I did not see the truck that hit the car I was travelling in with my husband and two children, but I did know we had been hit. I knew that because we were upside down.
I was in the back, sitting between my 10-month-old and my three-year-old, who were both sleeping. As we rolled I put an arm in front of each child and braced – I did not choose a favourite! By the time they are teenagers I’m sure the story will have morphed into how I single-handedly saved them. And, more importantly, I did not choose a favourite!
I kept thinking, “please don’t roll again, please don’t roll again”, but we did roll again, and again, a total of three times. Also, there was a silent prayer deep inside me that is so universal it is a cliche: please, take me, not my sons.
Bystanders made the emergency call and it was so serious – a car on the highway, hit by a truck, rolled three times – that a helicopter was dispatched along with the road ambulance for the trauma they assumed would be the result.
Instead, we all walked away.
An off-duty ambulance officer got my kids out of the car and after I was pulled out I asked her: “Are my kids OK?”
“Your kids are OK.”
“Are my kids OK?” I asked again.
“Your kids are OK,” she responded again.
“Are my kids OK?”
I think she told me 32 times that my kids were OK, so enormous was my shock.
We were all taken to hospital by ambulance, after the helicopter was turned around by a paramedic who couldn’t believe we were all fine.
“Your entire family could’ve been wiped out,” a doctor told me at the hospital. I didn’t need to be told. “You all could’ve been killed,” another doctor said 30 minutes later, and then paused. “Or at least one of you.”
“At least one of” us is a prospect infinitely more terrifying to me than all of us.
A nurse on night shift where my baby was being monitored held me late at night when I told her the details of the accident. “Fucking hell mate, fucking hell,” she said, over and over.
With a broken shoulder I lay on a couch in my baby’s hospital room while he slept and lifted my phone to my face. In the paediatric intensive care unit, I responded to some work emails. I knew it was some bullshit that didn’t matter, but I did it anyway. It was ironic, in a bad way: I had just finished writing a book about the things that are important in life – the people you love, and what is not as important – productivity. Easy to say, harder to put into practice at times.
Nigella Lawson says about what the deaths of her mother, sister and husband have taught her: “The universe is random and cruel, chaotic also.” In my case, the universe is incredibly merciful and I am so grateful.
There is an understandable impulse to imbue our life with meaning, and in particular for significant experiences to have meaning. So since we are supposed to learn something from these experiences, did I learn anything from brushing up against my own mortality? I find the mortality of my children much scarier and cannot really look into that abyss, but that usually goes without saying.
The borderline euphoric state of survival lasted a few weeks. There was nothing that could bother me. Invoices were delayed, traffic was gridlocked, my coffee order misheard, some alarming news delivered. Who cares? We are alive, who cares? We are alive!
Of course life goes on. The accident has not really made me a better person. I’m still trying to flog my book, and just this morning I got unreasonably (silently) annoyed at a shop assistant who dared to tell me to use a different counter at David Jones. Life goes on but some of my senses remain sharper. There is still a little bit of awe lingering from my euphoric state.
At the moment, every night, my three-year-old son comes into my bed and sleeps with me. At about 4am he rolls over and says “mummy, hug me” (or sometimes, urgently, “Mummy, I need Spider-Man”) and I roll over, and he puts his nose to mine and falls back asleep. And then that’s how I sleep too, hugging him, because he asked me in a whisper in the predawn.
This is what matters.
It doesn’t matter if my book fails. It doesn’t matter if it is a bestseller. It doesn’t matter if I turn up to work tomorrow, really. I want to do my job and to do it well. But soon my son will be four and then five, and then 10 and then 20 and then 40. If I am lucky.
This time of him waking me every night and whispering to me half asleep to hug him – that time is not for long, really. I have to stay aware of what matters and what doesn’t. I have to enjoy this because, like everything, it won’t last.