It started as a perfect weekend. We hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, hung out with friends on their boat and slept on the water. Night came with no moon and the Milky Way spangled across a black sky. Then the moon rose and bathed everything in light. An owl hooted us to sleep. After a breakfast attended by hummingbirds and ground squirrels we headed down to Medford, and my wife ran out on a Sunday morning errand.

It started as a perfect weekend. We hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, hung out with friends on their boat and slept on the water. Night came with no moon and the Milky Way spangled across a black sky. Then the moon rose and bathed everything in light. An owl hooted us to sleep. After a breakfast attended by hummingbirds and ground squirrels we headed down to Medford, and my wife ran out on a Sunday morning errand.

Witnesses said the mini-van never slowed down. They said the man and woman in the van were turned around as if they were talking to the kids in back as the big vehicle sped through the red light. The force with which it hit the right side of my wife's SUV drove her across the street, smashing up the vehicle and causing the air bags to deploy.

It crossed my mind that my wife had been gone a while. I dug the cell phone out of my pack only because it was draft day for my fantasy football league. There were three calls. The first was a garble of background voices and my wife saying to somebody, "I don't think he's there."

The second said, "You're going to have to come and get me. I've been in a wreck."

I didn't get to the third. I was out the door.

The light atop the patrol car was still flashing as I pulled up. My wife was hunkered in a chair in the office of the car dealership on the corner. A car salesman who'd been a medic in Vietnam and a cop in San Jose, Calif., told her she was hyperventilating and would be OK when she calmed down.

What nobody knew then was that her sternum had been fractured by the violence of the impact and the forces of the shoulder restraint and the air bag. When your sternum is fractured and you can't breathe, it frightens you, which makes your breath come hard, which makes you feel you can't breathe, which frightens you, and so on.

We spent most of the day at the hospital. Tests seemed to say that the fracture was the only problem other than the bruises and of course the pain. As my wife sat on an examination bed talking with a nurse I had an image of her in the ICU, pale and full of tubes. I stifled it but knew it could have been reality except for the shoulder belt, the air bags, the design and strength of her Toyota, and luck.

After several days of pain pills and labored moves between bedroom and family room, my wife is beginning to round back into shape. There won't be any more hiking for a while, or sailing, or working out at the gym she's so devoted to. As her sense of humor returns she's found that trying not to laugh — it's painful — makes you need to laugh all the harder. We'll settle for that.

Life sends you messages. The message in all this is about the terrible fragility of life. We are all of us a tick from the void at all times.

Seldom is this truer than when you get in that steel and glass monster we take so much for granted. What you do there affects people you've never met. Yet people who are as courteous and reasonable as the next guy everywhere else often turn into jerks when they get behind the wheel.

So you vow to slow down. Reconsider those cliches your father pushed at you all those years ago. The world isn't perfect, and neither is traffic. Give the other guy a break. Be extra careful at intersections. Above all, take it easy. Life is short, and very precious.

Call reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.