9/11 is a difficult date for thousands of people around the world. For our family, it is 21 September, today’s date. It was 31 years ago today when tragedy struck: whilst driving the family home from a cousin’s wedding my dad suffered a minor stroke. He was on the motorway. My 17 year old sister died, my father suffered a serious head injury, my mother injuries to her spine, my brother’s minor injuries. I first wrote about it 3 years ago in ‘September: seasons of mist and mellow sadness’. Check this out if you’re not familiar with my story.
So it’s hardly surprising this date is seared into my family’s collective memory as one to endure, mark, recoil from or simply struggle through, depending on one’s mood. For the first 10-15 years, we did all of the above, but usually quietly: my father, having a compromised memory would often not even be aware of the date, and so we would be left wondering how much to remind him, caught between the importance of marking it as a family or diplomatically sweeping it under the carpet.
To everyone else but us it was an ordinary, banal date. Best-before-dates on the food in the fridge, diary dates innocently suggested for drinks, long boring work meetings were all laced with significance that no one else understood.
But in recent years the date has started to lose its potency. I turn the calendar and there it is, sitting there as it always has, yet this time it sits there innocently, without threat and little foreboding. I sometimes even forget its imminent approach and am caught short when browsing the vegetable aisle in Sainsbury’s, as I was today. “Oh, its tomorrow,” I think quietly, berating myself for not being aware. The overloaded busyness of life sometimes renders me myopic.
I used to feel bad about not remembering till the day before, as if I was undervaluing my sister. I now see it as a sign that the tragedy, the death no longer has such a hold on my present. For sure its presence is very real: I usually spend much of the day with a small lump in my throat and a strange far away look in my eye. But the date no longer weighs so heavily; when I stumble upon it I don’t shy away, instead I pick it up and accept it for what it is. I grieve for a sister I now hardly know, but more so for the toll that tragic day took on my poor parents and brothers, and myself.
What is interesting is that the grief has taken a different form and a different guise, albeit somewhat softer and easier to bear. A propos of nothing, I might find myself suddenly stricken with sadness at what my father had to deal with. I might be driving the car or listening to a piece of music I know he loved, and I’ll suddenly be gripped with a deep sense of how it affected him. Or I may be at some event that involves children and fathers, and be caught short with an understanding of the loss he and my mother had to bear.
I grieve less for the loss of a person, more for what was lost – the relationships, health, cousins -and what changed irrevocably that day. As I grow older, my understanding of that loss deepens. I am, after all, almost at the age my parents were at the time of the accident. My sister is, conversely, now closer in age to my 12 year old daughter….
Not long ago, when my children were small, I went through a fresh kind of mourning for my sister, but it was more for the absence of a relationship that never was. It was a time in my life when I particularly would’ve loved the advice, support, friendship, and cousins for my kids. I still deeply miss having no sister or extra cousins for my kids to visit but I guess I have come to terms with it.
My parents are the ones whose lives I can now relate to and whose pain I can only just begin to feel – just. I will never know what it is like to lose a child, as my mother has. For that reason, the grief will never be as sharp as it is for her on this date, and it has the chance to lose its edge.
Instead, it is the implications of ‘the Accident’ in all its complexity that bring a sadness that I have to swallow and bravely face.
But I will always remember the 21st of September.