A lot of my story centers around train tracks, I’m still not able to hear train whistles in the distance without reflecting on what I am about to tell you, but first a bit of background:
I was born in West Michigan, the oldest of three children with a huge and tightly knit extended family and more than 25 first cousins. My Dad was a small business owner and in my early childhood my Mom was at home with us. If you asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I had a rough childhood, but in the past few years I’ve listened to enough stories about foster kids, orphans and children of abuse that I know I was mostly pretty blessed. So, I will now say that I had a non-ideal childhood.
My Dad worked a lot, and my mom started a life long battle with depression and mental illness before I was born. I was a high-energy kid and as she grew more depressed, my boundless energy and negative behavior became more of an issue for her. As a solution, she started medicating me when I was three and she relied heavily on meds and therapists to “fix me” with everything from anti-depressants to ADHD medication. I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties resenting her for this, but eventually I had to come to a point of forgiveness and peace with her actions. That’s where I am now for the most part, although now that I have a high energy child of my own I am constantly gaining fresh perspective on my Mother, over and over again.
It was a cold Saturday in March almost a year after I graduated high-school where my story picks up. I was 19 and working at Build-a-Bear workshop in our local mall in Grandville, MI. It was princess day and was wearing a purple tiara and had dusted glitter all over my face. The store had opened recently and was still a novelty, so every weekend we were totally slammed with lines of parents and children ready to build and dress-up teddy bears and puppy dogs. At some point mid-shift my Manager pulled me off the stuffing machine to take a phone call from my Dad. I come from a family with a serious Dutch work-ethi so I immediately knew something was up. He would never dream of calling me at work just to chat.
With a sinking stomach I walked into my bosses office and picked up the phone. In slow and serious words he delivered news that would forever alter the state of our family. He told me that my sister, Laura, had been in an accident and it was serious. She had been driving home from the grocery store in her battered, coppered colored ’87 Chevy Nova and had attempted to cross the train tracks in spite of the warning lights and bells. There was no crossing gate at that intersection and the train hit on the passenger side. As we spoke she was in a helicopter on her way to the hospital. I remember hime saying that they didn’t know much, but that she was alive. The whole phone call seemed like a far off nightmare, because people didn’t live through getting hit by trains, did they?
The next moment I found myself on the floor in a heap, my knees gave way without my permission and I laid there sobbing on the stuffing covered floor. My manager grabbed the dangling phone receive and my Dad’s one request of her was that I didn’t drive myself to the hospital. So I grabbed my peacoat and hustled out the doors, through the mall and my Manager Michelle drove me the 25 endless minutes to the hospital downtown. I was in shock, in terror and all I remember is saying over and over again “People don’t survive getting hit by trains, they just don’t, do they?” I am sure this was not what she signed on for when she came to work that Saturday, we weren’t exactly close.
She dropped me off at the emergency room and I scanned the waiting area for my family and didn’t stop on a face that I recognized. So I made my way to the front desk lady and unleashed every intense emotion I contained on her. I screamed at her, demanding to see my sister and my family, that she was the one who was hit by a train, how dare she ask her her name, did she have any other train accident victims back there? If the circumstances weren’t so extreme I’d feel guilty, in hindsight I’m sure that lady has probably seen it all and then some.
Eventually an trauma attendant came out and led me back to a private waiting room where my family was hunkered down, waiting for news. Together we hugged, cried, and waited. After what seemed like hours a nurse came in with a short update and a bag of my sister’s bloody clothes, in tatters from being cut off her body at the scene. I could tell from the bag that it was the Abercrombie outfit she had saved up for. The one I had always been jealous of it, I’d always been jealous of her in general really. She was blonde, skinny and popular I was chubby, nerdy and awkward. But all the clothes and hair didn’t matter, because on that day in March it was all a bloody mess.
One by one my parents were able to go back into the trauma room to see her, when I asked to go back the nurse told me I looked pale, like a fainter. She told me that she didn’t need another one of us passed out back there so I would have to wait until they got her cleaned up some more. So I sat there, one member of a bruised and incomplete family, waiting for our world to re-stabalize as they tried to get my sisters body and bones to do the same.
The rest of the day was a gray fog, I remember machines, doctors, confusion and shock. Eventually my parents headed home exhausted, since my sister had several big surgeries planned for the next day and they thought it best they get some rest, if it would come to them. So it was me that stayed with her that first night in the hospital, after a short run to the market to get some granola bars and tampons. The nurse who stayed with us that first night let me wash the blood out of what was left of her white blonde hair as she tried freed chards of glass from her face. My hands were so thrilled to have something to do about all the intense emotion my body was trying to contain. Eventually the 11:00 news came on the hospital room TV and there was blurb about her accident. The witness reports seemed sensationalized and ignorant, several suggested a suicide attempt, which served as additional pain in top of an already devastating day.
The following days and weeks came with both answers and confusion. We knew for sure that the accident had left her with missing teeth, a broken arm, mandible, several cracked ribs and brain damage of unknown severity. As much as medical science has advanced, the brain still remains quite mysterious, it’s a sacred center of memories, emotions and wiring and to damage it is to affect the course of an entire life.
When you spend long hours in the ICU it’s easy, even normal to get discouraged by long strings of bad news and unanswered questions. One thing that helped me keep perspective was the family that we shared a hospital wall with. Their son, brother and friend had been in an brutal motorcycle accident, so they spent their days saying goodbye. I still remember the painful hours when we knew they were pulling the plug. Even though my sister outlook was rough, and our road seemed dark and endless, we were thankful for the air in her lungs.
She was eventually discharged to a rehab hospital where she had to relearn even the most basic of tasks, like how to swallow and walk. I caught strep throat from the hospital germs so I wasn’t there when she woke up, they told me she would lay there fingering the silky pink ear of a stuffed animal, and that she really wanted to eat candy orange slices
From there she came home for a while but as the months passed, my parents had to come to terms with the fact that our family home was not the best place for her. It broke my Dad’s heart to have to go to court to get guardianship of her, he had to go to court and with her sitting there, prove to a judge that she wasn’t capable of taking care of herself anymore. They took away her drivers license, and they were forced to take away so much more. It’s now been ten years since that day on the tracks and her progress has ebbed and flowed through several different rehab facilities and systems. As a family, we try to connect with and support her as best we can but around year five we had to come to terms with the fact that her life, as well as ours, was forever altered on the tracks that day.
Continue on to Part Two: The coldest March- the loss of my Dad