Memories from My Youth – Her Pilgrim Face

I will be returning to the ongoing saga that is my stepchildren and eventually to some of the more interesting cases I had been involved in. My daughter is now in a different quandary, while my son seems to have found his place. But today, as the first snow hits Calgary, this event in my life came to mind, and it was time this story was told.

I hate those days when you’re walking into a wind so fierce that the snow and the rain fly sideways. Days that the wind bites deep, and the skin of your face turns ice-cold. Days like that one long ago, where I was old enough to feel invulnerable and confident. One particular day, when I met her.

I was trudging along Sherbrooke St in my beloved home of Montreal on a miserable February afternoon.  I was just blocks away from the closest Metro station, but it may as well have been miles away based on what I was feeling. Icicles had literally started to form on my eyebrows as the snow melted and froze on my face. It was only 4pm, but the night had already come and the street lights struggled to provide light to lead the way for my fellow pedestrians.

Montrealers are born to the cold, the snow and the tests of winter life. Strangely enough, it’s bred in our DNA to also be defiant to some of the most sensible laws, such as jaywalking. One of my favorite writers once noted, that while waiting for Pierre Trudeau for lunch, Mr. Trudeau had crossed the road in mid-block, and impressed upon my friend on how much a Montrealer that our once Prime Minister was. This was no different, despite the poor conditions, the dark and unfortunately, the miserable road condition that led to a car to careen off the street, and strike a small child who was trying to jaywalk.

Her body had flown a good 10-15 feet down the street, and just near where I stood. The car that struck her had come to a full stop, a stunned driver motionless behind the wheel. As I looked down first at the girl, then from side to side, the enormity of the situation had still not come to realization for anyone near.

I ran to her side and mumbled incoherently to the broken doll on the ground. She still breathed, whimpering at the pain induced upon her, warm tears quickly turning cold. I grabbed her hand, and continued to try to comfort her, though to what kind of effect was debatable at best. But as each moment that passed, the accident had gathered a crowd, all watching from a safe distance while I knelt down onto the icy street to be with her as oncoming traffic still sped by, paying little heed to us both in the dark and the snow.

Seconds ticked by awkwardly as there was naught that I could do, save wait, and hope, and in another lifetime, even prayed silently in my head, still trying to give comfort to the little girl before me. I didn’t care, and hadn’t even given the danger a second thought. All that mattered was her, and as I held her hand tight, the seemingly slow realization that she was already fading. It wasn’t going to be much longer, and while I was useless to her medically and probably even emotionally, I knew that I just wasn’t going to let her pass away alone.

Fortunately, the Queen Elizabeth hospital was near, just a few hundred feet and sadly, a lifetime away. Paramedics arrived and ordered me to give them space. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Even as I tried to comply, I felt her hand grow tighter refusing to let me go. And as time grew tighter, what choice did they have really. There I stayed, and followed her into the waiting ambulance and to the emergency ward.

She was now just speaking in halting terms, not understanding what was happening around her, but I like to think she knew what was to be within. Her breaths became laboured, faster, but just above her oxygen mask, she looked at me. It was just for a few seconds, and there was chaos all around as the medic worked on to keep her around that much longer. But it was there. That look.

And then, as we entered the emergency bay, her eyes closed. And through it all… the medic, the sounds, the adrenaline and the crisis, she closed her eyes as if to sleep. I think she knew it was over, and with that knowledge, a calm, a peace came upon her.

The medic then demanded I release her hand so as they could move her to emergency.  But, he needn’t have bothered. She let go of me, all strength gone from her grip.

I stayed there in the hospital a little longer, having become the custodian of the girl’s backpack. I just sat there, quietly as the aches and pains of a people passed before me. I sat there blankly looking at the reception admit this person for their fever, that person for their hurts, The shock of all that occurred had finally hit me, and all I could do was just sit, feeling the cold sweat running under my clothes, shivering a little although I was far insulated from the wind and the snow. I looked inside her bag, and found a few school books, some markers, crayons, a teen mag featuring the New Kids on the Block and so on. All perfectly normal for a kid in grade 4. A few officers walked in, and after reception pointed me out, they came to me with their questions and so on. I answered as best I could, gave them my info, and as I started to leave, handed them her backpack.

She passed the moment she let go of me. I’m sure of it. The papers reported the accident as the week passed, but she died before me, her hand taking comfort with mine. I didn’t know much more, but her final look to me was one that has always haunted me to this day… one more ghost that hides behind my eyes. But unlike the other spirits I’ve since lost, her’s will always inspire me in a different way.

When she passed, despite her young age, she didn’t show a look of fear or loss. It wasn’t a look based out of pain or agony. What she showed me in mere seconds was a look based in serenity, of acceptance. Her pilgrim face was all the words I could say to describe her, one of innocence and wisdom all at once. And she showed me a bravery I only wish I could have myself.

Do you know me personally? Have you ever shook my hand, shared bread with me or shared in my adventures? When muttering to myself during Dragon Boat practice, I spoke out loud to the imaginary Powers that be, “why does things [weird, exciting or interesting events] always seem to happen to me?” My dear friend Heather quickly replied, that it’s because things don’t just happen, but it’s because I run into them with my arms open wide. She was right. She IS right. And that small little girl a long time ago is why.

That’s all the lesson I needed or wanted to know as a teen. Time is fleeting, and the fates that be can be cruel and sudden, so do what can be done. And when my time comes, it will be with bravery inspired by her.

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