Twenty-five years after rescuing an endangered baby, she came across a familiar name.
by Daniel Kessel — Posted on Jul 29, 2014
Life is made up of moments that lodge in our minds like scenes from a movie. Strung together, they tell a story of where we’ve come from, who we are, what we want to be.
It’s no fluke that when we play back the video of our lives, the scenes we remember most vividly are those when our story overlaps with another’s–however briefly. These shared scenes change each of us in powerful ways. For better or worse.
Such a convergence occurred one day in March 1988. A scene Shelley Cumley wanted to forget. The 25-year-old from Seattle was driving south to Lake Tahoe for a week of skiing with her friends.
She rolled down her car window and stuck her hand out to catch the breeze. Nothing but green hills stretched out on either side of Interstate 5, California’s Cascade Wonderland Highway.
She looked in her side-view mirror. A red sports car was coming up fast. Too fast. It swerved over the double yellow lines and zoomed ahead, barely missing Shelley. She glimpsed the driver’s face. Wild eyes. He seemed intoxicated. He vanished around the next curve.
Farther down Interstate 5, travel-ing north, Roanna Farley glanced in the rearview at her seven-month-old baby, Nicole, fast asleep in the back. Was the car seat secure? Nicole was her first child; Roanna could never be cautious enough.
She turned her attention back to the road–just in time to see a flash of red cross into her lane.
The instant Shelley rounded the curve, she saw a trail of debris on the road. Broken glass and twisted steel littering the asphalt. A head-on collision, between the drunk driver and another vehicle. Shelley pulled over, jumped out of her car and ran toward the smoldering wreckage.
Roanna opened her eyes. The smell of gasoline and burning rubber hung in the air. She couldn’t move, but that wasn’t her concern. “My baby,” she cried weakly. “Where’s my baby?”
Shelley approached the crumpled sedan. She peered inside. A woman was trapped between the front seat and the dash, fading into unconsciousness. In the back, a tiny redheaded baby in a car seat, crying.
I have to get her out, Shelley thought. The leaking gas, the smoke. This car could blow up at any minute. Shelley wasn’t a mother, but a maternal instinct took over. The child’s safety came above all else. She opened the door and lifted the baby out of the car seat.
Roanna looked up in a daze. Nicole...A stranger was holding her–it was the last thing she saw before she lost consciousness completely.
Shelley rode in the ambulance with the baby all the way to the hospital. She learned the girl’s name in the emergency room: Nicole Farley. A triage doctor gave the baby an initial examination and told Shelley that Nicole was not in immediate danger. The mom was critical.
Shelley stayed at the hospital, praying for the woman’s life until Nicole’s father arrived.
Roanna opened her eyes in a hospital bed. She vaguely recalled riding in a helicopter. A kind EMT. White lights. Doctors and nurses crowding around her. After a week in intensive care, she was finally lucid.
Her foot had been impaled by the car’s seat adjuster, her left eye and nasal cavity were caved in, her pelvis broken. But she didn’t care about her own injuries. “Where is Nicole?” she asked. “Is my baby okay?” All she remembered was a stranger holding her.
In Lake Tahoe, Shelley sat in a ski lift and stared at the mountains in the distance. She kept thinking about the accident. Was Nicole’s mother going to be okay? Driving back home to Seattle at the end of the week, she made a detour. She stopped at the hospital to check in on the Farleys.
“Roanna is still in serious condition,” the nurse told her, “but she’s going to pull through. Baby Nicole is in the pediatric wing.”
Shelley gave the nurse a puzzled look. “Why?” she asked. “The doctor told me the baby was fine.”
“I’m sorry, but we discovered Nicole suffered a spinal-cord injury. She’s paralyzed from the chest down.”
The room spun. Shelley couldn’t breathe. Was it my fault? Had she hurt the baby when she pulled her from the car seat? She left the hospital quickly. She needed to get away. Away from the little girl whose life she’d ruined.
It was almost a month before Roanna could leave the hospital. She and her husband assessed the situation with Nicole. They would need nurses, physical therapists, all the help they could get. But they were determined to help Nicole adapt to her injury and grow up to be independent.
“Always push a little harder”–that was the physical therapists’ advice to the Farleys. In Nicole’s toddler years, they encouraged her to do things for herself, like take out her own toys and put them away again. As she grew, she learned to propel her wheelchair on her own.
As soon as Nicole was old enough to understand, Roanna told her about the accident, and the mysterious stranger who had come upon the scene.
Whenever Shelley thought of the Farleys, she was consumed by guilt. She pushed the memory of that week in 1988 deep within her. She joined a church in Seattle. Pursued a career as a dental assistant. Married and started a family of her own.
Once, when she took her kids to Disneyland, her mind went straight to Nicole. She lives in California. Maybe she’s here. Shelley scanned the crowds, looking for a redheaded girl in a wheelchair. She yearned to see her, yet at the same time dreaded that moment.
What if the Farleys held her responsible for the injury?
After 25 years, Shelley had decided she was better off not knowing the answer. Nicole would be 25 now. The same age I was then. Yet Nicole would never ski at Lake Tahoe with friends. Shelley couldn’t bear to hear the sad story of what happened to the little girl.
In the Farley home, Nicole sat with her mom, sifting through photos of her life, beginning with that fateful day on Interstate 5. Pictures from the accident scene. Articles that ran in the paper. Shots of her and her mom in the hospital.
One by one, she put them in order, a timeline of the tragedy, and of what came after.
She’d typed a script to go along with the photos. A message she wanted to share. A tech-savvy friend would take the images and Nicole’s words and produce a video she could upload to YouTube and share with friends.
The idea to tell her story had popped into her head out of the blue, though she didn’t know if she was up to the task. But “Always push a little harder” had become her mantra.
“If this video can stop one drunk driver or encourage one person with a disability, then this is all worth it,” Nicole said. Only thing left to do was choose the sound track.
Not long after, in Seattle, Shelley sat down with her lunch in front of her computer and checked her e-mail. One new message–the daily e-newsletter from GodVine. She opened it and scrolled through the day’s inspirational videos.
There were five, each with a thumbnail image. One showed a baby girl, smiling. Shelley clicked. Dark, dramatic music began to play.
“A stranger’s irresponsible decision changed my life forever....”
A newspaper photo of a 1988 car accident filled the screen. A crushed sedan. Debris. All hauntingly familiar. A name flashed on the screen: Nicole Farley. The little girl who had lost her chance at a normal life. Shelley’s breath caught.
Then the music changed. “Nothing is impossible for me,” a woman sang, in a sweet, powerful voice. “You can do more than just survive,” the text on the video read. “You can overcome.”
In frame after frame, the redheaded girl was living. Reeling in the catch of the day on a fishing trip with her family. Swimming with dolphins. Traveling abroad with friends. Winning bake-offs. Even skiing!
She was extraordinarily bright, and graduated from high school a year early. Now she lived on her own, and ran a day care out of her home. From her toddler years to her early teens, all the way up to adulthood, Nicole was independent. Thriving.
“My story isn’t just about the pain; it’s about faith, hope, love and trust in the face of tragedy,” the text read.
At the end, the captions revealed that the girl singing, with the beautiful voice, was Nicole. Tears welled in Shelley’s eyes. Nicole had grown up to have a full, happy life. According to the video, Roanna had made a full recovery.
Shelley played it back a dozen times, unable to get through it without crying. One frame in the video jumped out at her. Nicole’s e-mail address. That night, Nicole checked her video on YouTube. Over 10,000 views! Friends had shared it with other friends on Facebook, and GodVine had picked it up.
So this is what it’s like to “go viral,” Nicole thought. Her in-box was flooded with e-mails from people who had been inspired. One from a woman named Shelley Cumley.
“Dear sweet Nicole,” it began. “Your video took my breath away the second I saw your name.... You see, I am the person who pulled you out of the car that day.... I have struggled over the years second-guessing myself and wondering if I made your injuries worse....
"I am so overwhelmed that your video literally was delivered to my in-box.... You are truly an inspiration.... Please know that if you ever wanted to talk to me, I am here.... Much love, Shelley.”
How was this possible? Hearing from the mysterious stranger who had arrived on the scene that day 25 years before? She had to reach out.
“Dear Shelley,” she wrote. “My family has nothing but gratitude for you. As my doctors have always told me, my spinal-cord injury occurred on impact. Your actions saved my mother and me. We hope to meet you face-to-face someday soon. With love, Nicole.”
This February, Shelley, Nicole and Roanna reunited in Portland, Oregon, sharing a scene once more–one they all wanted to remember.
Shelley Cumley told us more about the day of her reunion with Nicole and the Farley family, and what the experience has meant to her:
Following our e-mail connection, Nicole was in contact with a television reporter in her community. This reporter was familiar with Nicole’s life, and had actually done a story about her when she was just six years old.
The news anchor was putting together a 20-year follow-up segment and heard about our miraculous reconnection. Now this journalist wanted to interview me.
We arranged to meet at the home of Nicole’s grandparents in Portland, Oregon. I was told it would be just the reporter talking with me. If a meeting with Nicole were to happen, it would be at another time and place.
My husband and I travelled from Seattle and were warmly welcomed by Nicole’s grandparents. I was anxious about the interview, but very excited about what the Lord had done.
In her final question, the reporter asked what I would say to Nicole when I finally met her. I responded, and then the reporter told me to turn around and tell her myself. There, to my left, was a beautiful red-haired young woman in a wheelchair. It was Nicole!
My heart burst with emotion and I could not contain myself. Tears flowed freely as I embraced this young woman once again, 25 years after the traumatic day we first met. Minutes later Roanna joined us, and our bond was deep and immediate.
We spent several hours together and promised to stay in touch. Before departing, we all stood in a circle holding hands as Nicole’s grandfather prayed a prayer of blessing and gratitude. What had seemed like a nightmare for so long was now a beautiful dream come true.
All of us who have been part of this amazing journey give thanks to God in every aspect. By His grace, Nicole has been able to live her life. In His perfect plan, we will forever share our lives. Yet, beyond the countless details of our story, it all comes down to three simple words: Don’t give up.
No matter how deep our hurts, or how far we push them down, God never forgets our pain. He hears our prayers, even our very thoughts before we speak them. Trust Him and have hope. He is always at work to rescue and restore our hearts.
Watch a pair of videos that tell more of Shelley and Nicole's shared story!
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