I’ve faced death in my life.
The first time I remember, was the day my maternal grandmother died.
She was 47, and I was 7. Months. Inutreo.
You might say, “Well, that is sad but hardly a big deal. After all, you weren’t yet born. It really isn’t possible that you could remember her.”
“Ha!”, is my reply.
Here is my memory of that day.
It is May the 29th, 1949. I’m peacefully contemplating my day. The routine has been reassuring and quite gentle. My mother is humming to herself, getting ready to go out to her beloved garden.
Someone knocks at the door as they gently let themselves into the house.
It is our neighbours from down the road, the Andersons. My mom looks up expectantly with a smile on her face which freezes in an instant. Her best friend, Shirley Anderson is standing in the doorway, behind her is ‘Toughie’, her dad, also known as Tom Anderson.
Shirley’s arrival was not unusual, however, Tom’s presence sent shivers down her spine.
This man rarely left his property, was not known as a visiting kind of guy and though pleasant company when pressed, much preferred a quiet life with as few people in it as possible.
My mother took one look at each of her visitors' faces and felt the pit of her stomach contract.
Shirley's face was streaked with tears and the hand that held her father’s was white from being clenched so tight.
Toughie reached out to take my mother’s hand as he spoke the words that caused my mother to drop to the floor.
“Beatrice, we’ve come with some bad news.”
“Your uncle Mort just called and told us your mom passed away an hour ago.”
During the first seven months of my life on this planet I’d only been connected to one person. I certainly could make my presence known, but my host called the shots. After all it was her body, her uterus and her umbilical cord which connected the two of us as one. For the most part, I was sublimely content. All my needs were taken care of, my world was soft and warm and comfortable. I grew in a peaceful loving environment, nurtured by things that build the foundation of a blessed life. A happy future seemed the inevitable outcome. Life on the outside promised to be one of happiness and peace. My birth, a gift that was greatly anticipated by those around me.
I was two months away from being born when my world exploded. It was as though a raging fire enveloped the quiet shelter that had been my home for the past seven months.
I’d been sleeping when the news of my grandmother’s death tore through my mother’s system sending a hormonal charge that felt like a 220 volt charge of electricity. I awoke to a fully conscious reality that shattered the peaceful environment I’d inhabited for the past 7 months.
My mother spent the next two months in bed, determined to bring me to full term. Her grief was so overwhelming that only her love for me kept her from passing over to be with her mother.
Many scoff that I hold memory of my grandmother's death. Were they to experience the pain I endured, they might be more sympathetic.
I spent the next decade of my life navigating a hazard course that wove its way in and around my mother’s constant grief, depression and her desperate attempts to rise above.
By 13, I’d begun to grow into my own womanhood, a process greatly hindered by a system that refused to develop in a ‘normal’ manner.
I began to exhibit signs of depression. Had it been different times, perhaps someone would've noticed, perhaps someone would have questioned how a young girl could contemplate taking her own life. I knew not that my plans to end my life were anything but normal.
I struggled through those next few years, managing to convince myself that I was normal.
I did my best to fit into my surroundings even though I often felt like a ‘stranger in a strange land.’
I was known as the girl with a great sense of humour. I loved making people laugh and even though my humour hid dark, bleak places, I took pride when my words made others gasp with laughter.
My next encounter with death came several years later.
I made a wonderful best friend when I was 17. She’d been a runner up for a beauty pageant in our home town. Val was a stunning, 6 foot blonde who turned heads wherever she went.
What few knew was how little she valued her physical beauty and how disdainful she was of those who were in awe of it.
We became close. We shared our most private secrets and came to trust one another in ways that had escaped each of us in the past.
Death once again visited my life. It came on a hot day at the end of July.
Val’s sister, Donna had coerced a reluctant boyfriend to drive us out to my parents cottage on the ocean.
Rick was not happy about the task and from the moment he picked us up, let us know in his sullen angry attitude that we were causing him great inconvenience.
My skin crawled with some fear that lay not far below the surface. Had I been more assertive, I would never have set foot in that vehicle and done my best to convince Val that we’d be better off taking our chances hitchhiking.
My lack of maturity kept me silent.
Rick pulled up to a gas station to fill his car. Val and the others got out and went into the washroom.
I remained in the car, wondering how I could diplomatically find an excuse to get out and leave.
What happened next gets blurry.
I had closed my eyes, fighting back fear when I felt a gentle tap on my right shoulder and a soft voice that whispered, “change seats”.
I opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself alone.
Without much thought, I scooted over to Val’s spot.
When she returned and questioned the new seating arrangement, I mumbled some excuse that seemed to settle things and thus began our race towards death.
Rick’s anger and resentment grew thicker as we left the city. The 10 mile drive out into the country turned into a terrifying race that disregarded all the legal limitations followed by more responsible drivers.
We careened around slower vehicles, sped up on straight stretches and braked only slightly on corners designed for much slower speeds of entry.
I vividly remember wanting out of that car, desperately.
I vividly remember keeping my mouth shut as I knew saying anything would only set Rick off into a frenzy of worse driving.
My sense of foreboding was so strong that I leaned over his seat to look at the speedometer.
When he gruffly barked, “What the hell are you doing?” I serenely replied, “Oh, I just want to see how fast you are going when we all die.”
He was not pleased with my joke and as I feared, sped even faster.
My next memory is approaching a sharp corner, known as ‘Deadman's curve’. We were doing 90 miles an hour as we entered the curve…we didn’t make it.
As the car skid, it sheared off one telephone pole, began the first of several turns in the air, eventually coming to a stop. We were all thrown out of the car, one of us didn’t survive the experience.
As I completed my third roll in an attempt to get to my feet, I turned to look at the mangled car I had just escaped.
It was upside down, completely flattened by the sheared telephone pole and beside the carnage lay…my beautiful friend, her head crushed by the horrific impact.
I was beyond panic and despair and though I was grateful to be alive, it took me years to shake the guilt that convinced me I’d robbed Val of her chance to live by taking her place in that car.
It was her sister, Donna who was able to assure me that it simply wasn’t my time and that sadly it had been Val’s.
I carry the memory of my dear friend and do my best to honour her death by living my life to its fullest. I learned young that life can be short and the twists and turns can be scary.
I’ve walked through the years with a serene lack of fear of dying.
I’ve sat with loved ones as they took their last breath and fully understood how precious the time we have here can be.
I am convinced that I will one day join those who’ve left before and the elapsed space in time will seem but seconds.
I fear not the shadows.