Breath

**** A note to my dear readers: The post below is fairly graphic in nature. It’s not my desire to shock or titillate, but simply to bear witness to these events. If you know me personally, and were along for this fateful event in September 1984, then please proceed cautiously, aware that the events described here might be triggering to your own grief.****

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 “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I turned around, and took in the sight before me. There were people milling about, both friends and strangers. Some were crying hysterically, loudly wailing the panic and horror that gripped their souls. Others stood in eery silence, eyes glazed, catatonic from shock. Littered on the road around them, I could see clothing that had been shorn off victims. Pools of blood collected. A shoe here and there, blown off by the force of the car that had torn through our midst.

I moved forward, only to have a frantic hand grab at me. “Please,” she said, her voice shrill from the pain. “Please help me.” I recognized her as an unfamiliar girl who had, in what seemed long ago, tried to clamber aboard a hay wagon only a few minutes before. But I had teasingly blocked her way, and both of us laughed as she gently tumbled to the ground, unhurt, forced to look for another wagon to on which to ride.

I grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. She was conscious, breathing, coherent. There were no open wounds, nor any blood on her. “Breath, blood, bones,” I went through the mental checklist. If she was hurt, it was likely a broken limb, I thought with calm detachment. Out of the injuries I saw further down the road, this was not an emergency. “You’ll be OK,” I said, pulling away. “I’m sorry but I can’t stay here with you,” I said, moving  in the direction of a group of people I spotted further away. Guilt stabbed at me as I looked away from her. A voice whispered in the back of my mind that maybe it was my fault she was injured. Had I not blocked her from getting on the wagon in the first place, she may not have been in the path of that car. Worse yet, I was leaving her again.

Down the road, there was another ragdoll on the ground. 

A crowd surrounded him in uneasy silence. This was a boy I didn’t know. I knelt down, and took in the injuries as best as my mind could manage. He lay on his back, unresponsive. Kneeling close to him, I could not detect any breath, and fumbled to find a pulse. “Has anyone tried CPR?” I asked. “I don’t think he is breathing.” A few shook their head. I was confused. Why wasn’t anyone trying?

Two quick chest compressions, and I moved his head to start. Immediately, I saw the problem that had stopped attempts at first aid. His airway was blocked and had to be cleared. No one knew what to do. I paused, trying to sort out the next step. What could I use to help empty the airway of the tissues that filled his mouth and throat? I peeled my jacket off, wrapped it around my hand, and began scooping out whatever was inside. A voice inside me childishly objected to this decision: the jacket was brand new; I liked it and this was my first time wearing it.

“Yes, that’s it,” a voice over my shoulder cried. Another youth stepped forward and knelt down at the boy’s head. “Keep going,” he encouraged. Once I was satisfied his airway was clear, I tilted his head to blow in the first breath. A sound escaped his throat, and for a moment I expected to see a spark of life. But I stopped short, taking note of the neck bones. His head wobbled precariously, freely, in my hand. This boy’s neck was broken. The breath I heard was the sound of escape – air he had sucked into his chest upon impact, which had been trapped by the broken bones and internal organs shoved out of place. Once freed, it slipped out of his body, and drifted up beyond my face into the night sky as I hovered over him.

He was already gone, and there was nothing I could do to bring him back.

The weight of that realization dropped from the heavens into the pit of my stomach. I sat back down on the ground, unable to continue. Stunned, I took into the face of the ragdoll on the ground before me: slack jawed, eyes open but unseeing. He, like Barry, lay there with an unnerving stillness. What struck me was how incredibly young he seemed as I looked down at his body. Broken neck, severed limbs without flesh – all these details were seared in my mind. But what would haunt me for years to come was the knowledge that we, each of us who survive trauma throughout our lives, are often too small, too weak and fragile, to breathe life back into one another.

Without a word, I stood up, and walked away.

2 thoughts on “Breath

  1. I obviously remember this happening and never thought of the survIvors, only those that passed that day. I’m sorry you had to witness this at any age, let only as a young girl. Everyone in Alma will always remember Barry.

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    1. Thanks Sheila. It’s a tough memory we have in common. 😔Part of the reason I’m writing is to remember those I’ve lost, like Barry, but also to explore the impact of trauma and the grief process involved. I keep finding survivors of all stripes, whether it’s cancer, or having lost someone in that battle. If we live, we grieve and have to find a way to rebuild. It’s my hope that maybe my story will encourage others on this same journey. Thanks for following along!

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