by Tracy Youngblom
I've been using the word a lot these past weeks. It's research paper time, when students are choosing and narrowing topics, considering how to take a position, trying to divine what they really think. Often I suggest considering implications, the impact of one thing on another: fast food on childhood obesity, say, or standardized testing on teaching practices.
When I was a college student, I didn't have a good sense of the word. That's why, after having two wisdom teeth extracted one afternoon, I headed to my 8:00 a.m. Theology class the next morning, impervious to any impact the surgery could have on me. After several minutes in class, apparently I put my head down, then stood up suddenly in the aisle and fainted dead away, falling between two rows of desks. Miraculously, I didn't hit anything on the way down, just the floor that rose up to meet me. But one learns one's vocabulary and remembers it according to experience. The next year when I had my final two wisdom teeth out, I had the word and its meaning at my disposal. I was more cautious.
Impact, of course, means a lot of things: strong influence, forceful consequence, the violent interaction of troops in combat, the striking of one body against another.
Cars have bodies; we call fixing them after collisions body work. We go to body shops, and sometimes I have seen my sons run a palm against the fender of a newly-waxed car as tenderly as if it were a woman's hip.
In my son Elias's case, the bodies of the cars crashed into each other, resulting in a high-speed impact. Each vehicle was going around 70 miles per hour, give or take (though the driver who hit my son was drunk, which seems to add something. She was also going the wrong way down the Interstate, one senseless action impacting another). Witnesses said there was an explosion. The literal part of my brain is curious, hungry for precision: explosion as in sound, or debris? both? Must be both: powder from the air bags hung in the air for several minutes afterwards, I was told. Their physical bodies also suffered the force of the impact, the only bodies to survive. Both cars were totaled.
I find it impossible to visualize this impact, though I can record its basic details: blur of action, booming sound, bodies of the cars twisting and torqueing, or my son's body inside the car, thrown backward, forward, left arm bones, radius and ulna, cracking and breaking through his skin, lungs and liver sliced by the force of the seatbelt, facial bones breaking, shifting, the beautiful symmetry of his face askew. His face was swollen to the size of a watermelon when I first saw him at the hospital, but even that visual hasn't stayed with me, nor can I imagine the un-retouched version, the version that paramedics found when they approached the car: everywhere there must have been blood, glass, terror, disorientation.
I don't want to imagine it. Even without a clear picture, I feel a certain impact in my own body these months later, a sudden constrained horror that takes my breath or forces it out as a punch to the gut would, or stops me mid-step to release a shudder. It is heavy, this impact, not painful but forceful. Unpredictable.
The body absorbs and the body reacts. Somehow, Elias's body absorbed the impact without brain injury, without spinal cord injury. He was badly hurt, but we have him still, able to walk and drum, his personality intact. The facial swelling, however, was a reaction that created a blockage, prevented blood flow to his optic nerve, and left him blind.
In a few weeks, he will have an opportunity to read a victim impact statement in court when the drunk driver who collided with him hears her sentence. Is the statement more like absorption or reaction? He has absorbed a lot in the past eight months: drugs and fluids, oxygen, painful realizations, the constant love and surveillance of family and friends, prayers. His reactions have been consistently, impressively upbeat; he has had rare moments of distress, hopelessness--rare and short-lived. In court he'll talk about the impact of the accident on his life and potential teaching career, but he won't use the word victim. His mind will not absorb that meaning; he reacts strongly against it. In a recent interview, he vowed that he wouldn't let "the stupid decision" of one person "control my life." He refuses to grant her that power.
My hips ache more and more these days, my body's reaction to aging. The pain itself is not new, just a copy of the pain I experienced during pregnancy; waiting for each boy to enter the world, my hip joints expanded, creaked, groaned, left me sleepless many nights from a haunting discomfort.
I may be absorbing the ache of my child again--not the ache of his body growing, but his mind and spirit. The fighting and resisting and twisting of my own reactions, a sympathetic growth. We are growing, absorbing the impact of this experience together, learning the vocabulary of adjustment one word at a time.
Tracy Youngblom's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Wallace Stevens Journal, Cumberland River Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry East, Cortland Review, 2River View, and other places. She has published two books of poems and scattered prose pieces. She teaches English full-time at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.