Everybody called me lucky. It was one of the first things I heard when I woke up.
“Mr. Whitaker, you have six broken ribs, 2nd degree burns to your left leg and some cranial damage, but you were lucky, the dashboard missed you temple…”
She called me lucky, in that rose gold room, as the sun set on a Tuesday. I will never forget that she called me lucky,
Because then she told me my husband and three kids had not been lucky.
Kopano Whitaker (45) deceased: 09:23 hrs 21.01.16
Tau Whitaker (17) deceased: 08:07 hrs 21.01.16
Zain Whitaker (12) deceased: 09:12 hrs 21.01.16
To her credit, she had had the decency to pause awkwardly for one bloated moment between calling me lucky and telling me my boys and husband were dead.
My heart had stopped beating, the sunlight across my face felt cold and alien. I had been in pain when I woke up, now I could hardly feel it. I listened terrified, I felt like I was separating, my body crumbling to pieces, I knew that if little Minerva’s name was read out I would surely fall into nothing but dust.
“Your daughter is in the ICU, she has a concussion and a broken jaw … and she had some internal bleeding, she got out of surgery three hours ago. She is expected to make a full recovery. She is asleep at the moment but I can arrange for a nurse to notify you when she wakes up.” The nurse looked up at me here and with a look of uncomfortable condolence said: “actually due to her young age I can arrange for you both to be moved to the same ward… I’ll make sure you’re together.
“Mr Whitaker, is there anyone you would like me to call?”
It took several second for the question to register; the path from my ears to my brain was so clogged with grief and fear, and now the pain. Finally, I managed.
“I have a sister… Lucy….” several more seconds passed before I could remember her phone number. “Ah…. 04 02521469…”
It seems the nurse left then, but I will never be sure. I stared into the space ahead of me. My lips tracing my sons’ and Kopano’s names repeatedly, trying to make them part of me.
Kopano, Tau, Zain, Kopano, Tau, Zain, Kopano, Tau, Zain,
It’s weird how time changes a person’s perspective. Just then, it felt like the accident was almost a bad dream. It was all so big, so stupidly ridiculous; I thought I would never really believe any of it. There wasn’t enough proof, my pain meant nothing. My body was lying! The nurse was lying! I was wrong of course, soon I had more proof than I could stand. Twenty minutes of angry denial later I was moved. As the sun lost its grip and fell below the horizon, my bed was pushed into a smaller room and lights flickering into life throughout the hospital. It was through this changing, blue grey, then suddenly vivid white light that I first saw Mini. She had not looked that small for nearly three years. The bed seemed to stretch away from her for miles. The large bandage obscuring much of her face made my head spin. Her orange hair spilled around her, my baby girl, just six years old. She was meant to start school in a week. People seemed to move around the room, checking things. All I could see was her.
A cry pulled me from some soft blue world near sleep. It sliced through my consciousness, bring with it first pain then sunlight. I sat up awkwardly. The cry had been Mini’s. She was sitting up in her bed staring around the room wildly.
“Papa! Budako! Papa! Budako!”
My throat was dry and I felt like I was going to be sick but I swallowed and pushed the words out.
“Mini, baby, Papa’s here.”
There was a horrible moment before her searching eyes found me and she relaxed.
“Papa.” She started tearfully, “Papa, what happened?”
Dread filled my gut like cement. I took a deep breath and slowly pulled myself out of my bed. I felt the tug of an IV in my arm and looked around blankly at it. It was on wheels so, as slowly as I had gotten out of bed; I pulled it towards me and rolled it over to Mini’s bed. Gently I reached out and touched her face, that which I could reach. A couple of my fingers brushed the rough fabric of the bandage and it took everything in me not to flinch away.
“How do you feel?” I asked her. Her tiny hand had come to rest on mine, sandwiching it, her face, my hand, her hand. Her grip was so slight but there was no strength in the universe that would have moved my hand then.
She considered my question, her eyes darkly blue and calculating, with all the wisdom of six long years.
“Sleepy and my tummy hurts. What is this thing in my arm? You have one too.”
I nodded anything to delay the inevitable.
“It’s called an IV; it’s to stop your body getting too thirsty. Are you in much pain?”
She shook her head. Orange bouncing around her.
“Only my tummy a bit, and my mouth, what happened? Why are we hurt? Is Budako and Tau and Zain hurt too?”
My next breath shuddered but Kopano and I had decided when we adopted Tau that we would never lie to our children. “We had an accident. We were in a car crash. Budako, Zain and Tau were all hurt too.”
“If they are hurt, where are they?”
I know I told her. I had to have told her because in the years to come she knew. It took nearly six months for her to stop asking for her Budako or for one of the boys. She was too young to really understand death, or at least she should have been. Every few years, she would ask me more about what happened, as she grew older and her worldview expanded, or as her emotional intelligence grew. So we would walk back through what had happened, and try to understand it.
It was a strange feeling, in the hospital, telling her what had happened, I was saying things, fact but they hadn’t become true yet. They wouldn’t for about a month. One day, in the plaza, buying school books for Mini’s late start to school. Both of us were pretty much healed, no more stitches or broken bones. Just the other stuff. A kid in the crown, a little way ahead seemed just for a second to be Zain. I could have sworn until the sky was pink that it had been him, until he turned slightly and the spell broke. It wasn’t the first or the last time I thought I saw one of their faces in some stranger’s but it was this time that it hit me. I’d talked to Mini a lot over the month about feeling sad, why she was, why I was; what death meant. But there in that bright place, surrounded by hundreds of people all thinking and feeling and none of them my boys or my man, I was overwhelmed by it. My knees grew weak; I sunk to the ground and cried, ugly unstoppable and alone. Until her slight grip on my hands, now pulled up over my face. It was like she knew, no words were needed, she wrapped her arms around my neck and I just sobbed. One thing was for sure, I still didn’t feel lucky.