A niggling feeling descended over me halfway through my walk. As though something was wrong and no matter how much I argued against it, by listing everything that was right, it sat heavily upon me. Being unsettled was annoying as my Sunday walk was an important start to my week. I usually welcomed the distraction of my screaming leg muscles as I climbed the hill and the calming return through the sounds, smells and solitude of the bush. But this time I was looking over my shoulder, remembering my bouts of anxiety and impatient to get back to the car.
Emerging into the carpark, I slipped into the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition and switched on my phone. The idling engine, the phone’s alerts through the car sound system and my head filling with things to be done, were the familiar soundtrack to my life. I scanned the missed calls. Two from my daughter, who with my son had left for Melbourne after we had shared lunch earlier in the day, and one from my sister, Anna.
You have three new messages. Message received today at 2.35pm.
‘Hey Mumsie, thanks for a great weekend, you’re the best. We want to surprise Grandpa and wondered if you knew if he was home or at the farm. But I guess you’re already walking so we’ll stop by the house first. Love you big time’ she trilled as my son called out, ‘Love you Mum’.
I leant back against the head rest smiling as the recorded voice droned through the options and announced the next communication.
‘Message received today at 2.50pm’
At that moment an incoming call interrupted the recording and took my attention. I didn’t hear that message until a day later when it would break my heart all over again.
~ ~ ~
‘Ellie, it’s Anna, thank god I’ve found you’ her voice broke.
I left the question in the air where it belonged because I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer.
‘Where are you?’ Anna demanded crashing through my thoughts.
Her voice broke into a sob and knowing that something was very wrong, a wave of fear gripped my stomach.
‘Anna’ I asked quietly ‘Are you OK?”
Giving her time, I reversed the car and turned back towards the highway.
‘Come to the hospital’, she urged. ‘We’ll talk there.’
‘Just tell me what’s wrong’ I said, dread clawing at my gut as a realization took shape.
‘Is it Harry or Maeve?’ I named my two children and my worst fear.
‘Ellie, please just hang up and come now.’
‘I can talk and drive,’ I insisted, accelerating along the dirt road lined by overhanging gum trees.
‘Anna,’ I shouted over the corrugated road, ‘Just tell me what the fuck is going on’.
Quickly looking both ways, I burst onto the highway and as the car became quieter on the sealed road, I could hear her crying.
‘I, I don’t really know that much’ she hesitated, ‘only that they’re both here, just come’
Years of experience in major project management set off an automatic response to an emergency. I took a deep breath and despite the blood pounding in my ears, focused on understanding the problem.
‘Just tell me what…’
Before I could finish the sentence Anna muttered, ‘I can’t talk now, the doctor’s here, just hurry’.
“What the hell’ I stared at the phone realizing she had hung up on me.
~ ~ ~
Blessed and cursed with a vivid imagination I drove with a head full of increasingly tragic scenarios. My two children in danger, damaged, dead? But lodged between not knowing and knowing, I kept a lid on the rising panic and drove away from the sun. Choosing the fastest lanes to overtake cars and trucks and slip into gaps, I did whatever was required to take me quickly to where I didn’t want to go.
Stopping near the hospital’s emergency entrance, I jumped out and slammed the door leaving the keys in the ignition. If someone wanted to move the car or even steal it, I didn’t care, because by that stage I didn’t give a blue eyed fuck.
As the sliding doors whooshed shut behind me, a prescient feeling gripped my chest and slowed me down. Looking over my shoulder, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that when I next passed through those doors my life would have changed for the worse and forever. That my world was about to crumble and a life I didn’t care for intended to swallow me whole. I wanted to turn around and run.
~ ~ ~
Anna and her husband were sitting in the waiting room leaning towards a dark-eyed doctor. They looked out of their depth, especially when my running footsteps turned their attention my way. Anna jumped up too quickly, arms outstretched as if to shield me from the news. Without breaking stride, I bypassed her arms and stood face to face with the doctor.
‘What’s happened?’ I whispered with an overwhelming urge to vomit.
‘Sit down Elena’ the doctor said quietly.
I stood my ground and looked him in the eye, almost daring him to say what I didn’t want to
hear. Then he spoke the words that doctors across the world have uttered in the one hundred years since automobiles have become the number one killer in western society.
‘There’s been an accident’.
A piercing silence blanketed the space around me and I was numbed by denial.
His voice drew me back from the void.
‘Your children have been in a car accident and I’m sorry but your daughter didn’t make it’.
Despite my knees threatening to buckle and a howl of disbelief building inside me, I held his gaze.
‘Your son is in intensive care with very serious injuries’ he said softly.
Anna moved closer ready to hold me but no arms could keep me from the place into which I was descending. My world slowed as I turned away wanting to be anywhere else but here with them. Mostly back in time to a café where I would find any excuse in the world to keep my children from leaving.
‘No’ I spoke to Anna who looked unsure if the ‘no’ was meant for her as reached out to console me.
I stared blankly at her. She was not the hugging kind and had not held me since my mother died many years ago.
‘No’ I gasped with arms stretched out like a grief stricken traffic cop wanting to halt all movement.
‘No’ I repeated to stop anything else from reaching me.
Kindness had become the enemy of any remnants of control. One kind word, one act of kindness and I would fall apart. I completely shut down hovering above nothingness and clawing to stay in the place where disbelief kept me numb. I wanted to stay there and not digest what I was being
told. I wanted to clear it like phlegm from my body and spit it right back at them.
~ ~ ~
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
‘Would you like to see your son?’ the doctor asked quietly.
‘Hang on, hang on, stop’, I sucked in a breath and stepped back so his hand fell away.
‘Where is my daughter?’ I wanted to hold her, save her, do what no doctor could do. I was her mother. That was my job. I had made her. Created the miracle of her. Pushed her into my world. Now as I quietly walked beside a social worker towards the morgue, I was faced with the unspeakable act of accepting she would leave before me.
~ ~ ~
Steeling myself, I leant over her crushed body placing my cheek upon the damaged face and whispered into her ear.
Every breath, every movement, every thought, stretched out in a timeless vacuum where nothing else existed.
I pulled myself away and stared blankly at the gore that had once been contained neatly within her teenage body. Lifting the edge of the sheet, I wiped the blood from her face and touched her cold lips. I smoothed the hair that had been cut yesterday by her godmother, but was now matted with blood and bits of brain from the wound where her skull had smashed into the windscreen.
Without turning or lifting my eyes I quietly asked a question of the social worker standing near
‘Tell me what happened?’
I needed to know everything so I could carry my son through this tragedy understanding that his life would be ruined even more if I didn’t handle his grief carefully.
A major highway and a tired driver on the wrong side of the road. A small sedan and my children taking the full brunt of a ten tonne truck. Her death soon after she was pulled from the wreck and placed in the ambulance. I was shocked by the wave of sympathy I felt for the driver who would live a half-life over what he had done.
~ ~ ~
Looking past the mangled body I could feel Maeve’s presence as though she had been waiting for me to come. I felt the tsunami of loss that was to be my companion as the life sentence of her absence condemned me to a future where I would age and she would stay 16 forever. Leaning over the wreckage I kissed her brow then breathing deeply, spoke to her quietly.
‘It’s time for you to go’
‘No’ I screamed silently holding her hand for the last time.
‘You don’t need to be here anymore’ I whispered.
“Yes you do’ I insisted unheard.
‘Nan is waiting for you’ I smiled grimly at the thought of them together.
‘She will look after you’ I could visualize them hand in hand.
‘Go my love’
I slipped her 16th birthday ruby ring off her finger and placed it on my own.
‘I will always love you’
Releasing her hand to her chest, I turned towards the social worker and the next nightmare.
Pausing at the door I looked back one last time to gaze upon the daughter, stolen for all time, and imagined her slowly sitting up and walking away from me and the world. I recalled a Yeats poem we had both loved and imagined a fairy taking her by the hand away from a world ‘more full of weeping than you can understand*.
~ ~ ~
Walking along the polished corridor, fear threatened to completely overwhelm me and I prayed to a god I didn’t know to give me strength. An intense pressure in the top of my head abruptly released upwards and I sensed a flooding relief as though I was being plucked from my body to float above. It was as though only one of me was not enough to deal with the tragedy. For a few moments I detached from the pain and looked down with compassion as my other walked away from a dead child towards another who needed a strong mother. I could only love and admire her as she steeled herself with each step towards the top of the stairs where we became one again. Closing my eyes and shaking off the need to understand, I gathered every semblance of mothering I could find and thought of my own mother who had been gone so long, that only the idea of her remained.
‘Mum’ I sobbed, ‘Walk with me’.
~ ~ ~
After washing and slipping into a sterile gown, I entered the room where my son’s body was being supported by the tubes, wires and drips. I drew a deep breath and expelled it as I closed the gap between us in time to the ventilator helping him to breathe. Acknowledging the doctors and nurses floating in and out of the space, I sat on the edge of a chair beside his bed. As my
breathing slowed I found myself cocooned in a strange waiting room of a world with Harry. I wanted to lie down beside him and be unconscious too.
‘Stay with me Harry’ I took his hand ‘you’re all that I’ve have now’
Feeling he knew I was there I kept talking,
‘I’m here now, it’s going to be okay’.
‘It will never be ok, you did this, it’s your fault.’ sneered the devil in my head as I looked to my son. I struggled with the thought and forced my way past it to declare the truth. It was just something that had happened and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it from happening. I stroked his forehead knowing I had the power to put a stop to the soap opera that could evolve from this accident. If I were to allow him to blame himself, as I knew he would, then two lives would be lost and that was not going to happen on my watch.
He opened his eyes and his face twisted with pain. He knew. He knew his sister was dead. Knowing the answer, he struggled with the question. ‘Where is she?’
‘She’s gone’ I whispered, ‘But I am here’
I paused and stroked his forehead wiping away his tear with my thumb, ‘and I’m not leaving until I take you home with me’
*From The Stolen Child by William Butler Yeats
by Helen Healy, Mildura, Australia