If the Worst Thing Happens
By Rebecca Taylor
That day started like any other. Bland. Nothing special about it, and nothing to go back to and say you knew this would happen. I didn’t know. And yet, down in the deepest part of my soul, I did. I had always known. That is why I held on to her so tightly. Never taking a moment for granted. Or maybe that’s how all mothers feel? I wouldn’t know. I’ve only had one daughter.
That day I was gathering research for my master’s thesis, which I had just begun that semester. Buried deep in my books and articles, I was only somewhat aware of the flurry of activity that day, which was typical — a roller coaster of emotion and yet just as ordinary as any other day. One minute my bipolar daughter Michelle was happily talking to her boyfriend, and the next she was screaming that I didn’t understand. Her friends had gone to Santa Cruz without her, something they will always regret. Then calm. She wanted to earn some money to take her boyfriend to the movies that night, and with all that I had to do, I willingly gave her several jobs that she happily completed throughout the rest of the day.
At 16 years old, almost 17, and a size 2, she was larger than life. Creative, beautiful, tortured, brilliant – that was my daughter. Blond, blue eyed, and skin so white that her friends would joke that she needed to cover up at the pool or they would go blind. She was silly and vibrant, on fire with a soul that burned so brightly you wondered if she might actually burn out.
It was just the two of us. Her father and I divorced when she was almost 2 and he died about a year later. She was my entire world. Every decision revolved around her. Even going back to school to get my master’s degree was as much about her as it was about my profession. I needed to replace the social security benefits she was getting. College is expensive, you know.
It’s funny the things you remember. I vividly remember what she wore that night. Short, white skirt that was made with some sort of fuzzy material, and a little black shirt. She asked how she looked and I told her that she looked very cute. I told her that she would look cute covered in mud, and she giggled. I never saw that outfit again.
Later, we went to the store so I could pay her, and I asked her if she wanted one of those Coca Cola retro clocks that Vons had on sale for $20. She was excited, and decided to put it in her car to show Joel. I never saw that again either.
As she pulled away out of the driveway, I blew her a kiss and went back to work. Hours later I went to bed and set the alarm, knowing that when she came in I would wake from the beeping and know she was home, and what time she got there. Usually I woke around the time she was expected, but this night I slumbered deeply until 4:30 a.m. when the doorbell rang. I will always wonder if God allowed me to sleep longer that night to save me a teeny piece of what horror was to come.
I jumped out of bed thinking that she must have lost her keys. Glancing out the window, I noticed her car wasn’t there. She must have parked in the driveway. I went downstairs and opened the door. There stood a man in a police uniform. I thought, oh God, what has she done now? He confirmed my name and relationship to Michelle, and then asked if he could come in. It still didn’t register why he was there.
We sat down, and I asked him what was going on. He proceeded to tell me that she had been in a car accident. I still didn’t get it. I asked him was she hurt? Where was she? What happened?
I sat on my couch and heard the news.
Dead calm, I continued to ask many questions. All he knew was that she had been killed. No details. Nothing. He asked me if I needed him to stay, and I said no, I would be okay. This man who knew nothing of my daughter had no place in such intimate conversations with my family as I called everyone to tell them the news.
No screaming. No blubbering mess. I guess I was in shock, but that shock persisted for so long I’m not sure now what it was. Perhaps my brain was protecting itself from being utterly destroyed? For days, weeks, months afterward I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. From time to time, thoughts would just begin, like a napkin slowly absorbing moisture. But as soon as I felt it sinking in, my head would shake violently back and forth and my brain would order those thoughts to go. And they would – I would start to think “don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it” and concentrate on something completely different. It worked every time, and over time those episodes all but completely disappeared. Once in awhile a news story still touches a chord and I’m back shaking my head, changing the channel to cartoons or some sitcom. For a long time afterwards, even close friends worried that I hadn’t actually accepted it so they stayed close in case everything completely fell apart. But really, it never did. Not completely.
After the phone calls, I just sat on her bed, waiting for everyone to arrive. I didn’t know what to do. I guess I needed to take a shower, but what if they came while I was in the shower? So I waited, the time thick in the air until I just couldn’t breathe.
People arrived, one and two at a time, crying and hugging me and telling me how sorry they were. I remember all of them sitting around the table, trying to reassure me that she was with God and that I would see her someday. There was absolutely no comfort in that thought.
When someone finds out that I lost my daughter, they always ask what happened. And I tell them. Just as calmly as I made those phone calls. Sometimes they cry, always they apologize for asking. I don’t let the grief in then. It creeps out at unexpected times, times when I didn’t steel myself for what was coming. The surprises are the worst. And the firsts. The first Christmas, birthday, anniversary of the accident. Then the seconds, then the thirds. After you’ve survived three years of all those reminders, it starts to get fuzzy. And now over 20 years later, I find sometimes it is weeks later that I realize the anniversary passed and I missed it. I used to feel guilt around that, but now I just accept it as evidence that I’m okay.
I found out later that they did go to the movies, but in her car and not his. The first rule of her car was that no one but she could drive it. The second rule was that she always had to buckle both belts. These rules would have saved her life. I had purchased a used Honda Civic, with new tires and a new battery so she would be SAFE. He had a hotrod, as many young men do, fast and responsive. She let him drive that night. He lived only a couple of blocks from the train tracks, and decided that night not to wait for the train to pass. The Amtrak was going over 80 mph and couldn’t stop in time. When it hit the car, spinning it around so fast that her body flew out the door, catching her head on the passive restraint, it broke her neck. But he lived, prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and as a minor he was given 3 years probation. Justice was not served, but how do you serve justice on a boy who absolutely loved my daughter but made a critical error in judgement, one that he probably made all the time in his hotrod? A boy from a nice family, who was destroyed watching their strong son melt into something hardly recognizable. There really isn’t justice, just punishment. I felt responsible for him, and afterwards I told him that he HAD to be okay, that if he wasn’t okay, then it makes all of this so much worse. Michelle would have wanted him to be okay, at least that is what I told myself.
The days afterward aren’t a blur, as some would assume, but I remember every piece. I remember driving to where her body was and begging them to let me see her. They said that wasn’t a good idea and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. They didn’t know me. All I wanted was to smell her one last time, a need that I didn’t realize would be so important until I saw her body a few days later.
Everyone was bustling about the house, trying to help, not helping at all. Everyone’s eyes on me. “Is she okay?” I felt a responsibility for everyone’s emotional state. If I was okay, they were okay. If I was destroyed, it destroyed everyone. And I could not face that, so I stayed as strong as I could.
I remember going to the mortuary and picking out everything — the casket, so beautiful and classically built, reminiscent of a time long past. It looked like it was built of antique pewter and I knew Michelle would have approved. Then, what type of service? How do you even know?
I told them that I would do her makeup and hair. They were not going to turn her into a pretty in pink sweet sixteen teenager. She was NOT that person. She was a gothic individual with a style everyone tried to copy but no one really could. I would make sure she looked like the Michelle everyone remembered and loved. I selected the perfect outfit; red and black plaid jumper, black turtleneck and tights. One of her favorite outfits. Then her black shoes, the Doc Martins that I had made her pay for herself. I mean, who spends $80 on a pair of shoes for a teenager? I knew they wouldn’t show, and no one but me would know they were there, but it was important.
My niece and I did her makeup and hair. We steeled ourselves before going in and cried a lot. I knew this was the last mothering I would be able to do, so we went in and got to work. That’s when I realized that her smell would never be the same. Her skin was pale, and I could see where they had “repaired” her with wax. Her chest was wrapped in some sort of plastic. I did her makeup, much more than she would normally wear. Red lipstick, dark red nail polish. When I was done, from a distance, she looked like she was asleep.
The service was so hard. Some of her friends came up and talked. I wanted to talk too, but I was so afraid that it would open the door to my grief that I had bolted shut. So I didn’t go up. I will always regret not trying. There was so much to say. At the graveside, I remember walking past the dark hole that she would inhabit for eternity, and that head-shaking began again, but this time there were no cartoons to replace it. I hardly remember anything after that, except torrential rain and swallows. Lots of them.
As the weeks and months passed afterwards, so many people came by just to be with me. They brought me food, cooked me dinner, kept me company. Her friends just wouldn’t go away. I wanted to be alone. Wanted my heart to stop. I remember going to bed each night and trying to biofeedback myself to death. I knew I couldn’t kill myself because that would destroy everyone. But hey, if I died in my sleep from a broken heart, that seemed better somehow. What saved my life were the cats and the rats. Who would take care of them? So I went to the doctor and got some antidepressants, went to a psychologist who ended up taking me off work for the rest of the year, and I finally found my bearings.
I think the reason I’ve survived this so well is that I focus on the memories of her life, not the loss. I keep her with me always. Sometimes people ask about her because I talk as if she is still here. Sometimes when someone asks if I have children, I have to make a split-second decision how to answer. Do I say no, and save them from the guilt of having asked? Or do I honor her memory and tell them the truth? I always tell my students though, and depending on their age, the circumstances. If I can save them from making the same type of decisions she and her boyfriend made that night, maybe there can be some larger purpose in her death. And in so doing, save someone else from the worst thing that can happen.