The neurologist cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but I have bad news.”
He paused, looking down at the file in his hand. He looked back up at me and my husband. He started to say something then stopped, looking back down at the file.
That’s when I knew.
Friday Afternoon, 19 January 2007
I faintly hear the school bell ring and know the kids will be home in minutes. We live—in a small village at the edge of the Atlantic ocean, not far from Cape Town—just around the corner from the Hermanus High School. Sure enough the dogs began barking their joy, as the gate slam against the low brick wall. Dropping their book bags in the door, Helen hugs the dogs and Peter flops down on the couch, shoes and all.
“Hi mom”, they said in unison, “what’s for lunch?”
“Sandwiches”, I said from behind the kitchen counter. Our open plan home a jumble of six dogs, two cats, books, sports equipment and the stuff of two teenagers that spill from their rooms.
Helen, who as usual would have preferred ‘smarties’ for lunch, fed half her sandwich to the dogs who sat drooling at her feet. Peter is watching something on the Discovery Chanel, while absent-mindedly munching on his sandwich. After lunch, they wanted me to drive them into town to buy stuff for school.
“No, take your bikes or walk” I said, “I’ve got to finish this.” I hated ironing and wanted it done for the weekend.
“Oh mom, it’s hot, please take us, then we can drink milkshakes at Savanna afterwards.” I knew why they wanted me to take them, because they loved being seen about town in my brand new mini-cooper convertible with the black racing stripes. I loved my little car too, but that afternoon I was not in the mood, nor did I feel like idle chatter over milkshakes with my two children.
Peter left for the beach while Helen fiddled about in her bedroom, Avril Levigne, belting ‘Sk8er Boy’. Her phone rang and moments later she appears at my side. “Mom…” this time she wanted me to drive her to the stables on the other side of town. Again I said; “I’m not done yet. Dad will be home any minute, he will take you.”
Helen went outside to play with the dogs and my spouse arrived soon after. Off they went, without a backward glance, I don’t remember whether I said goodbye to Helen or hello to my spouse.
Friday evenings we usually order take out sushi from ‘The Rock’, a restaurant in the harbor. On our way to pick up the sushi, my phone rings. Helen asking if she can sleep over. They were having fun riding and teaching the young horses to jump. “Okay”, I said, “have fun, we’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Peter and his friends went to town for the evening and my spouse and I had our sushi dinner under the stars. The air fragrant with jasmine and roses, their white petals translucent in the soft candle light. The dogs laying about, the cats napping on the garden wall between the green ivy leaves. A lovely, peaceful summers evening.
Saturday Morning, 20 January 2007
A wet tongue in my face woke me. Abby, our white Shepard dog, reminding me it’s time for their beach walk. We loaded all six dogs, amid load barking and yapping, into the pickup and off we went to the beach. The dogs run off on their own, chasing gulls, playing in the shallow wavelets, digging holes, picking up sea shells and chasing after other dogs. My spouse and I wander behind, enjoying the peaceful moment.
Dropping the dogs at home we went shopping for the barbecue we had planned for the evening. As we stood waiting in line to pay, my phone rings. A police officer asking if we know a girl named “Helen?”
“Yes, she’s our daughter”, I said. He went on to say that there’s been a car accident and we must come immediately. Then he gave me directions there were unclear. I did not recognize the specific area he was talking about. To make matters worse the officer refused to give any details except that we must hurry.
We arrived three-quarters of an hour later at scene of the accident—a sharp bend on a deserted stretch of road bordered by rolling green wheat fields on one side and a steep rock embankment on the other side—just as an ambulance pulled away, sirens blazing. I saw carnage. A crumbled BMW on its side next to the embankment, a fire truck and an ambulance, back doors open. A man sitting with his head in his hands in the doorway. A woman, her arms wrapped around her, walking up and down the side of the road, oblivious of what is going on around her. A girl and another woman standing together looking lost and a police officer, motioning for us to follow the ambulance.
Frantic we sped further, to an even smaller town, to the hospital, standing forlorn on a hill, a winding unkept road leading to the emergency entrance. Running inside a nurse stopped us, telling us to wait. Then, nearly 2 hours after that first phone call, we saw our daughter, Helen. Unconscious, silent and still. I touched her slightly swollen cheek, stroke her long blond tangled hair. For a moment I stood, unsure, in-between wanting to take her home and seeing how fragile she is, how hard she’s clinging to life. Then the nurse whisked us away. Said we must wait yet again. A medevac helicopter is on the way to take her to a hospital in the city.
Again we waited. As we stood in the downdraft of the rotors, we helplessly watched as our daughter flew away towards Cape Town, each passing minute, putting high mountains and deep valleys in between us. We followed the long road east, calling every one we know to please pray for Helen’s life. This was not a dream, but an ugly reality. Life and death was happening. Arriving more than an hour later, the nurses told us to wait in the ICU waiting room.
By now it was late afternoon. The neurosurgeon called us into his office, looking up from the file in his hand, he tells us that our daughter will probably not survive the next twenty-four hours. She was in the ICU, on life support, had severe head injuries, internal injuries and many broken bones from being thrown from a rolling car.
A grim prognosis of wait and see… That night, taking turns, we sat by her side, telling her stories, singing to her, telling her we love her, telling her she will ride again, as soon as her broken bones mend. We waited, in-between moments of hope and despair. A long, long night and we never lost hope, we prayed, our friends prayed. We encouraged each other to stay positive for Helen’s sake. Believing that God will not let our daughter die.
Sunday, 21 January 2007
Dawn. I’m afraid, tired, my eyes swollen from crying, my body and soul worn out from worry. Words had long left me. Silently I bargained with God. To save Helen’s life, He had saved mine and I will gladly give my second chance back to save hers. She’s only fifteen, on the brink of womanhood, having celebrated her birthday six days before. Her new Roxy t-shirts unworn. Her new Van’s sneakers still in its box. Later my mom and I rub her feet with baby lotion, bought from the hospital gift shop. Her feet smooth and white, neatly trimmed toenails varnished bright pink, in sharp contrast to her tanned hands and arms. She loved her horses, cats and dogs, lived in riding boots and Jodhpurs. A vibrant girl who loved life.
Midmorning the attending doctor called us to his study again. Showing us the latest x-rays he explained that her brain had died. That her although her heart is still strong, clinically she is dead.
We had to make a choice. We chose to let her go.
A pastor arrived and spoke beautiful words, while we stood one last time beside Helen’s bed in the ICU. She said that God is waiting to take Helen home and that we must let her go. That God will give us strength to go on, that He will take care of our daughter now. She also said; “Never ask God, why this happened, rather ask God what He wants us to learn from our daughters death.”
Helen’s heart stopped beating at 2:20 pm. My broken heart kept on beating, at 2:21 pm, that sunny Sunday afternoon.
I wrote about my daughter, about her last 48 hours because I want you to know that life is a gift. Helen’s death a gift for me and for you.
She wants us to know that;
Life is something to be cherished, a privilege to be appreciated.
My journey through life is now full of moments of joy, still moments, sad moments, anchorages, park benches, tiny tables in piazza’s in foreign places. Full of drinking milkshakes and eating ice-cream while the ironing piles up. We enjoy the in-between moments. Life is full of surprises.
A friend, Jeff’ Goings, wrote a book ‘The In-Between”.
His book a gentle reminder:
Live with no regrets.
Live life with gusto.
Enjoy every hug.
Relish every tear.
Be grateful for every moment;
For tragedies, challenges and the overwhelming goodness of God.
While we are still somewhere in-between the beginning and end of our lives;
Live well with whatever time you have left.
— Jeff Goings