I’m still homeless in America. A year ago I left China suddenly, flying away from a well-paid teaching job at Wenzhou-Kean University because the smoky air became unbreathable. I used money I had saved in China to buy a 2014 Mazda 5 minivan with just 15,000 miles on it. The glittery-silver vehicle was the first I had owned in the 5 years I had taught English overseas. I admired its graceful lines, stylish red taillights, and the way the back 2 seats could fold down flat so that I could sleep there, on my foldable memory foam mattress. A rear cup holder gave me great comfort. I could sit up, drink tea, and admire the world from my little van home, safe from rain that wandered down its tinted glass windows.
My Armenian/Turkish husband Jack and I stayed in Southern California through the 2015 winter holidays, then left to start a new life in Houston, Texas. We arrived after a long drive across deserts, on January 1,2016. The sprawled city seemed strange, highways circling and intersecting it like a cut-edged puzzle. Our first week there, we witnessed a car crash that bloodied the corner near our modest motel. It took me a long time to find a teaching job, and then it was only part-time at a local college, hourly, with no benefits. We tried to rent a nice apartment but lost our large deposit and ended up sleeping in our van at an old auto repair shop in downtown Houston.
Our van was comfortable, and we kept warm by sometimes running the engine and heater in a surprisingly wet-cold Houston. Like an adventure, the first days seemed almost romantic. We drove past huge stone churches, pillared mansions, tall monuments–everything “bigger in Texas.” But even the greatest journey turns harsh as weather and isolation beat down on travelers with a strange license plate. Just before the floods of April, my birthday, and Mother’s Day, my silver Mazda 5 was killed, and I nearly joined it in the graveyard.
I should have researched Houston better before I drove there. One of the largest U.S. cities, it has the biggest port, most oil fields and refineries, highest incomes, fastest-growing immigrant community, and craziest drivers. After teaching ESL one afternoon and a quick lunch at Taco Bell, I waited to turn right from the shopping center parking lot onto the 4-laned, middle-divided suburban street that would take us to our new modest apartment. I waited and waited, then slowly pulled out just as a large white van turned in. A speeding car I did not see suddenly swerved into our lane and struck our Mazda at the front left corner. The driver was as surprised as I was. He had no time to attempt a stop. He struck with such force that the people inside the shopping center behind us heard the impact. Our van was pushed up a grassy knoll into a tree. I slammed into the metallic side of the Mazda with such force that I lost 3 hours of my life to semi-consciousness, stopped breathing, and bled inside my brain.
It seemed surreal to wake up in an Emergency Room with a doctor who stared at me behind black-rimmed glasses and stated,
“You have a subdural hematoma, bleeding in your brain. You may need brain surgery. We are transferring you downtown.”
“But we were just eating lunch at Taco Bell,” I said slowly, trying to find the words. “What happened?”
“Someone hit us,” my husband said. “Don’t you remember?”
I couldn’t answer. A nurse gave me an injection, and I drifted again through a twilight world as people loaded my stretcher into an ambulance, drove to the biggest medical complex in America, and left me to wait in the Neurology Trauma Center. Distant screams, the smell of disinfectant, and blotches of blood on the floor invaded my brain as I tried to wake up again. Jack complained to a nurse that I was waiting too long, one of many stretchers, many with no guardians next to them.
“She has bleeding in her brain!” he yelled.
No one had even checked his blood pressure, though he endured the accident with me, in the front passenger seat.
An orderly wheeled me into a large room. I moved my head a little, staring at packages of gauze, a red box full of biohazard material, some scissors on a metal tray. Someone in the ward was still screaming. Someone cried. An unconscious young man, his head wrapped in a bloody bandage, was wheeled quickly in next to me, and a nurse pulled the curtain shut between us. I could still see his parents standing there as doctors operated on his brain right in the E.R., calling out medical terms I could mostly understand because my uncle was a doctor, and I used to read his Medical Journal magazines.
“I can’t believe they are operating on that man’s brain,” Jack said when he returned, holding a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar.
“Can I have some?” I asked, pointing to his hand.
A nurse drifted by and answered, “No, you may still need surgery. I’ll get you some ice to suck on.”
“How is the guy next to me?” I wondered, still watching his parents, dressed like they had gone to dinner. They stood motionless, not touching, staring at him with big, eyebrow-slanted brown eyes.
“He fell off a construction elevator onto concrete. He has not awakened. The doctor is trying to open a channel to his brain, relieve the pressure, save his life.”
I stared at her green surgical tunic which bore a little blood by her neckline, where her brown hair was pulled back by a net, and her white face mask dangled.
“Thanks for telling me,” I whispered, surprised that she would offer so much information. “I hope he makes it.”
Jack leaned close to me and remarked,
“I can’t believe they’re letting his parents stand there and watch the doctor cut into his brain. They wouldn’t do that in Turkey.”
The man’s tragedy dragged on until someone finally found him a hospital room. Then a doctor ordered a CAT-scan of my head and my transfer to Neurology ICU.
My new ward was spacious and meant for only one patient–me. The trauma nurses who took care of me watched all my moves, ordering pain medicine when sensation finally filtered through my brain. I got to eat a little soft food and watch TV, but I could not concentrate for long and did not feel like talking. I managed to call the sheriff department which had sent officers to attend my car crash. Though I could not remember, Jack had informed me that one officer, who followed me to the E.R., tried to force me to sign a statement that the crash was my fault because I did not yield while turning right. I knew, though I could not recall the moment or sound of the crash, that the driver who hit me had been speeding in a 35-mph zone, and that the accident was his fault because he swerved into my lane suddenly, with no signal and no clear view–Houston-style, reckless.
After 24 hours, I was sent to the normal Neurology Ward. The smaller, cheerful room with yellow paint on the walls and flowers allowed inside had one window that opened to the Texas Medical Center hub. Seven hospitals intersect like a city within a city in downtown Houston, bridges arching between them, windows everywhere, gleaming blue like a science fiction film. Every 20 to 30 minutes, the trauma helicopter took off and landed, bringing in more car accident victims. Its red lights flashing, its green landing strip glowing, the helicopter alighted slowly like a bird of prey. All through the night it flew, and I realized I was one of the lucky ones, not required to be its critical-status passenger.
Surprisingly, my CAT-scan showed that the bleeding in my brain had stopped, and I was allowed to leave a day later, just as the Turkish interpreter we had requested from the beginning showed up. Jack explained to me that I stopped breathing and my eyes rolled back when I impacted the metal side of the van. He had opened my mouth and pounded my abdomen. No air bags had deployed. There were none on the side, and for some reason the one in my steering wheel felt like I had not been hit head-on, so it didn’t need to help me. My ribs ached from being bruised by my seat belt, and my headache felt like it would never leave. Still, the hospital let me go to the home of an older Texas Christian couple we had met while apartment-hunting. The nurse gave me some Tylenol with Codeine and offered to bring me a cane because walking made my ribs feel like they would collapse.
I hugged the nurse who had also brought me flowers and a normal meal. She gave me her phone number. Jack complained about the lack of any medical attention to him, about the police, and about the interpreter’s delay.
“I almost punched the man who hit us,” he said as we waited for the wheelchair that would take me home. “He got in the ambulance with you and followed you into the E.R. I told the nurse not to let him near you, and she yelled at me. When I told the police you would sign nothing because you were not really awake, they threatened to arrest me. I held out both my hands and said, ‘Go ahead.’ They backed off. I thought you were going to die.”
A few days later, I limped to the auto yard where my beautiful silver Mazda van rested in its “totaled” state of sunken engine, mashed-in wheel, and shattered glass.
“I killed it,” I cried, taking photos with shaking hands.
Odd thoughts and Bible verses floated in my damaged brain. Nothing in this material world will last. People, souls often drifting in dream-like states, will push into eternity.
Set your heart on treasures in Heaven. If someone asks you, give. God loved the world so much, He gave His only Son. Thank God for His indescribable gift. Love one another as I have loved you . . .
I have lost most of my material treasures. My grandfather, who graduated from Yale, was a professor at UNC. He owned a Southern Mansion with a low stone wall, walnut trees, a creek, two stories and an attic, porches all around, servants, a cook, and guest houses in the back. Inside the vast, high-ceiling rooms spread antique mahogany tables with lions’ feet, ebony masks from Africa, little glass salt cellars from England, sterling silver spoons engraved with the family initials from the Revolution time–all beneath swaying crystal chandeliers and winding-up staircases. At four, after my father died, I stayed there for awhile with my mother and baby brother–who were doomed to die or disappear 20 years later. I remember carrying potatoes around the back yard while my brother watched from his crib. The green lawns were scattered with yellow autumn leaves and walnuts. I thought the potatoes were gold bars I must protect, and I laid them neatly in rows on the wooden table for my grandmother to see.
A few years later, trying to save my alcoholic mother, my grandmother lost that plantation and all its treasures. We rented small houses with her or slept in tents or our car. Churches gave me second-hand clothes, and church ladies volunteered to brush my wild blonde hair. Someone would end up stealing my gold crucifix from my high school locker. I used to hold it in my palm as mother tried to drive us to a new home. It shone like liquid sunlight, dancing, scattered into rays. It comforted me when police officers arrested mom for drinking and called us “White Trash.” It taught me that gold cannot be loved or held forever. The small, flesh-toned hand beneath the gold is more valuable, spirit-made. Nothing we cling to–houses, cars, jewelry, furniture –should be esteemed above a human hand. Native Americans understand this. My mother said I was part Jewish and a little Cherokee.
I don’t understand how churches with big buildings and golden gardens can say, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” Or how aging women can wear lots of weighty gold jewelry to church, talk about the ranches they own, big houses full of empty rooms, and their vacant RVs–all while homeless people like me sit in the corner and watch, gold-less, looking forward to sleeping in the back seat of a Chevy or under the cover of a spreading tree. Don’t these women know they will lose the gold anyway? Why not sell just one piece now–one substantial earring or pendant or bracelet–that could pay a month’s rent and change a person’s life?
What would Jesus do? What would He say?
If you like Lonna Lisa Williams’ writing, check out her 7 books.
“Americans on the Road Again” Youtube video: https://youtu.be/GPbKRH4Qhss