When my sister was trapped in her car, which was laying perpendicular on the freeway after flipping over several times, she could overhear people talking nearby.
“Is she alive in there?” someone asked.
She wanted to yell: Yes! I’m alive, and I can hear you!
Firefighters eventually cut her out of her crushed Lexus. First responders put her on a stretcher and took her to the nearest trauma center an hour away in Bryan, Texas. She was in pain, but conscious and answering the questions the EMS workers asked.
My sister, Rabeea, is an attorney and had been driving back from a deposition in Austin. She asked if she could call our mom to pick up her boys from preschool. They live in a suburb of Houston about two hours from the accident site, and her husband was out of town on a work trip.
In a reminder of how small the world can be, the EMS worker turned out to have attended high school with my sister nearly 20 years ago, though they hadn’t known one another in their huge suburban school. He was doing his best to calm her and take care of her when no one knew the extent of her injuries. He told her that her seat belt, which had cut into her shoulder and hip, had saved her life.
It’s terrifying to get a call that someone you love is being taken to the hospital. I think it’s worse when you are far away and can do nothing but imagine the worst and wait. Incredibly, Rabeea survived with just a few broken ribs, cuts and bruises.
When I heard she was OK, that’s when I cried. Tears of relief, mostly. Grateful that God had spared her life, that laws have made buckling up a habit for us, that firefighters, EMS workers and doctors had taken care of her, that her brain and body were intact, that my sweet nephews still had their mother.
My brother drove Rabeea back home once she was released from the hospital, and my mother went to stay the night with her. Doctors had given my sister a shot of morphine and a prescription for painkillers. My mom went to pick up her medicine from the pharmacy. It was dark and the street was poorly lit. She turned wide, and her car fell into a ditch.
I hadn’t been able to sleep anyway, so I was awake when my sisters started texting about my mom’s accident. Some nights you know you aren’t going to sleep at all.
A small group of bystanders gathered around my mom while she waited for a family member to come pick her up and a tow truck to move her car. She had her hair covered, like she always does in public. Five different people stopped to help her and stayed with her until my brother-in-law arrived. Thankfully, she hadn’t been injured.
She called me later to say how touched she was by the kindness of the strangers who waited with her.
“I was wearing my hijab, and it was midnight,” she said. “They were all so nice to me.”
It reaffirmed her belief in the goodness of people. Moments like that always do for me, too, but I felt a little sad about how grateful she sounded. Why wouldn’t people be nice to a grandma stuck in a ditch in the middle of the night regardless of whether she wore a headscarf? I didn’t say that aloud because even in my head I realized how naive it sounded.
Both accidents happened on my father’s birthday. I hadn’t called him while we were waiting for updates on my sister because his anxiety in such situations just exacerbates my own. When I did talk to him, we agreed to focus on what had been saved and let go of what had been lost.
The next day, in our sibling group chat, we texted about how crazy that day had been. One sister shared a quote from George Saunders’ commencement address in 2013 at Syracuse University as a reminder of how we should strive to treat one another: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded ... sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Every day, I read news stories about people’s incivility or outright cruelty to other people. Sometimes these stories break my heart, and sometimes I’m not even surprised because it’s so common.
The first responders who helped my sisters and the bystanders who stood by my mother were unreserved in their kindness. They took care of people I love when they were alone and scared and hurt. I hope I am never too distracted, too self-involved or too sensible in the face of someone’s suffering.
Because it’s kindness that saves us.