It's Penguin Shooting Day

Extract from It’s Penguin Shooting Day a true account of the first weeks living with brain injury.

DAY 1 Sun 29th June 2008 (written on 30th June)

DAY 1 Sun 29th June 2008 (written on 30th June)

Paul and I were in the attic office room in our tiny home. We were enjoying some silver surfing. I like to do online shopping and browsing, Paul loves to Google. News items, gadgets, you name it, he’ll find out everything about it. It’s his favourite hobby. At 11am the phone rang and I answered it brightly, expecting to hear the voice of our youngest daughter, Katy. Instead it was the phone call from hell.

“Hello, Mum. It’s Natalie.”

“Natalie?” I could tell immediately from my eldest daughter’s trembling voice that something was terribly wrong. I fleetingly registered the time of day being odd too. (With the time difference, it was much later than usual for her to be calling us from Australia.) 

“Something awful has happened, Mum.”

“What is it, love?” I asked, trying to sound matter of fact and normal but hearing my croaky nervous frog voice coming out of my mouth. Paul glanced over, questions forming on his lips. I managed to flick the phone onto loud speaker, so Paul could hear first hand what our daughter had to say.

Then the words that shook our world came over the line, “Simon’s had a car accident, he’s…” I heard her take a strangled breath. She sounded something like a gulping guppy stranded on a dry bank. It was a chilling sound to hear.

“Okay, Natalie.” I swallowed hard and tried to keep the frog in my throat under control. I had to be strong enough to give my daughter the courage to tell me the worst. “Tell me simply. How bad is it?”

Paul was huddled close beside me now, concern on his face, fear shadowing his eyes. I knew my own face held the same terrified look. He reached for my shaking hand and clasped it firmly as we listened.

“It’s pretty bad, Mum,” I heard her take another choking gasp before she rushed on, “he’s fractured his skull... he’s in a coma…”

Time froze. The edges of my vision blurred and I could barely draw a breath. My chest began to tighten as I listened to her listing his many injuries in a monotone voice that didn’t seem real. I was too shocked to take it all in.

“…and so he has multiple fractures” she paused, “all fixable,” she hastened to add. Then before I had chance to comment, she continued, still speaking in that brisk, matter-of-fact tone, punctuated by guppy gasps to steady the shaking in her voice.  “But the worst is his head. His face is smashed up. He has a small fracture to the front of his skull and a large one at the back. They’ve put him in a coma and he’s on a respirator.” She ran out of steam then and all I could hear was her rasping breath. My mind went into overdrive.

I took a deep shaky lung-fulll of air and blinked back the tears quickly. “Okay, Natalie. Let’s see what we can do.” I glanced at Paul, knowing that whatever I said, he would back me up one hundred percent. “Where are you now, Natalie?” My mothering instincts took over and I went into autopilot, organising the practicalities in my mind, finding out the facts, skipping ahead in my brain to plan what I would have to do next to help.

“We’re at Byron District Hospital,” Natalie told us, “But they’re going to airlift him to Brisbane because he needs care from a specialist neuro-team and they don’t have the facilities here.”

My brain was busy making the calculations of what that would mean to Natalie. Brisbane is a three-hour drive from their home near Bangalow. It would be a nightmare to travel back and forth to the hospital for however long he had to be there. Natalie would need help with looking after Ruby, the animals and a zillion other things. Then I realised that my little granddaughter hadn’t been mentioned.

“Where’s Ruby?” I asked, desperate to know that my little grandchild was safe. It was almost five months after her first birthday and I’d only seen her twice in her short life, once at three weeks old and again at ten months old at Christmas when I felt I’d cuddled her to within a inch of her life and got to know her a little better. I was already making plans in my head to spend more time with her. I knew I’d have to go and help to take care of her. What I didn’t begin to understand was how I was going to do that! It was more than twenty-five years since I looked after a small child but the how was far from my thoughts in these first few minutes of the half formed plan in my head.

“Martin took her home and put her to bed. One of the other neighbours is staying over at our place. She’s in her own bed and settled. Martin came back to the hospital to be with me.”

Martin and Sally are the nearest neighbours who live just a five-minute walk away. Natalie and Simon don’t live in the outback, thank goodness. The small community on the outskirts of Bangalow consists of a number of scattered houses, each set in acres of land and the people are the friendliest, most kind-hearted folk I have ever met. Martin and Sally are the best kind of people to have as neighbours. He came to Natalie’s aid without hesitation and was helping her through these first critical hours. He was making decisions for her, taking control of the care of Ruby, allowing Natalie to just be with Simon and supporting her throughout.

“Natalie, listen to me.” I looked at Paul and flapped my arms, motioning to him that I was going over. He nodded and ran a hand over his face. I took a steadying breath. “I’m going to see if I can get a flight.” The words were out and hung in the air between us like a dark fog. Paul’s eyes darkened and he pressed his lips together but he didn’t interrupt me. We’d have lots to discuss when I put the phone down.

“I can’t ask you to do that, Mum. It’s going to be a long haul with Simon. You’d have to give up your job and…” then her voice broke on a sob. It was all too much for her.

“I can and I will!” I surprised myself at how strong and firm my voice sounded, as my whole body had begun to tremble with shock. “You listen to me,” I demanded of her. “You need help. I can look after Ruby, help out with the animals and be there for you. Whatever you need. Whatever it takes. I’m coming!”

“Oh, Mum!” She sounded so relieved. I could almost sense her body sag as it drained of tension. “Thanks,” she said quietly.

“Listen, love, I don’t want to waste a second.” I wanted to get started on the arrangements. “I’m going to start looking for a flight now. I’ll ring you when it’s booked. Go back to Simon now and try not to worry. I’ll be there with you just as quickly as I can.”

We said our goodbyes and I turned to Paul. We both held the tears back as we hugged. “Oh, God!” “Oh, no!” Paul kept saying, as we tried to draw strength from each other.

When we eventually drew apart, I asked him, “Can you start looking for flights. I’ll ring Katy to let her and John know.”

I felt I was in the middle of a nightmare. I’ve had a few bad dreams in the years since our eldest daughter left home. All based on the normal kind of worries that any parent has while their child is far away from home and the television news fills our heads with murders and muggings of traveling youngsters.

Natalie went to work in Australia just a few months after the millennium celebrations, hoping to take in some of the Olympic Games in Sydney.  We thought she’d be home again in England after a year when her work sponsorship expired. That was the plan but it was not to be. Her sponsorship was extended and then she met Simon during a business trip to Melbourne. They fell in love, said they were soul mates and Paul and I went over to meet him just before they got engaged on Valentines Day. A year later, Natalie accepted a position within her company that meant she had to move north. Simon is a qualified and very skilled construction worker and soon found a job based in northern New South Wales. They moved near to Bangalow, a small town just inland from Byron Bay in 2004. They bought a beautiful property in the countryside with acres of land, a pool and a 4-bedroom house. It was their dream home and they held their wedding ceremony on top of the hill overlooking their house in September of 2005. Paul and I, together with our youngest daughter, Katy, traveled out to Australia for the wedding.

They are so much in love it’s a joy to watch them together. The term, soul mates, is overused and often misunderstood but it fits them perfectly. I had no worries about my eldest daughter and her future happiness with the man of her dreams in a place they adored.

Simon and Natalie traveled back to England to stay with us in June 2006 so we could introduce him to all the family here. We had a big party that ended in the small hours as we talked and laughed together. Katy had just started to plan her wedding to John who she’d met just after she came home from Natalie’s wedding. Dresses and shoes, flowers and food were top subjects of conversation between my two girls. Natalie was to be Katy’s bridesmaid, so they planned to travel back to England the following year to join in the celebrations.

Fate intervened again and Katy had to find another bridesmaid because Natalie discovered she had conceived while visiting us and their daughter, Ruby May, was born in early March of 2007 shortly before Katy got married here in UK. It was sad to have Natalie and Simon missing from Katy and John’s celebration but Natalie sent a video of our first grandchild and an e-mail that she asked me to read out at the wedding reception. The video arrived on the morning of the wedding, almost making me late for my hairdresser’s appointment, as I couldn’t drag myself away from the TV screen. My eyes were glued to the tiny infant that caused me to feel like I was bursting with happiness. The e-mail brought tears to many eyes at the reception as I read out Natalie’s words full of love and laughter and Katy’s eyes were wettest of all.

Life couldn’t have been better for Natalie and Simon. I flew out on my own to meet my granddaughter in April. (Paul couldn’t get time off from work, but I was determined to go see my first grandchild as soon as I could.) I went again at Christmas with Paul, Katy and John. So I can’t complain that I never saw my eldest child. We have been very lucky to be able to go to see her so often.

Did I worry about Natalie’s happiness? Not a bit. She was blessedly happy. She had everything she could ever want and more. Was I happy for her? Of course I was. Was I happy for me? Not at all! My daughter lived on the other side of the world and now my baby granddaughter was growing up so far away. The realities of it hurt like a nagging toothache sometimes but we can talk on the phone and with the computer we can videoconference and see each other in real time on screen. The world is a much smaller place now, flights are so easy to arrange and we all work hard to afford them as often as possible. So we make the best of things.

I always had a niggling fear, though, which seemed to deepen after Natalie married an Australian and made it clear that England would never be her home again. I agonised constantly about all those, what ifs. Every parent must worry about them. ‘What if,’ is the start of nightmares when dropping off to sleep and sometimes the really terrible ‘what ifs,’ carry over into waking dreams. I had some nasty dreams in the months following Natalie and Simons wedding. They were the kind of dreams I had to shrug off, as I saw them as a manifestation of an irrational fear. I’d see a train or plane disaster on television and my thoughts would drift to, ‘what if.’ What if something like that happened to Natalie or to Simon? What would I do? They are so far away! How could I be there to help my child if the, ‘what ifs,’ happened to them in real life?

At 11am on Sunday the 29th June 2008, the, ‘what ifs,’ had happened, and my worrying dreams began to play in real time.

Thank goodness we are experts at organising Australian travel. We’d done this a number of times since Natalie made her home there but not always with such urgency. The most recent was Christmas 2007 when Katy and John came with us. I’m blessed that my family get on well with each other. John and Simon share a common interest in motor racing. They are both more than fans – they both live and breathe Formula one and Michael Shumacher is their hero. When Natalie and Simon came to England to stay with us in June 2006 we all went to see the races at Silverstone together. That was the year the heavens opened over the main race. When I saw the weather forecast, I packed a roll of black plastic garbage bin liners and the kids scoffed at me as we set out that morning in the sunshine. They didn’t laugh when I started handing out black plastic sacks when the rain came down. We poked holes through them for arms, wrapped them around our legs and heads as the rain poured all afternoon. We had a great time, despite the weather and enjoyed an exciting and slippery race. My whole family stood together all afternoon in the torrential downpour, looking like a pack of drowned black plastic rats and I couldn’t have been happier!

Katy! I had to ring her. She is Natalie’s younger sister by three years and they are as different from each other as the day and the night. Katy has a Mediterranean look about her, (goodness knows where those genes came from in our ancestry,) with flowing auburn hair and skin that tans easily. She’s a whirlwind of fun but she’s quick to bite and slow to back down. Natalie is a natural blonde with a pale, almost transparent quality to her skin. She’s slow to fire up but once roused; she’ll fight like a she-cat defending kittens. To look at her, you’d think she was a fragile and delicate creature who would be rocked off her feet at the slightest puff of trouble but you’d be so far off the mark!

Katy’s home is neat and uncluttered, where Natalie’s is an untidy happy jumble. We survived many battles between them when they both lived at home.

Their love / hate relationship veers much more toward love when they’re thousands of miles apart. Closeness causes friction because of their very different personalities but their underlying love for each other is undeniable. This was a call I had to make as soon as possible to get it over with.

“Katy, it’s Mum. I have some bad news, is John with you?” I didn’t want to beat around the bush but would have preferred that she wasn’t alone when I told her.  She was sobbing before I’d finished explaining what I knew.

“We’re coming over. See you soon.” She barely got the words out before the phone went dead.

Paul was cursing the computer. “There are no damned flights. These bloody sites are useless!” He stabbed aggressively with one finger at the keyboard. “Why do I have to put in all my details first? I get all the way through the bloody forms then they tell me there are no bloody flights!”

Poor Paul. He was so distraught he couldn’t think straight and was getting cross at the normal frustrations of surfing the Internet. He is the computer specialist of the family and can sort out most hardware problems in no time but due to the stress of our situation, he was finding it difficult to do the simplest of tasks.

I turned to my computer, (we are a couple of silver surfers, which really means grey haired geeks.) We have his and hers computers in our home office in the attic of our small bungalow. I surfed straight over to the travel web site I’d used before and within seconds I had a screen full of flights. I clicked through to check availability to find there were no seats until Wednesday. So I decided to ring and speak to them directly to see if they could help due to our special circumstances. I got through to speak with one of their representatives. He was brilliant! He listened to my shortened and emotionally edited version of why I needed to get to Australia as soon as possible and then he began to search in earnest. Within a few minutes he had found me a flight with Singapore airlines that left from Manchester at 10am in the morning, Monday the 30th June and arrived in Brisbane on Tuesday evening! Manchester airport is only a couple of hours drive away, so I booked this immediately and organised a return date of 25th September, taking the full three months allowed on a tourist visa. I knew that I could change the departure date later if I needed to.

Katy arrived in the middle of the phone call and she waited until I put the phone down before hugging me and bursting into tears. Katy wears her heart on her sleeve and couldn’t hide her emotions if she tried. We held hands while I told her as much as I knew. She wanted to come over to Australia too, to help in whatever way she could but I reassured her that it wasn’t necessary. Natalie would love her sister to be there for the first day or so but sparks would fly between them before a week went by and that wouldn’t help any of us. “You look after Dad for me,” I told her. “That will be help enough for now.” She nodded and turned to John for a cuddle.

I was still operating in autopilot and going through the motions of what had to be done like a robot. I didn’t let myself dwell on the emotions that were tying my stomach in knots. “I need to ring Natalie to tell her when I’m arriving.” I picked up the phone and dialed her mobile number. It rang for a while before she answered.

“Hi Natalie, it’s Mum. How’s he doing?”

“They haven’t got a bloody bed in Brisbane!” she cursed, her voice full of pain and anguish. “They’re flying him to bloody Sydney!” Natalie doesn’t normally swear unless she’s really angry, so I knew she was stressed to the limit.

“Don’t worry,” I tried to calm her. “I’m arriving in Brisbane on Tuesday night. I can get an internal flight from there, straight to Sydney and meet you there.”

“Oh, Mum! I can’t take Ruby to Sydney. It would be too much for her. I don’t want her to see all the upset. I’ll just have to go home to look after her and let the medical people look after Simon. I can’t do anything for him anyway!” She sounded so upset and angry.

“We’ll all go to Sydney when I get there. We’ll work it out. You concentrate on Simon now. Do what you have to do for him and we’ll arrange things as we go along.”

We talked more about arrangements and difficulties and possible solutions. She asked me how I planned to get from Brisbane airport to Bangalow. Trains stopped running before my plane landed. I suggested that I could stay overnight in Brisbane and get the first train in the morning to Robina, which was only an hours drive from Bangalow. Or I could get the bus to Bangalow, which was only a fifteen minute taxi drive away from their home in the countryside. I could even hire a car if I had to. Then I realised that I was keeping Natalie away from Simon. She needed to be with her husband and I could work out the details of my journey from here.

“Don’t worry about it all now, Natalie.” I told her. “I’ll get to you somehow and I don’t need you to make any arrangements. We’ll deal with it all from here and find out as much as we can from the Internet. You concentrate on Simon. I can try to work out something about getting to Sydney when I get to your place. I’ll see you real soon, honey.”

“I’ll be really glad to see you, Mum,” she said quietly.

We said our goodbyes and fought to keep my calm composure. She had admitted that she needed me and that was so hard to hear. She was always my strong and independent child. She never needed me in the way most children need mothering. She always wanted to do things her way, in her own time and I constantly had to watch her struggle. I had memory flashes of Natalie obstinately feeding herself at 10 months old, porridge dribbling from her hair to her toes, struggling to fasten shoe buckles at three-years-old, changing a wheel on her first old banger at seventeen, walking away from me at the airport when she left England for good. She wanted so much to do everything her own way! Now she needed me and it was such a double-edged sword! I wondered if I was up to the challenge. Could I really fulfill all the needs she would have of me? It was too late to worry about that now. I would soon find out.

John made us all some sandwiches and tea. It was 2pm and we hadn’t eaten since an early breakfast but it was like forcing cardboard down. We sat silently around the table, gulping tea and chewing without tasting. Each of us seemed lost in our own thoughts, too scared to give voice to them; too afraid that if we mentioned what we were thinking, it might come true. It was obvious that we were all worried about the kind of damage Simon’s body had suffered and concerned about what disabilities he might have to live with afterwards. When we did speak, these subjects were briefly touched upon but it seemed there was a silent agreement between us not to discuss those topics in depth. We’d start a sentence and words would dry up and the sentence would be left hanging.

“How bad is the skull fracture?” Katy asked

“Bad enough to need surgery, but….” Paul shook his head.

“That’s the worst thing, isn’t it?” John looked at Katy. “How will he…?” He didn’t finish his spoken thought and no one offered to finish it for him.

In the silence I wondered how they would survive this as a family. Then I thought about the accident. What had caused it? Was anyone else involved? Was anyone else injured, or worse, was anyone killed?

“Wonder how it happened? Do you think...?” John said, seeming to read my thoughts.

“Did Natalie say?” Katy asked.

I shook my head. “Don’t think she knows yet.”

“It’s irrelevant now, anyway.” Paul sighed, closing another thread of jilted conversation. He turned to me. “What else do we have to do?” dotcombuy