(I prefer to remember Mum from the times long before the day of the accident)
It was 28 years ago. The Day of the Accident. It has taken me that long to write these words. Car accidents, comas, life support, brain injuries … you have most likely seen all of these things in a movie or on Greys Anatomy. 28 years ago I learned why they don’t actually show you what these things really look like. The reality is just too much. It breaks you to watch, it scars you for life and if you have ever lived through any of these things, only then can you truly comprehend. It is something I would wish on nobody, and it was the day of the accident that my life changed forever.
I shared the first in this series of posts a little while back, you can find it here. I didn’t expect it to be so long between them, then again I didn’t expect it to take 28 years to make a start on finding the words. That’s the thing about a trauma of this depth, you just never know how it’s going to play out.
The day of the accident is the day I can clearly pinpoint as the start of my mental illness, although it would take many many years before I acknowledged it so calmly and started to deal with it properly.
It was a fairly standard Sunday, the day of the accident. At the age of 16 I had just started a weekend job at Erina Fair (back in my younger Coastie days!). The only non standard thing about that morning when my Mum dropped me to work was that I fell over on my up the escalator into the shops. Normally that wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary, except on that morning 28 years ago I knew that something was about to change forever.
As I tripped and scraped my knee a sense of deep dread took over me and I ran back to the car park in the hopes that my Mum was still there. I made it just in time to see the car turning out onto the street, it was too late for her to hear me cry out.
It was the last time I would see her as the Mum I had known for 16 years.
Brain injury can often take away the parts of the brain that make someone who they are. It is such a hard thing to explain. Putting it into words on a page or a screen is even harder than I thought it would be.
My petite, independant 37 year old Mum was in a coma on life support after the accident. We were told to say our goodbyes before she was transferred from Gosford to Royal North Shore. It still baffles me that I remember the detail from that day so well.
I remember my boyfriend at the time turning up to my job not long after Mum had dropped me, I remember being taken into a back room and being told that my Mum had been in an accident and that I needed to be taken the hospital straight away. I remember that I never went back to that job, I never went back to any parts of my life as I knew them before that day.
The Intensive Care Unit at Royal North Shore is a place I will never forget, and a place I hope to never see again. The sights, smells and memories of a place like that never leave you. As hard as I have tried to erase them. Seeing someone being kept alive by machines, all of the tubes and mechanisms, the beeping and the sense of fragility in the air. It very quickly makes itself a part of your every fibre.
On my first visit I fainted, on several visits I had to run to the bathroom and vomit violently. I actually didn’t recognise her the first time we were led to her bedside. She had been in emergency surgery to remove a part of her swollen skull so there was a lot of swelling and bandaging. I remember being told that for the one brief moment she was coherent she asked about ‘her kids.’
The day of the accident defines me, it defines everything about my life. I have often wished for that day to fade away. For many years I tried to block it out with denial, avoidance, substance abuse and every other tactic I could think of.
It was the turning point for so many things. The majority of the past 28 years has been about avoidance. It hurts a lot less to avoid this type of pain.
The day of the accident I learned that my family were not at all prepared for this type of tragedy, is any family ever prepared for that? I learned that turning off life support is nothing like it appears on TV, I learned that losing a child should never happen to any parent and when it happens later in life, it pretty much breaks a person. My beautiful, amazing grandparents were never the same, and although they went on to live long lives beyond the day of the accident they did so with heavy hearts and a sadness in their eyes that never faded.
The day of the accident turned into many long months at Royal North Shore and then rehab. The place where people go to be rehabilitated from their brain injuries is my least favourite place on earth. As a young teen it was an alternate universe and it will forever haunt me. I will never forget the other young woman who shared a room with my Mum for many months, she was in a vegetative state and her sobbing husband spent every day by her side. I often wonder about them.
Watching your own Mum learn to walk, talk, eat, write and slowly painfully come back from death is not glamorous in the way that you see on TV or in the movies. It is incredibly hard, hard beyond words and life altering in every way imaginable.
Ultimately this is a tragedy yes, but it is also a story of light and hope. My Mum did survive the day of the accident, not in the way that we had hoped and of course if there was any way of stopping her from hitting that pole I would do it in a heartbeat. I am a survivor and a bit of a warrior now though, and as hard as the past 28 years have been, I am so grateful to have somehow found a way to thrive in a way that I know my Mum would be proud of.
I am skipping ahead a little, and most who know me are aware that there are many more chapters to this story including my Mum enduring 11 long years of recovery, the devastating daily effects of a traumatic brain injury, an advanced breast cancer diagnosis and then this being the thing that took her from us. For now I am relived, proud and terrified to finally share these words and this part of the story.