Column: Learning to forgive myself

‘Through teary red eyes and a cracked voice, I choked out the words I could barely bring myself to say.’


Valerie Benzinger

"For the most part, the drive was relatively uneventful. I was doing OK – until I wasn’t."

The frost-covered windows of my car created a film between the world and me. The gentle breeze of the vents reminded me of summer days, when everything was simpler.

I was tired and stressed from a long day of challenging classes, but I felt fine. Just a quick drive home before I could take the nap of the century.

For the most part, the drive was relatively uneventful. I was doing OK – until I wasn’t.

That was, until it happened.

I was going around 30 or 40 miles per hour. My radio was turned up, playing whatever pop song was playing over station 102.9 at the time. I was paying attention to the roads, but not enough. There was a line of cars waiting for a red light.

I saw them; I know I did.

But as I approached the last car in line, I don’t know what happened. I pressed on the brake, but it didn’t respond in time.


The worst sound I’ve ever heard surrounded me. My head and upper body slammed into the steering wheel at full force. My vision blurred for a second; when I blinked and could finally see clearly, I looked forward and saw the hood of my car crunched up, putting pressure on the glass of the windshield.

My first thought: oh God, what have I done?

I immediately burst into tears. My hands shook violently as I tried to find my phone. I called my mom and, between sobs, forced out the words no parent wants to hear:

“Mom… I got… in an accident.”

I knew it was all my fault. How could it not be? I braced myself to be yelled at by my mother, to be told I’m a horrible person, to be grounded until forever.

“Oh, sweetie. Are you OK? Can the car still drive?”

Her kind response made me cry even harder. This was about the time I noticed the smoke filling the air around me. I didn’t know much about cars and it never occurred to me that a smoking engine is bad news, so I tried to convince her that I could drive myself the rest of the way home once the other car pulled away.

When the police arrived at the scene, they didn’t exactly agree with me.

My second thought: why didn’t my airbags deploy?

My head screamed out in pain. I couldn’t think of anything other than how unbearable the pain was. As I sat in my car, scared and alone, the adrenaline wore off and the physical damage started to set in.

But when the EMT asked me if I wanted medical assistance, I said no.

I couldn’t bear to have that much attention on me. I had already embarrassed myself enough for the day. I would be fine once I took a Tylenol.

But my mind wandered back to the airbags. My car was totaled, I knew that – but why didn’t it protect me?

As I thought about the failed airbags, the accident became scarier. What if I didn’t wear a seatbelt? What if I had a friend in the car with me?

I shook my head, trying to focus on something, anything else.

My third thought: what am I going to do?

With no functioning vehicle, I was forced to wait about 20 minutes for my mom to take me home. The police officers were kind enough to sit in their cruiser on the side of the road with me, but I couldn’t make conversation with them. I mean, what was I supposed to say?

“Thanks for hanging out with me and making sure the smoke from my car doesn’t kill me. Sorry to waste an hour of your time!”After an eternity, my mom pulled up next to me, seeing what was left of the car she had driven for eight years. Despite the horrid surroundings, the first thing she did was reach through the windows and pulled me into a hug.

I broke down sobbing harder than I ever had before.

Through teary red eyes and a cracked voice, I choked out the words I could barely bring myself to say.

“I’m so sorry.”