Category Archives: my story

new news!

I am going to be on the radio!! I will be featured on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) program North by Northwest with Sheryl MacKay.

Sheryl heard me speak on CBC’s Early Edition for the Angel Campaign in December, got in touch with me and asked me to be on her show. Of course I said yes! I’d be honored and I was. I geeked out just a little sitting in CBC’s waiting room and then in the booth with my headphones. I should have pulled out my phone to sneak a photo. Like most Canadians I didn’t want to impose, so I politely left my phone in my purse.

We were there to talk about my story. Sheryl had asked for the manuscript which I sent and then I harassed her with emails like, did you get it? It didn’t get lost out there somewhere, right? I had this vision of the file never reaching her and landing in some crazy person’s inbox who…I don’t know what they would do with it because, of course, this is illogical and would never happen. But, I’m slightly neurotic. And it’s my memoir, my almost-book.

We talked story for 40 minutes which will be edited to somewhere between 15 – 17 minutes. Sheryl is lovely, laid-back and easy to talk to – too easy. I could have freely over-shared, which wouldn’t have been good for anyone.  Like I could have told her about the time Scott’s co-workers overheard a very private conversation between me and Scott when Scott, unknowingly, hadn’t turned off his ‘on’ button while they were video-conferencing. My face still burns with humiliation. She made it that comfortable.

North by Northwest is a program that’s on every weekend featuring artists, musicians, writers and chefs sharing their passions and inspirations. And I had the incredible honor to be interviewed. The show will air this Sunday, January the 22nd, after the 8:30 am news. Here in Vancouver you can listen to it on 690 AM or 88.1 FM. You’ll be able to listen to it at their website and I’ll follow up with that information when I know more. You can follow me on Twitter (@heidicave) by just clicking at the top right corner of my blog where I will be sure to tweet more details. Or Facebook. I’ll post there too.

Here we are…the whole family this time.

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 the backseat

I’m in my van driving my kids around all the time, so here are a couple of offbeat and charming things I hear from the backseat…

On our way home from school Benjamin asked Annie, “Would you want to go to machete school?”

Annie said, “What’s a machete?”

“A really big knife that can cut off people’s heads.” Ben emphasized this with a swift karate chop to the neck.

Me under my breath, Umm, what? Machete school or murder school? Duuude.

Ben isn’t an aggressive kid. He’s fairly easygoing, loves Lego and his mom, a homebody. I don’t let him play video games where massacre is involved unless you count exploding Lego bricks in Star War Battles as massacre.  No one in our bloodline has a thirst for vengeance. Not on my side anyway. We Mennonites are born pacifists. Ben’s a bit quirky, odd perhaps, but out to kill? A future assassin? No. So I chalked it up to weirdness. He can’t help it. That’s been passed down from both Scott and I.

At dinner he asked his dad if he had a machete. Without missing a beat Scott answered, “No, Ben, I don’t have a machete. Why?”

Ben shrugs. “I dunno.”

I wanted to get to the bottom of it, “Did you need one for something?”

“No. I just think Daddy should have one. They’re cool,” he grinned.

Alright, Ben.

***

A couple of weeks ago I drove Annie and her friend to their ballet class when I heard Annie ask, “Have you heard of the Great Depression?”

I turned the volume of the radio down. They had just been discussing a ‘talking’ dog on YouTube and I had grown weary.

Her friend said, “What’s a depression?”

Annie: “Where people are really, really poor and they have to sell a lot of apples to get out of it.”

I piped up, “Are you learning about this for Social Studies in school, Annie?”

Annie: “No, I read about it in American Girl.”

Ah. And there you have it.

Swept up

You can hear my interview for the Angel Campaign with Rick Cluff on the Early Edition at CBC Radio here. Jump to time: 1:50:30 where I talk about my 7 month stay at Vancouver General Hospital and how the staff made my Christmas magical!

my christmas past

Tinsel, wreaths, and garlands with red berries began to appear on doorways and walls. Themed trees representing the wards of the hospital decorated the lobbies and cafeteria. Little red fire trucks hung from the burns and plastics tree. There was a spring to people’s steps. Happy complaints of how there was never enough time were heard in the hallways. Christmas was near and people were excited.

I had been in the burn unit for nearly seven months and I hadn’t been home yet. I hadn’t been stable enough. There was talk of sending me home, back to Abbotsford, for Christmas.

Christmas Eve morning arrived and snow had fallen hard in the Lower Mainland. We can have entire winters where we might just get a dusting of snow before the rain washes it away. Snow tends to stay on the mountains where it belongs. But every other winter or so snow covers the mainland and we’ve never been very equipped for snow. We understand rain coming down so hard our windshield wipers can’t keep up, but snow dumbfounds us.

Morphine was measured and poured, a bed ordered for the basement of my parents’ home, where I’d be sleeping. Everything was being looked after in preparation for my return home, but somebody still needed to drive me there, now that a snowstorm had hit. The drive from Vancouver to Abbotsford was about an hour long.

Calls were made. Who could help? The staff had gone through so much to get me home. They were going to call until someone said yes.

A firefighter named Peter Hansen stepped up and promised to take me.

My memory of the journey was jerky, snapshots I could barely hang onto.

Many hands sliding me into the cab of the truck where somebody had the foresight to make me a bed.

Goodbyes and wishes of a Merry Christmas shouted.

Blankets pulled up to my chin. My heart racing with hope and impatience.

White swollen sky rolled by me as I lay in my makeshift bed. Snowflakes landed on the window, a blanket of stars.

I was going home.

Read about more of my story here.

Swept up

Remember radio? I’m going to be on it tomorrow! For the Angel Campaign at VGH. Listen for it on Thursday. I’ll be on at 7:40am on CBC Radio with Rick Cluff and share a little of my Christmas story past as written here and talk about the amazing VGH Burn Unit.

my birthday 13 years ago

It was October 17th and my 24th birthday was celebrated with friends, family, nurses and a heap of food. My mom was at the helm organizing, directing and encouraging everyone to eat, eat! It didn’t matter that I was flat on my back in a bed. Wherever a group of people was gathered, a feast must be had. We were never short of food growing up in my house. Seconds were always pushed at dinner. If we were full that was accepted, but not before we were asked if we wanted more. It was no different in the hospital.

“Heidi, what would you like to eat?” my mom asked. She stood by my bed, hands on her hips.

I still found eating hard. I had been fed through a tube for so long that food was something I needed to get used to again.

“You pick, Mom. You know what I like.”

And she was off, launching herself into the next task. My mom was rarely still. All my life she moved – she cleaned, she fed, she looked after. My brothers and I were safe in a love that never stopped.

The crash was especially hard on her. She was at home when it happened; seconds after Betty and I left she heard a bang. The loudest bang I ever heard she had said and didn’t say much else about it. I didn’t press her for more. She was helpless, powerless to do anything to save her daughter or make her well. She was forced to wait at the sidewalk while firefighters lifted me from the ravine and then wait by my bed, her lined hard-working hands restless by her side.

There wasn’t room for anything sad when my mom gathered and assembled everyone to sing Happy Birthday to me. Family and friends, nurses, physiotherapist and occupational therapists – the many faces of the people I loved and had come to know packed into my small room and spilling into the hallway. Over birthday cake they sang to me.

Burning candles weren’t allowed what with all the ready oxygen everywhere, but gifts were brought and laid on the tray table beside me that normally held my water, juice and vomit trays. (Anesthetic didn’t agree with me and after almost every surgery I was vomiting whatever the doctors had pumped in.) The table was cleared and in its place was bright, crisp wrapping paper and bags with Happy Birthday splashed across them filled with colorful tissue. How refreshing to have something pretty near me!

Scott gave me his gift while no one was in the room. Everyone had gone to refill their drinks, get cake and second helpings of food. He placed a small blue velvet box into the palm of my hand.

“For you.”

I tugged at the box and the lid sprang open. Inside was a white-gold ring with a small diamond in the center of it. The ring was dainty and delicate.

I looked at him, surprised. “A ring?”

Scott said, “It looks like you.” He didn’t slip the ring onto my finger. He didn’t touch it. He was sitting cross-legged at the foot of my bed and the ring, still in its box, lay between us in the palm of my hand as he explained.

“It’s a promise ring. It’s my promise to you. To be with you. It’s the promise of us and a future together. And the promise that things will get better.”

I said, “It’s beautiful. Thank you. I didn’t expect this.”

I took it from its box and slipped it onto the ring finger of my right hand. Both of us were clear that it wasn’t an engagement ring. Neither of us was ready for that, yet. On my finger, with me, was a symbol of hope and a reminder that I was loved.

be bold

My kids know I’ve been writing my story and this has prompted many observations and questions about the crash. Benjamin is caught up in justice. “Did the bad guy go to jail?” “Was he going very fast?” “Did he say sorry?” Yes, he went to jail but nearly didn’t. Yes, he was going very fast. And the last answer is tricky. Annie is taken with what happened later, after the crash. She’s known about me longer and considers herself an authority on the details. “That’s why you have the marks on your arms.” “How did the doctors cut off your legs?” “I’m named after Betty, right? I’m just switched around.” She turns to Ben, “I’m Annie Elizabeth. I’m named after Mommy’s best friend.” Yes. Well, they cut them, but let’s not get into ‘how’ exactly. And yes.

And then one day…

We’re eating dinner. Scott is skydiving, so it’s just me and the kids. Annie looks up from the spaghetti she’s twirling with her fork and says, “I’m glad you didn’t die in the crash.  If you died, you wouldn’t be our mommy.”

I clutch at my heart (oh, my heart) and I am crying which makes Annie cry and Ben continues to slurp his spaghetti, looking at me and then Annie. I get up from my chair, throw my arms around her and squish my cheek against hers, “I’m crying happy tears. I’m happy I lived too. I’m so lucky to be your mommy.”

***

I returned from the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) conference with (stealing from Emmy nominated Friday Night Lights) clear eyes and a full heart. I attended the conference because Scott made me and because I’ve detached from the book. I’d been staring at my screen slack-jawed and eyes blank, knowing I must fill in the growing gap between me and getting the story out there. I needed this conference.

I was lucky enough to meet these brave and lovely women, Alexis Bass, Alisha Sanvicens, Claire Carey (who doesn’t have a blog, but should!) and Joanna Roddy, who ended up being my guides through the conference and guides in boldness. They sparkled, pitched their stories, and shone. Surrounded with people that live to write and the lucky few that write to live, and hearing stories of how writers earned the title, author, I was inspired. Annie’s words tapped me on the shoulder reminding me to finish what I started. I’m here for a reason – to tell the story.

I know what it means to be bold, how deep you have to go sometimes to find it and at other times you wear it like a coat. You throw it on and oh-hey-it-fits-and-it’s-comfortable! If I hadn’t stuck up my hand during Saturday’s workshop to give the shortest synopsis of my book ever I wouldn’t have met Kim Kircher or read an early release of her book The Next 15 Minutes which is incredible and everyone should read it when it comes out in October. Seriously, it’s crazy good. If it hadn’t been for all of these gutsy women I wouldn’t have pitched my story to a few agents and an editor that day and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to send my material to them. Bold blazed everywhere that weekend and I’m going to continue to follow the light.

“I love you.”

I come from a long line of doers. Good Mennonite stock that emigrated from Paraguay, South America. This means there is nothing you can’t fix by doing. In church circles it’s called the gift of hospitality. It was like a calling for us as Mennonites. You don’t sit around and wait for things to fall into your lap. We may be pacifists in war, but in life, you cook, clean, bake! I had a lot of family who wanted to help. When I was at my worst, no one knowing if I was going to cross over to the other side, family came out in droves. My two younger brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins parked themselves on chairs in the waiting rooms and took turns sitting with me while I was oblivious to what was going on around me.

One of my cousins was willing to donate skin if he had to. Some were silently supportive, stoic in their pacing around the room. Others sat with me and held my hand. Some prayed and recruited their church congregations in prayer. Others had questions for the doctors. What could they do? How could they help? This is the Mennonite way. There may be a situation which is beyond our control, but one can always find a way to help. We demonstrate our love through action. The gift of hospitality is something we are not in short supply of.

Another way we help is through food. There is always more than enough food. You don’t go without, not if my mom or any of her sisters have anything to say about it. I have never left one of our family gatherings without somebody pressing food into my hands saying, for lunch tomorrow. You look down and it’s already been covered in plastic wrap or tucked into a Tupperware container. You cannot refuse. It’s not a choice. You say thank you and go, grateful for how your body will be nourished tomorrow.

I grew up in a house where you pray, but with efficiency. Short and to the point, amen. God doesn’t need for you to go on and on. He’s a busy God and not interested in flowery prose. He’s God. He knows your needs. My prayers growing up were all said in German. They were memorized, traditional prayers – one for mealtime and one for bedtime.

As a child I believed God preferred German. It was the language I learned first. If I said a prayer in English it would not be received as well as if I had spoken it in German. Our prayer at mealtimes went like this, Segne Vater diese Speise uns zur Kraft und Dir zum Preise. Amen. (Father, bless this food for our strength and to you as praise) It is said swiftly but with reverence. When we were children, to amuse ourselves, we recited it as fast as we could, picking up speed as we went along. It was a race. Who could finish first?

“SegneVaterdiesespeiseunzurkraftunddizumpreiseamen!”

My dad did not appreciate this. With a stern look and a “Nah” with the ‘a’ drawn out, so it came out a Naaah, the word coming up at the end, we shut up and looked down at our plates, very busy with our forks. This meant he also didn’t appreciate when we said it slowly enunciating each word as if we were delivering a powerful sermon, sometimes with emphatic arm gestures. This was considered disrespectful too. I’m pretty sure I saw my dad hiding a smile more than once during our attempts to spice up our prayer lives.

My dad wasn’t a man big on I-love-you’s. We were loved, so it didn’t need to be said. That changed after June 12, 1998, the day of the car crash.

When I was newly born my dad cradled me in his arms and carried me around in the middle of the night to lull me to sleep. From infancy on I liked to be near him. There’s evidence of this in photos of us sitting side by side, my dad sipping his Yerba Mate (a South American herbal tea) and me leaning into him. My brothers and I spent a lot of time on my dad’s back as he crawled around on all fours as a bucking bronco, a galloping horse! He wrestled with us, played street hockey with us, but he never said I love you. When I was sixteen I worked up the nerve to say, “I love you” and it was met with uncomfortable silence. There was no, I love you too.

My dad’s very first I love you came when I was in a hospital bed hovering between life and death. He said, “When you were brand new to the world I dedicated you to God. I told Him, she is yours first and mine second.” He spoke in his well-worn German broken with English, the voice of my childhood. He cleared his throat, “I prayed, wondering if God was going to make good on the dedication. But, God gave you back to us.” He paused, looked at the floor, and then his eyes met mine. “I love you, Heidi.”

because of what they do

“We pass them off to the next set of hands and then we never see them again.”

I heard that from a few firefighters in Merritt at their Annual Firefighters Appreciation Banquet on Saturday night where I was honored to be the keynote speaker. They rescue and safely give their survivors to paramedics. Most firefighters don’t know if they survive their hospital stay or know what happens after they leave the hospital. They might come across the story in the paper and that’s the only information they have, but the stories don’t come full circle for these brave men and women. I heard again and again how great it was to hear from someone that made it and was doing well.

I feel safe, comfortable when I’m with firefighters, like I’m with family. I don’t know if it’s because they rescued me from a burning car or if it’s just that I’ve spoken to so many of them now and see that they are consistently good, solid people. They know how to have fun and at the same time take what they do seriously. It’s these reasons and more. I mean, who doesn’t love firefighters? When I’m in a room full of firefighters I am home.

“I had such a good time!” You could hear me saying that over and over again to the people at my table, to the mayor, to everyone I had the pleasure of coming into contact with. I did have such a good time.

We were served great food (I’ve been to a few of these dinners and this might be the best meal yet) from a place called Brambles. If you’re ever in Merritt you’ll have to check it out. I hear they make a mean scone too…I have a soft spot for a good scone. I sat at a table with Chief Dave Tomkinson, who invited me to speak, and his lovely and witty wife, Shelley. After my presentation I watched firefighters receive handshakes, good-natured ribbing, and awarded for their brave and selfless work through the year. As Scott and I got our photo taken in a Fire Truck from 1929 and cranked the fire alarm to a loud wail, as we mingled and gathered our things for the drive home we were stopped by a firefighter who told us it’s good to hear the end of the story. Scott replied, “It’s because of what you guys do that we have a family, that there are kids and there’ll be grandkids.”

It’s true. Because of what they do I’m here, Scott is here, and Annie and Benjamin are here. There is life; there is more because of what they do.

Swept up

Go Canucks Go!

whole

I’ve been retooling a speech, putting together old and new material into one super speech for this weekend. I’m speaking in Merritt, BC and while I’m talking story I’m also explaining lessons I’ve learned through the story.

One of the topics I cover is ‘wholeness’. How physically I’m altered and logically I’m not whole, but I feel whole. If the state of my mind and heart are whole then I am, in fact, whole. Even though my crazy stitched-up body will always be my crazy stitched-up body I’ve made peace with it. Until summer comes around.

It’s far better than it used to be. I don’t intensely dislike girls who can pull off a tank top anymore and what I mean by ‘pull off’ is really anyone that doesn’t have scars running up and down their arms stopping and starting in neat lines making sleeves. I was envious of something I no longer had and I was a girl that wanted to feel pretty.

Everyone is allowed parts of the body they hate. I just hated almost all of my body. Except for my boobs. Miraculously, they escaped the fire. So, I had that. For the most part, I didn’t judge people’s nitpicking about themselves. Once in a while, though, I got uptight. When people would complain about the nick they have on their otherwise smooth tanned leg or the small scar on their arm from when they were poked with a fork or something equally as offensive I thought, oh yeah? I’ll show you. I wanted to rip off my clothes to show them what scars were all about, which was quickly rebuffed by sanity and my polite side returning to me. I’d murmur my agreement. “That sucks.” And shake my head knowingly. They knew I could sympathize. Years ago Someone-I-Knew said, “I sprained my toe and I thought of you right away. It is so painful. I knew you could relate.” I tried to stop my jaw from unhinging and said, “Oh?” What I should have added was uh, no, spraining your toe is not the same as having someone cut them off.

As I got distance from the crash I was less jealous of people with normal skin and more tolerant of the stupid things people say (also, people stopped saying stupid things). I grew comfortable in my new skin, in who I am. It’s just that summer is a trigger for what I lost.

As I’m reading the lessons I wrote down two years ago for one particular speech I’m reminded again of not just how horrific it all was, but what has happened since, what I’ve made of my life. All of the good that’s come, the joy I found, and I’m filled with gratitude.

The speech is called A Life Worth Living and this weekend on June 12th it will have been 13 years since the car crash and I think it’s kinda cool that I’m speaking on June 11th, the day before everything changed in the blink of an eye about love, hope and being whole.

chapter 22

This is the beginning of Chapter 22 of my book, the second-to-last chapter.

“Heidi, I have a favor to ask you. A pretty big favor. You can say no.”

“Okay…”

It was my friend, Karen. “I’m thinking of putting on a concert for Vancouver. I want it to be a community thing and I was thinking that I’d like to give the proceeds to the burn fund. I was wondering if you could speak at the concert. Tell your story. It would be on the behalf of the burn fund.”

“Oh, um, okay. Well, let me think about it.”

“Of course! Think about it. Take all the time you need and get back to me.”

Karen was easy like that. No big deal, take your time, and you can change your mind.

I got off the phone and looked at Scott, who was sitting on the couch next to me. “Do you know Karen’s putting on a concert? She wants me to speak at it. It’ll be for the burn fund.”

“Do you want to do it?”

“Not really. But I might do it for Karen. And it’s for the burn fund.”

I had been cautious to tell my story. Karen wasn’t the first person to ask me. Various people had asked me to tell the story. It was often suggested I should speak to high school students, my story serving as a warning. I did a short interview on film about two years after the crash made for high school students on the dangers of driving too fast. A few teachers have stopped me at a mall, a grocery store saying they recognize me from that video. I hadn’t reached the first anniversary of the crash when someone asked if they could write my story, turn it into a book. I was at rehab then and this person was a stranger. I couldn’t comprehend how they could write a story that had just begun and I said no. She said, “If you change your mind, call me.” I didn’t think I’d change my mind.

I was so intent on getting on with my life I felt that if I rehashed the past it might harm me and drag me under. I also felt that it was too intimate to take people into my pain, exposing myself on a stage or behind a microphone. I knew the point wasn’t the pain, but the triumph, the overcoming. The surviving. The BC Professional Firefighters Burn Fund promoted survivors. They didn’t use the word victim and they had a significant impact on how I viewed my life.

I had never wanted to be the poster girl for burn survivors. I had fought to be an ordinary girl. I knew many people became advocates after cancer, collision, disease found them. I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted. That I had to do something just because I was in a car crash. I wanted to amount to something, be something not because I was burnt or my legs were cut off but because I was being myself.

It had been seven years since the crash and I still felt as though I was on a detour and one day I would get myself back on track. Isn’t that what people said? Except, what track? I wasn’t on a track. I hadn’t picked a track. I couldn’t return to anything. At twenty three I was at the age of figuring things out, of destiny-making. At thirty I still didn’t know what lay ahead. I had spent such a long time in recovery, got married, had a baby two years later and I was expecting another baby. And nowhere in between had I discovered what I was passionate about, if there was anything to be passionate about.

It looked like my fate was finding me. Maybe to tell the story was a part of my destiny. I could say no and be fine or I could risk and tell. I could be a reluctant storyteller telling her story. What would it lead to? I couldn’t be sure. I was afraid of that and excited by it all at the same time. And maybe it would be good to give back in some way.

Five minutes after Karen’s phone call I called her and said, “I’ll do it.”