sickening skid.

Whole families expire every day in mishaps just like ours. Driving past, we see the police cars and firetrucks, the flashing red lights, the crushed hoods and splash of blood. And we feel nothing, numb to the real danger of the road.

I do not know why my family survived this accident a few weeks ago, but I do know that we are grateful.

For some divine, inexplicable bent of good fortune, our vehicle spun out of control in the dark on one of the world's busiest freeways without so much as brushing against another car.

Were you there?

Did you stop?

What did it look like?

How were we saved?

We feel puzzled about the event--and so thankful to the drivers behind us. People we don't know, and probably will never know. People who were probably cursing us at the time. People who might have thought the driver was drunk, or asleep, or the victim of a seizure.

He was none of those things.

My wife, my 2-year-old son and I were driving home from LAX with a first-time visitor to Los Angeles and her 7-month-old son. The windows were up and the music murmuring as we chatted.

Done it a thousand times before.

We were climbing Sepulveda Pass in the northbound No. 2 lane at 60 m.p.h. when suddenly it seemed as if we had smashed into an invisible wall. Our Jeep's brakes seemed to lock up--we lurched right, the rear wheels fishtailing. I tried to steer back to the left but could not control the wheel.

Skidding at a terrifying angle, we careened across to the slow lane, then spun around to the right until we faced traffic. Then we skidded backward at full speed--all the way back across the freeway--to the fast lane.

None of us can recall a sound as we slid. We were scared silent, struck dumb with awe, our entire world a windshield drunk with darkness and alive with light--headlights.

Did you see us?

Were you scared?

We came to a halt a few inches from the center divider, our engine stalled and the children crying.

I sat for a moment staring at the driver in the car behind us. Only he was actually in front of us. I felt cold and weird--the center of a drama and a miracle--and a shiver ran through me.

I got out of the car, turned around and looked at it stupidly. For some reason I felt that I owed the guy behind us an explanation, so I walked over to his window and said that I didn't have an explanation.

I looked south and saw two long lines of stopped traffic, and felt vaguely guilty. Then a voice, calling out from a Chevy Blazer in the next lane, shook me back to Earth:

"If you can roll that thing, get it off the freeway! I'm a police officer! You're more likely to get hit now than when you were skidding!"

That made sense, but I had no idea whether the Jeep would move. When I turned the ignition, though, it roared to life.

By now the questions were raining down. "What happened?" asked my wife. "What happened?" asked my son. "What happened?" asked our visitor.

But I didn't know. Still don't.

We stopped on the shoulder to talk briefly with the off-duty cop, then drove home slowly, on surface streets, worried and confused.

Despite the late hour, I called all my friends who are auto experts. Each had an explanation: Definitely the transmission, definitely the front brakes, definitely the rear brakes, or the ignition, or the power steering, or the computer chip.

Our dealer looked the Jeep over on Monday, and couldn't find a thing wrong. We resolved to sell it.

A private mechanic looked the car over on Friday, and replaced the master cylinder. We resolved to keep it.

And so we drive more cautiously now-- unresolved questions dangling overhead like foam dice from a rear-view mirror.

We are not very religious people, but an event like this can twist your spiritual imagination in kaleidoscopic ways.

The visitor in our car had just flown in from Springfield, Mo. She is pregnant, and had agreed over the phone a few weeks before to let us adopt her unborn child.

As Angela spun with us in the car, perhaps our karma was spinning too--life and death intertwined and knotted, a cosmic lanyard tethering us together for eternity.

Was the mishap on the freeway an otherworldly attempt to stop the adoption? Or should we accept our survival as a sign that we were destined to join this woman's fate?

Or was it all dumb luck, bad and good, that we spun the wheel of life, turned and turned, and lived to spin again?

A few days ago, Angela decided she had erred. Intense talks with a social worker helped her realize that she wants to keep her unborn child. She will fly back to Missouri next week to raise her family.

Perhaps our ties, knitted so savagely in the harrowing spin, were broken by her new determination. Or perhaps they became more knotted still.

We can't help but wonder still about this twist in the road.

Were you there?

Did you see us?

Were you scared?

Will you accept our gratitude, on this Thanksgiving weekend, for stopping?

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