I had no idea what was going on at home.
It was my first year of university and I had been away for the last four months. It was December and I was just finishing exams. My flight was booked for December 23rd. I would be able to get home just in time for Christmas.
No one told me she was sick.
I vaguely remember my parents saying that Auntie Carolyn wasn’t feeling well and that she was in the hospital. We would visit her when I got back. I didn’t know they were trying to protect me when I was so far away from home.
You see, I chose a university in southern Ontario (20 hours away from my hometown). Getting home involved a flight from Toronto to Minneapolis. From there, I would catch a connecting flight to International Falls, Minnesota, where my parents would pick me up and drive us the final 30 minutes home. Getting home that Christmas would have gone smoothly, if my flight wasn’t late leaving Toronto.
With a delay, I missed the connecting flight in Minneapolis. There were no other flights to International Falls that night. I was 18 years old. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and stranded in a city far from home (bad thing #1). The airline said that there was nothing that they could do for me. I wasn’t offered accommodations and Minneapolis was a 12 hour drive from my hometown. I remember calling my parents in tears, not knowing what to do.
Eventually I was able to get a flight to Duluth, Minnesota. It was still a 3 hour drive (one way) for my parents to pick me up but at least it got me closer to home. I landed at the small airport in the middle of the night. The few passengers who flew with me were quickly greeted by family members and friends before they left the terminal ready to go home to bed. It was around midnight when we landed.
I was alone in an empty airport in the middle of nowhere. As the hours dragged by, the lights were slowly switched off, one by one. The room became darker. A lone janitor swept the floor in the dim light. I’ve never been so happy to see my parents at an airport before.
We were all exhausted by the time we got home. It must have been 2 or 3 in the morning. I grabbed whatever sleep I could because I had an interview the next morning. I was trying to find a summer job so I could save money for university. My interview was at a local craft mill. With less than 4 hours sleep, needless to say, I never got that job.
After my interview was over, I was off to work a shift at my Auntie Lynne’s store. She owned a convenience store / gas station / LCBO outlet along the highway. I had worked there all summer to make money for school. Towards the end of my shift, Mom called. She asked if my Dad was there yet. He was coming to pick me up. No, not yet. Why?
I could tell from her voice that something was wrong (bad thing #2). She was trying hard to keep it together but finally broke. Auntie Carolyn had died. And Dad didn’t know yet.
No. No. No.
I stood by the window, the phone held to my ear. Crying and shaking, I watched for his truck to drive into the parking lot. No… I needed more time to pull it together and calm myself before he arrived.
I didn’t want him to know until he got home. I knew he would be devastated.
I remember driving home in the truck with him that day. It was only a 15 minute drive but it felt so long.
As dad drove, he talked about her. She’s going to be okay. We are going to go see her. She’s going to pull through this. I sat with my head turned and looking out the window. I needed to avoid eye contact and hold it together. My throat was tight and burning. My eyes were warm. Just make it home. Just make it home.
I still remember the sound of his cries.
My Dad still has a hard time on Christmas mornings. Things have changed a bit now that he has grandchildren to distract him. But the first few years were horrible. I would sit there watching him surrounded by presents, with a contorted look on his face, trying to hold back the tears. I’m embarrassed to say that I used to feel so frustrated by his reaction. It was Christmas. Why can’t we enjoy it? This is not the time to dwell. I didn’t understand.
Our Christmas Eve that year was so different than the rest. Auntie Carolyn died on December 24th. And if things weren’t already bad enough, I was almost killed in a car accident the same night. I told you, bad things come in threes.
Bad thing #3. My high school boyfriend was celebrating his birthday with his family. I was invited to come. He lived 30 minutes away in a town nearby. I have no idea why I even went. My aunt had just died, my family was a mess, and yet I went to my boyfriend’s birthday party. I was so dumb.
Anyways, I was driving my Dad’s truck home that night when I got into an accident. The truck plunged down into a deep ditch and smashed into a telephone pole. I remember the truck being tilted on its side, to what felt like a 45 degree angle. My body was pressed against the drivers side door. When I was able to open the door, I was instantly thrown to the ground.
I could hear the snapping of wires overhead and see them whipping back and forth above me. I was on all fours in the snow, crying and stumbling to get my footing. I reached into the truck to grab the quilt that my boyfriend’s mom had made me. It was black and gold, made in our high school colours, with squares of sunflower material.
I pulled myself up the snowy bank until I got up to the highway. I remember complete darkness. I was 20 minutes from home, trembling and crying in the middle of the highway, just waiting for a vehicle to come. Help. Help me.
The first vehicle that arrived ended up being a guy I went to elementary school with. He drove me home. I don’t remember the drive or what what we talked about. Now looking back, I realize that I left the scene of an accident. At the time, I just frantically needed to get to my parents.
I remember walking into my parents dark bedroom, startling them awake. I told them that I had been in an accident and I had hit a telephone pole. I heard the sound of my mom hitting the floor. She fainted.
I remember calling my boyfriend that night. Whispering into the phone what had happened on my drive home. I remember my dad coming into the room and angrily telling me to hang up. I didn’t understand why.
Remarkably, I wasn’t hurt at all. Of all the telephone poles along that stretch of highway, the truck had hit one that was older and rotten. It had snapped in half upon impact. We said that Auntie Carolyn was looking out for me that night.
My dad’s truck was a write off. The metal hood was pushed back into a V, right up to the dashboard. People who saw the truck were shocked that I had survived.
As what happens in small towns, rumours started to fly. I had been drinking that night. I wasn’t paying attention and lost control. The rumours weren’t true and it was hurtful. I can vividly remember drinking a can of orange pop at the birthday party that night (and it was weird for me to drink pop; it usually wasn’t my thing).
It didn’t matter, because everyone had their own version of what had happened. On top of it all, there were those who found the accident funny. I had wiped out power to the entire district. I was infamous for complicating the preparation of everyone’s Christmas dinner.
But it wasn’t funny to me.
For me, the accident is just a reminder of everything horrible that happened in that span of 24 hours. It was the night that Auntie Carolyn died and our family changed forever. My cousins were in their early 30s when they lost their mom. My uncle had to say goodbye to the love of his life. My dad no longer had a sister. I had experienced something so incredibly scary – an accident alone in the middle of the night. It was also that time when I was stranded in a large city and just wanted to get home.
I don’t need constant reminders of that night through the jabs and jokes of family members or friends. I think it’s time for us to move on. I know I’m ready to.
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