A Miraculous Reunion

A Miraculous Reunion

Twenty-five years after rescuing an endangered baby, she came across a familiar name.

Nicole and Shelley, reunited

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.