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.