SERIALISATION IN THE TIMES NEWSPAPER: 14.6.05

Catherine Lucas was 17 when the car she was driving crashed, killing her mother. In her new book she tells of her guilt, and her wish that she had been the one to die.

“Do you think Catherine realises?”
Two women stood together in the courtyard of the house I grew up in. Beyond them steps led down to the lawn, bathed in afternoon sunlight, where other groups of people gathered, holding cups of tea, little fingers cocked in the proper English manner, as they sipped and chatted.
“I don’t know,’ the second woman replied. “Perhaps she is still in shock.”
I was passing behind them, a plate of sandwiches in my hand and I stopped still in amazement. “Do I realise?” I wanted to scream. “Do any of you realise? Do any of you have the faintest idea what a nightmare this is?”
For this was no ordinary tea party. It was my mother’s funeral.

Eight days before this, I had sat on the grass bank outside my high school, waiting for my mother, or Tate, as we all called her, to come and pick me up. The sun soaked through my uniform, warming my skin, and I pulled off my school tie and unbuttoned the collar of my shirt as I chatted and laughed with my friends. It was one of those gorgeous, effortless days. It was 1982 and the summer term was nearly over. I was 17 and feeling that first surge of power and the sense of being on the cusp of something momentous that comes with growing up and being independent.

I was also excited that Tate was coming to collect me. It was so much nicer than catching the bus, and I was learning to drive, so this was another chance to practice. Lately our relationship had shifted and deepened: we were no longer talking to each other as mother and child, but as two women confiding in each other and I felt as if I was just getting to know her.

She pulled up in our old blue mini-van, with two our dogs in the back: Hercules, a yellow Labrador, and Mickey Mouse, a jack Russell. Tate climbed over to the passenger seat while I jumped in the driver’s side. With didn’t stop to kiss or hug each other, because we simply never did that, but by her brilliant smile I knew immediately that she was in a good mood.

We set off, winding our way through the back streets of the little town where I went to school, to the main road that led home. It was long and straight for miles and I had driven it many times. My sweater was draped over my shoulders and I started to get too hot. I thought that it would be easy to pull it off, so I reached up with my right hand. It didn’t come easily and I tugged at it.

Suddenly my mother screamed and grabbed hold of the wheel. Without noticing I had swerved towards the hedge on the left; she tried to straighten the car. But she over-steered and we veered violently to the right, crossing the centre line. I was so frightened that I let go of the wheel, relieved that she had taken control, and she tried again to straighten the car, steering sharply to the left. As we crossed the grass verge and went into the ditch I distinctly remember thinking, Thank God for that, we are going to be alright. It seemed so innocent and simple. A twist this way, a turn that, and we were driving so slowly, no more than 30mph (48km/h), that I really felt a huge sense of relief.

Still, there was a horrendous noise as we crashed nose first into the ditch. Glass exploded all around me and I heard the dogs leap out of one of the windows. Somehow I ended up crouched on the floor. I was covered in petrol. The engine was still running and I was terrified – more terrified than I could ever have imagined feeling – that the car was going to burst into flames at any moment. A heavy weight was pressing down on top of me. I tried to see what it was, but my eyes were stinging and burning and I couldn’t open them. “Mummy! Mummy!” I called out. But she didn’t answer. The silence was devastating. I knew immediately that she was dead. If she had been alive she would have been screaming, and her silence was more awful than her screams could ever have been. I realised that she must be lying on top of me, pinning me to the floor, and I crouched there for what felt like eternity, feeling the soft, heavy dripping of blood from her body onto mine.

Still the engine raced, high-pitched and out of control. I fumbled around with one hand, trying to find the key, but it was hopeless. I wasn’t even really sure where I was in the car, let alone where to find the ignition, so I just waited, silently. My mind went into freefall. I was completely conscious and I knew what had happened, but I simply couldn’t take it in. The facts floated around in my mind – I had killed my mother, I was in danger of burning to death, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t move – but they were like leaves swirling in water, and I couldn’t make sense of anything.

I have no idea how long I was there before I heard voices outside the car. They were warm and reassuring: “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. We’ll get you out in just a moment…”

The words “you’ll be fine” dropped into my mind’s swirl, as meaningless as everything else. How could I possibly be fine? I had just killed my mother. She was lying on top of me, the taste of her blood in my mouth. What kind of nightmare world had I entered where this was fine?

I felt hands on me, lifting me out of the car. I stumbled out, rubbing my eyes: the sunshine was blinding and the world was shockingly normal. The fields rolled away to either side, the sky was still blue, the road was firm under my feet. There were two ambulances on the other side of the road and a paramedic led me towards one of them. Once inside, he began to ask me questions. What was my name? Who was in the car with me? Whom should they contact? Finally two men appeared. They were carrying a long, white, heavy zip-up plastic bag, which they laid down on the grass beside the ambulance. I looked at it knowing and not wanting to know.
“Is she dead?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” came the reply.
“Well, if she’s not dead,” I said, “why have they put her in that plastic bag?”

It was the last time I saw my mother – lying in a plastic bag on the side of the road. Moments later, the door to my ambulance closed and we drove away. At the hospital I was taken into casualty. I was too shocked and numb to feel anything, let alone cry, but the nurse did and I remember looking up at the tears running down her face and thinking: “It must be bad, even the nurse is crying.”

I was put in a private room, and I lay in bed, shocked and silent. Inwardly, I wanted to start screaming and never stop; outwardly, I was paralysed and numb with guilt. I kept repeating these words to myself: I have killed my mother. It was incomprehensible, impossible to take in; impossible to believe what had actually happened. Yet it had happened, and over and over again I woke from the momentary soothing trance of disbelief in the same unbearable knowledge. The last moments in the car with her replayed again and again in my mind’s eye, torturing me with what might have been, yet each time telling the same unalterable story: my mother was dead and I had killed her.

I wished that I was dead too. Although not too, instead of. God! I just wished that I was dead.

But I wasn’t, and so, somehow, I had to get through it. All I knew was that I didn’t deserve any sympathy, I didn’t deserve to grieve, I didn’t deserve to cry, I didn’t deserve to be helped or comforted, I didn’t deserve anything, because I had killed her. Instead, I felt that I had to make amends as best I could for the terrible thing that I had done. I had taken my mother’s life from her; stolen this woman who was wife, mother, sister, friend to so many. How could I ever make up for that?

“Oh, darling,” my aunt La said when she arrived, “what a terrible thing to happen. Are you alright?’
“I am fine,” I said, sitting up and forcing myself to appear OK. “Really, I am fine. I am just so sorry, so sorry, so sorry.”
Then Bonnie, my sister, raced in. “Thank God you aren’t hurt!” she began. “It wasn’t your fault – no matter what happened, it wasn’t your fault. You know how accident prone Tate was, something like this was bound to happen one day – I’m just so sorry you were involved.” Her words drifted past me, petals blowing on a breeze, giving me no comfort, because inside I knew the truth and she didn’t.
“But it is my fault,” I replied, my throat so tight I could barely breathe, let alone squeeze words out of it. “I made a mistake that caused the accident, so it is my fault.”

Guilt is such a powerful feeling, with its own logic, rules and reality, that for years I honestly believed that I didn’t have any right to grieve because of the terrible thing I had done. But it wasn’t just guilt that prevented me from crying: I was also terrified by the intensity of my emotions. Inside a storm was raging of shame, horror, disbelief and loss, and I thought that if I let myself really feel what was going on, it would annihilate me.

So I coped in the only way I could – by burying my feelings as deeply as possible. I was like a dog burying a bone, which I would later, many years later, have to painstakingly excavate. But at the time I didn’t have any alternative. I had spent my whole childhood learning how not to express my emotions, so I didn’t know that feeling is an essential part of healing. Nor did I know that there was such a thing as a grieving process, or techniques for dealing with trauma. And neither did anyone else.

However, in the first few days after the accident someone did suggest that I see a psychiatrist. I was completely opposed to the idea because I felt so guilty and undeserving and given my family’s aversion to any kind of emotional disclosure it didn’t take much on my part to veto it.

For years after the accident I pushed the pain away because I didn’t know how else to deal with it. Unfortunately by doing so I just prolonged it, for it didn’t magically go away. Instead it turned into a living wound, festering beneath my skin. Although I did not, could not admit it, even to myself, my life was a misery because of the unexpressed grief and guilt I carried. I was trapped – imprisoned by a past I did not know how to release or heal.

And not just my mother’s death, but the whole of my past – the fears and hurts of childhood, the rules and conditioning of my family and culture – had all solidified in my mind, as strong and rigid as the bars of any prison. Surely, I thought to myself one day in my early twenties, life does not have to be like this? I have since discovered that it doesn’t.

IN THE TIMES TOMORROW How I overcame my grief and guilt, and began to rebuild my life.