7 Dec

When I was 19 I lost two friends in a car crash. Mike (21), Belinda (18) and Mike’s wee brother Pete (16) were here one day and just gone the next. Like that. It was December 17th and not a Christmas passes without me thinking of them. Me and many others I am sure. As the years have passed the perspective I think of them from, the framework I place them in, has changed. In the beginning I would think of them as lost friends, as people who existed relevant to me and were now gone. I never imagined them growing older with me until I became a mother myself. It was only then that the impact of them not continuing hit me, no children, no grandchildren, no memories of them beyond those that we who knew them during their short lives carry with us. As my children have grown I find my thoughts turn more and more to their mothers, not that they weren’t in my thoughts to start with but it’s natural to empathise by imagining yourself in the position of another… and only now am I close to being able to imagine that awful place.

I think we Scots are pretty non-demonstrative bunch on the whole. In the days after our friends died we would gather in the local pub, drink ourselves silly and talk about them… endlessly. The bonds that tied us together during that time were temporary, and for that all the stronger. The two words that spring to mind when I think of us all back then are “pissed” and “stoic”.

But there were other people, as there are when the young die. People we didn’t know, or knew less well. And they often were demonstrative. Very much so. I remember being confused and angry and thinking to myself “Why are these people so upset? Why are they crying? Why are we sitting here with the girl who’s loved him forever and her best friend for years watching YOU wail and moan?”. Life is pretty much like that when you’re 19.

When you’re 19 you also think that these things always happen at Christmas. At Christmas there’s always a house fire that wipes out a family, a new born baby found abandoned, a car crash. It’s only with the benefit of years that you realise these things happen all year round. They are, however, highlighted at Christmas, aggravated by their incongruous setting at this happiest of times. When we are so full of goodwill and joy it’s just worse. Which is why my tummy flipped and my heart grew heavy when I read a report on the BBC website on Saturday and I mourned the tragic passing of three strangers in a car accident in the Highlands. A mother and her two sons, here one day and just gone the next. Like that.

Only it turned out they weren’t strangers.

I don’t have any photos of Michele to share, we weren’t close friends. She was one of those people you gravitate towards. I gravitate towards. Michele was, without doubt, one of the funniest, most entertaining people I have every had the pleasure of talking to. At the school gates, in the street, at parent’s evenings, Michele wasn’t the sort of person to pass you or to pass by. No, a nod was not enough. A full blown hilarious account of her week was a treat to be treasured. She was a person to make time for. No adversity, nothing life threw at her, was safe from her cutting humour. The only time I ever remember hearing Michele get serious about anything was when she touched on the trials of her job. She was a home carer and I mean carer in the true sense of the word. She may have been paid to care but she cared. This was so evident in the frustrations she shared at her limitations and her impatience with the limitations of others. “By the book” and nothing more wasn’t enough for her. I have said often that if I ever ended up dependent on social care I would fervently wish for someone just like Michele to be doing the caring.

Her boys were not safe from her sharp wit either! Her older boy Callum, at 13 already never short of female attention, was one of her favourite topics with me, my daughter being in the same year as him. I used to think how lucky any girl of Callum’s was going to be when she met Michele and the two of them got in cahoots ribbing that poor boy (and I’m sure he would have lapped it up!). I can hear her as clear as day yelling  for Ethan, her 11 year old, in her mental Highland (are you Welsh or what?) twang. I never heard Ethan utter a word in all the years he skipped out of that school gate, he just grinned. Wide. Very wide.

I know what you see at the school gates isn’t the whole person, it’s rarely even a small part of the person, but I think Michele was one of the open and honest ones. Warts and all, she called a spade a fucking shovel, as we say. Or “facking” shovel, in her mental Highland (no really – you must have lived in Wales?) twang.

The anger I felt towards all those wailing teenagers 23 years ago isn’t something I am proud of, so before I dropped my children off at school today, I recounted the story, especially for my daughter. Whilst not a close friend of Callum’s they spent 7 years at the same primary and 2 and a bit at secondary, albeit in different classes. I warned that there might be children who hardly knew him inconsolable, best friends unreadable and a seething undercurrent of  “I knew him…”. Because people want to share and be part of  such a public tragedy. Spread it, share it, alleviate it. Don’t be angry and don’t compete in the tragedy stakes teenage girls do so well.

Was I unfair? Should I have let her take this well trodden path through grief even if only from a distance? Because it is from a distance. We’re all of us sort of halfway to sorrow. This little family that’s all but been wiped out won’t leave a massive hole in our personal lives, not from this distance. But they leave a huge hole in the village. Three or four times a year I would spend time chatting to Michele, or people I know would have met her and I’d ask them how she was doing. For me that’s the size of hole. It’s a hilarious, bolshie, WYSIWYG, devoted Mum Michele shaped hole.

I know my perspective will change again as more years pass, my framework will shift. When my children grow and they don’t. When my children have children and they don’t.

I will now remember six at Christmastime.


6 Responses to “Remembering”

  1. Mwa December 8, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    Makes me wonder if she’s leaving a husband/other children. I think loss is made a bit worse by Christmas, because then that is spoiled for years as well.

    • mrsw December 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

      Her husband wasn’t on the journey with them and they’ve no other kids. I have never met him. Can’t even imagine where his head is right now.

  2. Kate December 8, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Oh this is so sad. I, too, lost a good friend around Christmas time when I was 19. She was in a car with 5 others. Four teens aged 18 and 19 were killed – the driver survived. The story was horrific and it was my first ‘taste’ of death. It was difficult and even now, like you, I think of them all particularly at this time. Even though it is 27 years later, I can still hear her voice and hear her laugh. She has stayed the same.

    I feel so much for you regarding your ‘school gate’ friend Michelle. When you are a parent, perspective and empathy changes. What a horrible time for that family and all their friends.

    I think you did the right thing to tell your daughter. It can only help.



    • mrsw December 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

      How do you get over surviving something like that? How awful.

      My daughter says school was better in many ways and worse in some. There was a lot of sadness and little evidence of hysterical competition. The biggest shock was second hand, seeing close friends of Callum’s visibly upset, seeing an empty seat in a classroom and teachers who didn’t know how to cope themselves. All in all a day they won’t forget in a hurry, but one they had to get through together.

  3. cartside December 9, 2009 at 1:28 am #

    Your post reminded me of a Dutch colleague, who, before returning home, went on a trip with her family to the highlands. Her brother drove, he crashed, both parents and my colleague (in her early twenties) were killed. The brother, the driver, survived. I wasn’t close to her, I knew her, but the horror of that accident, of what life would be like for the younger brother, who would never get over the guilt, shook me to the core.

    We have our own, not-distant-at-all-grief at Christmas, and it’s just the worst thing if a tragedy happens at Christmas.


  1. Could I just point your attention towards… | all that comes with it - December 8, 2009

    […] Only it turned out they weren’t strangers. read the whole post here […]

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