Category Archives: Betty

14 years ago

On June 12, 1998 my life changed in an instant. I’d heard that statement in an instant many times – on the news, in the papers. I didn’t know it could reach me. In an instant is something that happens to someone else. One second found me. Calculated by engineers, they read the marks on the road, assessed the damage to the cars and the curb, determining how my life changed. This speed, the percentage, my life summed up or reduced by a number.

I looked both ways before crossing the street like I’d been taught. A lifetime of looking both ways and checking for danger and it didn’t matter this time. I crossed the street, the sun setting, not seeing anyone as I left the safety of the stop sign. And then. There it was. That instant. It slammed into Betty and I, pushed us off the road and into a ravine. On impact Betty died. I was trapped upside down as my car burned and I waited and waited, pleading for someone to rescue me.

As one life left this earth another began. One I didn’t see coming. We hear that, too. I didn’t see this coming. Nothing could prepare me for what I didn’t see coming and what came later. The after. The unraveling, the pain, the loss. My life ripped apart. That night, with a signature and the heartache of my family, a surgeon took my body apart to save me.

When the first anniversary loomed near, I dreaded it, hating a date which reminded me of that instant. Anniversaries were supposed to be special, celebratory. My best friend gone, 20 surgeries and 2 prosthetic legs later, how was I still here undone by one day, by one second?

The second year I went for bigger, bolder. Let’s make this better! I decided to go hang-gliding. I wanted to be off the ground, in the blue sky. This will make it different. I was after a moment, an exhilarating moment. June 12 is the day I went hang-gliding! Except that I got sick. It was exciting climbing toward the sky until we reached it and my stomach began to turn. I shouted in the wind, to the instructor I was strapped to just inches below me, “I’m air-sick. I forget I get air-sick.” He said, “What? Why didn’t you take anything? Are you going to be okay?” “Um, no, I’m going to throw up if we don’t get back down.” I concentrated on not vomiting all over this guy until we landed and I could plant my feet on the ground. I threw up into a bush.

The first 2 anniversaries family and friends called, remembering with me. As every summer drew near, heat and invincibility making everyone drive faster, my heart raced. You don’t know how your lives can change. Careful, careful. As another and then another June 12th arrived, there were fewer calls and fuller lives. Distance grew between that day and I, too. There was less pull, less gravity as the day approached. Because I am here. Because I fought hard. Because I am living.

Today, June 12 is closer, somehow. I’ve been re-living my story as I write it over and over again. This is the year I swallowed my fear and pitched my story out loud. This is the year I signed a contract to have my story published, a signature marking a new beginning rather than an ending. It will be another kind of anniversary. The anniversary that something beautiful, something epic happened.

read to be read at yeahwrite.me

before and after

I have always called myself an optimist with realistic expectations. What I’ve discovered though is that I’m sort-of a pessimist. (Putting the sort-of in front of it makes it easier to swallow.) In fact, Scott called me a fatalist the other day. Wha?? I was insulted. Me? A fatalist?

I’m practical. It’s the survivor in me. I know how to hunker down and weather the storms. What I’m not good at is the big picture, having vision for my life and dreaming. It’s a flaw I own. I hope for the best and am positive the worst will happen.

Sometimes it’s easier to dig your heels in, and grin and bear it than to leave the trenches and walk on.

I’ve come close to death and lost someone beloved and I never fully recovered. It’s been 13 years and I’m better, so much better, but my life can’t return to ‘before’. A line was crossed and I live in the after with a smattering of before. I mean, I knew bad things could happen, but I didn’t know. Not like this. You’re crushed and you want to recapture your heart. The way it was. You want to take life for granted again. And you can’t. You won’t.

Someone once said to me you’ll never be okay unless you’re completely healed. I reject that statement. Life is defined differently for me now and, after much time and relentless surrendering, it is okay. I am okay. I’m well. While there are many of us who can’t return to innocence and see the world with a rosy glow, we can see the sweet through the bitter. We can appreciate that life is fragile and if we explore it we’ll find beauty.

I only have to look at a pitch black sky with stars drawn across it to know our world is a mysterious place, magical and perplexing. There are some questions I will never have answers to and the not knowing can be maddening, but I can rest in the mystery, in being small in a big world. Maybe I’m a pessimist or a fatalist. Who knows and who cares? I do know that I’m still learning, always learning. For those of you who are suffering and can’t believe this is your life, know you are not alone. Right now you’re in the trenches. And one day you’ll do more than survive. You’ll live.

Swept up


In Skydive Professional

Speaking of living…this is Scott’s passion. This is what makes him feel truly alive. I don’t claim to understand it, but I support it because I’m nice like that. Recently, he started up this blog on being a professional skydiver and there are some exciting things happening for him, including interviewing author and skydiver Dan Bronsky-Chenfeld.

from narrow and limited to meaningful – part 1

I should have died, but I was spared. How could I tell anyone that I wasn’t grateful to be alive? I thought I should feel relieved, but I wasn’t. Betty died. And I didn’t.

I often thought about guests on talk shows telling their harrowing tales of how they came to survive and overcome tragedy. Tears were shed and they were grateful just to be alive. The heads of the audience nodding along as they dabbed their eyes with tissue. I felt enormous expectation to have the appropriate responses for the people in my life. Like the heads in the audience I wanted to have their heads bob along, satisfied with what I was saying.

When people asked how I felt I was never sure of what the response should be. It depended on the day. I tried to tie up the end of those conversations with ‘I’m thankful to be alive’. But, it didn’t come out that way. Some days I was fine. That was a good day. Fine sufficed. Other days it was harder to find adequate words to describe what was going on with me. Devastation was a good word to use. It was strong, decisive. It fit the situation. What happened was devastating. But, more than that, I felt exposed.

In the hospital it was about survival. I was fighting for my life and then recovering from each surgery. Every day was the same and I was safe within my four walls. At GF Strong reality sank in and I had to face that my life, as I knew it, unraveled. I needed to regain my independence and work my way towards freedom. While I did venture outside, I was mostly in a fortress of routine and patients and accessibility for the handicapped. After my five month stint at rehab I was moved to an apartment in a gorgeous area of Vancouver, an area that I would later come to call my healing place. There, I couldn’t hide.

My body wore everything that had gone wrong, evidence of the crash all over me. My pain was on display and I felt vulnerable. I was open to be stared at and pitied. By looking at me you could see my devastation, and my grief was suddenly a friend’s grief, a stranger’s grief. Because people could see me, or had been introduced to me, they shared in it, recalling stories of people they knew that had suffered through trauma or a time when they used a wheelchair. Everyone could relate. I listened, but I was getting tired of being a trigger for grief and tired of people feeling like they knew me. I wanted to say, to shout some days, “This isn’t me!” There was more to me than what happened. And there was a desperation in me to make sure this proved to be true.

I was hesitant to talk about Betty. I rarely did. If she came up there were more questions. My throat constricted and my eyes were dry as I hurried through the part of the story where my friend died on impact. I’m sure my reluctance to talk about her passing away, even with close friends, must have seemed odd to people. There was a sacredness to my friend and my friend’s death that I didn’t want for people to stick their fingers into. I talked about the good things, the funny stories, her laugh, with our (mine and Betty’s) friends, Angela and Loraleigh. But I didn’t like to talk about the end of Betty’s life. She died in that car. She died next to me in that car. And I was pried from that car, alive. I didn’t know how to talk about that. I wanted to respect Betty’s family and the loss of their sister and daughter. My back was straight and my face was strong as people mourned her. I felt protective. It would be years before I let myself cry for Betty.

A local reporter came over to my parents house to interview me one of the weekends I came home. The story of the car accident had been followed closely in my home town and he was there to follow up on my progress. I was angry that day. Angry that he was there, angry that he was intruding on something that I didn’t want to talk about, angry that I had said yes to the interview. I didn’t mean it, but I thought it was the right thing to do. People are interested and want to know how you’re doing, I was told.

He asked me a number of questions, one of them being about my best friend, Betty. I bristled. “She wasn’t my best friend.” The words fell from my mouth, flat, before I could stop them. He gave me a surprised look. I felt ashamed as soon as I said it. I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish when I said that. Of course she was one of my best friends. Of course I loved her like a sister. That’s how I introduced her to people, as the sister I never had. But, all I wanted was for him to go away. I wanted for all of this to go away. I wanted for Betty’s family to have some peace and maybe I wanted to have the tragic, sensationally sad story of two best friends in a horrific car crash to change. If I dropped the ‘best’ from it, it would lessen the blow somehow. Maybe the reporter would leave her out of the story altogether, so her family wouldn’t have to see Betty’s name in print and be reminded, as if they weren’t reminded every day, that she wasn’t here anymore. It was ridiculous, really. There was nothing I could do to change what had happened and now I was coming across as some selfish, sullen victim.

betty

This is, by far, the most difficult thing I’ve written yet. I can write about me with almost an ease. I know me and what’s happened and have made peace with it inside and out. But, to write about this, about Betty is altogether different. It’s hard. I have talked about her, reminisced with friends, laughed at the things she has said and done, but to write it out… To see it in print makes me shake. I’ve been putting off writing this. I think that’s why I haven’t been here. I’ve been trying, without success, to write about the rest. Everything else but this. I can’t get around it, though. It has been in my chest, a hand squeezing my heart. I need to write this.

I never went to Betty’s funeral. I couldn’t. I was unconscious, in surgery, unaware as people came together to mourn the loss of Betty’s light on earth. The funeral was held in a large church, large enough to hold the many people that knew her, loved her, wanted to be close to her one last time. Songs were sung, prayers given and benedictions offered as people remembered and cried struck by the speed, the ferocity of her death. Metal against metal Betty was pushed into death. It came quickly. We weren’t ready.

Was there a signal missed, a warning one felt in the pit of their stomach, a prickling at the back of the neck that this was coming? Something to whisper loss is near. Devastation you cannot prepare for. Would that change anything? If I knew would we not have had that argument a few days before? Would I have reminded her that I loved her? Would I have done everything in my power to cushion the blow? We say that if we knew we would have, could have, should have. But, I don’t know that this is true. Life gets casual. It is comfortable. It is day to day. Most of us don’t live looking for calamity, death at our shoulder. We take life for granted and this is how it should be, because we are living. I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy of ‘live like you’re dying’. It didn’t make sense to me then, nor does it now. I know what it implies, how that phrase should make you soar. But, to me, ‘live like you’re dying’ means to live afraid. To live smoothing things over. To cover your mouth with your hand for fear of rejection, to not step on a crack because your loved one may be snatched away from you. One would not be themselves. You would be dwarfed by a shadow and I couldn’t live in a shadow. It isn’t living. Betty knew I loved her. We had an argument. We were conflicted, but it didn’t change our friendship. I didn’t stop saying she was like the sister I never had. An argument doesn’t change that.

We were going to visit a friend of ours working at the restaurant we were headed towards. We were leaving our argument behind. We were, over a meal, going to say goodbye. Betty was leaving town for the summer and I wanted to toast her and wish her well. We never made it to the restaurant. We didn’t know we would be saying goodbye in a church, in a hospital, every day in the months to follow.

Betty was the baby of the family, the only girl. She had four brothers who looked out for her and a father that worried after his only daughter, the only female left in the house. She was beloved. Their mother and wife died tragically in a car crash. Betty was with her mother, in the car as her mother left this world. Betty was fourteen. I remember going to her mom’s funeral. I knew Betty from a distance then. I knew the brother closest to her in age a little. We shared some mutual friends. I sat in the pew of our church watching the family file in hunched over with grief.

Betty and I became friends later through breakups. We were both getting over a guy. We always said if it wasn’t for these guys we may have never become friends. She was two years younger than me. We shared clothes and opinions. We talked fast and used our hands for emphasis. We spent hours poring over our lives, what we would be, who could we become. Our destinies were yet to be found and we were excited by our prospects. Betty was an incredible listener. She was so engaged. There is no other way to put it. Nothing diverted her attention from you, the speaker. She had a ready laugh. It was often a guffaw. She was compassionate. She never let me say a bad word against my mother. Not when her own mother had been ripped from her. I would be irritated with my mom, grumbling at something she said that rubbed me the wrong way and she would chastise me, saying, you have a mom, stressing the mom. You should be thankful. She said this with wide eyes, with calm. In a don’t mess with me kind of way. She wasn’t saying it to make me feel bad, but to remind me of the good in my life. That was Betty. Looking for the good and protecting what she loved the most. I think that’s what her chastising was – it wasn’t to make me feel guilty, but to prepare me for what could happen and, to her, what could happen so easily. She knew. And she would do what she could to protect me.

We were blindsided by that car. I left the stop sign with not an inkling of a car in my sight line. It was hurtling towards us and I was told later…much, much later that I could have done nothing to stop it. The trigger had been pulled. A reckless driver and the laws of physics were against us. The car hit the passenger side, her side. She, with no choice, was my shield. Her body protected my own as my car was hit, spun across the intersection, plowed through a fence, tumbled down a ravine and landed upside down at the bottom. If it wasn’t for the car catching fire I would have come away with scratches, a few broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Betty, age twenty-one destiny undiscovered, died on impact.

We try to make sense of a life cut short. We demand answers and attempt to make pieces fit. But, they don’t. They can’t. There isn’t sense to be made when life is ended swiftly. There is no reason when people say there must be a reason. We reason. We try. We make. Because it is what we do. It is our instinct to survive and this is what we do to survive tragic losses and lives cut short. We make the best of. We learn. We want order and find it in the chaos. It is the beauty of being human. We can grieve and celebrate. We choose hope over bitterness. We accept. That may be the hardest part. To stretch out our hands, palms up, and take in the loss. To absorb the impact and admit that we weren’t ready. Death came and we didn’t want it to, but it is here. It has come. We will accept and accept and accept until it is a part of us, woven through us and we will love, always love.

When I won my much fought for independence and finally left the hospital I saw Betty everywhere. She was in the long limbs of a young woman at the mall, in the tilt of a woman’s head in conversation with a friend, and in the dark wavy hair of another. My heart would race and hope would rise. I would crane my neck for a closer inspection only to shake my head remembering that she isn’t here, would never be here. I kept walking wondering if anyone else saw that my face was flushed and I was shaking. Sometimes I felt her laugh, her presence around me. I didn’t care if it was real or if I was making it up. It comforted me to think of her as around. Her joy when she was living was so contagious. Why couldn’t it still be here affecting me, nudging me in the right direction.

I heard Betty’s funeral on a cassette tape. Her brother brought it in to the hospital for me to hear. He sat with me. I think someone else might have been there, but I can’t remember. I don’t know if I cried. I think I did. I heard the songs that were sung. I’m sure there was a eulogy, but none of the words come to mind. My stay in the hospital has holes in it, wide gaps of time that I can’t fill. When I think about her brother sitting at the edge of my bed it is like seeing it through warped glass. Everything is wavy and blurred. Even the colors are washed out. My grief was far away, untouchable. Betty’s death wasn’t final for me. I was still so caught up in her life. To me it went on and on whether she was here or not.

***

I went to Betty’s father’s funeral a week and a half ago. Betty’s sister in law called me on Monday to let me know he had passed away, that she wasn’t sure yet when the funeral would be. He had lost his long battle with cancer.

His funeral was on a Thursday. I went with my mom. I signed the guest book. I thought, hasn’t this family been through enough? Another funeral. Another sadness. Another loss. I seldom see Betty’s family, but we are tied together with loss and survival. Bound by it now. I cry through the service. I’m pinching my arm to distract myself from crying. I’m surprised by the tears and taken aback by what’s behind them. I feel like I’m bursting. I’m crying for the brothers, the farming, firefighting, sure and steady brothers, standing on that podium taking turns reading their father’s eulogy tears streaking their faces. I’m crying because Betty is everywhere and nowhere. The tissues I brought with me in-case-of are soaked and falling apart. After the service I wipe the tears and mascara from my face, redo my lipstick and take a deep breath. I see Betty’s nieces who are becoming young women now. One is sixteen and the other fourteen. The fourteen year old reminds me of Betty. She has some of her mannerisms. I wonder if she knows that, if she’s been told you look like your auntie. I want to tell her that the light freckles on her face and the way she holds herself make me think of her aunt, but I wonder if it will hurt her. I hug her and tell her how good it is to see her. I hug Betty’s brother later, the one closest to me in age, the one who sat on the edge of my bed and I tell him how sorry I am. I want to say that I’m sorry for it all. His dad, his sister, his mom. I can’t convey this with a hug and the few words I give. I sound cheerful, maybe too happy. He has to go now along with the rest of his family – his son and wife, his brothers and their wives – to tend to their guests and lay their dad to rest.

I have to go to my daughter’s school after the funeral. I wish I could stay longer, but Annie has a show and tell that I have to bring things for. I promised her I would help her set up. I’m struck by how life goes on as I climb into my car, how it never stops no matter how much you’d like for it to, even if just for a moment. I think of Betty’s family and all they’ve had to endure. I think of how gorgeous her nieces have become. I think of Betty and how I couldn’t go to her funeral, how I hope she’s reunited with her dad in another world from here, how she didn’t get to have babies of her own, how our friend, Ang, and I used to call her Beautiful Betty (actually, we sung it to her – a silly, little song we made up), how I miss her. I picture her smile, her joy filling the space beside me as I drive towards my daughter and the life I’m building not unaware that I’m doing this without her.

the beginning

I never played the ‘what if’ game. I never let my imagination run wild with what might have been. It would have been hurtful, wrong even. What was the point? My fate had been decided. The engineer’s findings told me so. I would have never seen that car coming in time to slam on the brakes or yell out a, “Holy shit!” I was a second too late and a second too early. There was nothing I could have done. Maybe this was already in the hands of God. Maybe I was destined for this crossroads. Or maybe life was just dealing me a shitty hand that week.

How was I going to do this? Could I do it? It was up to me. Nobody was going to do this for me, so ‘what if’ was a waste of time and a dangerous game to play.

This was my life now. What was I going to do with it?

***

“Heidi. You’ve been in a car accident.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“You’re in the hospital. Your leg is gone. They’re trying to save the other one, but it doesn’t look good.”

“Heidi?”

“You’ve been badly burnt.”

“Betty’s gone, Heidi.”

“Heidi?”

My name was a question with no answer. My messenger was Scott, my boyfriend, and he was forced to repeat this news until I understood, as if I could ever understand. I was told later that morphine made my memory hazy, that I had trouble retaining information. I believe I rejected my messenger’s words. They couldn’t belong to me.

The extent of my injuries came to me in pieces, in fog. I saw the wounds on my belly first. My skin was red, angry and gaping. I had smooth skin, a little tanned. It was June and I had been spending some time in the sun.

Why was I so stiff? I couldn’t move my right arm.

There was so much white – white rolled around my arms, white sheets draped over me, white walls.

I lifted my hand to my face. There was something hard and plastic coming out of my nose. I was on my back pinned to the bed by the machines surrounding me.

There was a dull ache at the back of my mind – a memory struggling to free itself.

Car.

Fire.

Betty.

Betty?

Fire.

My legs.

The words flashed through my brain void of images. I didn’t remember how or why or when it happened. Only that I was here, in a hospital, and these words had been given to me, offered up as explanation. I let the words slip through me – one after the other – each word attempting to land, to fit as they grappled to find a home.

To be continued…

This is a start. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know what this is about. If not, you can read about me in the ‘about me’ section where I attempt to tell you what it is that I’m doing, although I’m not sure I have figured that out yet. I have to say that I’m clicking submit with some trepidation. Okay, I am freaking out that I’m going to put this out there! I haven’t written my story like this before. It has always been in the context of helping others. ‘This is what I’ve learned from a very difficult time in my life’ in speech form. This is new to me.

Here it goes.