Where 'Before and After' Collide
Updated: Apr 28
Facing grief head on - 37 years later
This month I went on a personal journey.
I left my family and drove five hours east, back to the city where one of the most pivotal moments of my life crashed its way through our front door. The city where my ‘before’ and my ‘after’ collided thirty-seven years ago.
I wasn’t even sure why I was going, I just knew I had to go. For those of you who have followed my writing, you’ll know that my parents were killed as the result of a car accident in 1986. My mom died the day of the accident, my dad went into a coma and died six weeks later on a not-very-good Good Friday. Up until then, I was an energetic, confident fourteen-year-old. Quite the feat considering the thick-as-magnifying-glass spectacles I wore back then.
That was ‘before’.
Zombie-like, it was as if I was completely hollowed out. My process was like if I don’t feel, I won’t feel. If I don’t cry, I won’t cry. If I don’t talk about it, I won’t have to talk about it. Nothing made any sense whatsoever. Whatsoever. Ever.
The four of us siblings spent a bit of time in therapy back then but only the bare minimum. Therapy sessions as in, what does the inkblot look like? type scenarios. We should’ve had ongoing chats with a psychiatrist for years. But, ah, that wasn’t the trend in the eighties. Back then, it was expected that you could be sad for a bit but then — alright, already — it’s time to move on.
Despite the lack of ongoing inkblot appointments that I received, and despite the empty insides I lived with for so many years, I’ve made it through as abnormally as the rest of society. I wonder, should ‘normal’ even be a word in our vocabulary?
Seriously, what’s normal when it comes to people’s lives? Not much, I’ve discovered. It’s been a long time since the accident. My tiny baby children have grown up and are bursting into their twenty-somethings. My hair — if I wasn’t so vain — would be sparkling silver instead of chocolate brown. We can no longer throw the football clear over the oak tree in our backyard. For years, I’ve wanted to do more writing about that time in Zombie-Julie’s life. For years, I’ve wanted to drive the route my parents took home that blizzardy day. I’ve wanted to visit the cemetery where their bodies no longer reside. And I’ve wanted to ask relatives in that area some lingering questions I’ve collected in the ‘dead parents’ file in my brain. After a crazy, beyond-coincidence coincidence occurred (you can be mesmerized by the story right here), I knew it was time to head east. An old friend let me use her place as a home base and I planned out my seven-day stay.
With the aid of the Maps app on my phone, I was able to find the site of the accident within 100 meters. The location itself didn’t rattle me as much as approaching it did. At what point on the road were their last words to each other? Was my mom nervous as they drove through the blizzard, my dad calm? Did she notice that sweet, old, brick farmhouse just there on the right, or did the swirling snow make it invisible?
That week in Ottawa, I got busy with the act of remembering. The accident scene was the starting block.
One of the days, I drove by the house my siblings and I lived in for a year with my cousin and his wife. They’d moved across the country to become our guardians. But they were just babies themselves, only twenty-six and twenty-seven years old. They couldn’t have kids. They’d always wanted to move back to our province and they loved us and our parents.
It seemed perfect until it wasn’t. A story for another day.
I went to the cemetery, wondering if I’d be able to find Mom and Dad’s joint flat gravestone. There was still so much snow on the ground. I found plot 5 but their grave site was impossible to uncover. But that was ok, I generally knew where we had watched their bodies lower six feet deep.
Both times I attended their graves for their burials, I remember feeling guilty. Guilty of thinking it was kinda cool that I got to ride in a limousine.
Surely, people had peered into the tinted windows to see who was inside. Surely not, considering the funeral procession trailing the limo.
Ah, sweet innocence.
I stopped at the funeral home where the wakes had been. There will be no wake for me when I float off. The makeup on my mom’s face-that-wore-no-makeup looked an inch thick, likely to hide the bruises. And her hands, were they sewn one on top of the other or glued? All of it just so unnatural. If someone wants to look at a dead body at a wake they should be able to, just put it in a separate room. I don’t want any of that.
Just raise a glass when I’m gone, I’ve told my husband, In the backyard…a few stories between you, the kids, some family, and a few close friends. All good.
A funeral lady was happy to show me around, smiling through my morose dead parents’ tale. She seemed unphased. Working in that industry, every day must deliver another sad story.
I wonder how often they have requests like mine — someone wanting to take a stroll around the place to try to conjure up ancient memories. Nothing came back. Nada.
Another evening I had dinner with Tobie, a new friend, and her family. Tobie is a 25-year-old kick-butt finishing carpenter who now owns the little rental house where my family used to live (if you haven’t already read the crazy coincidence story mentioned above, it’s time). She’s converted it into two apartments and invited me inside to take a look around.
Because of the fateful meeting we had a couple of months earlier, I was able to stand at the end of the kitchen counter where I’d answered the phone call of impending doom all those years ago. In the small living room, I visualized our family of six in front of the fireplace exchanging gifts on our last Christmas together.
This was the last place I saw my parents alive.
What a gift this young woman brought to me.
A couple of days later, I was welcomed to a rich afternoon of dinner and chats with family I hadn’t seen in years.
Six aunts and uncles were on-the-ready to answer questions that had been knocking around inside this skull for years:
Who identified Mom’s body?
Did I volunteer to read a poem at my dad’s funeral? What poem was it?
What did they remember about us kids visiting my dad while he was in the coma?
Were Mom and Dad excited about the big move to Ottawa? Life change, career change? Did my aunts and uncles see them much in the two months we’d lived there before the accident?
And so many more…
We shared and teared up and laughed and ate. A good night.
One evening that week, the friend I was staying with had arranged to have some of our old high school buddies over so I could ‘research’. I hadn’t seen these peeps for thirty-five years.
It was so so great.
We laughed and reminisced and they reached back in their memory banks for answers to the questions I posed about how they heard about my parents’ accidents, what I was like when I came back to school, when did I come back to school, did I cry? Touchingly, one of my girlfriends had kept the letters I’d written her after we had moved away from Ottawa to live with different relatives when our living situation didn’t work out.
I was hoping to find some deep and heart-wrenching insights caught in the writing of the tragedy that my teen life had become back then.
Nope. My cursive is full of the weighty details of boys and dances and boys and part-time jobs and boys and drawings of the dresses I wore on dates with, you guessed it…boys.
My daughter cackled on the couch while reading the loose-leaf paged musings of her 16-year-old mother a few days later.
But those letters accurately depict how I coped. Be like everyone else. Don’t attract attention. Don’t talk about it. Just don’t talk about it.
Without realizing it, I’d planned my getaway to fall over Good Friday — the day my dad died. The date this year was not the same but — fun times — I remember his death both on the date he died and on Good Friday.
The church where both funerals were held was having a Good Friday service and I’d planned to go to the service to do some memory conjuring. However, spring weather in Ottawa is volatile. A major ice storm hit the area that week and the church went black. Many were without power for days.
A visit for another day.
The day I left to come home I stopped in front of the hospital where my dad had laid in his coma and eventually died. I’d been there many times as a teen.
I also stopped in front of the hospital — a half hour from the other hospital — where my mom died. I’d never been there before.
For some reason that stop was heavy for me. I had to pull off the highway so I could sob a little bit. Just a little bit.
Maybe it’s because it was the wrap-up to the week. Or maybe it was because my aunt told me that my mom didn’t die alone like I thought she had.
So sitting in my car facing the Emergency doors, I could picture her surrounded by people who loved her as she took her last breaths instead of just a body breaking apart all alone. My audience-loving mom‘s smooth hands were caressed that night. Tender whispers filled her ears by friends who didn’t want the night to end the way they knew the night would end.
Finding out that she wasn’t alone has brought me comfort. Comfort I didn’t even know I needed.
So much to dissect and write about.
I’ll be pondering my seven days in Ottawa for a while.
I still can’t say that I know exactly why I needed to go, nothing in my life has changed because of it.
I trust that discoveries are unfolding that will eventually be revealed.
And I’m happy to have listened to my insides which were longing to revisit places and people and things without really understanding what the ‘purpose’ of all of it was.
After arriving home, my family welcomed me with hugs, a (relatively) clean house, and dinner at the ready.
We have a pretty rich life, me and my fam.
My parents would have been so so proud.
They had their journey.
I’m still on mine.