Chapter 2: Traumatic Brain Injury – A Split Second

Pat loved MJ's.  We were at a car show in 2011 and the owner of this one offered to let Pat get in and have pictures taken.

Pat loved MG’s. We were at a car show in 2011 and the owner of this one offered to let him get in and have pictures taken.

I’ve read that weeping isn’t the same as crying, that weeping takes your whole body so you feel like you don’t have any bones left to hold you up when you’re done.  This I learned.

For as long as I live, I won’t ever forget the night Pat didn’t come home.

He worked in Whitecourt for sixteen years and had commuted safely the whole time with the exception of one winter morning many years ago when he hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road into a huge pile of soft snow in the middle of the twinned highway, leaving both him and his vehicle unharmed.  He was always the best driver in the family, waiting extra time at intersections, following all the rules, reminding us of them regularly; his father had taught defensive driving and Pat was always careful.

When he worked an evening shift, I could always count on getting a phone call if he was going to be leaving a few minutes later than usual; he knew I would worry if he was late.  That night there was no call, I finished watching TV and got up to get ready for him to come home as usual, about 10:00.  I am anxious by nature, and it was winter, so at 10:05 I started wondering how his drive was going.

10:10 called his cell phone and got voicemail. Getting scared.  Self talk:  You always worry too much.  Don’t jump to conclusions.  Breathe.  There is a good explanation.

10:15 still no headlights.  A short siren sound in the distance. Something is wrong.  Starting to panic.  You always worry too much.  Don’t jump to conclusions.  Breathe.  There is a good explanation.

10:20 rocking back and forth at the kitchen table. Holding my stomach. Crying.  I know something’s wrong. It’s too late for things to be OK. He’s in trouble.  Something happened.

My daughter called the RCMP and was told there had been no accidents reported on the highway.  Just then I saw headlights come down the street and for a second I calmed down and waited, but as the vehicle turned before our street, I lost my sense of hope and fell apart.  He wasn’t coming home and I had to “do” something.

10:25 Shaking.  We have to go Kate.  We have to find him.  Something has happened between work and home.  He needs help. Shaking. Into her car.  Go towards Whitecourt in case he’s stranded. Driving up main street.  It’s late, dark, quiet.  No traffic.

We climbed the small hill past the clinic and there it was: Flashing lights at the intersection.  Emergency vehicles.  Oh God, no.  Oh God please no.  It’s him.  I need to go up there, it’s him.

I don’t know how Kate held it together for me, but she did.  She just took over and did what she had to do.  She pulled the car over at the gas station and called the RCMP again – still no accident report.  Then she called my son in Edmonton.  I got out of the car to start running towards the scene so I could find Pat, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.  She was trying to stop me.  She handed me the phone and Michael ordered me to get back in the car and talked me down: “It’s probably dad, you can’t go up there.  They won’t let you up there.” He was coming right away.  I needed to go somewhere besides home.  Kate, take me to my parents.

She called ahead to warn my parents, and explain that they needed to stay calm because I was not.  I walked in the door of my parents’ home and sunk to the floor crying and choking on my words because I knew he was in that accident.  Mom was already in mother bear mode, staying strong for me.  Dad took Kate, went back up to the highway, insisted on getting out of the car and demanded information because he saw Pat’s car in the ditch.  They realized then who Pat was, and told Kate he had already been taken to the hospital.

Mom and I were watching the hospital from her window across the street, saw them get out of her car and go in, but a few minutes later only dad came out.  I met him in the driveway.  Yes he’s there.  Yes he’s alive … but it wasn’t good, STARS was getting ready to take him to Edmonton.  I ran towards the street.  Kate pulled up in her car and took me to the hospital.  I was in panic and shock mode, trying to keep my head clear enough to be ready to hear whatever I had to hear.

Emergency was locked down.  A nurse I knew came towards me and hugged me.  I asked to see him before they left; she checked and said I could go in for just a couple of minutes as they were getting ready to load him on the helicopter, but there was no time to call a priest.

There are people all around the bed… He’s wrapped up to his neck in a padded bag.  I need to get through.  Blood on his face.  Breathing tube in his mouth.  Unconscious.  I can’t get close enough, I need to get to the other side so I can hug him.  I’m here, Pat.  I love you.  I’m going to Edmonton with you.  Please don’t be scared.  It’s OK, I’ll be there.  I love you.

People started explaining things to me.  He was breathing when they got to him, but unconscious.  All airbags deployed.  Police officers were telling me about the accident.  No charges.  A flash of human error.  He had turned left and for some reason hadn’t seen the truck. The other driver walked away with no injuries.

I felt like a robot.  I could hardly believe what was happening.  I was slowly shutting down, trying to take in everything that was being said to me, but all I could think of was that my worst fear had come true.  He didn’t come home.  I hadn’t been worrying for nothing: I was right, something bad had happened.  He was so close, he was almost home.  How could this have happened?  He’s made that turn almost daily for sixteen years.  He never takes chances.  He slows down; he waits.  I was going to wake up and the nightmare would be over.  I hadn’t received “the call”: the one we all dread, telling us that someone we love has been in an accident. Pat usually took his wallet out of his pocket and put it along with his cell phone in the console beside him for a more comfortable drive home and they hadn’t yet found it. First responders couldn’t identify him.

I looked up and saw my dear friend walk in and I remember thinking to myself “Why is she here? How did she know?”  I was to learn many days later that one of the volunteer firemen who had arrived after Pat was taken by ambulance, saw my dad approach the scene, realized it was Pat’s car, and put it all together. Knowing that I would need a ride to Edmonton right away, he called his wife to tell her what had happened and asked her to call my friend to come and be with me.  She put her arms around me and I broke down weeping: “I don’t know how to do this.”  I remember the nurse grabbing the chair to put behind me because my legs were buckling and I could no longer stand up.

What kind of day had we had before he left for work?  What did we do together?  Did I wave goodbye?  I always did, every time he left for work or anywhere else, but I couldn’t remember and I wanted to remember exactly what I did and when I did it.  So many things are taken for granted when life is “normal”.  I regularly stopped whatever I was doing and kissed and hugged him goodbye every time he left, but I had no clear image of having done so that morning, and I wanted to be able to bring it to the front of my mind because I knew it was the last time.

I tell people openly now how important it is not to be so busy that they don’t have time to say goodbye, to kiss, to hug, to hang on even just for an extra minute – it only takes a minute – and to hold the embrace in their minds and hearts long enough that it will be a memory.  There is always time for that.  I can’t ever have my last embrace back in my mind – I know without doubt that it happened, but I want to see it, to feel it, as clearly as I will always see what I was wearing that day, what he wore before he changed for work, what we did around the house to clean up the Christmas decorations and get the living room back to normal.  I want to see it as clearly as I see all those things that mattered nothing at all compared to that last embrace.  And I can’t.

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