Fender Bender Gratitude
"Watch out for deer." "Slow down when you drive through Whispering Pines." "Be careful, most fender benders happen in parking lots."
I've sometimes quoted these words of wisdom and warning to our 17-year-old daughter, words of wisdom and warning I would have done well to remember not too long ago in the Pinecrest Plaza parking lot.
I'd run into Food Lion for a "better late than never" birthday card. Cutting it close for an appointment, I jumped back in the car, whipped on my seat belt and somewhat hurriedly pulled out of my parking space. That's when I felt it - that dull sort of thud. There was hardly any noise, just that nauseating sense that something wasn't right.
It wasn't. I'd hit a car, a parked car, a very nice Mercedes driven by a tall, thin woman. She was walking away from her car when she heard that same thud. She'd turned around to survey the damage.
That was my second fender bender, ever. The first came 25 years ago, while attending seminary. I side-swiped Pat Collins' parked Porsche in the seminary library parking lot.
Pat was a church music major and worked part time at an audio equipment store. The Porsche actually belonged to his boss, but he let Pat drive it on occasion, and everyone on campus knew.
A Porsche on a Baptist seminary campus in the 1980s was a rare occurrence and probably still is. I hurried inside the library and found Pat daydreaming in the second-floor stacks.
"He's gonna pitch a fit," I remember thinking.
"Hi, Pat, ah, I think I hit your car."
Pat went pale, didn't say a word and rushed out of the library. I followed.
"I'm so sorry, I'm really sorry," I said, rushing down the stairwell, trying to keep up.
"What happened?" were his only words when he walked out the door, never even looking my way.
"I was parking and guess I misjudged how much room I had. It's my fault. I am so sorry."
I repeated those same words about an hour later when I called my dad. I don't think he went pale, more like red. He pitched a fit, too.
Twenty-five years later I found myself repeating those words in that Pinecrest Plaza parking lot. "I'm so sorry. I'm really sorry. It's my fault. I am so sorry."
We both glanced at the damage - a palm-sized dent and scratch on her Mercedes' bumper, a thumb-sized dent and some rubbed-off paint on mine.
She too was pale, but not from shock. She looked somewhat frail and wore an obvious wig, a dark brown wig. On the back of her Mercedes was a magnetic pink ribbon. A breast cancer survivor, I guessed; a member of the same sorority to which my mother belongs.
I wondered about this woman's story. Every story's different. Mom's was biopsy positive. Mastectomy. Recurrence 12 years later. Another mastectomy. Oral medication for five years. Twenty-year survivor. Mom and this woman had never met, probably never will, but there was an undeniable bond that neither knew about yet both, I suspect, would eagerly embrace.
The pale-faced woman in the dark brown wig smiled. "We have a friend who can take care of this. No harm done. It's really nothing."
I offered to pay for the repair.
"No, really, it's nothing. How 'bout we just shake hands and you have great day."
"Thanks so much. I'm really sorry."
"No problem. It's just a little dent. Have a great day."
I never did get that thumb-sized dent and those few scratches repaired. The estimate wasn't that expensive. I've chosen instead to keep that dent and those scratches as a reminder of how life's little annoyances - those aggravations that cause me to roll my eyes, grit my teeth and stomp my foot - pale against the daily struggles and uncertain futures so many face.
I sometimes pray for the pale-faced woman in the dark brown wig. I pray she lives to hold a grandchild's hand, stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or dance the night away with someone she adores.
I hope for holidays and birthdays, sunrises and sunsets, miracles and mercy. I don't even know her name, but the left rear bumper on the driver's side of my blue Honda Civic will call me to prayer for as long as I'm its owner.
As we approach a season of thanksgiving, I'm grateful to that lovely lady for cutting me some slack.
I'm even more grateful for moments of grace, reminding me that, compared with the sadness and loss of others, compared with the courage and quiet strength of so many, fender benders, among other things, are really nothing.
Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.
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