Chapter Three – The Voice

May 1971, Lory State Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Preparing for a cartwheel, I'm wearing the "$27 bathing suit."

Before leaving for his dormitory, I couldn’t resist trying on the unfinished bathing suit. I was already wearing my favorite — and only — bathing suit under my jeans, from which I had made a pattern for this one. My old suit was red, white, and blue with circles and wavy lines, which rode low on my hips and under my belly. I loved the way it fit, but it had begun to fade. The reason I couldn’t part with it was sentimental. The day we bought it was the first time my mother had taken me shopping for such an intimate item. That not only acknowledged that I was becoming a young woman, but seemed to honor it.

The top was simple, but cut low enough to be very sexy. In the dressing room that day when I shopped with my mother, I liked it so much that I thought she’d probably veto it. I was reluctant to show it to her. When she asked if I was ready, I came out from behind the drapery and looked down in embarrassment.

“Oh, how lovely,” My mother said softly. She was probably surprised to see me in so little clothing; I was extremely modest at home. “Andit fits you perfectly. How much is it, dear?” That was the next hurdle. I had no idea how much she was willing to spend. She seemed to deliberate, and then the sales lady came over to tell us it was on sale from $40 to $27.

“Oh, we have to get it now! Do you like it, dear?” After an early adolescence in which my mother was absent for several years while she both worked and then went to the hospital to be with my younger sister Kathy who was dying of leukemia, this kind of bonding was what healed the hurt of those years of unintended neglect. This bathing suit transaction was a rite of passage, a go-ahead to be a woman with a young woman’s body without having to hide.

Back in my dorm room, I took off my old bathing suit top and put on the unfinished one. Admiring my tan lines, I congratulated myself on a perfect fit. I rode my hands over my hips and held the bottom against the old bathing suit to see how it matched. It looked real good, much better than the first version I had made several days earlier. I decided I would give that one to my sister Chrissie who was a size larger than my petite self. Standing on my tiptoes, I did a pirouette before the mirror for one last look at the top. I then threw all my sewing gear into a box, shoved it under the bed, and ran into the lounge to get the sewing machine to put away downstairs in a locked closet. I was finally ready, and I nearly tripped as I ran out of the dorm to get to Mark’s.

Riding the elevator up the 20th floor of the all-male dorm where Mark lived was fun because a girl never knew whom she would run into. I often encountered guys from my other classes, and once in a while the now basketball legend, Julius Irving, AKA Dr. J. At that time, he was the hero of the UMass Basketball team. Julius was a genuine nice guy; most of the other young men I met on the elevator made it a social lark to travel to Mark’s room. When I got to his door, I was surprised when he wasn’t completely ready to go. He handed me a helmet, and looked excited but serious.

“You’re going to need a helmet. I’ve got a jacket you can borrow.” These were both disappointing to hear.

“But what about the wind in my hair and the grasshoppers in my teeth?” I was wearing cut-off shorts, sandals and a tank top. I was going for full spring effect.

Mark laughed, but in a way that took the options out of my protest. “If we had time, I’d make you go back and wear a pair of long pants.” I could tell then he disapproved of my sandals. I had no idea I would have to wear so much special gear. I never did the few times I rode in high school. He pulled out a second helmet and a jeans jacket, and we both headed for the parking lot. I asked him if we could drop off a roll of film I’d taken at the State Park in Northampton of our whole gang of guys and girls. With the film bulging in my back pocket, we headed in direction of downtown, and I ran into the drug store before we headed out for the open road.

Springtime comes full of promise to Amherst, with birds chirping from newly hatched shells, grass shining out of rolling green pastures, and the perfume of lilac trees and apple blossoms wafting in the air. On the way to Sunderland and points northwest, the Berkshires beckoned. After a semester of hard work I was ready for springtime’s promise of summer. In a few days, I would be in Saranac Lake.

I was glad not to be going back to Revere. I wanted to leave my family and that past behind. There would be relatives and good friends to stay with in Saranac Lake while I found my summer job. Summer’s promise included learning to water ski, being reunited with my good friend Patty and having plenty of beer parties down by Lake Ampersand where her fiancée, Beef Bevilacqua lived.

But I was not thinking of the summer while riding with Mark. The rush of air and scenery were breathtaking and intoxicating. And now, surrounded by the muffled roar of the BSA bike we were on, I was thinking, “Finally, we’re getting out of town. Finally I’m riding a motorcycle.”

“I’m so happy!” I yelled to Mark, as we waited at a red light.

“What?” he yelled back at me. Even at a standstill, verbal communication on the motorcycle was difficult, so I didn’t bother to repeat myself and just hugged him. He then looked back at me through his rear view mirror, and I remember his green eyes, how they sought mine, and how he flashed his smile at me. At the green light we vroomed away from the pick-up and turned onto Route 119, the stretch of road that led to Sunderland and beyond to the Berkshires.

Spring 1971, Mark Robinson. Marks' mother, Dottie, gave me this photo of him in skydiving gear taken not long before the accident. When I took the photo out of its frame, 30 years later, it disintegrated.

Leaving the urban quadrant of the University and the quaint town of Amherst, I was surprised to find the rural campus surroundings so quickly. “Ooh, Look! Cows!” I poked Mark again; this time he smiled back and nodded. I relaxed back into the seat and hung on for the ride. Finally, away from it all. The dorms, the working, the studying, the status of pedestrian. It was 3:30, and we wouldn’t be out for long, but just this much was wonderful.

Coming around a bend on Rte 119 near Plum Tree Road, I never saw, and I don’t think Mark did, either, the car that veered straight out of his lane and into ours. Life can be gone in a minute, in a second, and it was this quickly that we were hit head on at 55 miles per hour by a man whom I later learned was a 20-year old uninsured motorist. He was driving his girlfriend’s car, and not paying attention to the road as he bent down to pick up some papers that had fallen off the seat. At the curve in the road we all met our destiny.

Mark’s leg was ripped from his body, and he died immediately. I was thrown 20 feet through the air and hit a utility pole with my pelvis, crushing it and fracturing both legs, then landed on the ground lacerating my left elbow and hand. I didn’t know at the instant of impact what happened. It didn’t even register I was in the countryside on a bike. The force of such an impact sent my body immediately into shock, and all I could figure was that I had been hit from behind by a bus that then ran me over. Though the dense, head-on blow was to the front of my body, it caused my body to undulate, whipping my head back then forward, making it feel as though I was hit from behind.  

There on the ground near Plum Tree Road, I lay trying to get up, commanding my arms to push me off the ground and stand up. Trying to push my voice out of my chest, emitting sounds that felt far away, I wondered if I still had my teeth. I expected to groan and raise my hand to my mouth, but I couldn’t. I realized I had no control over my body.

“Please help me get up,” I cried, sensing people around me.

I heard a murky hubbub, a mumbling, the sensation much like lying in brackish water, the texture of ugliness and despair. Finally, I made out one distinct sound. It was a woman’s voice, clear like a mountain stream trickling down rock walls that said, “You’re going to be all right. You have been in a motorcycle accident; the ambulance is on the way. We are here with you. Just hang in there.”

“Where’s Mark?” I knew enough that I had been with Mark Robinson, even though I didn’t make the connection I’d been hit on a motorcycle.

“We’re taking care of him. Don’t you worry.”

I fell back into the infernal blackness of shock and trauma. I fell into a dark and chaotic hole. This is Hell, I thought, as I tumbled and bumped into dark corners of space with what was left of my mind.

After trying for what seemed an eternity to push against the ground to get up, I then was forced to cling onto the earth like a barnacle. I held onto the firmament beneath my chest while the world spun round and round like a disk, trying to fling me off into the void.

The blackness was so thick and deep and buffeting, it felt like a tornado. I watched Ferris wheels spin madly out of control, and monkeys and human children swirl through space screaming. I held on with my consciousness, my mind begging: “Please let this be a dream.” The nightmare raged while I clung to whatever reality said, “This is not hell,” and whatever shred of light could believe: “This may be a dream.”

My mind was like a commander reining his soldiers in after sending them out to die, bringing me back to the Voice that responded when I could speak.            

“Where’s Mark?” I cried again.

“He is here. The ambulance is on the way,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, my body along for a ride to a destination that did not require a consciousness. When the chaos chose direction, I felt my whole being sucked out of my body into a skinny, black vortex of particles, dust, then colors, purple and green, and then a brighter light, which felt as though it could have been a release, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel natural. I didn’t want to go. I was fighting it, trying to wake up. Wake up, open your eyes, and wake up, I told myself. And I would find myself conscious again, but I couldn’t see, and barely could hear through the rushing of what might have been death’s wings. I called for Mark again.

“He is here. We are taking care of him. Don’t you worry,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, feeling annihilation a moment away. The only hope my conscious mind could hold was that I wasn’t really in hell, but having a dream of it. A dream will end.

It took the ambulance 20 minutes to get there.

Urgent voices, staccato questions reaching into the roiling darkness. “What is your name? Can you tell us where you live? What is your mother’s phone number?”

I was a smart aleck in high school, the class clown in the seventh grade. Reflexively, I wanted to joke: “I can only give me you name, rank and serial number.” But my mind suspected what my body already knew:  There was not time or energy to answer as I wanted. “Bernice Kenney, 168 Beach Street, 284-5412. In Revere.” I gave them the words, and I let go again into hell. Hell was dark, cold, and like a tornado never still. What’s happening? Where am I? How did I get here?

I heard them saying, “Get that bathing suit off,”. . . and I struggled against them, crying, “Don’t ruin my $27 bathing suit!” I was struggling out of a swamp of darkness, I couldn’t see, but I could hear.  But no one seemed to listen to me. Until my mother came.

I heard my aunts first, their tonalities the same as my mother’s, and then I could hear the resonance of my mother’s voice. It was like I was hooked into her from the other end of a tube that threatened to suck the life out of me, and she kept pulling me back in with her voice.

“Ma, where am I?”

I heard my sister Chris say my name.  “Chrissie,” I said. “I made you a bathing suit.” I then imagined us both on the beach. We were children, but in my imagination we were both wearing the red bathing suit.

“You’re in the hospital, dear. In Northampton.” My mother’s voice sounded grave and sad.

“In Northampton? Where’s Mark?”

She didn’t answer.

“He’s dead, isn’t he, Ma?” I didn’t believe it was possible when I thought to ask, but as soon as the words were out, I knew it was probable.

“Yes, dear,” she said in a voice that leaned over and cradled me. “He didn’t make it. Mark didn’t make it.” She said this as though she had known him, too, even though my mother didn’t know any of my friends from college. Mark’s mother called my mother the next day, and from then on it was as if my mother had known Mark too.

Mark didn’t make it. Another piece of me died. It was harder to imagine Mark being gone. So I didn’t for a while. It went eventually to a little place in my heart’s memory that I now keep sacred.

This place is translucent silver, soft pink inside like a bowl and filled with tears that have turned to pearls, and I keep photographs, mostly, but with some people I keep conversations and shapes of shells and stuff that makes me cry so my heart can wring out my memory cells, all of them.  Paula’s smell, like a snake; Mark’s smile, Phil’s wild, reddish curls, Mark Newman’s rippling laughter, Aunt Mary’s sing-song phone announcements, “Carolyn Sue; it’s for you.” Dad’s morning smell with bacon and eggs all hours of the day, Ma’s soft skin on her face and her voice that I sometimes hear at night when I’m done remembering. And in my body I feel the pain of their having been here and gone, and how that surely hurt. I just know it did. I don’t care what anyone says; you don’t go quietly, gently. It’s a terrible ripping from the earth.

No one I know wanted to go. You only want to go when it hurts so much you would have to die to feel better. I know that one. But I don’t have trouble with suicide thoughts very often; I get them, but they pass.

I couldn’t see the outlines of the hospital room, but the people, their voices and their faces all felt like some Salvador Dali mural of surrealism that floated above me. I tried to piece together the puzzle. How could my two aunts from New York be in the same place as Dick Fowler from the counseling center at Southwest? And how could my mother and my sister get to Northampton? My mother didn’t know how to drive; my sister didn’t have a license. If my brother Billy had driven them, why hadn’t he spoken to me yet?

My sister told me later that they had not been able to reach my father who didn’t have a phone, but did have a car. She said she convinced my mother to hitchhike along the Massachusetts Turnpike. This was in the early ‘70’s when hitchhiking was still done, but not normally by non-hippie adults. Chris said she could feel all of my mother’s will go into a safe ride, and it happened. They got to Northampton two hours after they got the phone call informing them I was hurt and might not make it.

“When we got there they had your body up in this huge sling and your leg was sticking out high above your head. They said that as fast as they were pouring blood into you, you were losing it out your pelvis. Ma said the halls were lined with college kids who showed up every day to give you blood.”

My sister Chris is shy to mention this in front of other people, but she told me that when she saw me, and I was talking about a bathing suit – which sounded so strange and trivial to her – and probably foreign as hell because as long as we lived in the same house, I never let her touch a stitch of my hand-sewn outfits even though she tried. When she saw me like that in that sling, she felt a whoosh of energy transferred to my spirit from hers leaving her weak and drained. Many people said they prayed for me; even those who did not normally pray. Perhaps I received their energy infusions each of the times I emerged to consciousness again. I only know that my consciousness went in and out, and often it was words, which pulled me in again, though sometimes a face.

“Cale, we are going to amputate your leg.” I heard that one.

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