Finding hope again after an unexpected disaster

Chris and Denise in Busbridge Woods.(Photo: Blatchford)

'The Harley-Davidson Road King sweeps us along the flat coastal highway. The exhaust pipes make a gentle rumbling and the engine is a solid heartbeat beneath the saddle. Warm air rushes past us. Longhorn cattle in a flat field watch lazily as we cruise by. The pillion seat raises me a little higher than Chris, and I can almost see over his white crash-helmet. I position my head slightly to the left. Above a leather shoulder I can see the road ahead, and a leather glove on the handlebar grip. Chris turns his head and calls to me. He's loving this, and he thanks me again for travelling with him. I'm happy for him. He has had this USA motorcycle road trip ambition since about the time we met all those years ago. He's in his element and I am pleased to be with him to share the adventure.

'We leave a small town where we stopped for lunch. We take a right turn out of the town, then the road bends to the right onto a ramp to rejoin the light traffic on State Highway 35. Chris eases the big engine up through the gears. We chug along the straight two-lane highway into the early afternoon. All of this takes me back to our student days riding Chris' Honda, and those weekends when we would escape from university in Birmingham to the mountains of North Wales. The sun smiles down from an azure May sky.

'Without warning, the shock of a rending thunderclap engulfs me. Then darkness.'
- Denise, Friday 16 May 2008, South Texas (Chris and Denise Arthey, Highway 35 from Muddy Pearl, 2022)

These opening paragraphs of Highway 35 set the scene for the road accident that almost took our lives. It's a miracle we're both still here. And if you'd told us in advance what was going to happen, we'd have been absolutely convinced that we could not have coped. We were hit head-on by a drunk driver who veered across the road at 80mph. Among other injuries, we both lost our left legs above the knee.

Fourteen years later, Highway 35 has been released. The two of us wrote it together, doing our best to be open and honest about the awfulness of the accident, our life-changing injuries and coping with disability. We've also reflected on the things that helped us survive and put our lives back together again: the amazing support we had from family, friends, neighbours and our church; the importance of making good choices every day, particularly the decision to persevere; the central role of our faith in God; and our relationship.

We reflect on the gritty, difficult subject of forgiveness for the drunk driver. In the book his name has been changed to Jackson. He was over three times the drink drive limit, at 0.25% (250mg/100ml of blood), on a weekday afternoon. There was a sentencing trial a year later in a small-town Texas courtroom. After his sentence was determined, Jackson asked if he could speak with us. He had tears and asked us if we could ever forgive him for what he'd done. In the year that had passed we'd had plenty of time to search our hearts and to test our reactions to all that had happened, and we honestly couldn't find it within ourselves to be bitter. We hugged him and told him that, yes, we forgave him.

It's been a surprise to us both that we never felt any anger towards Jackson. Forgiveness was like the Lord's gift to us rather than something we had to work at, and we certainly don't feel we can take any credit for it. We're sure it helped in our recovery, as we had quite enough on our plates without the added burden of bitterness.

About the time we got our first prosthetic legs and learned to walk all over again, we took stock together of our hopes and dreams for the future. We concluded that, if at all possible, we both wanted to resume our vocations – Chris in engineering and project management, and Denise in education. Denise wanted to enjoy her piano and singing classical music, and gardening. Chris longed to be involved again in endurance sports. All of this would require perseverance and mutual encouragement. Though things might never be the same again we were determined to achieve as much as we could.

Four years after the accident we took another overseas assignment with Chris' work, to the Middle East. In 2015 retirement brought us back to the UK and, as well as speaking engagements and the book, we've both developed roles as ambassadors for the company that provides our prosthetic legs.

Chris has competed in marathons and triathlons, climbed Kilimanjaro and trekked to Everest Base Camp. He's also back on a motorcycle, which has required more grace from Denise. We now have two beautiful grandchildren. We've kept in contact with Jackson and still exchange emails periodically.

We wrote this book because we know that life doesn't always go to plan. There are bumps in the road – some worse than others and some much worse than ours. These words from the foreword by Pete Greig reflect our own hopes: "Whatever struggles you are facing, I am confident that there is something here for you."

It's our prayer that Highway 35 will help you meet disaster head-on with hope.

Highway 35 is out now from Muddy Pearl priced £15.99.