Monday, October 5, 2009


I wrote this in my original blog four years ago. I entitled it "October Is The Cruellest Month," because as of then September wasn't.


I could fill reams of paper with stories of a family under seige, a family marked forever by that relentless stalker, grief. I could write about growing up without a mother, under the twin shadows of loss and alcoholism.

But for today, I simply want to do the events of October 5, 1960 the honor of recording them.

It was a perfectly ordinary day. Everyone says that, according to Joan Didion in the recent Sunday Times article in which she explores the staggering grief she has experienced since the death of her husband. Everyone begins the narrative of sudden and unexpected death with the same preamble. "It was an ordinary day." Even Joan Didion begins with those words, despite the fact that she had spent the earlier part of the afternoon on which her husband suddenly died visiting her daughter, who was in the hospital in a coma.

It was for us, however, really an ordinary day, exactly 45 years ago. I was late to school and missed the bus. I almost always missed the bus, because my mother wanted me to eat breakfast and in second grade I was never hungry that early. As she did almost every morning, my father's mother waved to us from her dining room window as we drove down the hill past her house.

A little later, as she would tell me when I was grown, my mother's mother, who lived a mile away, in town, walked into our house, calling the name of her daughter. Dishes had been left on the table and a load of laundry was running in the basement.

"Carol! Carol?" she called. It was an ordinary morning and she was going to spend it with her daughter and grandsons. She had begun to clear the dishes when my father's mother walked in.

"Oh, Dorothy," she said, in a pained voice that barely emerged from her lips. The two grandmothers looked at each other and thought, This is not happening. This communication that is about to pass between us cannot be.

After she had waved to us, my father's mother, still in her nightgown and robe, had turned back to her kitchen from her dining room. Before she had taken more than a few steps, she heard a thunderous crash from the road below the hill. She grabbed the telephone and called for an ambulance, saying urgently, "I think my family has been in an accident." Then she took off down the hill, running at breakneck speed down the drive and a quarter of a mile down the road.

My mother was already gone. My baby brother died a few hours later, having been transported to Children's Hospital with massive brain injuries. I lay in the ditch, screaming for my mother.

My other brother, who was four and has no real memory of ever having had a mother, is the only one left who has any recollection of the moments before the accident. He says that our mother glanced into the back seat where we were located, and then there was darkness. Apparently we swerved just over the center line as an oncoming car crested the hill in front of us.

When my brother woke up in the hospital four days later, his skull fractured and his elbow shattered, I had been lying there conscious for 48 hours already, weighted down by my full leg cast and abdominal stitches. And by other things. The adults wheeled my tiny brother out of the room to tell him what I already knew, and the hallway stiffened against a child's wails, just as it had two days earlier.

And then we began, my brother and I, murmuring in our hospital beds as the leaves outside the window turned yellow and red, to build our lives anew. We were children, and so we were brave and did not know that we were small.


We are older now. My brother has called me almost every day since Josh died. We are still brave, but now we know that we are small.


August said...

What a beautiful post. Terrible. But beautifully written.

karen gerstenberger said...

How very hard these memories are; how much you have deep inside of you, from so far back.

Thank you for sharing this sacred story of an ordinary day, broken open, and its life-changing effects. I am so sorry for your loss, for your family's loss, and for the pain that has followed.

You are right: we are all small - but many of us do not reflect upon it. I'm thankful that that smallness is held in great LOVE, whether we know it or not. May you feel embraced by that Love, today and always.

Michelle said...


Karen and Joe said...

Beautifully written, but more suffering than any one person should have to bear. Dear God, it's a tragic world. I always say you have a double-dose of courage, and perhaps this is the source. You and your brother came back from this. Surviving devastating loss at such an early age must either send one cowering into the shadows or boldly out to battle the dragons of life.
Strength, peace, comfort, and hope to you, beautiful, strong woman.

Rev SS said...

speechless .. and in tears. you write so beautifully ... as Karen says .. way more pain than any one person should have to bear (((o)))

Carol said...

Thinking of you today, and always.

Magdalene6127 said...

I agree with August. Terrible and beautiful.