I wonder sometimes, if my father had made it home safely that fateful Saturday night, had got up the next morning, mowed the lawn, played with my brother and I, taken his dog for a walk, done his Sunday odd-jobs and gone to work on Monday – if I would be different today.
Would I be more ‘normal’? What ever that is. Would I be less aware of the passing of time, and the need to ‘fit it all it’. Would I live my life without the undercurrent of urgency that drives me every day. To do more. To experience more. To take risks. Take chances. Never miss an opportunity to throw myself into all that life has to offer, certain in the fact that one of these days will be my last.
I wonder too, what it might have been like if he had not survived that night. If instead of the wonderful, funny, flawed man I know, I just had other’s memories of him.
The reality is what it is. 30 years old. Coming home late. Probably (definately) drunk. Partying with the boys a little too long on a Saturday night, instead of home with us. Was he already trying to escape the noose of suburban life? My father lost control of his motorbike on a sharp bend. On an isolated country road in rural Queensland. He slid, out of control, man and bike disappearing over a steep embankment.
In the pitch black night, quiet after the noise of metal on asphalt, breaking glass and the sickening impact, my father was left clinging to life in that ditch. His right knee shattered, two vertebra in his spine crushed, a huge gash in his arm where the broken mirror of his bike had ripped through leather and flesh as they slid together. Broken, battered, seriously injured, and the temperature was dropping. Somehow he had survived the initial impact. He drifted in and out of consciousness. At some point he came to and realised he could not stay where he was. With no evidence on the road of what had happened and no way for anyone to know where he was, he knew he would die if he stayed down in the ditch with his bike.
Although the chance of someone happening along that quiet country road at that time of night was slim, he knew he had to get to a position where he could at least be seen. Somehow, slowly, painstakingly, he inched his broken body up the side of the embankment. Dragging himself with his uninjured arm and pushing with his good leg until he reached the road. Taking off his helmet, he waited, slipping in and out of consciousness, the cold and shock starting to take toll on his body, he clung to life.
Miraculously, a car appeared – as my dad says – it just wasn’t his time to go. With his body partly across the road he managed to lift his helmet, waving it above his head as the vehicle approached. The doctors said it was a miracle that he managed to get himself up that embankment with his injuries. It was a miracle that at 3am on a dark lonely country road another driver happened along, and it was a miracle that that driver actually saw him in time and didn’t accidentally run him over as he lay across the road.
They say that having a near death experience really does make you assess your life and what is important. My dad says spending three months in traction as the doctors tried to heal his broken back, gave him lots of time to think. At 30, he had a life and a pathway all mapped out. A school teacher wife, two young children, a big house on acreage outside the city, and a position in the successful family sign writing business his father had built. As the eldest, he was expected to take over the business someday. But the discontent that had been a tiny spark, caught fire properly after his accident. Dad realised he had a yearning for something more, more than what his current life was going to give him. He realised he had to take a chance, take a risk, it could all be over in a split-second. He couldn’t keep doing what he was doing. To this day you will often hear him make the comment – “life is short” – and dad knew he wanted to make everyday count.
Three months on and my father had decided what he wanted to do. As soon as he was unhooked from traction and discharged from hospital, he and my mother bought an old school bus. He ripped out the seats and set himself to building us a mobile home. He wanted to travel, to see and experience something other than the comforts of the life he had built – and Australia seemed like a good place to start.
He dreamed and worked and mum planned and managed and kept the money coming in and “The Blue Buz Co. – Buzzing Australia” took shape. Dad even printed t-shits for him and mum and my brother and I – and pretty much anyone else who would take one – to wear!
The physical work of fitting out the bus and the added difficulty of having to work in confined spaces in the bus – bending, twisting, lifting – as our new home took shape over the next twelve months gave my father the opportunity to build back the muscle and physical strength that he had lost during his three months in hospital.
I only remember it vaguely, but it has stuck with me, this time. It was a happy time for my brother and I. We moved into my father’s parents place, an old two-storey playground – a children’s paradise – trampoline, pool, space invaders machine and an old ‘pokies’ machine – which if it didn’t pay out before you ran out of 10c pieces you could unlock and press a lever to get all your coins back. My nanna had boxes and boxes of ‘stuff’ that she had collected over her lifetime – she would never throw anything away – it would just be packed in a box and ‘stored’ downstairs under the house, or in the spare rooms, or even in the roof space – just in case it was ever needed – a veritable treasure trove of amazing and interesting things to discover.
The euphoria of a family that has had someone returned to them from the clutches of death was all around us that year. My brother and I were too young to fully understand what had happened, but we knew that our days were full of people hugging and kissing us, and each other, and generally celebrating being alive and together. I think it’s this hum of euphorically embracing life, in the face of the reality of death, that became ingrained in my psyche and still shapes the way I see the world.