“Aah, Aah, “Mamatha, my wife screamed in agony, and I winced in pain as I tried to struggle out of the 600-pound snowmobile that had toppled over and landed on our lower limbs.
We were on a trail in Jackson, Wyoming, this January where an unfortunate mishap while I was driving had us stuck beneath our snowmobile. Zach, our leader, ran down the path to pull the snowmobile off of us, but it was too heavy, and he needed others to lift it. The whole time, Mamatha continued wailing. Mamatha’s pain tolerance threshold is much higher than other women, and her cries pierced my heart and sent an avalanche of the guilt of such intensity that I wished with all my heart that the ground under me gave way and sucked me.
While everyone else in our group of eight had elected to ride alone, I refused the services of an extra professional driver for Mamatha since I considered myself no less than Evil Knievel to take Mamatha as my pillion even though it was my first time on a snowmobile. I had dreamt of riding a snowmobile, and this snowmobile ride in Teton National park was the last part of our adventure trip. It was supposed to be a three-hour snowmobile ride through the beautiful and snow-covered Teton National Park, Wyoming. After about an hour and a half of the joyful journey through incredible scenery, I had lost control of the massive 600-pound snowmobile while negotiating an uphill icy curve. The vehicle had toppled over and fell on both of us.
Once our group leader Zach and two others managed to lift the snowmobile, I stood up, dusted the snow and ice on my jacket and offered my hand to Mamatha to help her get up. She was still on the ground gritting her teeth and wincing in pain.
“I can’t move, Mona,” Mamatha said. I bent down and tried to lift her. She stopped me, “Don’t. I don’t trust you” she said to my utter shock. I reached out to rub her back, but she shifted away from me, waving me off and shaking her head.
Of all the emotions, it is guilt that makes me instinctively want to hide. Mamatha’s ire, though justifiable so overwhelmed me with feelings of guilt for my decision and for being there.
A Christmas dinner at a Catholic home in San Fransisco, a Muslim wedding of a close friend’s daughter in Virginia, a breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel, a hike on a glacier in sub-zero temperature and seeing the northern lights: this three week vacation had been the sweetest that we had had in our 31 years of marriage.
Our group of eight members had been picked up from our hotels at nine in the morning for our adventure on seven snowmobiles by Zach. Winters are long and cold in Wyoming. The first heavy snows fall by November 1 and continue through April; snow and frost are possible any month. Teton National Park was stunning on that crisp winter day, blanketed in white. The sun was shining, and the sky was eggshell-blue. Zach, our guide, was a tall, handsome man in his late twenties. He had spent a few minutes when we first met up explaining the operations of a snowmobile; “Lean into turns to gain more control while turning”..,. “Move your body in the direction that the road curves”
With Mamatha and I on a single vehicle, Zach was leading us along with two more snowmobiles in front of us and four more behind us. All the other snowmobiles were with individual riders. We followed rough snow-covered roads through Teton National Park, and I thought that I had an idea of how Santa Claus’s home looked like. The drive was beautiful, and Mamatha and I were thrilled, enjoying every moment. After about an hour and a half, we came to an undulating road going up that had an uneven surface that was full of pits and covered with stones and ice. I slowed down, and when I tried to avoid a large hole, Mamatha and I leaned too much to the right. The snowmobile tipped right, and then it toppled over ever so slowly and landed on both our right legs. Our feet were still firmly rooted in the footrests with the vehicle on top of us. Because she was in the back, Mamatha bore the brunt of the vehicle.
Zach came back running towards us with his first aid kit as I sadly watched Mamatha still on the ground moaning. Zach sat down and touched her ankle. Mamatha let out a long painful shriek and started crying. My brown face went red with shame, and I felt like crawling into a hole to hide.
Zach radioed his headquarters and explained the situation.
“A vehicle will be here soon to take her to the hospital,” he told me, much to my relief. Mamatha was still writhing in pain. Zach kneeled next to her and carefully cut open Mamatha’s legging. He then quickly prepared a splint using two sticks, a few rubber bands and used Mamatha’s pullover jacket as the supporting pad underneath her lower leg. Mamatha lay there on the ground, motionless for about 30 minutes in the snow until a pick-up truck arrived to carry Mamatha back.
“Can you ride your snowmobile alone?” Zach asked me since he had seen me limping too.
I was in a state of utter shame and embarrassment. “I am fine. I will drive it,” I said. The 30-minute ride to the base camp was the longest and most anxious 30 minutes of life. The pick-up truck brought Mamatha to St. John’s Hospital, in Jackson Hole. Zach fetched the wheelchair, and both of us very gently shifted Mamatha to it. Once inside the entrance, a stretcher arrived with two nurses, and they moved Mamatha to the emergency section, where they did some x-rays
“I am afraid I will have to conduct surgery since there is a deep crack in the Fibula that showed up in the CT scan,” the orthopaedic specialist told us.
“When can we have the surgery, Dr.?” I asked.
He looked at his watch and said “I will try to schedule it for 8 this evening or else we will do it first thing in the morning” he said and smiled empathetically at Mamatha, who appeared absolutely worry free and carefree thanks to all the mood elevating opioid pain medication injected into her. When I looked at Mamatha lying on the stretcher, I was ridden with so much guilt and shame that, looking back, I think I needed mood elevators more than Mamatha.
The surgery was scheduled for 7 a.m the next morning. I watched as Mamatha was taken into the surgery room.
I sat there in the waiting room and blamed myself for the two us being there at all on in the first place. I blamed myself for not taking another snowmobile with a driver for Mamatha. I blamed myself for not being more careful on the slippery trail. The mind is a funny thing, and I am proud that at 61 I realise the stories that they can fabricate. “What if something went wrong during the surgery?”…. “What if Mamatha never regains consciousness after anaesthesia effect wears off?”….”What if there is something else more serious than a fracture?”. Luckily I have learnt to ignore these stories and focus on other things. I stared at the monitor that displayed the status of the surgery without updating it for the next two hours.
Dr Williams came back at five minutes to nine and sat beside me. “It went off well, She is doing fine” he said. The moment that he made this statement has been the happiest and most satisfying moment of my life. I sighed deeply with a long and quivering breath that took away a significant portion of my shame and guilt.
Dr Williams took out an X-Ray to show me the 11 screws and the metal plate in Mamatha’s ankle.,
Like all embarrassing events, guilt eventually fades and is replaced by other emotions. No emotion lasts forever. Only later, when I read about the frequency of snowmobile accidents, did I realise that it was an accident that could be due to factors beyond my control. Like route defcts or poor design of the snowmobile. The more one can blame an external source, the more likely one will avoid feeling shame. I blame the poor design of the heavy snowmobile.
Today, 5 months after the accident, Mamatha makes it a point to tell everyone she meets that her nice and wonderful husband took care of her so well while bringing her back to India, and while she was convalescing.
It is said that God understands our weaknesses as well as our inability to live correctly. But He exchanges guilt for grace if there is no intention of malice. So…the next time you screw up, trust the universe to make it alright.