On Saturdays, my sister and I would run errands with my Mum. We would cruise around Calgary in her blue 1986 Mercury Topaz, hitting all of our routine stops: the bank, the grocery store, the dry-cleaner’s, the drug store, the library, the deli, the bagel place… They were long days and we would pack a lot in, so there was always that point in the afternoon when we would be tired of being in the car, but still have one stop left. I could get impatient and restless and cranky, but looking back, I remember those Saturdays fondly. My sister and I were good at alternating who got to sit in the front seat. My Mum would buy us marzipan puppies from the bakery. We listened to Phil Collins. We talked.
My Mum is a great storyteller; one of my all-time favourites. She takes her time, focuses on compelling details, and strives towards a kind of emotional detachment from the story even though the telling inevitably affects her. She doesn’t work for drama. She doesn’t try to illicit a specific response in you. All she wants from you as a listener is to hear it.
One Saturday, it was my turn in the front seat and the conversation moved to a story my Mum had heard from a friend about a group of teenagers in rural Alberta who were goofing around in the back of their friend’s pickup truck. One boy climbed up and rode on the roof of the cab until the driver hit the brakes and the boy was thrown off into the road where he landed hard. The kids got out of the truck to see if he was okay, but found him listless and confused. His friends didn’t know what to do and were afraid of getting in trouble for their recklessness, so they took the boy home and put him to bed. When his parents found him the next morning he had slipped into a coma. By the time they got him to the hospital, his brain damage was so extensive that for the rest of his life he wouldn’t be able to walk, speak, or feed himself. There was no hope of him ever being independent. In one night, the course of his life had been altered forever. I can still see my Mum in the front seat tossing a hand in the air and letting it fall back to the wheel illustrating the senseless tragedy of it all.
In the passenger seat, I felt sick. This wasn’t the first tragedy I had been exposed to, but for some reason hearing it shook me more than I remember being shaken by a story previously. I was overwhelmed by all that I was thinking and feeling: sadness for the boy who was hurt, dismay for his parents, anger and frustration with the boy’s friends for their decision, but compassion for them too. It was an accident. They didn’t mean to hurt him. I knew what friendship was and could imagine the weight of guilt and responsibility they must have felt: the trouble beyond trouble, not a childish fear of consequences, but an awareness that they were in part responsible for their friend’s irrevocable fate. I remember thinking “if only they could go back and do something differently” and maybe for the first time, I understood just how impossible that was. I got a visceral sense of time’s merciless forward motion, and the speed at which many lives can change because of a series of moments, events and decisions. Most of all, I remember being fascinated by how I could feel so affected by events that I had not been a part of, and connected to people who I only knew, and would only ever know, as characters in my Mum’s story.
Of course, if you asked me then I wouldn’t have been able to explain it all like that. I am sure that in analyzing these brief moments in my life through the lens of memory I am distorting the scene to some extent, but I am certain of one thing: I became aware of the power of a story. I understood that from them I could draw some kind of truth about how life really is, no matter how harrowing that truth might be.
There are many mothers who would not tell their 8-year-old that story, or who would tell it differently in order to soften it for their children’s ears. My Mum could have done some of the things I have seen some TYA plays do when dealing with difficult material. She could have tacked on a moral, reinforced the specific lesson she wanted me to learn from the story, or tried to infuse the ending with some kind of hope, but she didn’t. She let the story hang in the car trusting that my sister and I were mature enough to unpack the complexity of it ourselves.
It is impossible to know exactly how that story has affected me in the long term. It definitely hovered in the back of my mind when I was a teenager and wanted to try risky things, but it didn’t necessarily prevent me from doing them — although I never rode on the roof of a moving pickup truck. At 31, I have not directly experienced many great tragedies in my life, but if there is one thing I have learned from the difficult times I have been through it is that some things in life just don’t make sense. Tragic events are never truly overcome. We learn to live with and negotiate them as we move through our lives, and I am grateful that my mother was brave enough to tell my sister and I that story. It is growing up hearing stories told the way she did, that I have come to believe that in the right environment and in the hands of a good storyteller, the tragedy and complexity of the real world are not out of a child’s intellectual and emotional grasp. The more we try to emphasize what we think a child should learn from a story (moral or lesson) the more we reduce the scope of what a story can actually do.