To their credit, the two oldest absorbed new information quickly, flooring and softening everyone. They worked hard. I’ll never forget their drive. Dalton’s month in a cast somehow dried up his spitting complex. And at subsequent parent-teacher conferences, there were far fewer concerns about their academic abilities or social adjustment. In fact, at mid-semester progress reports, Claire had hopped over her reading group, and skills along with confidence and independence had improved. Parker’s semester report described him as “conscientious and talented”, his music teacher described him as “gifted,” and his home room teacher wrote in red pen that he was “exemplary.” Dalton, the spitting teetotaler, won himself a girlfriend named Marie-Celestine. And though these three children were always energetic and outspoken, and although the two oldest still used Norwegian idioms translated awkwardly into English, and the younger for a while made up French words like “zee cozee peellow” and “zee grand scoop d’ice cr-r-reem”, they ended up being strong, even delightful, students.
That first autumn, then, we’d had three children enter new school systems, one in French, which meant learning a new language, and two in English, which meant relearning an old language. We’d had a fire ant infestation that left all the children with visible welts on their bodies, a flood in our basement, (and three more that I just don’t have the heart to write about.) Our heater had broken down during an unseasonably early October freeze, we still had no closets, we had no personal parking places for our two cars, we all got the flu — all of the Île de France got the flu— we had a bat problem (I forgot to mention that?), I had back problems (I forgot to mention the spasms and bed confinement?), we had one broken foot that kept one child from school for a month, and we had been warned that if our oldest two didn’t “get up to speed”, they’d be expelled from their school — the only one in the entire Île de France in which we had secured places — post haste.
In the midst of all this, we’d figured out banking, basketball, baguettes, BCG. We’d found all new doctors, plumbers, fishmongers, dry cleaners. New ways of walking, greeting, shopping, running in the gardens but not running in the streets and certainly not running into the baker’s shop, new ways of dressing, eating, breathing, existing.
It almost felt like the worst of The New was behind us.
Then winter, the dead season, started early. Streets were slippery. And one Sunday morning on my way to conduct meetings at church (I’d accepted an appointment in the presidency of the women’s organization of our congregation) something horrible happened. I nearly killed my children. I’d buckled them in their seats before dashing to pick up a young American girl living as an au pair with a French family in Versailles. She’d slept through her alarm and was calling last minute for a ride to church. One moment of poor judgment and poor visibility, a frosted-over no left turn sign, a left turn, speed on ice, another motorist whipping up the opposing road while going over the speed limit, and the sound of metal against metal and glass splintering like a galactic trash compactor.
Our small car spun around twice, then punched its nose into a parked car.
We’d been struck broad side. The other driver was uninjured though he’d been coming at over 50km. My children were flung around violently in the car, Parker’s head hit the passenger side window shattering it, everyone had cuts and lacerations, and the au pair had chipped teeth, a gouged tongue and whiplash.
And me? I only had a cold metal pole of terror and guilt punched cleanly through my abdomen. The instant we’d hit, I’d known I was at fault. I was completely my fault. Everything (the pole started twisting) was completely my fault.
“Two weeks earlier,” the mustached police officer whispered to me in a French that was oddly crystal clear above the blur of sirens and a crowd of Sunday morning bath-robed onlookers on the street, “Just two weeks, Madame, at this very corner and at this very hour, another driver did the same as you. And he was not as lucky.”
So I was lucky?
I felt toxic, lethal. The Wormwood totem.
Emotionally, it took a while to climb out of that whole jumbled period which, in my mind, seems to lurch and grope and flash in hot, streaked colors, faster and faster, until it culminates with the hollow ice-encrusted wail of those Sunday morning ambulances behind those Versaillais onlookers in their bathrobes and leather house slippers shivering and huddling and kindly but awkwardly stroking the hair of my daughter who had red splattered down her new French church dress.
My mind slows and settles on a dark-suited line of French policemen, politely questioning my somehow stoic and suddenly French-speaking nine-year-old son. There are gashes on his forehead where he’s hit the window. The blood drizzles into his right eye.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.