I can honestly say that April 13, 2002 was the last day of childhood for my twin daughters, Anna and Mary. They had just turned 14 three days before their father was hit by a car and nearly killed. When I received the phone call to come to the hospital, the girls were at a party at SkateNation where their friends had thrown them a surprise birthday party. They did not hear about the crash until I picked them up after Hugh’s first emergency brain surgery.
I recently talked to them about how they felt during that time, and 11 years later, their memories are vivid and overpowering. When I asked, “What was the hardest part in the beginning?” Mary said, “Immediately it was the dramatic loss of my rock, my shelter, my hero and although I realized it only in a general sense at first, my life as I knew it. All I could think was that a few hours ago my Dad was lying on the ground struggling to stay alive for me, and I was celebrating on ice skates.”
Anna said, “The hardest part was seeing the strongest and most invincible person in my life knocked down so completely. When it first happened, it seemed so surreal, even when first going in and seeing him, holding his hand, it never felt like it was him or that it was real. It was hard to fathom that such a constant in my life was suddenly gone.”
“In your mind, did it change us, our relationship?” I asked.
Mary said, “I lost you. My relationship with you is in direct relation to the one with Dad. If he could “leave” me (and I’m still referring to the first week) so easily, so could you. I could not bring myself to attach anything I had left to you, and yet you were closest, and I desperately knew I should and wanted to. Anna was in the exact same position. She was lost with me, and in my mind we became Hansel and Gretel, quietly leaving our breadcrumbs to help each other find our way out of a nightmare.”
As a parent, this was hard to hear. When we are in the midst of a troubling time, we often think our children are managing, but are perceptive. They listen, see, and feel what’s happening acutely. Anna had similar sentiments. “We had always been close, and you and Dad were a huge presence in our lives, but as soon as he was hit, you went into a tunnel and checked out of our lives for the most part. The only thing you were focused on was Dad and his recovery. There was no way we could pull your attention. He needed it most. At times I felt like our roles switched, that I was my own parental figure or just didn’t have one. I realized that with you guys this preoccupied I could really do whatever I wanted, but for some reason I felt I needed to do what was in the best interest of the family, and what you both would want me to do. I didn’t want to be a burden when there were so many more important things that needed your attention. I always knew you were there for me if I needed it, and would be even if I didn’t ask.”
Hugh spent 33 days in the hospital, and the girls visited nearly every day, so I asked them what that time in the hospital felt like. Mary said, “It was terrifying, but the closest thing to comfort I could find. It was like a search through unfamiliar sounds of beeps and alarms, the rustling of beds, sheets, and tubes; tears and balloons; hallway after hallway and room after room, searching for my father. And each time I found him, he wasn’t really there, not the way I knew him.”
Anna agreed. “It was scary and dark, with constant beeps and noises coming from people fighting for their lives. I felt so small and insignificant at every visit. I couldn’t do anything to help.” Later she talked about our support system, “Family and friends really stepped up to help to pass the time by visiting me and Mary in the waiting room. We had some fun days downtown. It was so strange to have such oppositional forces so close to one another: the cold, white, chemical hospital, and the grass and sunshine right outside.
When Dad first came home, what was it like for you? I asked. “It was glorious, but horrifying at the same time,” Anna said. “It was a whole new situation and there were so many things that could go wrong. It was startling to see a new man in the old setting and it was hard to tell if things would go back to how they were. A lot of “episodes” were funny, but I would feel guilty for thinking so. It was hard to see Dad as a father figure when he was laughing his head off while watching American Pie or eating gravy thinking it was chocolate pudding.”
Mary said, “When Dad first came home I wanted it to be great. I wanted to be excited. I was in ways. I had him close, and we could actually leave behind the crazy mess that stood between us in the hospital setting. But it made me realize that it was a lot more than just that. Outward actions, like arguing with him to get up in the morning when just a couple weeks ago it was hard enough to get myself up and going, made me feel like I had a new little brother. I would help him get ready for meals and get though his homework after doing my own. I could no longer rely on him to drop me off at a movie or even pick up some apples on the way home from work. He cried when I danced the role of Alice in Alice in Wonderland, the ballet, and boy did that throw me! I was upset at first with these new signs of weakness, because I was too busy searching for the Dad I once knew and had to realize that he was on a deep journey which I chose to join him on. Other new colors began to show. He had a new and simple sense of humor that I still cherish, and a new innocence in his eyes I had never seen. These warmed my heart everyday, and that heart-tingling sense of connection with another person can really keep you going”
While discussing this journey is hard, it’s softened by eleven years of time gone by, softened by Hugh’s strong outcome, and by the health we all enjoy today. Still, I can’t help but feel a tug in my heart when I hear them tell about it. Their childhood ended that day in the space of five words, “Your Dad had an accident.”