Wednesday, July 8, 2009


...and everything can change. In an instant; The blink of an eye; the second it takes to make a decision--the decision to sleep outside for a night, to go to a beach with your host family, to go out in Cotonou alone, to get on a zem, whether or not to put on your helmet; to take your eyes off a road. That's all it takes. If one single thing has really hit me in the past few months it has been the realization of how very true this fact is.

I feel as though when that reality hits you, when you begin to understand how serendipitous life really is--a mingling of singular instances, choices, and decisions--nothing becomes easier than playing the game of "what if"? It's just so tempting. How could I rewrite the past few months with only a few crucial moments of change. It's like those books I read as a kid with the "pick you own ending" theme. EVery few pages you arrived at a choice and whatever choice you made would change the ending of the story. I was never really good at reading those books because when I didn't like if they were turning out badly I would get annoyed, go back, and pick again. I just wouldn't accept the ending. I am a little bit anal retentive like that. I need to be in control. And how I wish I could have that same kind of power in life...but life just doesn't work like that, I've learned. So maybe I should stop playing what if for this past weekend.

Kristin, my postmate, had her mother with her in Benin this past week and she told me her Mom had brought a 4th of July "surprise" so I should maybe hang around Dogbo to celebrate. What's not to celebrate. It was my one year anniversary in Benin! I made it...I was jumping up and down congratulating myself and my friends on what we had accomplished. I wanted to be with my friends so I decided to come down to Cotonou instead for a soiree at the US Ambassador's house--a potluck where we were all bringing something (For the record...i blew everyone away with my supreme culinary prowess in managing to whip up pigs in blankets with a honey mustard dipping sauce--used vienna sausage from a can and made the dough from scratch. They didn't even last on the table 5 was awesome). So Saturday was fun. Sunday I could have just packed up and gone home. But i didn't. I hung out with my friends for the morning and went to the new supermarche that just opened with them to check out all of the bonnes choses that we can never in a million years afford. Then I decided to extend my afternoon in Cotonou and stay for lunch. Some people decided to spend the night in Cotonou since it was 4 and I almost made the call to get permission to stay a third night away from post as well, when i decided to forget it and just get back to Dogbo. ANd that's what did it...but no point in thinking about it I guess. So i got my bags, and my full gas tank, and I went out to catch a zem. I hadn't been away from the bureau for more than 2 minutes when I felt it. This huge slam out of nowhere.

I have come so close to getting creamed when I have been on motos so many times here that I have lost count. I have seen a lot of accidents, several bodies on the side of the road as well, during my time here. But every time it almost happend I thought that it could never ACTUALLY happen to me. I mean really...what are the odds, right? But it did...and as opposed to THINKING that this could never happen, here is what I know now.

I know that it can happen. I know that when a car hits you at full speed straight on from behind and makes contact with your body, it hurts. I fell back onto the hood of the car and felt my head slam down as it rolled over to my right side and i realized that I was riding the hood of the car. Then I knew that i was in the air...perfectly aware of it happening as fast as it was. I could feel my skirt flutter up and was vaguely mortified. But that went away because then i hit face first, palms down, legs splayed on the ground and could feel my skin tearing at my feet and my palms and my arms and my legs as i slid forward across the road. It burned. I waited for it to be over. When i finally slowed to a stop I had to will myself to look over my left shoulder; to see if the car had stopped. Because if it didn't, i knew that was it...i had landed several feet in front of it, right in its trajectory. But it did stop. When the car hit, in that very first instant, i remember this split second of confusion as to what it was, and then anger at how anyone could be so stupid as to ram into me directly from behind when we were going straight, not cutting people off, and being completely cautious. But that passed. When I realized I was on the hood of the car and we were still moving, all i wanted was to stay on the hood of the car because I was alive, and i was safer up there. If i fell to the ground, I thought, all bets were off. As i hit the ground and was sliding, every second i just kept thinking this hurts so much, but I am alive in this second, for now. I am alive, I am alive, I am alive, please let the car stop. I was actually disconcerted to see how much clarity someone can have in such a distressing situation. It made me think of Kate.

I pulled my helmet off and pulled my skirt down over my legs and then i got up but my whole body was shaking. I saw the zem driver splayed out face down and felt relieved when i saw him lift his head. And then I was surrounded by people taking my things, taking me, to the divide in the road, telling me to sit, yelling about as they do here. I lost sight of the zem and couldn't recognize him. I took my bag to find my phone, shocked, but singularly obsessed with doing the one thing I remember Peace Corps telling us to in this situation. Call the medical duty officer. My hands were shaking and it was hard to find the phone and press the buttons. And then my thumb was sticky on the number pad with blood as I scrolled through to find his number. I remember calling people ridiculously. I couldn't breathe well...I shouldn't have called. I wasn't in a mind to talk. I needed to make sure someone would feed scout. I knew I wouldn't go back to dogbo tonight and was annoyed. THen I remembered the gas tank because someone put it down next to me. So it didn't explode. That's lucky. I had lost sight of that while the accident happened. Then my bookbag. How did that even come off of my back? And computer is inside. Then my bag that Carie gave me for my birthday. The strap was ripped. How can someone ever remember French in a situation like this. I look down at my feet and they are covered with blood and dirt, and stinging. Where are my shoes? What/Quoi? Mes chaussures. Ou sont mes chaussures? They ran back to look for them...they were several feet behind the car. Flip flops don't stay on well and they were hell to slide back on over the cuts. I looked at the car. THere was a dent on the hood where I landed and no one was inside. Who was the driver? I didn't want to be surrounded by people so I took the ambulance back to Peace Corps headquarters and was met by my AO and Security officer and we waited for the doctor to come. Shock started to wear off a little and pain started to settle in more.

And that is where I am now. In Cotonou in the med unit. You can not imagine the bruise on my butt where the car hit me. It is perfectly violet...ther is no variation in color. Large and painful, and one of my right ribs hurts, but it isn't broken. The pain in my neck is diminishing and the sting of the cuts isn't as bad as it was the first day or two even though it still hurts. I don't cry every 5 minutes or so like i did for the first 2 days. But the reality of what happened is still there. I haven't left my American bubble of headquarters surrounded by volunteers who make me smile and feel a little better, except for getting xrays and ultrasound appts. When i have left it has been in a PC SUV, a little tank that makes me feel safe. But even pulling out of the bureau and driving in the streets of Cotonou, all i think is "Ugh."

I've gotten into car accidents before...ironically the day i got accepted into Peace Corps I remember a car ramming into my passenger side door at Holy Cross. I have fallen off a horse before as i was getting on, but i got back on that horse. And i got back into a car again. So what is the difference here is what I have been asking myself. Can I get on a zem again? A very large part of me thinks "no." But not "can't"...just "don't want to." And it is all about control. When i got back on that horse I had other people there to take the reigns and ensure he stayed put. When i get in a car at home I am driving and in control or I trust the driver I am getting into a car with because I know them. In Benin, getting on a zem is tantamount to surrendering any and all control I have over my life. THe only choice I have is whether or not to put on my helmet, and if I were to be entirely honest, I would have to admit that there have been times at post, when I have chosen to not be bothered with even that. But when I get on zem, that is ALL the control I have, because he is driving, and I can't control the people around me. Nor can I control the roads--whether it is mud in the rainy season, or sand patches in the dry season, or just gravel strewn across a paved road in Cotonou that a moto can catch an edge on and spill over. I can only pick the zem, and THAT will lead me to my ending...good or bad, who knows? All i know now is that I can no longer be cavalier about zemming here in Benin. Subconsciously I always knew on some level that every time i got on a zem or into a taxi that it would possibly be my last ride. It sounds melodramatic but it is true...but like i was so deep in the back of my mind...a kind of "what are the odds?" thought. I just don't know if that is something that I want to keep doing to myself every day here. I had already done the 'moto accident thing.' In february, before life in Benin seemingly went to seed, maybe ominously so, my moto spun out of control in mud with my homologue and i burned my leg and the moto came down on top of me. It freaked me out enough so that every time i got on a moto again i felt nervous especially on nonpaved roads. Now I don't know if i can imagine getting back on and i can't be a PCV in Benin without zemming. that is just a simple fact. I got in a car again, I got on the horse again, but I just have to wait and see how this will play out.

Like lack of control, I don't do regret well either. I think that everything that happens in life brings you to the next starting point and that there is no point regretting that. If I choose to finish my time here in Benin, I do not want to have regrets about it. So I am taking my life one day at a time and seeing where that takes me. I have lots of reasons to stay. I made lists; stay lists and go lists. I have a lot more sitting on the "Why to stay in Benin" side. The day before this happened I was talking to Duffy about plans maybe to meet up in Senegal. Life just gets so derailed sometimes. The fact that my stay list is longer might not matter at all if I can't feel comfortable getting back on a zem again. Because if there is something i know's that I CAN get creamed again. There is nothing to stop it from happening again, and who is to say it wouldn't be worse next time if it did happen?

I don't like quitting...i don't think I've ever gone back on a big committment. ANd there is a part of me that thought for a long time that calling it now would be cowardly--I don't want to leave here on a sour note, that would just confirm peoples' worst predispositions towards life in Africa, because at the end of the day I still like Benin. EVeryone from work has called to see how I am, and both the man who hit me and the zem have stopped by here several times and called to see me and how I am doing. EVeryone around headquarters is asking how I am, and Basil in an instant without question, came to take scout and while he has absolutely no money and always "Beeps" Kristin or me (call, let ring once, and hang up so that you don't use credit and we call him back) actually called and texted me to see if i was okay. But I guess there is merit to knowing when you've had enough, and setting a level of risk that you are willing to accept. I just haven't figured out what that is yet for me. So day at a time for now...and I guess I will see where I end up.


O'Mal said...

OMG! You are an amazing young woman. Sharing your thoughts good and bad is a difficult thing to do. I know your parents, as well as all us Cherry Sisters, worry about you but we are confident you will make the correct choice. God sometimes works in very mysterious ways. Keep reflecting and I am sure you will be supported in whatever choice you make. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Please let me know how and what we can do from here to be of help to you. I am aware of your contact with Sam's class last year. Your parents looked so proud, as they should be, in the pictures of your visit to Sam's class. I am an elementary school counselor and I am positive my school would love to help you in some way if you could suggest a something we could do. Perhaps a wishlist of things needed for you or even the villagers in Benin.Please let me know. Best wishes O'Mal

Aunt Nancy said...

Catherine, i am so sorry to hear about your accident. That must of been the scariest thing ever i could not even imagine. you have such commitmnet and dedication, wanting to stay after all thats happened to you. I'm praying for you. love youuu!

-cousin emily

Aunt Nancy said...

Okay, so I haven't been able to remember how to sign on so I can write on here for some time, and now Emily goes and uses my name. Go figure! She is home, so she will be able to show me what I need to do. I was happy to get your text last night. Reading about your accident is beyond scary. I've often thought that life would go by in slow motion if I were in an accident and now you have confirmed it. I hate to fly and now I will be terrified. I feel so awful for what has happened to you. It seems so "random" ( as my kids would say) It doesn't seem fair- you are across the world from friends and family trying to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate! I take comfort in knowing that you are in the care of the PC and that the man driving and the man driving the zem are concerned and have visited. I hope you know that EVERYONE here will be just as proud of you if you decide to come home or if you decide to stay. You are not a quitter. If you come home you are still not a quitter. It will just mean that you have given all that you have to give for the time being. It's an awful lot that you have done for Benin and more than most of us will do in our lifetime. You have made a difference already, and no matter what you decide, your friend and family are behind you 100%, cheering you on and waiting for you to return safely. We love you, we miss you and we're proud of you. Feel better soon, I'll be checking on you.
All my love, Aunt Nancy xxoo
PS Did you hear about Michael Jackson? I'll send you the People Magazine so you can see the coverage(if you even care, me-not so much)

Catherine said...

My dear buddy,
Well I've always said you've got a hard head, happy to hear that the place that houses one of your best features,is ok. Well, more or less I guess. It sounds like you were VERY lucky! I'm sorry you are bruised all over, everything must hurt, wish I could Fed-Ex you some extra strength pain reliever that would get to you asap. I'm proud (more so than usual) that you are sooo positive and rational considering. I got a hit by vespa in Italy (not as bad obviously) so I know you're def. not a happy camper now. I'm proud and amazed by your resiliency, it really is quite remarkable, but I'm not a tad bit surprised, this is CW I'm talking about :) I completely agree: take everything a day at a time and see what happens. Come what may, eh? No matter what you do, everyone loves, respects, and admires you! Well, feel better buddy, miss you sooooo much! Cat

Sam said...

What an incredible entry. I am so praying for your safety and a quick recovery. Your writing has me engulfed every time I read there a book in store? You are such an amazing young woman that I know you will come to the correct decision.

Joanne said...

Hi Catherine,
Finally I have done it!!! I had to get Matthew to show me how this all worked and here I am. I hope that when you read this your feeling better...and your healing. I just hung up with your mom and had a great time catching up but most importantly we were talking about you as I wanted to hear how you were feeling today.
All of us send you our love and support and we all hoping that you will be back on your feet soon. One day at a time Catherine.... Just rest and heal...
It was great to chat with you last week..... your a super special person and I love ya!
Lady J

Aunt Nancy said...

WOW I've read that story two times and i still cant believe it.I can't imagine that pain, mentally and physically. Anyway i just wanted to write to you to se how your doing. I'm looking forward to reading your next post

- love cousin dan