Whenever I hear statistics of casualties in the plural —and there is no lack of them lately (or ever) in media coverage—I can’t help but think in the singular. Tonight, yesterday, tomorrow, some family finds out that the floor has just dropped out of their domestic world. It’s easy to distance tragedy as other, as ‘in the headlines,’ but below I write about the night grief came knocking at our family door. The night we found out my brother Greg died in a car accident. To others just hearing such news, I offer no answers, or fixes. I simply offer our— my— version of the story, in the hope, somehow, it may do some good to tell it.
That day began insignificantly. I went to work at my parent’s business. I caught a bus to pick up a box from the airport with items from my recent six month trip to Europe. I met an old friend for lunch in a city park. We talked about bicycles. I crossed a busy road, too recklessly. Carelessly. But then, I was still at least eight hours away from being acutely aware of my every movement.
It was hot. It was late February. I can’t remember if it rained that day. It did after. That, unlike almost anything else that followed, seemed to make sense.
I must have eaten something for dinner. I changed from my heavy work clothes to go out to my church small group. I wore a pair of black shorts and a baggy white t-shirt that I borrowed from my brother’s wardrobe. At that time –I was nineteen –I was hardly ever satisfied with the way anything looked. Though I never wore that shirt again, for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out.
My friends E and K picked me up and we drove to C’s house. I’d always liked C’s place. She had fairy lights in her room, and everything was always neater there than in my own. The study began. E, K and I sat together, and we worked on the questions. We weren’t taking it seriously, I recall that. And I remember where we sat. In a little alcove off the main loungeroom. We were laughing loud, and a little crazy, as only young friends with no responsibility and too much time and air can.
If life were a book then at this point in my story there might be a line drawn to mark a section break, or a new chapter. Or, if it were a play, stage directions might read something like this: ‘The phone rings. Footsteps leave the room. Footsteps return. Laughter ceases.’
After that everything changed.
Even in silence messages can be heard. Or felt. Across the busy room, through the laughter and chatter, our male leader M must have been standing, looking. I don’t know if it was just me, or if others too sensed the change. But suddenly it felt like someone was dimming all the lights, turning down all the sound.
The words came from outside somewhere. I need to talk to you Nikki.
M and I stood on C’s front porch and faced one another, and he somehow said the words. I can only imagine now, years later, how difficult they must have been to form, how his throat must have clamped to hold them in, how each syllable must have scraped and tunnelled their way out.
You’re joking. That’s all I remember saying back. I felt my eyebrows raise. Mark misunderstanding.
Unfortunately M was no lier.
We went back inside, briefly. There was some insignificant discussion about my bag. My limbs must have ceased working. E and K said they’d take care of it. With an arm to my shoulders M guided me to the car. I remember thinking, on that short drive home, through moonlit streets where tall gums danced sad in the summer breeze, that this was it. I need to get my head around this now, I thought. I need to figure out how I will cope, so that when I get home I’ll be prepared. I was naive, I was grief-green. I didn’t know then. There was no preparing. Not immediately. Not years later.
M pulled up outside my house and offered to come in with me. M was brave. I said no. I’m not sure I could say why. He walked me to my door. But really, I walked the only way any family member can walk back into the presence and power of indescribable absence. Of sense. I walked alone.
My parents came to the door, two trembling teardrops, my father’s body bent over, I still see it, like a crushed question mark.
Our hallway then was white, and the floor a sort of marble. I felt the cold rise up from the tiles like the tide. All around us the waters rose. We fell in deep. Together. Apart. My parents somehow told me how it was they found out. How the policemen came to the door. (I think they said the young policeman was kind). How my mum tracked me down through a series of phone calls, leaving a trail of sorrow and miscomprehension in her wake. How finally she found me.
And next, you may ask…we did what? I’m not sure. The following day was filled, with visits, vases, words, unwords, hugs, sighs, wails, filled with other people’s vocalised comprehension of pain, and our own mute silence. But this first night? Immediately after the news. The truth is: Grief strands, as much as it shocks, stops, as much as it scalds. In the wake of nothingness, there was a frightful nothing. There is no guidebook for this: the motions of grief.
I rang K and E and asked them to come back over. There was the matter of my bag, of course, but really it was them I needed. Someone, outside of the fragile, broken triangle of us —my parents and I (3, where there had been 4) —to break in. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I wonder now what they must have been feeling, on the other end of the line, the receiving end of the tangled rope of my raw emotions, their` own emotions already fraying. They did what only true friends do. They acted. Somehow. They came to my doorstep and for the first time I saw it reflected in the watery pools of their empathetic eyes. Our sorrow knew no boundaries.
My friends and I camped out in my Grandmother’s room. We lived all together then, my family and my grandmother, and she was away on a trip. We put a mattress on the floor, and I think it was here I slept. We watched a meaningless stream of video clips. The TV stayed on all night, I think. My parents came in and out, helplessly, like uncertain visitors unaccustomed to the customs of a foreign land.
We slept, eventually. I remember asking that the lights stay on.
And in the morning, when we woke, there were flowers. An outpouring of love to meet, but not defeat, an outpouring of sorrow.