It was summer solstice back in the motherland. A time of year that brings with it long days that smell of fresh cut grass, late sunsets that keep kids outdoors and a welcome change from the shorter days of winter.
Now our family was bound for Australia, chasing the dream of sun and sea all year round. The move included a three year stint in Singapore. Within no time at all we grew used to each day being the same in length and temperature. It had been a like a long stop-over on our journey from London to Perth but now it was time to leave for our final destination.
The container full of our possessions had already left port en route to Fremantle. My husband, Justin, had called for a taxi, our bags were lined up in an orderly fashion by the door to the foyer of our apartment complex and we were saying our final farewells to our friends and neighbours who had come to wave us off.
I visualised myself relaxed in the plush surroundings of the club lounge at Changi Airport, sipping a glass of bubbles before boarding our flight to Perth. We were almost there.
The little Chinese lady that lived in a neighbouring apartment was pinching Isabel’s cheek and then coiling her blond curls around her wizened fingers like she always did.
“Always so cute ah.” She remarked in her best Singlish. “We going to miss you little Issy”.
The first time she did this some three years earlier it had bugged me, but I had since learnt more about Chinese culture and now knew this to be a gesture of affection.
The foyer was abuzz with chit-chat and the reality of our big move was beginning to sink in. My body was tingling with excitement.
I observed my kids with pride and marvelled at the speed at which they had grown. Isabel wasn’t even walking when we first landed in this tropical metropolis and now look at her, racing around like a gazelle. Archie, at just five years old, was already a strong swimmer for his age. My eyes wandered out to the 50-metre pool where they had both learnt to swim. I felt a sense of reluctance leaving it all behind.
Archie wasn’t at all bothered by the attention in the foyer. He had more testosterone than he could cope with and was happy to play with his handball. He was oblivious to everything as he raced back and forth in pursuit of his ball. In a bid to tease him, Isabel caught it and threw it high into the air.
My fabulous Irish friend, Alice, announced that the taxi was here. She hugged me, said she would see me in Perth and dashed off. Not before I had spotted the tears welling in her eyes. We had become good friends since our first meeting in the playground three years earlier. My heart knew it would pine for her but Australia beckoned and it was full of promise.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Archie running and was startled by a crash. It was as though somebody had dropped a heavy, cast-iron cooking pot from a great height and it had landed on a ceramic-tiled floor. The sound of shattering glass and screaming voices still echo in my mind. They were not the screams of my two children who were caught up in the accident but the screams of those gathered in the foyer.
All at once, this welcoming space - the gateway to our five-star playground, had exploded into a living hell.
Someone had shut the tinted, glass door at the far end of the foyer which was usually left open. Archie was racing to catch his ball and, in the half light of dusk, did not notice the door was closed and ran into it with the full force of his athletic body.
Isabel had been hard on his heels trying to catch the ball too and ran into the path of the smashing glass. A massive shard of glass fell on Archie and caught his arm. Blood spurted furiously while more glass fell on his face, cutting his nose in two. Little Isabel found herself treading on broken glass as more falling pieces penetrated the skin on her exposed back. She just stood there whimpering, fearful of moving as the glass sliced into her bare feet.
Neighbours ran at us with towels. Justin grabbed Archie and I scooped Isabel into my arms. Jumping into the taxi we shouted at the driver who had been loading our bags into the boot.
“The nearest hospital as fast as you can.”
“Am I going to die?” Archie croaked, looking at me from his Dad’s arms, blood coming out of his mouth with each word.
I couldn’t think straight. I looked at Archie to reassure him but no words came out. I pressed the towels into his arm to stop the bleeding. I held Isabel tight as I looked out the window of the speeding taxi. The taxi driver said we were only a few minutes from the hospital as he put his foot down. We were thrown left and right across the seat as he raced to get us there quickly.
The taxi screeched to a halt outside the hospital’s Accident & Emergency department and we pleaded for assistance. Archie was bundled into a wheelchair by a porter and whisked off inside. I followed behind with Isabel in my arms. We passed through the waiting room where many eyes stared in terror as blood gushed from Archie and Isabel.
Archie was immediately x-rayed and rushed to surgery while Isabel was taken to the ward for treatment. She was heavily sedated while they cleaned and stitched the lacerations on her back and feet. The nurse reassured us that her injuries were minor compared to Archie’s. Justin stayed by her side while I accompanied Archie to theatre. I held Archie’s hand as they transferred him to the operating table, telling him that everything was going to be OK now that he was in safe hands. His startled and frightened expression burrowed its way deep inside me.
The nurse asked me to stay while they put him under as he was so agitated. They told him they were about to put a mask on his face that would put him to sleep and immediately he panicked. He looked at me with fear in his beautiful, innocent blue eyes and begged me not to let them do it. The pain I felt ran deep as I watched my poor, traumatised five-year-old little boy. He grabbed my arm as he tried to get off the operating table. It took three of us to hold him down while the anesthetist covered his mouth and nose with the mask before inserting the IV line.
I was ushered out of the theatre and instructed to wait outside. Cold waves swept over me and lashed at my soul.
Pacing up and down outside the operating theatre I felt my life caving in around me. My breathing was laboured, my mouth was dry and my heart hurt. Three years of blissful living ended in a split second.
Justin came hurrying down the corridor and told me that Isabel was now OK, all stitched up and in a deep sleep. Archie was already 90 minutes into his surgery and still we didn’t know how he was. Justin held me close as I cried the first tears since the beginning of the ordeal.
A nurse came out and we leapt up to meet her eyes but she indicated for us to sit.
“Just want to check with you about your health insurance.” She spoke demurely as though we were in a meeting with our bank manager.
“How is he? Is he going to be alright?” I pleaded.
“So far so good.” She said with a smile. “But I need to know about your insurance.”
“Not sure why you’re asking this question now – so far into the surgery.” Justin said.
“Well it’s just that if you do have your insurance in order then I will call the plastic surgeon to come and fix his face.” She was very matter of fact about it. “Otherwise the surgeon can do what he can himself.”
“Don’t you worry about any of that Nurse.” I insisted. “You just make sure the plastic surgeon is called and that he understands the urgency of the situation.”
She smiled graciously and, without a word, returned to the theatre.
My husband and I looked at each other, aghast, before one of us dared to ask the question. The answer was that we didn’t actually know whether we were insured or not because Justin was no longer employed by the company that had brought us to Singapore.
“You know what Brigid, it doesn’t matter what the bill is I just want the kids to be OK.”
I got up and started pacing again, wanting so much to know how Archie was and if he was going to lose his arm. The nurse had given us very little information. I retraced our steps that lead to the accident trying to make sense of it all.
“What happened to our luggage Justin?”
“It’s being stored behind the desk of Accident &Emergency.” Justin remembered. “The nurse said we would have to move it somewhere else once the kids were being taken care of.”
“So what are we going to do?” We both looked at each other in a daze.
“I’m sure Alice and Gary would be happy to help.” I suggested. “I’ll give them a ring. Alice will be beside herself when I tell her what’s happened. They dashed off as soon as the taxi arrived and are probably expecting us to be in the departure lounge by now, drinking champagne in celebration of our exciting new life ahead!”
The corridor was very quiet with barely anyone around, yet behind the double doors was a team of medics working frantically to save our son’s life.
I dialed Alice’s number. As soon as I heard her voice I burst into tears. Within thirty minutes she came running down the corridor and threw her arms around me.
“Oh Jesus, Brigid, you must be in an awful state?”
“I’m a bloody mess Alice. We were only moments from getting into the taxi when it happened. I just can’t believe it really. It’s been nearly three hours since they started operating on him and all we’ve had from them is a question about whether we can pay the plastic surgeon’s bill. This nightmare feels very real… When will it end??”
‘And how is Isabel doing now?” Alice inquired, in her soothing Irish brogue.
“My little darling is asleep in the ward.” I told her while overcome with guilt for not having been to see her yet. “Justin told me she was having hallucinations while they were fixing her up. She kept asking him why he had two heads. The poor little love.”
“Why don’t I go and sit with her just in case she wakes up? Gary is getting everything organised for you to come and stay with us for as long as you need. He is gutted for you and sends you big hugs. He was telling me about a friend of his whose brother had a similar accident when he was a teenager but the glass went in his eyes and blinded him. By the sounds of it, Archie was lucky!”
I found this comforting in a weird way because I hadn’t actually thought about how much worse it could have been… the glass could have easily sliced into his eyes and blinded him. I began to feel thankful for the smallest of blessings.
As Alice made her way to Isabel’s side, Justin and I held hands and retreated into our own thoughts. I wondered how the kids were going to cope with the trauma of what just happened. I felt as though their innocence had been plucked away from them in one fell swoop. Until that moment, they had both experienced an idyllic childhood.
Four hours had gone by when the doors opened. A new nurse beckoned to us both to come in. We followed her into a room with a sign above the door that read Recovery. The bittersweet smell of surgery filled the air. As soon as I saw my little boy covered in bandages, his blond hair caked in dried blood, his creamy skin turned yellow from trauma and lying there motionless, I began to shake.
“Please tell me he is OK. Did you save his arm?” I blurted out a multitude of questions, tears welling up, my heart pounding as though someone was beating it with a bat and my whole body felt as tense as an overstretched metal cable.
The surgeon appeared, removing his mask and gloves as he walked towards us.
“Sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner.” He said extending his hand to us. “I had to tend to a road traffic accident that came in shortly after your son. I’m pleased to tell you that Archie has been a very lucky boy. He will have full use of his arm. Thanks to a nice layer of adipose tissue the glass didn’t quite make it to severing the nerves behind his bicep.”
My body loosened up with relief and I squeezed Justin’s hand tightly to contain my desire to shout for joy.
“The plastic surgeon did a pretty good job at repairing his nose so I reckon your boy will make a full recovery and there will be very little scarring to his face. The lacerations to his legs were deep and wide so we had to do some skin grafts. Yes he will have scarring but at least he can hide them in his trousers.”
I loved this guy already. He was very young, probably about thirty, and spoke with a London accent which made me feel reassured. He totally got our situation, this was a major trauma for us, yet he managed to get us thinking that we were lucky with the outcome and that we were going to come out of this stronger.
The recovery took longer than we could have imagined and so we remained in Singapore for a couple of weeks. The upside to that was we got to build stronger bonds with our friends, Alice and Gary and their children. It helped having their twins, Clara and Riley, there as they fussed over Archie and Isabel with gifts and comforted them with sharing everything and anything.
When it finally came to leave Singapore the tears were unstoppable and part of me wanted to stay right where we were. Worry took over my mind like a bad cold that won’t go away. The feeling of dread was born of moving to a new country where we had no friends or support with the added challenge of two traumatised children.
Life in Perth got off to a slow start. Neither Archie nor Isabel would let me out of their sight for five seconds, fearful that something bad was going to happen to them again. Justin started his new job straight away and got thrown into the deep end with work offshore on an oil rig. I drove around and around the suburbs looking for a home to rent but wasn’t able to find anything thanks to the boom times the city was living through.
My priority was to make my children feel safe. Finding a verdant park around every corner lifted our spirits and we delighted in the amazing playgrounds. The singing and twittering of the native birds among the glorious gum trees eased the pain for a while as I sat and watched my children play cautiously. They instinctively avoided anything that would impact on their wounds.
Archie and Isabel’s favourite place was the playground with a merry-go-round. I took great comfort from their enjoyment as I spun them around, over and over again. It was there that I got chatting to a lady who was walking her dog. She was curious and bold, asking what had happened to Archie who was still covered in bandages with his left arm in a sling. Once I had told her the story she sat down and took it upon herself to comfort me. Serendipity smiled down on me when she told me she had a house that she was just about to put on the rental market.
Less than ten minutes and a short drive later, Annie opened the back the door to her house and invited the children to check out the garden. There, under the bluest of skies, we found a tree laden with lemons, a sandpit full of toys and a swing. A flock of Carnaby’s black cockatoos flew out of a tree and went wailing past overhead as though welcoming us to their habitat.
The kids ran up to me, their eyes alive with joy again and begged me to let them live there. Out of all the houses we had viewed, this was the one they wanted.
I looked at Annie and, placing a warm hand on my bare arm, she said “I think you and your family need this house. It’s all yours.”
At that moment I could feel the healing begin. It’s been a long journey that isn’t yet over but we have found the ability to enjoy our lives again. The doctor was right…we might have scars but we are stronger.
Every winter solstice in Perth I stop for a moment and remember the longest day of my life and give thanks for how far we have come since that day. ©gillkennywriter