#11 Messages from the dead
Do you believe in ghost stories?
Last week I told you my version of how I got run over by a truck, jaywalking through a traffic jam across a four-lane highway on the way to pick up my car from an autobody shop on Vancouver Island.
Two weeks ago, I shared the police photos from the accident and a newspaper report that claimed I had been walking aimlessly back and forth on the highway after parking my vehicle in a line of traffic waiting for the ferry when the accident happened.
It only takes a few seconds to form an impression of somebody. Who is telling the truth in this case? Me or the newspaper? We’re not very far into this story, but if you've already made up your mind, there might be nothing I can do to change that.
Or is there? It’s a strange feeling to be on the other side of this scenario, to pit my own memories of what happened twenty years ago against a third-party record that was published immediately after the accident. If you’re like most people, you probably think the newspaper is more credible. After all, they spoke to the police and possibly eyewitnesses too. I have nothing but my word.
If it wasn’t for a trip to the island last Thanksgiving to visit my younger sister Lindsay, I'm not sure if I would be writing about any of this. My sister had texted me earlier that week to say that she had found a box of our mother's stuff at her house but needed help moving things around so she could access it.
Maybe photos of mom and Elaine? my sister wrote.
It was all I could think about as Steve and I crossed the Salish Sea on an evening ferry several days later, the water choppy after an autumn storm. We stood together in silence at the bow of the ship while the sun set into the Pacific.
Wondering what else could be in that box, I tried to conjure my sister's basement in my head, but like a stone skipping across black water, one memory lead to the next, until I was standing outside my father's house in Saanichton across from the berry farm, the day after my mother’s funeral, six months after my accident, all her possessions piled up in the garage, thick garbage bags splitting open across the cool concrete, her clothes and shoes spilling out through black plastic, loose photos and stray books everywhere.
On the ferry deck, the wind howled across the open water, blowing right through us, like our clothes were made of paper. I put my arm around Steve to warm up as we leaned against a metal railing. I pulled out my phone to take a photo of Steve and then a selfie when he ran ahead to start the ignition and turn on the heater. Inside the car, we posed and hammed it up for another shot to send my sister to let her know we were on our way.
When I look at these photos now I get a weird feeling. Like I'm there and not there at the same time. You'd never know what I had been thinking about just moments before.
The deeper I get into writing this, the harder it gets to tell if my memories are my own or if they are things I've seen pictures, things I've read, or things I’ve been told. That Thanksgiving weekend with my sister, going through her basement, was one of those times.
"Look at this," my sister said. She was holding up a music box of my mother's. She wound up the pin on the bottom and the opening bars to the theme song from Cabaret began to play. She passed the box to me. "You should keep this."
In between the boxes and plastic containers, the boundaries between past and present dissolved. I sat down in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair that belonged to my maternal grandfather to flip through a photo album, resting my feet on a leather IKEA stool that my parents bought in the '80s. I found an envelope full of old letters by my grandfather, written in Lithuanian, with my mother's looping cursive handwriting across the front of the envelope, thanking our Aunty Cindy for helping with the translation.
My mother was a woman of secrets. No matter how well you think you know someone, there are always things you will never know. And with every new box my sister and I opened, a growing suspicion that I never really knew my mother at all.
In a loose black-and-white photo from her high school days, she's sticking her tongue out at the camera with a blonde bob. A letter of recommendation from a psychiatrist she used to work for was buried beneath old holiday decorations, along with handwritten nursing records, old school report cards, and an album from my parent's wedding.
But my sister was wrong, there were no old photos of our mother and Elaine together in that box she had texted me about before I came to the island. It was packed full of my mother's journals, along with old photos that my mother had lifted from the family photo albums when my parents separated in 1999.
I understand why she took these things. I'm sure she wanted to remember the good times before everything fell apart. I like to think she was determined to carry the happiest parts of her old life into whatever future she had imagined herself living—until the cancer came and all was lost.
Over Thanksgiving, I sat at the table in Lindsay's dining room going through the journals one by one, looking for any mention of the accident. I was lucky that she had the foresight to save all these things. I would never have found the police file number for my accident and court case if she hadn't.
The journals began in 1989, shortly before Elaine came into our lives. I felt sick flipping through them, putting anything earlier than 2001 aside, suddenly fearful of what I might find in these pages, of what new narrative might displace the stories I've been telling myself about my mother, my family, and my accident for all these years.
My mother’s journal from 2001 is small, black, about the size of my hand, with an ink print of an underwater seascape glued to the front, and ribbons marking several pages inside. She started this journal on New Year’s Day and the next 26 days detail her latest round of chemotherapy and biopsies in note form. There are chores and appointments and the minutiae of her daily life, including a trip to a movie theatre (the first time in months) to watch Cast Away. She always liked Tom Hanks, but did she like the coconut? I'll never know.
27 Jan Sat: 11:30 Hosp. called that Sean was hit by a car on PAT BAY HGWY @ 10? 10:30? (saw Dr. M, Dr. S, urologist & Gen Surg. [Dr. O]) Constable VR. #2001-516 R broken femur. Concussion. Sean has little memory +++PAIN. c/o back & pelvic pain. Surgery @11PM. Stayed overnite. Out of surg. by 1AM. M.A. stayed too. There till 8AM. RM504. Same as Mom V. Larissa to stay from 7:30AM on. NIGHTMARE!!
Now you have a third account of what happened the day of my accident with some new details. I had forgotten that my hospital room was the same room my grandmother Mary passed away in just a few years earlier—and that it was the hospital that called my mother, not the police as I had mistakenly come to believe.
Maybe we were both castaways in 2001, my mother and I. I don't know if she intended this to be a message in a bottle, but I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to write this knowing I wouldn’t read it until after she died. Still, I'm grateful that she included the police file number and the name of the constable who was first on the scene. With this information, I should be able to request a copy of the police report of the accident and the court documents from the trial.
And maybe, finally, find the answers to the questions I’ve been asking too.
Today was my mother’s birthday and I thought this would be a nice way to honor her memory this year.
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Until a future Sunday.
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My great grandfather was Lithuanian, my great grandmother Finnish, and we have boxes with letters and translations and photos in my parents’ basement, tended by my mother. Reading parts of this was like being in that basement!