Thursday, 8 August 2013

The House on Memory Lane

Life has been a complete whirlwind since April, with AS exams, university visits and a move of house. My family and I have moved from a little Yorkshire village near to Skipton to Blackburn, where I go to school. The last few weeks have been spent frantically packing up our old house and then battling the multitude of boxes blocking doorways in the new one!

Packing up at Beckfoot (our old house) meant we had to go through lots of our belongings and decide which ones to keep. We brought with us all of Daddy and Louise's clothes when we left London, so had eight bin bags full in the attic. My mum debated the idea of sorting through them, but each garment holds so many memories it would be impossible to choose a few to keep. They are not items of clothing, but the fabric into which my childhood was woven. Many of Daddy's t-shirts were still folded in neat piles, having been hastily transfered from wardrobe to bin bag when we moved away from London. Sometimes at the weekend he let us choose his clothes, and every time we searched through the stack until we found his brightest yellow shirt. Somehow it felt magical to decide what he wore, even though I knew that he could have told you with his eyes closed what outfit we would pick. We also found a hold-all bag that Daddy packed for the weekend away that we never got to go on. He died on the motorway before we got there. Somehow it seems strange to think that we left home as a family of five, but it was only Daddy's suitcase that came back. Maybe when my brother and I are a little older we can have another look at the clothing, but for the time being the bags are stashed behind a wardrobe in my room. Some things aren't belongings, some things are the memories that we cling to for fear that the will be taken away.

Another task was going through the teddy bears. Like lots of children, over the years my siblings and I managed to acquire more teddies than there are blades of grass in a meadow. The vast majority were distributed between charity shops, but some we are keeping. Before Louise and I were born, our parents didn't find out whether we were boys or girls. They disliked the hospital labels of 'Twin 1' and 'Twin 2', so decided to nickname each of us one of their middle names. Louise was given Mum's middle name: 'Elizabeth', shortened to 'Betty'. I got lumped with 'Denis'. Fortunately neither stuck! On the day we were born Daddy went out and bought each of us a little stuffed toy. Louise had a lady bird and I a lion; and they were called 'Denis' and 'Betty'. They are both staying.

We also had much larger bears, who shared the titles 'Denis' and 'Betty' with our smaller companions. All the Denis and Betty teddies were much loved, and known as our 'special friends'. We took them with us on all holidays, so naturally they went through the accident with us. Whilst the rest of my family were all either killed or put into comas by the impact, I remained conscious throughout the whole thing. I remember being alone in the hospital with strangers cutting off my clothes, pulling at my body in ways that I didn't want them too and asking me questions over and over again. I don't remember being frightened, just lost and confused. One minute we were going on holiday and it was a beautiful sunny day. The next I was lying on a table with blinding lights above me, trying desperately to stop a man with a mask on slicing my nickers off. Many hours later, a nurse came to tell me that they had found a teddy for me. It was Betty Bear. I was overjoyed to see her, she was as much a family member to me as my siblings were. I thought that they had chosen to give me Betty because she was Louise's, and I wanted Louise but she wasn't here so I had to have Betty instead. It didn't occur to my five year old mind that they had no idea which of the children Betty had belonged to, she was just the least damaged teddy that they had managed to rescue from the wreckage. Betty was given to me wrapped in a towel because she was still wet from where they'd washed her. I couldn't for the life of me work out why Betty had needed a bath. It took me many years to come to understand that many of the things in the car had been flung into ditches and lost during the collision, or were simply too blood soaked to be salvaged. The accident and bereavement that followed were so humongous and incomprehensible to me that in the first few months, the loss of Lenny, a lion with a jangly ball in his tummy, was more heartbreaking than the loss of Louise. I didn't really realise that Daddy was never coming back until several years later; I guess as a child the knowledge that you will never see your father ever again is too overpowering to comprehend.
Denis Bear

Another teddy that we came across was unfamiliar, except for the hospital band around his arm upon which 'Hello, my name is Brown Bear and I belong to Sophie Thomas' was written in faded brown ink. I remember the band being put on him; I wanted to know why his band was red and mine was white. The nurse said red bands were normally for people with allergies, and my cousin Lottie said that my uncle would have a red band because he's allergic to cats. Mum wonders if Brown Bear was a present given to Louise at one of the Christmas gatherings we used to have with Daddy's friends from
Brown Bear
university. If anyone remembers anything about Brown Bear, please can you let me know?

We also stumbled across Ronnie and Freddie, dolls given to Louise and I as babies by our great aunt and uncle, also called Ronnie and Freddie (as you can see, my parents were spectacularly creative when assigning names to our toys!). We loved Ronnie and Freddie, which we expressed by biting their heads whilst we were teething. They were the only thing we ever had that belonged to both of us. Although the doll on the left in the photograph was originally christened Freddie and the other Ronnie, I though of both of them as 'RonnieandFreddie', which was fine as they were always together anyway.
Ronnie and Freddie

In addition, we are also saving Honey Lamb, of which we actually have two. Nana May, my paternal grandmother, was visiting Aunty Margi in Australia when Louise and I were born, but when she came home she brought a soft lamb for each of us. These lambs were treasured possessions, and when we were older we decided to name them. I was much more creative than Louise with names, and when it came to naming toys she usually copied me through lack of motivation to come up with something herself. I chose 'Honey Lamb', and Louise promptly called hers the same thing. At least it was better than having two 'Nana May Lambs', which is what they would have been called using my
Honey Lamb
parents' naming strategy!

Baby Squirrel and Baby Sunflower have also joined the ranks of the saved. They are dolls that we gave each other for our birthday one year. Mum took each of us to the shop separately, Louise chose Baby Squirrel for me and I chose Baby Sunflower for her. I think they are the only birthday presents we ever gave each other, and they both occupy a very special place in my heart.
Baby Squirrel

When Mum was emptying a high cupboard, the contents spontaneously fell out on her head. The heavy marble chess set that landed on her shoulder didn't make her cry, but the newspapers did. On the day that each of us was born, Daddy went out and bought us newspapers. He wrapped them in plastic and wrote labels on them: 'Maybe she'd like them on her 18th or 21st birthday'. Like he somehow knew that he wouldn't be there to hand the papers over himself.
My brother's newspapers

Moving house has made me realise that whilst it is memories that we carry with us in our hearts, those memories are intwined so tightly with our belongings. It is said that you should treasure only loved ones and not objects, but in my experience, when a loved one has died their material possessions become the keepers of memories themselves.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Accidents and Angels

I have so many things to say, and yet I cannot seem to find any words. So much has happened this week, and in some ways I am finding it difficult to process it all. Today is the eleventh anniversary of the car accident in which my identical twin sister Louise and our dad died (me and Louise were a few days shy of six, our little brother Dan was three). I always find the week of the fifth of April emotional, the anniversary doesn't make me miss Louise and Daddy more, because I miss them in everything that I do; but somehow their absence has a greater gravity to it.
Daddy and Louise

I was conscious throughout the whole of the accident, so I saw everything that happened and, unsurprisingly for a five year old, I guess, was traumatised by it. I have been nervous of all modes of transport since (strangely I've always had the biggest issues dealing with trains- there were times in the past when we couldn't go into large stations without me freaking out majorly, which was slightly problematic given that we lived in London!). In cars I have a habit of counting in my head: counting lampposts, counting cars we drive past, counting the number of times I clench and unclench my toes in a rhythmic pattern if it's dark outside. I always assume that car accidents are waiting just around every corner. Whenever anyone is late anywhere or doesn't reply to a text I am convinced that they are lying in a ditch somewhere. So, I was prepared for Tuesday's events.

My mum was taking me to an appointment, and we had just turned out onto the main road (the top of Winkholme, for anyone who knows the Cowling area) when she had a sneezing fit. I'm not entirely sure exactly what happened, but the sudden sneeze meant Mum couldn't straighten the car up in time. For a split second of forever I saw the rusted iron railings that line the roadside superimposed on the empty sky, and then I felt the car being lifted up beneath me. A strange sensation of total calmness filled me as I realised we were going to go over the edge. And then we were falling.

The power of metal on earth was mind blowing. We dropped about six feet before hitting the field that slopes sharply downwards at the edge of the road, and started to rolly-polly down it. My eyes were open, and I could see everything as though it was moving underwater. Our possessions flying around the car; the mud through my window at one point when the car was on its side with the passenger door momentarily planted to the ground; the windows each in turn shattering into one thousand crystals of broken glass that seemed to fall around us like snow. Being in a car that is upside down (albeit only for a second at a time) should be terrifying, but somehow it seemed surreally natural to me. I was not afraid. As we were rolling, I knew, without even having to think about it, that my mum was going to die. People say that when they are in accidents they see their whole life flash before their eyes, but I saw my future. In a split second I lived through every moment that would pass differently because my mum wouldn't be there to see it. I am no stranger to bereavement, and I can tell you that I saw a lot of moments. Maybe it is strange, but it didn't cross my mind that there was a possibility of me being injured, let alone dying. I think its because I escaped the first accident with cuts and bruises, but watched half my family die and the other half in intensive care. That is the only event in my life that I thought of as the car went tumbling down: a lone image of a balloon floating above the bed of another patient in the ICU when I went to visit my mum.

It felt as though it would never stop. In a strange way that I cannot explain, I didn't want it to. I was so convinced that when we got to the bottom she would be lying there, motionless next to me, and that I would have to live through it all again. Some people say that they are scared of aeroplanes, others say they are scared of dying when the aeroplane crashes. I do not mind accidents, what scares me is the thought of surviving. Somehow, it seemed easier to remain in this state, where my world was physically turning upside down, than to face the endless spiraling that is the loss of a parent. Although I couldn't hear myself, apparently the whole way down I was screaming 'Are you alive? Mum, are you alive?'. Suddenly we came to a halt, I looked across at her, and she said, 'I'm an idiot.' That was the most illogical and wonderful thing I have heard in years.
We survived, the car did not

Some people respond to shock by crying, staring into space or breaking down. Strangely, I tend to morph into some kind of determined, composed human being who takes control of the situation. 

'Right, I'm going to call for help.'

My phone had been flung out the car by the force with which we crashed into the floor every time we rolled. I brushed the shards of glass off the handle and pushed, the door opened and I climbed out. I found my phone resting on a mound of upturned earth not far from where we had landed. I had already rung my step dad, explained what had happened and that we were both fine before I noticed Mum, stuck in the car due to her door being dented the wrong way, shouting at me to let her speak to him. The man in the car in front of us had seen us go over in his mirror and pulled over to help. By this point, he had climbed into the field and made it down the hill to the car, and quickly switched the engine off (the rest of the car was totally destroyed, but amazingly the engine lives on!). Thank you Mr. Blue-Van-Driver, we didn't realise until later that you were so concerned about switching the car off to stop it exploding (Mum thought 'Oh yes that makes sense no point wasting petrol'!). Mum climbed out across the passenger seat and various members of the village turned out to help.

I frequently hear people complain about the emergency services, but a police officer was on the scene within minutes of being called, and an ambulance followed not long after. We were both fine, cuts and bruises but nothing more, but they still wanted to check us over. The ambulance crew then insisted on waiting with us until my step dad arrived to pick us up ('Oh no, you can't stand out there it's cold!'). Then there was the man who works at the local garage who picked all our stuff up from where it was strewn across the field, the kind lady who went home and made cups of tea for everyone and all the other people who stopped to see if there was anything they could do to help. I feel like I belong in my village.

It is only now, a few days later, that what happened has hit me. I keep reliving the falling, feeling the car roll and the world turn upside down. I can't stop this uncontrollable panic from rising within me, but I guess that is natural. I keep crying and shaking randomly, and then being okay again. It has also brought all my memories from the first accident to the front of my mind, I won't dwell on them now as that is another whole post, but I am reliving that accident and the aftermath of it too. I am very lucky though, I have supportive family and friends, and their help means a lot to me.

This accident (which I have nicknamed 'accident 2') has come at rather unfortunate timing: three days before the anniversary. My mum and brother have gone to London to visit Daddy and Louise's grave, but I opted to stay home. For me, one trip down a hill in a car is enough traveling for one week! Everyone who saw where we crashed said they were amazed we weren't seriously injured. I don't know quite what I believe about life after death, but I think that somehow, Daddy and Louise's love kept us safe as we fell. I just hope that, wherever they are, they are together and they know that I love them.
Louise and Daddy's grave

Anniversaries can be difficult times, it is hard to sit there thinking 'this exact moment eleven years ago I was sat at the side of a motorway with total strangers whilst my family were trapped in the car dying' (they got me out the car through one of the windows). I often wonder, if there is an afterlife, what do people do on the anniversary of the day that they died. I like to think that they are doing something nice, that they are happy. I sent pebbles to the cemetery for them, which Mum found their last time she went. 'Integrity' for Daddy because of his honesty, and 'Sunshine' for Louise because she was so bright and full of life. I like to think that even though she is no longer with us, that brightness shines on.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Mirage Effect

Me and Lou Lou, Sitting in a Pram Basket
I haven't posted for a while, not because I have no words but because somewhere between exams and Christmas and more exams I somehow haven't had time to string sentences together!  I miss writing, and have so many ideas bubbling around in my head that I want so badly to share, if only so that I can catch hold of them before they slip back out of my grasp.

I set up The Pebble Garden to remember Louise's life and the beautiful view that she had of the world (...when she wasn't grumbling about how long it took to walk home from school! She used to hang off the lampposts crying 'I can't walk any further! My legs are going to drop off! Call a helicopter!'). Often, when I talk to people about Louise, they don't see the life that she had. To them she is a dead girl. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with that because it is true, Louise died and she is never coming back. But rather than being sad about it, The Pebble Garden shows that we can remember Louise by being happy and thinking about the beautiful life that she had. Yes, it was tragically short, but when people die young their brightness shines forever, we shouldn't lose sight of that.
Louise in Yellow

Something strange seems to happen when people remember someone who has died, and I have named it 'the mirage effect'. Death is a shimmering veil that beautifies everything and anyone that it touches, and to me it is not the grim reaper that truly steals someone's life away, it is their friends who refuse to remember them as human. Somehow, Louise was elevated when she died to the most popular girl in our school, everyone was suddenly her best friend. The truth is that whilst Louise had a handful of friends, she often felt lonely at break time and struggled to form strong friendships. She was also lazy, and yet people seem shocked when I tell them this. How dare I touch the perfection that enshrouds her now she is gone?

Memories of those we have lost are like beaches: covered in a myriad of seashells and pebbles which are not washed away by the tide of time but are somehow changed by its ebbing flow. Gradually, the landscape gets distorted and the sunlight dances more spectacularly across the sea with every sunset that passes. It is a breathtaking sight to behold, yet this isn't what beauty means to me.

Daddy with Louise
I feel sad when I speak to people with altered memories of my sister. Louise is a girl, not a piece of clay that can be molded into contorted postures to fit the image that society says applies to all children who die. It means a lot to me when others think of Louise, it touches me that they still care about her. Louise lives on in our hearts, but I hope that it is  a five year old with scruffy hair and a runny nose who we carry with us, not some kind of over-beautified angel-like figure. I wish I could make them see that I miss Louise's downfalls as much as her qualities, it is people's imperfections that make them perfect.