The sound of the ringing phone broke the silence in the wee hours that Sunday morning. My dad was the on-call clergyman for the local hospital that weekend. There had been a terrible car crash with multiple deaths and injuries. He got out of bed, took a quick shower and headed out the door. This was not too uncommon for him. In his occupation, he was used to being around tragedy. This was one of the first times, though, that he solicited my help.
When I awoke later that morning, I was surprised that my Dad wasn’t around. As a pastor, Sundays were his busiest days. I’d usually awaken to find him at the kitchen table reviewing his morning sermon or engaging in prayer. Mom would typically cook a big breakfast and start prepping vegetables for our big Sunday meal. Dad and I would split the newspaper… he would work on the crossword puzzle while I would devour the comics.
I inquired of Dad’s whereabouts and Mom explained that he’d received an early call and hadn’t yet returned from the hospital. He had phoned home, however, to let her know that a family had been involved in a serious wreck and most of them didn’t make it. Mom went on to say that a couple in their sixties, as well as their adult son died instantly. Their daughter-in-law was fighting for her life and their young granddaughter was in serious condition.
Dad came home before church and brought with him a grocery bag that contained a little girl’s dress, undergarments and tights….they were covered in her father’s blood. He asked my mom to wash them. I remember standing at the kitchen sink, watching my mom ever so gently hand-scrub the blood from the child’s clothing. I vividly recall watching the water go from clear, to pink, to an eventual dull red. I felt so many emotions at once as I watched. As a child around twelve, I found the site of the blood, along with my mother’s hands being covered in it disturbing, in a gross kind of way. It had a distinct odor that was sickening. At the same time, it made me feel hollow and sad to know that was all that was left of what had once been someone’s life.
After church, Dad requested a favor. He explained that the little girl was all alone in the hospital and that the family was from out of state. He told me that they weren’t sure if her mother would make it and he wanted me to go stay with her in her room. He gave me instructions that I was not to discuss the deaths and if she inquired about her mom to explain to her that as soon as the doctors gave permission, she could see her. My job was to keep her busy with board games, coloring books, conversation, as well as to assist her in any way that she, or the nurses, needed me to.
I was glad to be of help to my Dad and I certainly felt sorry for the little girl’s devastating loss, but the job seemed too great a task for me. I was afraid she might ask me questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer. I was fearful of what she might look like given the injuries that I knew the other members of the family had sustained. I thought it to be just too big of a job for me, but I agreed to do it, and pushed my concerns aside. After all, both of my folks felt it was something I could handle.
Dad took me to her room right after church, grabbing me a hamburger to eat on the way. I don’t even remember her name, but I do recall that she was really beautiful with long blonde hair and large blue eyes. I was relieved that she only appeared to have minor looking cuts and bruises. I felt guilty when she smiled to me after our introduction, because I knew what she didn’t…that she had nothing to smile about. She was about nine years old and had deep-set dimples that framed her big smile quite perfectly.
I became her guardian, so to speak, for the next week. Family members from all over the country were traveling to our small town in North Carolina to break the news to her. Just as I feared, she often asked about her parents. I remember sharing with her what I had been coached to say…the doctors were doing everything they could and she wasn’t allowed see anyone until the doctor’s gave their permission. Sometimes she would cry. I had to console her which was not something I had much experience in. I remember feeling angry with my Dad for putting me in that position…giving me a job that probably should have been given to an adult.
Eventually, her family members made it in and I was relieved to relinquish my duties. However, something I didn’t expect happened. She began asking for me…she wanted me to come back. I didn’t want to go. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had become jealous of her. Everyone who came to visit, starting with various church members, then later her extended family, brought gifts of toys, clothes, books, crafts, stuffed animals, flowers and more. Her hospital room began to look like a small toy store. She was very insistent that I play what she wanted, do what she wanted, and I thought she was a spoiled brat. When I should have felt nothing but sympathy and sorrow for her, I felt bitterness and resentment. It’s one of those things from my childhood that I prefer to keep locked in my memory bank of guilty thoughts.
I was there the day, nearly two weeks after the accident, when her Mom was finally strong enough to be wheeled to her daughter’s room. And I was present, at the request of the family, to hold her hand, when she was informed of her losses. I was the one who helped wipe her tears and console her, but I am ashamed to admit that I wasn’t there in the right spirit. I carry a heavy load of guilt for feeling the way I did….for thinking selfishly instead of compassionately.