My story is not about recovery. Or tragedy. In the literary sense of the word. I was never destined to play the tragic heroine. Far too insular. Which has become worse, since it happened. Now I spend most of my time speaking to myself.
Which is not good.
The internal dialogue is stagnant and predictable and sometimes I can taste the fetid mouldiness of it in my mouth.
But first… let me start with the accident, though this is not necessarily the beginning. It is important to start here because every day starts with the accident, even though I only remember the events of it in snatches, and even they are not always consistent.
Most days I can recall seeing the truck skidding towards my car in my rear-view mirror. I see the central reservation hurtling towards my bonnet and the world rotating behind the glass of my windscreen.
Other days the visual is less subjective. I see my foot press on the brake; my car flipping over and over like I am a bystander on the hard shoulder.
The latter is easier to watch.
Sometimes the memories are just sounds. Like the discord of an orchestra tuning up: horns and strings and timpani heartbeats. When the engines stop, I hear shouting in the darkness. It is a man’s voice always, but the words are never clear. And then the silence. This is the worst part of hearing the accident. The moment of suspension when even the voice in your head is holding its breath.
Other memories are more personal: the eyes of the paramedic who first makes contact with me beneath the layers of smashed metal. She looks young; I… broken. I see that in her eyes. There is a torch being held for her from someone outside the mess; her voice is steady and confident but her eyes give her away. Always the eyes. Some people are two-way mirrors. I can see my fear reflected in her. We both know the injuries are serious and I am grateful that her eyes, at least, do not patronise me.
The worst memories, however, are the Picasso-like nightmares: shapes and objects that are only made visible in the flash of blue lights: the crescent of a torn tyre on the road; oily blood splattered on shiny tarmac like spilt mercury. And other shadows that my brain cannot yet make sense of.
If I were to close my eyes and think about the accident right now, what I remember is mostly olfactory. The smell of petrol and car upholstery, the faintest waft of floral perfume. Fear. And burning steam from hot engines.
All smells are evocative and visceral in the jumbled chaos of internal thought.
But. There are three things that I know for certain:
Firstly, the accident was not my fault. This fact, always emphatically spoken by my parents, is only really important if you are an insurance company or a defence lawyer or someone who needs to point the finger.
The Fault is not important to me.
Secondly, I broke my back and damaged my brain that night. I can move one arm and some of my facial muscles, which is only good for being able to operate the joystick on my wheelchair and grimacing when I’m trying to smile. I will always need a wheelchair and this will never change.
Thirdly, that however much my mind manipulates the events, the accident ended with two vehicles locked together, as entwined and entangled as Rodin’s Kiss. And yet separate entities that had previously been unaware of each other.
My car. His truck. Both intimately sculpted as one horrific piece of modern art. The merging of two things. Fatally and indefinitely.
These three facts are what I know; they are The Truth of what happened. All other memories, although not any less real, are versions of interpretation and consistently change.
Apart from one.
The last thing I remember that night was watching the reflection of my digital clock in the rear-view mirror, as both lay dislodged and displaced in my eye line. The green LED lights flashed through three hours-worth of time with my face resting on a mixture of broken glass and motorway gravel. Beyond the clock’s reflection, lay a vertical world tipped on its side.
And in the distance… there she stood.
I don’t know whether this is fact; but the image never changes, however many times I sleep and wake up.
There are no mirrors in hospital. Nothing to confirm who you are; or were; or who you will be next. I spent a long time trying to remember who I was so that I could start to look at who I was to become. In hospital there are no secret worlds that mirrors offer, and no dividing line between life and its reflection. Instead, we are only presented with what is happening in the Here and the Now; there is no Past and no Future. The hospital is always about Now; Now where your identity is completely submerged in favour of the routine.
And yet, following days of numbing confusion, there is always a point when some sort of order creeps into your consciousness and you start to grasp at the very tip of the Reality thread. This is hard because the rope is often long and intricately woven.
For me, Reality appeared in the shape of a middle-aged consultant with a flaky scalp.
“The damage to your back is permanent,” he said. I appreciated the brevity of his words. And counted the dandruff on his shoulder. “The side of your face…” he paused to grimace. “… may come right. Or better. If it does, you will get some feeling back in your right arm.”
My mother, at this point, was poised and ready to throw herself at his feet for providing her with the smallest slither of optimism when all seemed so lost. Partial recovery hope. But I knew from his tone that the chances were slim.
When Reality finally dawned for my parents, I heard them crying outside my room.
The next time they appeared, the age of patronising smiles and unmitigated perkiness had been briskly put into action. In the intimacy of having a private room, my parents set about a programme of cheerfulness that I think they thought would fool me into false hope. It didn’t.
But then, it was a no-win scenario when my smiles, even the false ones, only contorted my face.
Through my working ear I heard stories of cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood; of this person’s wedding; that person’s baby; how Great Aunt Cynthia was in a quandary over Pepe the dog and his habit of scraping his arse across her very expensive cream carpet. How next-door-neighbour Julia was having yet another baby, which would make four and God only knew how she was going to cope because the other three were wild as banshees as it was. The ordinariness was astounding. And I didn’t see that God had much to do with anything really.
When they ran out of family news, my father read column after column from the village newsletter. Problems with the local lake; the travesty of a fallen gravestone; collection money leaking from church coffers; and, of course, the favourite topic: the youth of today and how to keep them permanently entertained to remove all temptation of them knifing us to death for no good reason. My open ear listened, appreciative of their love; my deaf ear remained closed; reticent and moody.
Reality is a strange concept. It implies something infinite and solid; something tangible that you can pat on the back and talk about with confidence. In truth, Reality is no more packageable than… well… Truth, I guess. There are versions of it that lie far beyond the one most people agree on.
My Reality, I know, is different.
But it didn’t haunt me in hospital. There are no shadows there, in the gaudy glare of blinding strip-lights. The clinically Present with no wiggle-room for anything but The Facts in the Here and Now.
No. It would be much later before I would see her again.
In fact, some would say that I would never see her again. But that would simply be untrue. To me, at least.
The first night at home was the most suicidal.
I know for certain if there had been a Shakespearian vial of poisoned tragedy lurking within reach of my good arm, I would have whooped it down without a second thought. Most days now I am glad that all there was to hand was a carton of Ki-Ora and a bendy straw.
When the first night was over, I saw the curtains turn from black to grey and then to pink. I promised myself that, even if I had the opportunity, I would never kill myself in the night because the darkness makes us think differently. There were, of course, many times when I wanted to be dead in the day as well; but these were less intense and easier to squash. Life and death, it seems, are as close as one thought away, one lapse of concentration, one foot missing one brake.
One dividing line between light and darkness. Two worlds that co-exist; the one only visible when the other is not.
At the end of the first month, my parents moved me from the makeshift bedroom in the living room to a now fully converted “enabled” room that we had once used to enjoy roast dinners and Sunday chit-chat. In fairness, at the time, it did seem like the days of Ordinary were over, so you could see how they would feel the room was now redundant for its original purpose.
With faces plastered in fresh hope, they wheeled me in.
“No such thing as disability,” they chimed. “It’s just the world around us that needs to change.”
They spread their arms wide at the converted world they had created. A world of lifts and pulleys; gadgets; gizmos. And nothing taller than two feet high. Their smiles sagged at my gurning response. And I felt the poignant pull of heartache at the magnitude of what I could not give them.
“The mirror,” my mother interjected, jerking my thoughts back to the Now. “We thought it would be a good idea…” She paused. “The doctors all said you’d need to accept what had happened. We thought this might help.” Nervous glances at my father as both shifted their gaze between each other and the slab of mercurial glass opposite my bed. “We could always take it…” ‘Away,’ she was going to say but her words trailed off as my father shook his head. Allowed his eyes to droop. The tiny gestures that told her that seeing myself as I now was would be a difficult but necessary lesson for me.
And so it was.
I often wonder if we all live in layers of existence; waves of life that weave in parallel to the paths we have chosen. Or paths that have chosen us. The ‘what ifs’ of life. Do they exist as Realities that we just didn’t experience? Is it possible that they wither and die, simply because we don’t nurture them with our presence?
That night she wandered into my life again. The reflection of an opposite world that I now witness in an obscurity far beyond the extinguishing of a light switch.
She is the silhouette of my ‘what if.’ The entity I choose to see… when the light is off and I am enriched by my visible darkness.
My story is not about recovery or tragedy. But existence. And the Realities we summon in order to survive.