I was driving home from Ottawa University when the car ahead of me fishtailed, then slid off the icy road and disappeared down the shoulder towards the trees. I pulled my foot off the gas, pumped the brakes, and finally came to a stop.
Jumping out of the car, I ran back through the driving snow to the skid marks, which were already starting to fill in. I slithered awkwardly down the slope and to the tree where the car had crashed. The hood was up, smoke was coming from the engine, and the driver’s door had sprung open.
I slid to the door, scared of what I’d find.
A woman driver was slumped towards the passenger side, held in place by her lap belt. It worried me to see blood on the steering wheel, and I wondered what else I might find.
Unclipping her seatbelt, I carefully pulled her upright, blood dripping from her forehead, and was relieved to find a pulse in her neck. I really didn’t want to move her, but going for help was out of the question. It would take hours to find a telephone and get an ambulance out here, and I wasn’t sure I could find the car again.
Carefully lifting her out of the car, I supported her head and neck as best I could. If she hadn’t been small and light, we wouldn’t have made it back up the hill, greasy with cold snow. By the time I made it to the top, I was panting hard, and snowflakes were splattering against my face, and soaking my trousers, loafers, and socks.
I checked hopefully back down the highway, but clearly, no one wanted to drive in this blizzard, so I carried her back to my car, then fumbled the latch on the backseat door with one hand.
Just then her eyes fluttered open, and she focused on me. “Are you an angel?” she asked, her voice soft and slightly blurred.
I snorted. “Not even close. You’ve been in an accident, and I’ve got to get you to a hospital.”
As gently as I could, I slid her onto the backseat bench, then paused to catch my breath, kneeling on the driveshaft hump, one hand braced on the top of the backseat.
She blinked. “It’s cold. Am I dead?”
I smiled, “No, you’re very much alive. The car will warm up in a few minutes. Try to rest.”
I pulled the centre seat belt over and secured her as best I could, then raced around, got in, and restarted the car. Cautiously putting it in gear, I pulled back out onto Highway 7. I knew I wasn’t far from some town as there had been a sign, but I had no idea how long it would take me to get there.
I accelerated until I was going white-knuckle speed, and prayed. I dared not go any faster, no matter how critical it was.
Just after I saw a sign for Madoc, there were flares and flashing lights. I slowed, then saw an OPP constable, so leaned over and rolled down the window.
“Hey! HEY! HELP!”
The constable was watching a tow truck pulling a car from the ditch, but turned to look at me.
“I need a hospital! I have an accident victim in the backseat.”
He walked over, glanced in the backseat, then said, “Follow me,” and moved swiftly back to his car.
He called something to the tow truck operator, who nodded, then jumped in, started his engine, and pulled out, rapidly picking up speed. I was hard-pressed to keep up and was wishing he’d slow down while I followed him. Finally, we pulled up to the Campbellford Hospital emergency room. I jumped out to find orderlies moving towards me pushing a gurney, obviously having been warned by the cop to expect us.
They pulled open the backseat door, unclipped her belt, strapped her onto a backboard, pulled it carefully onto the gurney, then pushed her quickly into the hospital.
After what seemed like hours of frantic activity, I just stood there, not knowing what to do next. Turning, I almost bumped into the cop.
“Why don’t you park your car…” he pointed to a parking lot, “…then come inside. I need a statement and some information.”
I nodded, did as he suggested, and joined him in a corner of the waiting room.
He handed me a cup of hot coffee. “So, what happened?” He had a leather-bound pad open, pen poised.
My head was spinning, and I struggled to organize the thoughts which kept returning to the young woman. I wondered if she would live, and found that my eyes kept filling with tears. Finally, I gulped, pulled myself together, and told him everything I could remember.
Some of it was burned into my memory, but other things, important things, like where the car went off the road, were fuzzy.
Once I had given him my best guess about where her car was, he stood, and walked over to a phone on the registration counter to call the information into his headquarters. When he returned, he said, “We may not be able to locate it until morning, what with all the accidents and the blizzard. Do you know who she is?”
By now I was shaking and feeling kind of spacey, so just shook my head. I hadn’t considered looking for a purse or identification when I was trying to get her out of the car and had no way of knowing anything about her. He got my contact information, then gave me a card with his name, badge number, and phone, and asked me to call tomorrow. Then he got up and went back out into the blizzard.
A conservatively dressed woman appeared with a clipboard, demanding information about their patient so she could fill in the proper forms. She was more than slightly irked when I was of no use to her. Eventually, she turned away and dismissed me from her thoughts.
I collapsed onto a hard, plastic seat, head in my hands, exhausted, scared, shivering, and in a quandary about what to do.
It was Christmas Eve, with 1964 looming, and my family was expecting me home. I had warned my parents I’d be late because of the storm, yet I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to get back on the road. I was also worried about my mystery girl.
I didn’t notice the man in scrubs approaching me.
“Mr. Arnaud? I’m Doctor Brewster, the surgeon who is about to operate on your wife, and I could use some help.”
My eyes widened. “But I’m not…”
He interrupted me, “Mr. Arnaud, your wife needs immediate surgery.” He placed special emphasis on “wife.”
“She has a badly flailed chest, several broken ribs, is almost certainly concussed, and I’m worried she may have a punctured lung. She also has a broken left leg, but that can wait. We need to operate right now, and I’d have to wait on the paperwork if you weren’t here to give permission.”
He looked at me hard, willing me to understand.
I swallowed, and, realizing I might be getting into trouble, decided. “What do you need?”
He looked relieved and held out a clipboard, “Please sign the authorization for us to proceed.”
I looked at it, but reading it was beyond me, so I just scrawled my signature at the bottom.
He looked at me for a moment. His eyes softened, he nodded and said, “Thank you, son.” He paused, then said, “By the way, if anyone asks, you look like you’re in shock.” Then he turned and moved quickly away.
I watched him go, and wondered if I had done the right thing, then shrugged. If I got into trouble for saving someone’s life, I could live with that.
Eventually, I got up and made a collect call to my parents from the waiting room pay phone. It was tough to tell Mom that I wasn’t going to be home for Christmas morning, especially as they had been overseas last year and I’d been on my own. I was desperate to spend Christmas with them this year but decided that between my exhaustion, the condition of the roads, and a need to make sure my mystery girl was okay, I had to stay.
Mom and Dad understood and reluctantly agreed that I shouldn’t drive any further. They asked me to keep them informed, then wished me a Merry Christmas. My eyes were leaking tears, but I did my damnedest not to let them know how hard this was for me.
I woke to see the surgeon smiling down at me. “Good news, Mr. Arnaud. Your wife is out of surgery, and it went very well. I think she will eventually make a full recovery.”
“Um…” I sat up and rubbed my face. “I…that’s great. Uh…can I see her?”
He shook his head, “No, she’s in recovery now.” He checked his watch, “It’s almost 3:30. Why don’t you go back to sleep, and I’ll check on her again in the morning before I go off shift.”
Still groggy, I nodded, watched him leave, then lay back down on the bench.
“Just who the hell do you think you are?”
Someone was yelling at me, and I felt a shove. I opened my sticky eyes and looked up to see a well-dressed man with a woman hovering behind him, trying to restrain him. He shook her off. “Who gave you the right to authorize surgery on my little girl? This doctor here,” and he pointed to a grim-looking Dr. Brewster standing off to one side, “tells me you pretended to be her husband. What are you trying to pull? Whoever you are, buddy, you’re in a world of trouble.”
I slowly stood up, looking at Dr. Brewster, then back at the angry face in front of me. “I’m Thomas Arnaud…and who are you?”
“I’m Theresa MacDonald’s father, you young punk, that’s who. I’m gonna have you arrested for fraud, and if anything happens to Terry…” He stepped forward and grabbed my jacket, his nose inches from mine.
“Mr. MacDonald, I don’t think you understand,” Dr. Brewster said, sliding his arm and shoulder between us. “Mr. Arnaud saved your daughter’s life.”
“What do you mean?” MacDonald looked suspiciously at the surgeon while holding tight to my coat.
“It was Mr. Arnaud who found her at the crash site, brought her here, and authorized surgery. I thought he was her husband and asked him to sign for the surgery she had to have. I see now that he must have been in shock, and confused as to what was happening. But she would have died if he hadn’t saved her.”
MacDonald looked at Brewster, then at me. “That’s hogwash! No way he’s a hero.” He shoved me back and almost sent me sprawling, “Get out of here, punk,” he barked. He turned on Brewster, “I want to see my daughter. Now!”
Dr. Brewster’s jaw was working, but he nodded, and waved them towards a door at the side of the waiting room, “This way.”
As they moved away, he turned to me and said, “Why don’t you go home, son? But believe me, you saved her life.” Then he pivoted and followed the older couple.
Feeling shaky and disheartened, I zipped up my coat and walked out into the cold sunshine of the morning after the storm.
At least I might get home in time for Christmas dinner.
About six weeks later, I was horsing around with the other guys in Martin Hall. We were in the middle of a water fight, tossing water bombs and wastepaper baskets full of water at each other, when someone shouted, “Hey, Arnaud! There’s a chick here to see you!”
I shook the water out of my hair, then held up my hand to the other guys and walked down the hall, wondering who would be foolish enough to come down here. I stopped when I saw who it was.
It was her. Her face still had some bruises, and she was on crutches with her left leg in a cast, but it was very definitely the girl I remembered from that awful night.
When she saw me, her face lit up and she laughed, and said, “I trust I’m not interrupting anything important.”
I’m sure I blushed, “Uh, not really. But look at you! You’re up and around! How are you?”
Her smile broadened, “I’m alive – thanks to you.”
There was an awkward pause, then I finally said, “So, how did you find me?”
She smiled again, then shifted on her crutches. “Could we sit down somewhere? It’s really tiring hobbling on these things.”
I took her upstairs to the dorm lounge, got us each a hot chocolate from the machine, then sat opposite her.
She reached across the table and put her hand over mine. “You really did save my life. Thank you.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “Well, actually I just drove you to the hospital. It was the surgeon, Dr.... Burrows, I think? He saved you.”
She shook her head.
“Dr. Brewster was the first person I asked. He gave me your name. He also got the OPP constable, Mark Tappin, to tell me the rest of the story.”
“For starters, Tappin said that when they finally found my car, it was covered in snow, and invisible from the highway. If you hadn’t gotten me out, I would have died there.
“He also told me that the hill you carried me up was challenging, covered in snow as it was.
“Then Dr. Brewster told me that you authorized the surgery, even though he believes you knew you might get in trouble for it. And you faced down Daddy, who is scary enough for anyone.”
She fell silent, then looked up at me, tears in her eyes.
“After all that, you could at least ask me out on a date.”
I’m holding Terry in my arms for what may be the last time. We were married two years after her accident, once we had both graduated, but now she’s dying of cancer.
Yet, I’ve had her love for more than fifty years and will be forever grateful that I stopped to help a stranger one cold, snowy Christmas Eve, many years ago.
She smiles weakly at up me and puts her hand on my cheek. “You really are my angel,” she whispers.
Then her hand drops, her eyes close, and I am alone.