Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"fall on your knees": a true story

Dec. 6th, Saturday afternoon

Charlie, a man in his seventies, and I are walking around his orchard. It's a cold afternoon, the temperature hovering around zero, and my bare hands operating my camera are getting that dry, red look to them, and are starting to get a cold cramp. We're talking apple trees, grafts, varieties. It's pleasant, and the sun is shining.

I hear someone calling a dog, insistently. Then I realize that a woman is calling the old man's name, and it's his neighbour, whose house is on the other side of a thin band of small trees. We walk over to her, and he asks what she's after. At first she asks about another man, who owns property near Charlie's, out in Big Baddeck. It comes out that what she's after is information about a young woman, Emily, who also lives in Big Baddeck. Emily's been in a bad car accident, and the RCMP need to find her next of kin. Emily's from a Western province, and though she's been living here for two years, no-one really knows much about her family out west.

"Emily Cardwell?" I ask. I met Emily earlier this year, at the IT Center in Baddeck. I was talking about organic vegetables with a friend one cubicle over, and Emily joined in. We had an instant connection, two young women who want to make our lives in Cape Breton, dealing with the earth.

In the fall, after a busy summer where we didn't see each other, I saw her walking down the street, and we had another conversation, our second. I told her about the writers' group I was starting, and asked if she wanted to join. She said she was going back to school to complete her GED, and she might take part in the group, to get feedback about her essay-writing. I emailed her several times with group information but never heard back. This last month I'd been thinking about her, thinking I would try and get in touch again, see how she was doing.

Now here I am, standing in the sunny cold, talking to the old man and his neighbour about Emily, about where she worked, about the times we all saw her. She was in a bad car accident, she's still alive, they've taken her to Halifax, she's unconscious. The facts are rattled off and we all shake our heads. "Poor little thing," says the neighbour, whose husband used to fix Emily's car.

The car accident, in turns out, was after Emily's own car had broken down and she accepted a ride from friends, three young men. The men had been drinking, and the car crashed. The men are fine, but Emily's in bad shape.

I tell the neighbour what I know about Emily's friends and contacts, about who might know more about her family. The neighbour turns and goes back inside to make more phone calls, and Charlie and I turn back to the apples. I feel stunned, and it takes me a few minutes to get back on track.

Dec. 7th, Sunday night

After a blustery, wet, warm day, it's turned into a blustery night. (Thank you, Milne - and Winnie the Pooh.) Mum, Monty and I head out to Big Baddeck to a choir concert to be held in an old church. I'm thinking about Emily, as is half the town. The news of her crash is buzzing between people, in conversation at the library on Saturday evening, in the coffee shop on Sunday morning, and now over the pews of the church as we sit waiting for the concert to begin. It seems everyone's connected to her in some way - they might have been served by her at the coffee shop where she worked, or they might know any of the people involved. Each person shakes their head when they hear the news, and says something along the lines of "Poor dear, hope she makes it". Since I heard the news I've been sending silent prayers to God, a kind of monologue of "Please, please, please, God, keep her safe, let her recover, please, please, please, please..."

The men's choir puts on a wonderful concert. Their voices swell to the rafters of the church, and even though there isn't as much swaying and verve as I might like, as you might find in an African American choir, there is spirit and soul. They sing "O Holy Night", my favorite carol.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.

When they get to the chorus, I can't help but sing along. It is my favorite part of the song, and my whole life long, no matter what the state of my faith, these soaring lines have spoken to me of surrendering to rapture. To fall on your knees is to be utterly affected, to devote yourself to the experience. O night divine, O night divine.

Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

The minister, a woman, asks us to bow our heads in prayer. I do, and close my eyes, sending up my inner monologue to God. "Please, please, please, send all the love in this church to Emily, please God, please..."

Dec. 11th, Thursday night

It's been a long, rough week. It seems it doesn't rain but it pours, both literally and figuratively! We've had yo-yo weather, going from snow to freezing rain to wet rain, back to freezing rain again, the temperature going from minus five to plus ten, over and over. Other emotional matters rear their heads. I hear somewhere in there that Emily is doing well, that there was surgery to relieve the swelling on her brain, that although her neck and pelvis are both broken, she has feeling in her hands and feet. She is still unconscious, the doctors are intentionally keeping her under to prolong stillness, and healing.

Thursday night I'm making cookie dough, for more Christmas baking. I don't have to do Christmas baking, but I like it, and I'm mixing butter, cream cheese, flour and icing sugar together with my hands. Mum calls a friend who is connected to the person Emily was house-sitting for, and I hear her saying, "Oh, no..."

"What, what?" I say, turning, my hands covered in dough. Mum closes her eyes, puts her hand up and shakes her head, which is what she does when she's trying to listen to a phone conversation and I'm bothering her.

I turn back to my dough. I hate hearing that there's something wrong but not knowing what it is. I work the dough, and I wait, hearing more murmurs of sympathy. Finally Mum gets off the phone. She's crying, tears wetting her cheeks. Even though Mum never met Emily, this ordeal has affected her a lot.

"They've taken her off life support," she says. "About twenty minutes ago." Anger rushes through me, and I'm surprised at it. Why am I angry? It comes to me: the last news of Emily I had sounded so positive, it sounded like she might even make it, despite huge odds. She had feeling in her hands! She deserved a huge chance, and now they're just taking her off life support? What do they know? God! We prayed, we prayed and prayed, and now they're just going to let her die?!? While Mum cries, I can't. I work the dough, over and over. My jaw is set.

But I haven't been in the hospital these past three days, like her family has been, like the doctors have been. I really don't know anything about what has been going on down in Halifax. I want Emily to live, yes. I want her to live and come back to Cape Breton, and garden again, and eat arugula, because she once told me she loves arugula. I want her to live her dream. And now, that's not going to happen.

"Do we have a baseball bat?" I ask Mum. "I really want to HIT something with a baseball bat!"

I go out to the porch and find, in the firewood, a chunk of alder that has a small piece sticking out of it like a handle. I get on my gumboots and go out into the warm, wet and windy night, and walk to where I know there are some tall, dying spruce trees. I don't want to hit a live tree, I don't want to do damage to something living. I feel bad even hitting a dead tree, knowing there is still some life in it, but I do it. I stand back, brace my legs and swing. The first thwack is louder than I thought it would be. I swing again, and again and again. I try yelling as I do it, but that feels strange, naked. Even though there's really no-one within hearing distance, I keep my shouts inside.

After a good number of swings, I stop, panting. The tears start, and don't stop. The words that come out of me seem so cliche, as they are words I've read in books or seen in movies but never, not until this moment, truly understood. "It's not FAIR!" I say, as I sob. "It's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair..."

Dec. 17th, Wednesday night, a week later

It's snowing, white gently falling and filling the scenery. There has been rain and snow, both, since last Thursday. The week that has passed feels like an entire month, no kidding!

Last Friday, I was listening to the CBC, when the news announcer read that a 26-year-old woman died after complications following a car accident. "Emily Grace Cardwell," he read. It was official. Her body died.

Her family allowed her organs to be donated, so there are some people out there who have new life because of this. But that's not enough to assuage the anger, for those of us who cared about her. The trite phrase, "It was meant to be," makes me want to hit something, again! Luckily I haven't been hearing it very often.

In the time that has passed since last week, I've talked to several people about her, about her life and her death, and about holding a memorial for her, come springtime. We'll wait until we can plant something, in her spirit. I might plant some arugula! There's also been talk about making a donation in her name to a woman's shelter, based on some unfortunate events of her life.

It continues to feel unreal, like maybe reality is playing a sick joke on us all. I keep thinking, "Well, we can just go back in time and change it," and then realize that no, we can't go back in time, no, this really happened. Yes, this young woman really died, yes, all our lives are forever changed, and we have no choice about it. That's how time works.

Meanwhile, it's coming onto Christmas, and we move forward, for better and for worse. We bake treats, we send Christmas cards. We sing carols. I still love "O Holy Night", but I will sing it with sadness this year. I'll sing it for Emily.

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