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It May Be The Last
by Lance D. Smith

I lost my father in 1989 to a fatal car accident. I arrived at the scene of the crash shortly after it happened. I was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in 1989 and was on duty the day it happened.

The last time I saw my father alive, he was standing in our driveway, waving goodby as I backed out onto the road, heading to work on that warm, muggy May Mississippi Delta morning.

Looking back, I remember something different in his eyes that morning. There was a spark, a twinkle that accented his smile and silver hair. His blue eyes radiated a peaceful, soothing feeling. He stood waving until I rounded the corner, out of sight. This vision is burned into my memory.

My shift was into the third hour that morning, and my unit was sent to an emergency call at the north end of the county. My father’s crash happened shortly after that, just west of town. While I was en route, the supervisor took the call at the base and made a quick decision, thankfully, to continue my unit onward north, deciding not to turn us around to respond to the crash. I was barely far enough away to not respond quickest. A second unit was dispatched to the crash scene.

After I arrived back at the hospital, the ER was in shambles. All hell was breaking loose due to the other victims who were brought in from the wreck. Through the chaos, another call came in from the coroner at the scene of the wreck.

“Can you send a unit to this MVA? (Motor vehicle accident) I need assistance with transport.” Normally, ambulances do not transport fatality victims. Coroners have their own vehicles for transport, but on this day his was out of service for repair.

My partner and I jumped into the ambulance and sped west toward my father’s crash scene. When we arrived I saw an unrecognizable car lying belly-up in the ditch. Lights flashed wildly from the idling fire trucks, highway patrol cars, and other rescue vehicles parked randomly along the highway, which was closed to through traffic. Skid marks crisscrossed the hot pavement that reeked with the smell of oily automotive fluids and burned rubber. Shattered pieces of glass were scattered everywhere like fresh ice chips.

When I stepped down from the driver’s seat of my ambulance, every rescuer on the scene stopped working, stood motionless and stared at me. Because we lived in a small town we all knew each other, and something was wrong. I saw it in their eyes and in their frozen faces and felt it in my belly.

I tried to ignore the black-hole feeling in my gut. Maybe they were looking at me like that because I parked the ambulance in the wrong place or something. It was not normal for ambulances to do what we were being asked to do, and that in itself was awkward. But my partner and I started toward the upside-down car anyway.

Vernon, the coroner, was the only person to move. He stepped quickly toward me and intercepted my path. He was a tall and thin and polite white-haired man, the typical Southern gentleman. Every word he said had integrity. He spoke softly, with a longer drawl than most others. He’s known me all my life and knew my father even longer. He stood erect, positioning himself between me and the wreckage.

He called us out here so he's about to fill us in, I thought.

Vernon removed his white cowboy hat from his head and held it over his chest. Letting out a long, deep breath, he looked at the ground then back up to me. He paused a second longer, then asked, “Lance, aren’t you T. D.’s son?”

“Yes, sir,” I told him, puzzled why he asked such a question. I thought maybe being a Smith among the many Smiths in the world, he could have easily confused the lineage.

“Uh, yes, sir,” I commented before he spoke again, “You know my dad; he retired from South Central...”

He interrupted, “Lance, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” I told him, thinking he was apologizing for not connecting me to my dad.

“Lance,” his voice was stern and dead serious as he looked into my eyes, “I am sorry, Lance. Your dad, T.D., was a passenger in this wreck . . . and he didn’t make it.”

What? What was he saying? I needed proof! He had this all wrong. I just saw my dad a few hours ago, full of life, waving and smiling. The evidence of the violent force that took his life felt so unnatural, cruel, and merciless. I leaned up on my toes to look over Vernon for some verification at the wreckage. But he placed his hands on my shoulders as if to lower me back down on my heels. My next impulse was to shove past him, climb through the blown out windows of the car and see for myself. But his sympathetic touch almost made my knees buckle. He and all of the rescuers did not want me here, seeing this, not like this.

I took a deep breath. Then my wall of denial broke down and a storm of emotions raged in the distance. Each of the rescuers left their positions and walked up the embankment toward me. The only sounds were the rumble of the diesel motor of the fire engine and the searing noises of the invisible grasshoppers underneath the tall weeds. All of the rescuers removed their helmets and placed a hand on my shoulder as they walked by. Some shook their heads from side to side, and most of them looked down, not saying a word. A few of them could only say, barely audible, “I’m sorry, so sorry.”

As I stood there I felt my father’s spirit. He was one of the only few real men I’ve ever known. Still wanting to make him proud of me, I held back the tears. But I hurt deeply like I have never hurt before. This was the moment that the vision of his waving goodby to me from the driveway seared into my mind. It was his last goodby and, deep down, I think he knew. His goodby is very clear to me, still to this day.

Vernon led me to his car. We left the scene and he drove me home. The following days were a blur.

Looking back, I think somehow my father knew that humid, May morning was our last together. It was his time to return home. His wave was different, his smile more loving, his blue eyes brighter. I wish I had slowed down that morning long enough to hug him and tell him, "I love you."

Now, being a father myself, there are days and holidays I miss my father dearly. I wish he could have had the chance to see his grandchildren. They both have his blue eyes.

As emotional and surreal as that day was in May, it left me with a positive, life-changing lesson. Each mundane morning, as my wife and I head off in different directions to work and my kids go off to school, we say goodby. But I instinctively hug them and make sure the last thing I say to them is, “I love you.” I never know when this morning may be the last.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. ~ Gandhi


Mississippi Delta native Lance Smith now lives in Tennessee. He writes: "If I had known how much I love writing early on, I would have paid more attention in English/Lit class! I am working on a novel at present, along with writing a weekly inspirational column for the scadvocate.com (go to Special Features) for the last three years. The paper has helped me get disciplined!"

E-mail Lance at ldswordsmith.


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