Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.
In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.
He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.
Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”
When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.
Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.
My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:
A Tribute to My Grandmother
I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one
My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be
When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’
So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’
I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy
My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever
In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail
I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave
Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined
My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways
Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.
In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.
This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.
Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.
First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.
Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”
The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.
After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.
Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.
Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.
On this date, in 1993, my little brother Brandon Joseph Achtman died.
Sometimes I remember being held by my father as I kissed Brandon’s cold forehead before helping to close his tiny casket.
On my iPhone, I have 33,250 photos.
Yesterday, when reading Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, I came across a section in which Korczak is conversing with a well-known painter who says to him:
“Everyone should know how to sketch in pencil what he wants to retain in memory. Not to be able to do that is to be illiterate.”
I read this sentence over and over again, and thought about it. I have 33,250 photos on my phone and only one of them is, in fact, an image of something I sketched in pencil.
When my brother Brandon was born prematurely, my mother met at lot of other parents in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) who were all living on pins and needles with uncertainty over the future of their respective children.
One woman was continually writing letters to her child about what she was feeling and about what he was going through each day. Together, she and my mom went shopping for clothes at Build-A-Bear because the clothing for teddy bears was the right size for their premature children who were too small to fit any of the baby clothing they could find.
On this date two years ago, I was running through the Paris Catacombs – running because they were about to close and it would not have been an opportune place to be locked in for the night.
If you’re curious about the Paris Catacombs and if reading Atlas Obscura won’t make you too nostalgic for travel, here’s some info: