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Waiting for her cry: The day that changed my life forever

Ami Kaufman barely survived a tragedy that nearly took his life and that of his daughter, Emma. As 2017 comes to a close, he reflects on the nature of evil, grief, and the power of being reborn.

Ami
Kaufman

­­The scariest moment in my life came about one minute after the event that changed it.

February 13, 2017, 3:55 p.m.

It’s a regular Monday afternoon. I am on my way to pick up my older kid, Emma, from school. She is nine years old.

The Monday a week earlier I lost my temper with one of her teachers. She was always keeping the kids in class — 15, sometimes 20 minutes after the final bell. Parents would wait outside impatiently, wasting time on their smartphones. Some, like me, had probably made arrangements to leave work early so they could pick up their kids on time.

It was disrespectful. So I gave her an earful.

This Monday I am ready for a fight if she does it again… Well, I don’t know what, but I am ready. This is about time. My time. My minutes. My seconds.

It didn’t matter, though. Emma is already waiting outside in the hallway. A bit early, actually. Before 4 p.m. I breathe a sigh of relief.

“How was school, perach (flower)?”

“OK.”

She gets her laconism from her father, obviously.

“Yalla, let’s go home,” I say. She gets into the back, right seat of the car and we head off.

* * *

“Tell me more about those moments. The moments before,” my shrink asks me.

“They’re just moments. They’re regular. A dad picks his daughter up from school. Routine and normal. Naive.”

“Why naive?”

“Because I’m totally unaware of the evil that will occur. I have no control over what will happen.”

“You think this happened because of evil? Evil people?”

“Yes. Evil and greedy people.”

“And you have no control?”

“Of course not. Look at what happened.” 

* * *

4 p.m.

We drive south from the northern edge of Bat Yam on the border of Jaffa, down the boardwalk to the newer neighborhoods of the city. There’s construction all over the place, some of it menacingly blocks the sea view.

As I pass by the skeleton of a new hotel that seems to add a new floor each week, I listen to the daily rant of radio talk show host Anat Davidov. It’s an economics program on 103FM, and today she’s talking about the impending strike of crane operators in Israel — they are demanding more money and better safety protocols at building sites. Nothing will come out of it, I remember saying to myself in my usual cynical tone. The weak shall remain weak. I look at another building site on my right. This one is going to be apartments. It’s called “Home & Sea.”

4:06 p.m.

I turn left at the light, and then left again into the parking lot. It’s a big lot that serves three massive residential towers, each with about 100 apartments. I search for a spot, slowly. Today, in retrospect and with a newly found respect for time, my time, my hours, my minutes, my seconds, I remember that feeling, that I was looking very slowly for a spot. I finally see one, right in front of our building. But it’s a bit too tight. I like it when I can open the doors without worrying about scratching another car. The search continues.

4:07 p.m.

I find a spot not too far away and start to pull in. I finish parking, and as I reach for the key to turn off the ignition, I see some sort of shadow. I think it’s from the rear view mirror, or one of the windows to my right. It makes me turn my head in that direction, and as I do the loudest sound I have ever heard pierces my ears. The car starts to shake and jumps in the air.

And then, the crushing begins.

I hear metal crushing and glass breaking. The right side of the car is slowly coming toward me. The windshield in front of me has become a million different pieces and it’s coming my way. It feels like it will touch my nose any moment.

I can’t move. I’m frozen in my seat. But I’m screaming. Sounds that I never knew were inside me are now booming out of my throat. I’m roaring in fear. The crushing seems to go on forever. I feel like this is it. This could really be it. Whatever it is, this might be the end.

When it finally stops I start screaming her name. “Emma! Emma!! EMMA!!!!”

No answer.

I turn my head right to look at the back seat. But it’s so dark now. There is no light. There is no car. The roof has totally collapsed.

I try to unfasten my seatbelt. It’s not working.

“EMMA!!!!”

Still no answer. Why won’t she say anything? I try to open the door. Nothing. I’m panicking — shaking like crazy.

For some reason I decide to try the lever that reclines the seat. As it goes back, I try the seatbelt again. This time it opens.

“Emma!!!!”

Still no answer.

* * *

“What are you thinking then?”

“That I’ve lost her. She’s gone.”

“How long did you feel like that?”

“Forever. I think it was a minute, but it lasted forever.”

“Where are you now on our stress level, from 1 to 10, here, while you’re recalling it to me?”

“Eight.”

“Eight. What are you feeling right now? Physically.”

“My heart is pounding. Feels like there’s a weight on my chest. It’s hard to breathe,” I say as I feel my knuckles turn white from grabbing the armrests.

* * *

I try to open the door again. It’s stuck. I bang on it with my shoulder a few times with all the weight and strength I can muster, and finally it opens. I rush out.

There are huge amounts of dust and debris. So much metal. It feels like a war zone. I turn around to look at the car. It takes me a second for my brain to comprehend what my eyes are transmitting to it: there’s a massive crane on the car. The crane from way across the street, from “Home & Sea.” It fell mostly on the right side of the car, where Emma was sitting. There’s no way I can get to her side.

“Emma!!! EMMA!!”

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* * *

“You see the crane on the car. You don’t hear Emma. Where are you now on our stress level?”

“Nine,” I barely manage to whisper.

“OK. You’re doing very well, Ami. Can you go on?”

I wipe the tears on my face. The lump in my throat is too big to say “yes,” so I just nod.

* * *

I decide to try and get to her from my side of the car but I need to climb over some massive pieces of metal. When I’m over them, there’s still one piece of metal between me and the car, so I reach over it to try and get to the door handle.

And here it is. This is the scariest moment of my life. My hand reaching out, fingers stretched, not knowing what I will see when I open the door.

But I open it.

She’s there, alive. Lying across the back seat. She looks at me in the most frightened gaze that I fear will haunt me to my grave, and says “Aba?”

“Emma!!!! It’s OK. It’s OK. Come, come, put your arms out!”

I can’t get any closer, so I lean as far as I can over the bars. She reaches out toward me, and I manage to put my hands under her armpits. But since I’m so far from the car it’s hard to pull her out. I take a deep breath and yell as I use everything I have to pull her over the bars.

“You’re OK! You’re OK, Emma!” I hug her as tight as I can. “Can you stand? Emma, can you stand up?” She’s not answering me. She’s not with me. I try to put her on her legs, but she doesn’t seem to want to stand. I pick her back up. We need to get out of there. That’s all I know. Before something else falls.

* * *

“Hey, have a seat. How are you feeling today?”

“Good. I was with some friends yesterday, and I told them that there might actually be one good thing that came out of all this. They were quite moved by it, to be honest.”

“Really? Tell me.”

“You know how some men are jealous of a mother’s bond with their children? Well, maybe jealous isn’t the right word. I don’t know. Anyway, there’s such a special bond that mothers have. You know, with the baby growing inside them, and then the birth itself. There’s that physical, biological thing that men aren’t as lucky to have. I think that I, and maybe other men, we yearn for a bond like that with our kids sometimes.”

“OK.”

“And I was thinking about those moments, or minutes, I don’t know how long it lasted, that I couldn’t hear Emma. That I needed to get to her. Those moments when I pulled her out with every bit of strength I had. There was something primal about it. It’s like I was on auto-pilot. There was no ‘me.’ There was only ‘Emma.’ Like, this biological pull, this blood bond. This bear-cub kind of animal instinct thing. It was one of the most real and powerful emotions I ever felt. I don’t know, but I kinda feel lucky to have felt that.”

“I’m very happy you told me that. In fact, I’m quite moved by it, as well. It’s really an intense feeling you had.”

“Just don’t start crying, OK? You’re the shrink.”

* * *

There’s some more debris I need to climb over with her. Suddenly she feels heavier than I remember. I start running away with her. As we get farther from the car, I look down at Emma and notice there’s blood on her shirt. As my gaze lowers, I see that the blood is coming from me. I’m dripping all over her.

I raise my hand to my head, and when I bring it back in front of my eyes it’s all covered in blood. I suddenly understand that I don’t know how bad I’ve been hurt. I feel faint, like I might collapse soon. I push to get further a few more steps, and decide to lie down so that I don’t fall while holding Emma.

As I lay on the pavement holding Emma I begin to yell for help. In a few moments someone comes and holds me down.

“You’re OK! You’re OK,” he says to me.

“My daughter! Is she OK?!”

“She’s OK, she’s OK! Lay down. Lay down!” he says as he keeps pushing me down while I try to check on Emma. Another neighbor is holding her.

“Oh my God, is that your car!?” he asks me.

“Yes, the Mazda.”

“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! God loves you. Do you hear me!? God loves you!” he yells at the car, or at me. I’m not sure.

* * *

“Does God love me? Does he hate me?”

“Do you believe in God?”

“To be honest, I’m agnostic. But I can’t help but feel someone or something is trying to tell me something.”

“Why?”

“It can’t all be a coincidence. There’s too much that happened for it to be coincidence.”

“And how does that make you feel?”

“Like I’m going crazy. Like I need answers. Now.”

“Answers to explain the coincidences.”

“Well, like I said. I don’t think they’re coincidences.”

“Why not?”

“First of all, minutes before I was hit by a crane a woman on the radio was talking about the crane operators strike. As she spoke about it, I actually drove right under the specific crane that was about to fall on me. The crane fell exactly on my car, exactly on Emma. People who see the car don’t believe anyone should have survived. But the weirdest thing is what happened to the other car.”

“Your other car? It was also damaged?”

“Yes. But it was parked in a totally different area.”

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“Where?”

“In the underground parking lot. Part of the crane crashed through the cement and penetrated into the underground lot. It’s a massive lot, with hundreds of cars. There were only two cars that were damaged in the underground — one of them was our second car.”

“….”

“Yeah, that’s the reaction I get from most people. The radio, the crane, both family cars — out of the hundreds above and below — totally destroyed, one of them with me and my daughter inside it. It’s almost like a script for a very bad movie. So, I guess you see why it’s not going to be easy for me to just sit here and say it was all chance.”

“And how does the evil fit into this?”

“I don’t know yet. But it does. It’s there. I’m still working on that.”

* * *

“Go get my wife! She’s upstairs!”

She was upstairs, indeed, and was already on her way down. Karen heard the crane operator screaming as he fell 70 meters to the ground. Then, the huge bang made her look out the window, where she saw me trying to get Emma out of the car. I can’t imagine that picture ever leaving her memory.

“Ami!!! Are you OK?!” Karen looks at me in shock. My bloodied face must have scared her to death.

“Yes, yes! Go to Emma! Stay with Emma!”

Emma still hasn’t spoken, or made any sound whatsoever. “Is she OK? Karen, is Emma OK??”

“She’s OK, Ami. She’s OK. Lay down.”

And then it happens. Emma snaps out of her daze and suddenly realizes something is very wrong. She begins to cry, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever heard from my daughter. It’s a howl, a wailing that I will never forget.

It is the most piercing, painful sound I have ever heard.

* * *

“Why do I start crying so hard every time I reach this part?”

“Well, it’s the bond, for one. Parents who are involved in traumatic incidents with their children tend to react in similar ways as you are now. I think there’s also some sort of release you feel, too.”

“How so?”

“Well, remember what you told me Karen thought about those moments?”

“Yes. That we were waiting for a sound, a reaction from Emma. She said it’s almost like when a baby is born, waiting for the baby to cry.”

“Exactly. Her cry meant something similar for you.”

“Yes. She was alive. Reborn.”

* * *

The ambulance comes and puts Emma and me on wooden boards, and braces around our necks. They put us inside. Karen sits in front, a paramedic sits between us in the back.

“You’re going to be fine, Emma. Don’t worry, Aba and Mommy are right here,” I say as the ambulance speeds along the highway to the hospital. I’m trying unsuccessfully to keep my cool through the tears.

“Shhh, you have to calm down, sir,” the paramedic says.

“I know. I know. Give me your hand, Emma.”

She reaches across and we hold our hands tight, our eyes gazing at the swerving ambulance’s ceiling.

“We’ll be alright, sweetie,” and the tears just don’t stop. 

* * *

“Whatever you decide is good. I’m here if you need or want to come back.”

“That’s good to know. Really.”

“And don’t forget to do the things that can help. Like the mindfulness we practiced. And if writing helps, then go ahead — write.”

* * *

This will be my final post on +972 Magazine.

I’m not leaving the site because of any ideological differences or any other grievances. Quite the contrary. It’s difficult to explain why I would leave the media outlet for which I am most proud of working; the one I helped establish; the one that never paid me a dime; the one full of the brightest people I’ve ever met; the one that gave me friends for life. The one that is making a difference.

Writing here on +972 has helped me for years. It helped me find my voice. It helped my career. And most importantly, it helped me take part in the fight for justice in this land.

So I guess it’s fitting that as a farewell gift, +972 is helping me one last time — this time helping me deal with my PTSD.

I chose not to write about the occupation in my last post. Or the other political struggle I’ve recently joined: to lower the number of deaths on construction sites in Israel. I guess what I needed right now was to share those life changing moments with you.

So, thanks to the readers who endured my rants, comic strips, videos, and occasional serious opeds. And thanks to all the former and current folks at +972. I love you very, very much.

Ami

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    COMMENTS

    1. Greg Pollock

      I don’t see you as leaving. Just stepping anew.

      The best writing I have seen from you yet.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Hugh Walker

      A beautifully written and heartfelt piece, full of love and trust. I am pleased to see the back of 2017. But your reasons are better than mine. All the very best for 2018!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bassitta

      Thank you Ami, for everything. For being, and for sharing.

      Now it’s time you recharge, and nurture yourself.
      Sending you love and much calming energy you and your daughter.

      Nurture breath and body.

      And hamdella al saleme!!

      Reply to Comment

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