I found this 11 days ago while cleaning out my files. It was exactly 31 years since my daughter’s fatal car accident. She lay in a coma for 11 days and then her heart stopped beating. She died 31 years ago today. I wrote this shortly after her death and forgot about it until I found it – 11 days ago. The timing is such that I decided to share it, unedited, now.
I saw the white square of paper stuck to my front door before I was even out of the car. I knew what it would say. What single parent wouldn’t recognize the nightmare that is too terrible to dream, so terrible that even the subconscious refuses to let it surface in symbols?
Call Saddleback Hospital about your daughter.
Wordlessly, I handed the scrawled message to my date and headed for the phone. The hospital receptionist informed me there had been a car accident at nine that evening and that she had been trying to get in touch with me all night. I looked quickly at the clock which said it was past 2, and then shut my eyes against the guilt that threatened to undermine me. I didn’t have time to feel guilty; my daughter had been on the operating table for two hours. On the way to the hospital I sat very still, as though that would somehow help to make everything all right. My date, poor man, drove. I don’t remember his name. He was the friend of a friend and ceased to exist for me when I went into the emergency room.
Kenny met me in the hall. Dear, sweet Kenny, who was so terribly awkward in hs adolescence, who was one of my daughter’s closest friends until he went on to junior college, leaving Tauka, a mere sophomore, in high school behind. And here was Kenny, shaking so hard he couldn’t stop, peering down at me from behind his orange hair, and he out his arms around me and held me. I didn’t understand much of what he said. He had been in the car behind my daughter. He said something about Kristen. Of course, Kristen had been driving. Kristen, who was blond and pale and so fragile looking, Kristen who had only had her license for two days now.
Kenny took me to the tiny waiting room where Kristen’s mother sat. I remember thinking that she looked anemic, and then I saw Kristen. She was stretched out on a sofa on her back with a white sheet pulled up to her chin. There was blood in her hair and stitches like bloodied claws ran down the side of her face. For a second she looked so white and cold that I thought she was dead and I whispered her name. Her eyes flew open and in the same moment she began to apologize to me, an utterly exhausted string of I’m so sorrys, that I took her in my arms and began to rock her and she rocked me, and neither one of us could cry.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events. Somewhere that night I lost my sense of continuity. I can recall scenes, like photographs by Diane Arbus – stark and sinister and strangely black and white. My mother arrived and I remember that her pants legs ended several inches above her sneakers. High Waters, my daughter would have said laughingly. Somehow the sight of my mother’s bare ankles told me about her terrible vulnerability, and so I let her walk the floor with me, even though I thought I would break if anyone touched me.
The exception, of course, was Kenny. Like a Great Dane puppy, he followed me around and insisted on rubbing my hand until it was red from his need. But Kenny had helped to force his way into the blood-spattered Toyota with a crowbar. He had watched helplessly as the car had made a slow, swinging left-hand turn and the truck had appeared from nowhere and crushed the passenger seat and my daughter’s skull. She didn’t see it, he kept saying. She was laughing and brushing her hair when it hit.
Someone put a bedspread over me as I walked the halls of the emergency ward. It was white and sterile like everything around me and I hated it, but it helped me hide the way I was shaking when they told me Tauka was hanging on moment to moment. They told me they were sorry and I knew they thought she couldn’t last the night. But they knew nothing about the women in my family, about our strength and our obstinacy.
Tauka had been down with a mild cold for several days, a result of christening her new surfboard and wet suit. She had complained that day that she was going stir crazy and simply had to get out of the house. I had watched her carefully taking her temperature and giving the thermometer a quick shake when she thought I wasn’t looking. I had finally laughed and given in. It was clear she felt much better, and I said she could go over to Kristen’s. But of course the car had been turning left when it was hit, not right to Kristen’s house. The girls had been going to a party. Tauka adored parties. I should have known.
She was on the operating table for seven hours, five surgeons fought to keep her alive. When her neurosurgeon was finally free to talk to me, he told me he was very pessimistic. There had been severe trauma to the left side of the brain. I wondered if all surgeons talked in articles instead of pronouns. It was the brain, not her brain, one lung had filled with blood, not her lung. Perhaps that kind of distancing makes the pain easier to bear, but I wouldn’t accept it.
It was my pain, and her pain, and even the doctor’s pain, not just the pain.
He had to look away when he told me that if a miracle happened and she survived, her brain might not. The drugs they had given her for surgery had made it impossible to do an EEG. He told me to go home. there was nothing I could do there. But of course, I couldn’t go home. I had to see her.
Someone held my hands very tightly as we walked into the intensive care unit. She lay on the bed surrounded by nurses who tried to read my reactions and machines that read hers. A large screw protruded though the towel that was draped over her shaven skull. Tauka had been so proud of her beautiful hair. She had been laughing and brushing her hair. A thick blue hose carried oxygen to her lungs. Others carried liquids to and from the body that had once been part of mine. I studied that dear form as carefully as I had the day she was born. Sixteen years before I had carefully checked to see that everything was all right. Now I knew that nothing was, and I had to understand exactly what was happening to her. Finally, I was finished.
I asked for a damp cloth and began to gently wash the blood from my daughter’s face. I worked carefully around the tubes and the stitches and the tape that held her eyelids down, and then I washed her hands as I had done when she was a child. I kissed her palm and curled her fingers around the kiss as we used to do, but of course they immediately uncurled.
I think that is when I finally began to cry. I was strong enough to do it silently, but I couldn’t hold back the tears that threatened to, but never could, fill the emptiness inside of me.