Her car crashed into the cyclist, launching his body toward her windshield — and his face smacked into the glass right above her steering wheel, inches away from her face.
Freya Markowski, screaming, jumped out of her car and rushed to the bloody body.
“I’m sorry!” Markowski shouted.
Other motorists pulled over, and she remembers crying on the ground next to a car wash until Metro police officers came.
Moments earlier, Markowski — off her bipolar meds for the first time in years — heard a million manic voices in her head while driving in Berry Hill, Tenn., on April 27 last year.
She went through the red light at 40 miles an hour. The young cyclist went to the emergency room with a spinal cord injury that left him unable to move his legs.Guilt and “I felt like I’d killed someone,” she said. “I remember being in a black hole.”
A few months later, Markowski also went to the emergency room. A heroin overdose stopped her heart for a few minutes.
As she recovered, Markowski, mind racing and stomach clenched, sent a long apology text to David Francisco, 24, a student at the prestigious Blackbird Academy music school.
Markowski’s fear was unfounded: Francisco already had forgiven her.
“I forgave her at the beginning.”
The two formed a friendship based on that forgiveness, and each has been instrumental in the other’s recovery since the accident a year and a half ago.
“There’s a soul connection between us,” Markowski said. “We felt as if it had been meant to be.”
The path to reconciliation didn’t come easily. Both had to wrestle with fear to get there.
Drug use aggravated her bipolar disorder
A native of New Mexico, Markowski, 23, started doing drugs while living and working in Germany. First, smoking marijuana, then snorting methamphetamine.
That, in turn, unleashed a six-month psychosis that left her aggressive, out of touch with reality and unable to communicate with people.
She would later be diagnosed as bipolar, and illegal drug use often aggravated her mental illness.
In 2014, Markowski spent some time in a Nashville rehab for people with mental illness and drug abuse issues, and she stayed clean for about a year. But she eventually relapsed, and another boyfriend showed her how to use heroin.
Markowski didn’t use drugs the day of the accident, but she also hadn’t been taking her medicine to treat her bipolar disorder. Her mind racing as she drove home from shopping, Markowski blew through the red light.
Crash tore his spinal cord
The guy she hit grew up loving music, picking up the guitar when he was a boy because John Mayer played guitar — and Francisco loved him some John Mayer.
Francisco went to University of Tennessee-Knoxville to get an electrical engineering degree, but he eventually started playing music gigs. In 2016 his parents sent him to Blackbird Academy, a music school run by engineer John McBride — Martina’s husband — in conjunction with Blackbird Studio.
Three weeks later, Francisco was riding the 21-speed bike he bought off Craigslist when he got in the crash that tore his spinal cord.
In his first days at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Francisco wanted to reach out to the driver who hit him, to say it was OK.
“I figured she probably also was going through a lot,” he said. “I’d been shown so much support, I wanted to show her some support.
“The thing for me was, maybe I’m just too practical or pragmatic. It just didn’t make sense for me to be angry, as long as it was an accident. I was never angry at her. I was angry at my legs.”
Francisco sends his dad to court
Francisco couldn’t find Markowski for five months, when he received a long text message apologizing.
“Flashbacks of your body covered in blood haunted me,” she wrote. “I would’ve traded places with you in a heartbeat...
“I lost my soul after the accident. I want you to know not a day goes by without me crying for your pain.”
Francisco responded by sending his father to Markowski’s October hearing on charges of failure to yield causing serious injury. Francisco wanted Markowski, the prosecutor and the judge to know he bore no ill will against the woman who hit him.
Markowski was blown away. Charges were dismissed.
“I thought I was going to jail that day. Instead this angel of a man shows up with open arms. David’s dad gave me a really big hug,” she said. “How is that possible? The dad of the guy who I paralyzed?”
Markowski recorded a 10-second video that day for Francisco: “David, I send my love and I hope the very best for your recovery.”
'Bring it in!'
After writing and texting back and forth, the two decided to meet in person in April at a coffee shop in south Nashville.
Both were nervous. Francisco, using crutches, caught eyes with Markowski, smiled and opened his arms.
“Bring it in!” he said.
Markowski ran to him, and the two embraced for nearly a minute without speaking.
It was a miraculous moment for Markowski, who had been beating herself up since the accident.
“I forgave myself the moment David held me in his arms.”