As my phone lit up and my sisters name flashed onto the screen, I had a sudden image in my head of my parents sitting in their car unconscious, just a brief flash of an image, and right before answering I thought ‘what a horrible thing to imagine, where did that come from?’ My sisters voice on the other end pulled me into focus and her voice uttered what sounded like the most surreal sentence to me, ‘Ema? mum and dad have been in a car accident.’
It took a few seconds for me to register it and slowly the shock turned my body into an emotional live wire. Although she reassured me they were alive in hospital in France and would be fine, the brutal realisation that they were mere, fragile mortals that narrowly missed death, was a kick in the stomach and a reminder of how precious life is. I guess you could say that we escape death every single day that we are alive.
As much as we dislike admitting it, life’s discomforts and traumas are there for a reason, and usually end up teaching us something. As much as we want it to be, to absolve us of responsibility, it’s not the world being cruel or unjust. It’s us, creating scenarios as we go along, creating our lives and learning. Of course we will deny that we have any part in creating an accident because neither of us want it do we? At least not consciously. But everything we create has a multitude of outcomes and possibilities, if we create cars and roads and lorries with drivers that have reasons to be distracted…we have created the possible outcome of an accident.
We’ve known since we were old enough to understand that there is no life without death, and that throughout life there are discomforts and ups and downs like accidents, illness and all the rest. The denial of it that we develop as we grow is fascinating and also the cause of most of the feelings of discomfort. I believe this is the case because we are not well-equipped enough with emotional intelligence as we are schooled, and in our most sensitive learning stages. When people ask that classic victim question ‘why me?’ I always think, in a curious and non-malicious way, ‘why not you?’ As innocent or kind-hearted or an amazing citizen as you may be, what makes you a more or less deserving person? What makes us more deserving of protection or misfortune than everyone else in the world? Try asking ‘what will I learn from this?’ and maybe the world won’t seem so scary.
My recent discomfort has taught me so much, and although I would rather my parents hadn’t suffered, I can not deny that everyone involved or touched by it have built new character strengths from it, or reached some realisation or other that they had taken for granted previously. For me personally, when I hesitate about something, I now remember how quickly life can possibly end and that for some there is no second chance such as my parents had, and then I can make a decision with more certainty. I also am finding it easier to say ‘no’ when I do not want to participate in something, and I would rather be doing something else. As selfish as that may seem, when I do want to participate in something, I will be more likely to give my all and appreciate it more.
At very last-minute notification, my sister and I travelled to France where the accident took place in order to help our parents out of hospital, and bring them home. For someone like myself that is a creature of habit and likes a bit of order (oh ok control freak then!) this was no easy feat. Here was another lesson learned on how sometimes life just happens, for me this was the extreme side of going with the flow, and being thrown in at the deep end was a much needed wake up call. On the day we were due to fly back to the UK, my broken dad decided he had to see the state of his car in order to ‘save the ham’ and other traditional goods they had wanted to bring back home with them. So into a taxi I helped him and off we went to the scrapyard, my dad attempting to express to the non-English speaking taxi driver what a ‘terrible grande accident’ he had recently had with varying hand gestures and miming added in for effect. On approaching the wreckage all we could do was gasp and exclaim ‘oh my god’ repeatedly. The lorry had smashed into the back of the car in such a way that I could easily begin believing in survival miracles.
I pulled out most of the goods that were salvageable and my dad was particularly ecstatic to see his ham. As we left with my dad muttering ‘my poor car’ I had a sense that he hadn’t seen the bigger picture and was too wrapped up in the material side of things such as the car, the hospital, travel costs and the goods, so I asked him, ‘Surely it’s more important that you and mum are alive than the state of the car and the stuff?’ He looked at me as if that were obvious and exclaimed ‘of course! I don’t care about the car! more money will come!’ I learned then that he could in fact see the picture clearer than me in that moment. He understood perfectly well that things come and go in life, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still enjoy eating his ham! Seeing the wreckage cemented the knowledge that the universe was giving him another shot.
The biggest lesson I learned that day is that life is like a tree trunk growing in the earth, and the branches are the paths we take that hold the fruits of our labour; the leaves and flowers that are there to be enjoyed. They will fall when autumn comes, but the sturdy trunk will carry on beyond that, until more leaves come.
Back in the UK I struggled with the discomfort of the role reversal and with staying back at the parents home. I was used to my independence and I was not used to being needed by them. As I ran my mum a bubble bath and helped her into the tub, I remembered the many bubble baths she had run for me. As I washed her hair taking care not to wet her stitches I remembered that just over two decades had passed since she had washed my hair and had to put up with me moaning about water in my ears. Finally as I held a towel up for her and helped her out I realised the gesture I was offering was so much bigger than any discomfort I had. I felt a warmth filling my chest at the knowledge that I could give back at least one of those many bubble baths, at a time when she needed it the most.
It’s not about being a survivor as though life is a war, or ‘making it’ here on earth, not for me anyway. It’s about finding your inner sturdy tree trunk, so that no matter how many branches and leaves fall, you can still feel your roots connected deeply into the earth. That way through all experiences up or down that will undoubtedly come, you can pull out the best of yourself and that’s when you discover who you really are and what you’re capable of.
When it finally is time for the tree trunk to fall, at least you can say that you have lived being the best that you can be.