The Upside Down

Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. You can’t process it because it doesn’t fit with what came before or what comes afterwards.”
Jessica Stern

The following excerpt is from the Supreme Court of Ontario documents, describing the accident that occurred at a church youth group event:

On Saturday, September 8, 1984, the (Church) hayride took place. When it set out, high spirits and happiness prevailed. It ended in stark tragedy when (the driver’s ) car struck five of the participants, killing four and seriously injuring the fifth.

The hayride was composed of three tractors pulling three wagons with bales of hay placed down the centre of each wagon. The tractors and wagons followed a planned route starting from the (church member’s) farm, proceeding along county roads.

During the afternoon and early evening of the hayride, (the driver) had been drinking. At the time of the accident, his blood-alcohol level was over .08. For some time, (the driver) followed behind the last wagon while driving on the shoulder of the road. He then pulled to the other side of the wagon and continued to drive beside it. While he  was alongside the wagon, four or five of the young participants were off the wagons walking on the road beside the tractors. (The driver) eventually passed the wagons and continued on ahead of them. He then turned around at the top of a hill and started back towards them.

By this time, headlights were required yet he had only his fog lights on. The speed limit on the (side Road) was 50 mph, yet he was driving at a speed of at least 70 m. p. h. At this high rate of speed, he deliberately approached the wagons driving on the wrong side of the road. At this time, (the driver) said to his passenger something to the effect of, “Let’s see how close we can get” or, “Let’s play chicken.” Still travelling at 70 mph, he finally crossed over to his own side of the road. When he passed the wagons, he struck the five young people with fatal and tragic results.

In (the driver’s) words, he had “just turned straight” when he heard a crack and saw his windshield shatter. That was all he could remember until he was past the third tractor when he slowed down and pulled to the left. Following the accident, he went to the trunk of his car and threw one of the coolers of beer into a field.

(The driver) was charged with four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.” (R. v. Waite, [1986] O. J. No. 2312, Supreme Court of Ontario – Court of Appeal).

I’m posting the court’s summary of events here, because my memory of this night is episodic. I recall, in snippets, highly charged moments which are a jumble. My recollections are “episodic” meaning that there are pieces of the night that I can’t recall. It also means that the trauma of these events has influenced my brain: without the straightforward narrative provided by the police investigation, I would find it very difficult to recreate a chronological history of the fateful night. This is typical: trauma affects the brain, memory, and the processing of stress. I recall, for example, how very black the night sky seemed to me – cold and impersonal. In the midst of the chaos, after realizing that the “rag doll” I had attended to would not be resurrected – I looked up, and wondered at the silence of the heavens. Where, I thought, had all that animation, all that life that had infused my friend and these strangers now lying so still on the roadway – where had that energy gone? The sky was silent as I entreated it to help me fix the devastation before me.

I remember the eternity that unfolded before help arrived – and then the hopelessness I felt as I watched emergency personnel and police officers place sheets over the victims.

I remember how hard it was to get everyone back to my parents’ nearby farm, and await the arrival of family to reclaim their loved ones. We sat in utter, dejected silence – over 40 teenagers, crowded into our family room, and not one word was spoken among us.

I had no idea how much this event was to shape me, and that this was the first night of what would become a long acquaintance with grief over my lifetime. It was the first experience of survival, and the initiating event of a pattern that would unfold again and again. Like Private Ryan, I would face gravestones of others who had lived and struggled with the same crises as I, but had fallen. It would be decades later, when as an adult I faced the arrival of cancer and total disability from CIPN, that I finally fully engaged with the grief process.

But as a child, I had no real understanding of how to navigate this newly hostile and seemingly random universe in which I found myself.  Eventually, many years later, the yoga studio would provide a safety net in the form of the “Soft Kitty chair”, allowing me to finally face the cavernous grief that lay beneath the layers of a carefully curated identity I had created.

Until then, I would spend years running, denying, bargaining, burying anger and depression under layers of work and productivity and achievement. velizar-ivanov-687608-unsplash.jpg

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