A few years ago I was involved in an accident with our chihuahua, Mercy. She had hopped into the car like she so often does, ready to travel with me to the store, when she was suddenly, violently, thrown to the floor and wedged into the corner of the still-open driver-side door.
The sound was sickening.
For a minute or two I didn’t understand what was happening, and I backed up hoping to free her. But she became further wedged, and soon stopped making any sounds at all.
Mind racing, hands trembling, I yelled out for help, but none came. Finally, I got out of the car and saw that her leash had gotten trapped under the front tire. One more inch backward and her neck would have snapped. Quickly I jumped into the car and pulled forward. As her leash went slack, her body dropped lifelessly to the driveway. Urine stained the floorboard where she had relieved herself in her distress.
Horrified, I took her limp body into my arms and rocked back and forth on the front lawn, crying out to God for a miracle. By that point it had been several minutes since she had gone silent, and I knew she might not make it.
And then she took a breath.
As her chest expanded, I was overcome with emotion. Choking back tears, I drove, shell-shocked, to the vet, where they set her broken leg, treated her lacerations, and kept her overnight for observation. She was banged up, to be sure, but she was going to be alright.
That night sleep was slow in coming. Every time I closed my eyes the accident played over and over in my mind like a cruel movie, always stopping at the most traumatic scenes…
Her body slamming into the door…
Her lifeless tumble to the ground…
The odor of urine mixed with sweat and fear…
Even though the vet had assured me that Mercy was going to be ok, my brain remained focused on the worst-case scenario. I just couldn’t shake the jumble of emotions I had experienced when I was sure I was going to lose her.
The next morning I called my friend Michelle, a counselor who specializes in trauma work. She told me that what I was experiencing was completely normal.
Our brains apparently have a tendency to park on the darkest scenes of what we experience in life. Without intentional redirection, this activity perpetuates our internal trauma long after we’ve survived the external event. Which means trauma can stick with us even when it’s not happening anymore. Even when we have nothing left to fear.
“Tell me what happened AFTER the accident,” Michelle coaxed, moving me past the scenes my brain had on replay. So I told her, about holding Mercy in my arms and crying out to God and feeling her chest expand for the first time. About going to the vet and learning she was going to be ok and having some anxiety about the medical bill, mixed with immense relief it wasn’t for a funeral. (Does one even have funerals for pets? I didn’t want to find out…)
“So in all that happened last night,” said Michelle, “where did you see Jesus?”
And I knew right when it was. The moment when air became breath, and life triumphed over death. Jesus was there. He was with us both – me and my silly little 8 lb. dog. This was the moment I needed to focus on. The thing I must train my brain to remember.
It’s been awhile since the accident now, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned. When bad things happen, the primary scene worth returning to is the one in which Jesus plays the starring role. Even if things don’t end up playing out the way we had hoped, Jesus is ALWAYS there. His scenes remind us we’re not alone. That we have a hope bigger than ourselves. And that one day life will triumph over any death this world can deliver.
These days, I still associate Mercy with the odor of urine, but now it’s because she’s decided to make the landing on our stairs her own personal bathroom. And in spite of how disgusting that is, and how expensive it’s going to be to replace the carpet with hardwood, I still can’t help but smile right now as I hear her snoring in the chair next to my desk.
Mercy is alive.
(NOTE: My wordplay on the title for this post was inspired by a similar yet opposite phrase “When Breath Becomes Air” – a powerful bestselling book by Paul Kalanithi as he faced death at the young age of thirty-six. You should check it out.)