That's the question posed to Paige Hanson when she wakes up in a hospital bed after an accident she can't remember.Pro
But does she really want the answer?
“We were drowning. That’s the last thing I remember.”
The light was harsh in her eyes as she rubbed them, removing the crust that had embedded across the lids. How long had she been asleep?
“And do you remember what happened to your husband?” a voice loomed out from the unfocused room around her. Without her glasses, they were nothing but a blurry shadow.
The panic in her stomach as the water poured into the car.
Reaching over into the backseat to unbuckle her son.
Exchanging one last nod as they pushed the doors open and made for the surface.
Legs tangled in seatbelts.
Losing her grip on their child.
A strong current dragging her down as she watched him float away in dirty water.
This couldn’t be happening.
This couldn’t be real.
“No. Like I said, we were drowning. That’s all I can remember.” Her tongue wouldn’t formulate the truth, something inside of her needed to hold back.
A soft moan came from the cot next to her bed. His small body still seemed blue as he lay beside her on a ventilator.
“He’ll be okay.” A kind voice now. A nurse. Someone who cared. “He’s a fighter your boy.”
“The vehicle you were in wasn’t government-sanctioned,” the voice came again, professional and clipped. Feminine.
“An anniversary present from my husband’s friend. He had the permit.”
“And who was driving the vehicle?” Yet another question.
Her hands on the steering wheel turning white as she gripped tightly, trying to correct their path.
“She needs to rest now,” the kind voice said. Her only protector.
The light turned off. Darkness returned. She was drowning in it all over again.
“Do you know where your husband is?” The same question was fired at me over and over. I never had any answers for them, but still they came daily to ask.
The porter asked me with every meal, the nurse asked me with every check-up and the cleaners had taken to asking me at the beginning and end of each shift. It was all anyone cared about. Everyone wanted to be the first one to hear the truth. To scoop the gossip. But I didn’t have answers to give. Every time I tried to drag my mind back to my hazy memories, my blood went cold and grief began to stroke my skin, causing painful goose bumps. No, I wouldn’t revisit that memory. I couldn’t.
“Your neighbours heard you arguing?”
“Louder than the other times?”
“What were you so angry about?”
“Where is your husband?”
The questions came at me over and over in succession but I never remembered. I couldn’t remember. I wouldn’t remember.
I lay awake in my hospital bed. The room kept in the constant shadow of darkness. Occasionally, I would hear the nearby chatter of the nurses as they changed shifts near my room. I became obsessive about differentiating between their voices. Trying to pick out any clues in their chatter about my situation. But it was pointless. They never discussed the patient in room 14, and I knew without a doubt that I was in that room. I had, after all, helped to pick out the generic artwork for it. Once or twice, I’d allowed myself to call out to them, desperate for answers, but nobody ever responded to me.
There was a constant glow of neon light beneath the door, which complimented the flashing numbers that highlighted my loneliness on my monitor. Sometimes I’d hold my breath just to watch the numbers change, hoping I’d be able to trigger the emergency alarm and somebody new would come to my aid. But our bodies aren’t built that way, our bodies are built to avoid death at any cost and I’d always end up wheezing as my lungs demanded air. I had so many questions. So many thoughts I needed to tie down. Where was Leo? What were my injuries?
Nobody wanted to tell me anything and I had no idea why. I’d begun to worry that perhaps I was gravely ill, that something was taking over my body whilst I lay here oblivious. Other than bruising around my mid-section and large cuts on my leg, I saw no sign of physical injury. I felt absolutely normal. I had to stop obsessing. I had to stay logical. It had kept me alive for this many years after all.
I knew what everybody around me was thinking. That it was a domestic that went too far. That I did something terrible to Leo. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I would never hurt him, not really. It’s true that I had a temper, but I would never let it get that far. Would I?
I watched the shadows of feet come and go along the corridor. Sometimes they paused at my door but they never entered. I wished that they would. I needed more distractions. I couldn’t just sit here and think. It was terrifying.
Every muscle ached as I forced myself to move. Wriggling my toes and pinching my thighs. Keeping the life going in my body, trying to fight through. Determined to survive. I couldn’t believe I ever took for granted how easy it was to bend the arch in my foot or to scratch my forearm. Even just thinking about it now caused me to break out in a sweat of exertion.
I forced myself to try though. To carry on moving as much as I was able whilst confined to this forsaken bed. I may not have been strong enough to walk yet, my one attempt had sent shooting pains burning through my injured leg, but I wasn’t going to lie here and fade away. I would be able to walk over to my son and pick him up of my own accord one day.
Waking up one morning, after what felt like months of depression, I found that optimism had taken hold of my heart. I hadn’t had any nightmares, no new memories to haunt me, and for once, I’d slept deeply and peacefully. I felt rejuvenated. Today was going to be the day. Today I was going to get out of bed and stay out of bed.
Then I heard a voice come into my room that caused a blinding stress headache at its first syllable.
“Where is my son?”
“I don’t remember” I reply, blinking furiously against the bright lights she’d carelessly turned on. But there was no mistaking the monochrome shadow that loomed over me. It was my mother-in-law. Regina.
“You must remember something, Paige.” She sounded frustrated, as though I was a petulant child.
“I don’t remember anything. I’m sorry.” Please stop asking me. Please stop making me think about it.
The longer I was left to lie in the dark, the harder it was becoming to separate the memories I did have from the dreams that haunted me.
Headlights following us down the road.
A rage I’d never felt before.
A woman’s scream.
My vitals began to rise and Regina cast a professional look over them. I enjoyed the shift in her focus and the pause in the questions. The silence that lingered around us was only punctuated by the electronic sound of my pulse. Right now it sounded like a symphony. She cleared her throat, interrupting my peace, determined to rob me of any optimism I’d awoken with.
“You’re lucky you were brought here; my team is award winning as you know.”
Nothing could stand in the way of Regina’s ego. Not even a missing son and an injured daughter-in-law. Her hospital had always been her true passion in life and her dedication to it showed as staff cowered in shadows when she clipped down the corridors in her ridiculous heels. A woman wasn’t a woman without heels, she’d reminded me when I turned up to work in sneakers once again.
Unlike Regina, I valued what others thought of me. You always catch more bees with honey, my mother used to tell me. And I needed my worker bees to stay as busy and as happy as possible. Which is why my team was always the most casually dressed on any given day. Blood samples don’t tend to care how you look after all.
Regina was staring at me; her porcelain nose held high, waiting for some display of gratitude or acknowledgement of her statement of grandeur. I didn’t have the energy to engage in her sideshow, so instead I stared blankly over her shoulder out of the window. Or at least at the crack of light I could see underneath the blind.
A small exhale of air through pursed lips told me she was furious. To the untrained eye, she would simply look as though she was concentrating. But I wasn’t an untrained eye. I was family.
“I’d warned Leo about driving in that storm,” she muttered to herself as she flicked through my charts, making her own notes and suggestions with the red pen she always carried in her top pocket. A constant reminder to us that she was in charge.
It was the first time I’d heard Leo’s name since waking up in the hospital, he was always reduced to nothing more than ‘my husband’ on the lips of everybody else. Tears began to spill down my face. All I wanted was to scream and wail. The fear of what may have happened to him was overwhelming. But hysterics wouldn’t achieve anything, so I accepted the silent tears escaping that I could not hold back.
“Crying won’t bring your memories back. Can’t you even remember what you were arguing about?” Her words held a sarcastic edge, as though she didn’t quite believe in my amnesia as she returned her pen to its home. She was above all else an extraordinarily smart woman. If anybody was going to extract the blurry memories from my mind, it would be her.
Gently, she touched the sides of her hair, making sure no strands had escaped their imprisonment, but of course they hadn’t. Not a hair on her head would dare disobey her.
“I told you, I don’t remember anything.” Don’t make me remember. I’m begging you.
All I wanted was to escape to my home and process my memories in a safe space, but instead, I was being kept in this hospital room and hounded with the same question over and over. If they were trying to break me into admitting half-baked memories, then they were getting close.
“When can I go home, Regina?” I needed to be the one asking the questions, the control would be mine. She looked at me, her gaze ice-cold.
“When I discharge you of course,” came her response, so matter-of-fact that had this been a sitcom I probably would have laughed. Of course, she was my lead physician - if she couldn’t fix her own family, then how could she claim to be queen bee?
“And good morning to you.” She moved to stand over my son’s cot. Instinctively I wanted to stop her. Despite the emotional tundra that was his childhood, Leo had insisted we make his mother a part of any of our children’s lives. Of course I’d agreed at the time but the idea had rapidly fallen out of favour as soon as I saw that blue line on the test.
When I’d been pregnant she’d treated me as an incubator, asking about my symptoms rather than my wellbeing. Introducing people to my blossoming stomach but never mentioning my name. Speaking constantly about ‘our’ baby as though she owned a part of him. It made my skin crawl. I could hide most of my resentment behind a smile or a fabricated bout of nausea, but Franklin knew the truth. He’d start kicking me in the bladder frantically the second I set my eyes on her. She took it as a sign that he already adored her. I knew it was nothing more than a physical response to his mother’s rapidly raising blood pressure.
At my baby shower she’d gifted me a set of scales to help me bounce back she said. Leo threw them out for me as soon as she’d left and held me as I sobbed angry hormonal tears. She consistently asked us about baby names and eventually turned on the crocodile tears in a last-ditch attempt to insert herself into every part of my pregnancy. But Leo held strong. He knew how important it was to me that this one thing was just our secret, our first one as a new family. Besides, he also knew whatever name we chose would be distasteful to her palate and she wouldn’t mince her words about it.
As the main hospital in the settlement, we’d ended up here after my labour began. I’d begged Leo to take me to one of the lesser treatment centres in the zone down from us. To let me give birth at home or even to take me to one of the women on the outskirts, most of whom had midwifery or doula training, but he wouldn’t listen. As my labour progressed in our living room, we both knew it wasn’t going the way it should. He had to put the physical health and wellbeing of me and the baby above my anxiety. It wouldn’t be as bad as I imagined, he reassured me as I squeezed his hand through painful contractions.
Of course Regina had taken it upon herself to oversee my labour, dismissing my chosen physician when I was too vulnerable to fight for what I needed. Appearing at intervals to comment on my dilation or rather lack of. When she’d ordered my caesarean, she looked at me as though I was a failure. I was less of a woman for not being able to birth perfectly like her. I didn’t care about her judgement though - either way, I had my baby and so long as we were both safe and well, that’s all that mattered to me.
She was there in the operating room, she gasped at Franklin’s startled cry as they held him over the curtain for me to see. Then she scooped my fresh baby into her arms and swept him away under the guise of checking his vitals.
Despite my personal feelings towards her however, I couldn’t deny that she was a fantastic grandmother. Franklin seemed to bring out a soft side in her that none of us knew existed. She doted on his every blink, sighed happily at his every breath, and spoke to him in hushed tones for hours. I know it pained Leo to watch his mother lavish the attention on his son that he himself had never received, but as he always said, everyone deserves a second chance. Inwardly, I agreed with him as much as the President agrees with the Anarchists, but outwardly, I let bygones be bygones for an easier life. Eventually, the small nice comments I would make about her to Leo and others felt believable even to me.
As if she knew of my inner walk down memory lane, Regina reached down and picked up my three-month-old boy. She cuddled him tight into her chest. “There, there, Franklin. Grandma is here.”
Then she turned back towards me, pain painted upon her face so perfectly it could have been makeup. “I wish you would have named him William after his grandfather.” There it was. The emotional guilt trip. It had been three months but she still made this appeal every now and again, as though she could force our hand with her soft sighs and small tears.
William would have been a fantastic name. He had been a kind and loving father. The yin to Regina’s yang. Where she would smirk at quick wit, he would unleash a belly laugh that would echo through the hospital floor until even the ice queen herself would thaw and could be heard roaring with laughter alongside him. I’d love to have seen that. To watch Regina let loose and simply enjoy life, but when William passed, so did the secret to unlocking her humanity. Fundamentally, I felt sorry for her despite my burning resentment. Up until now, I could only imagine what raising a family without your other half was like. I prayed it wouldn’t become my reality.
I’d offered to name the baby William, I knew after all how important Leo’s dad was to him. But he wanted our son to have his own legacy, his own journey. Not to be burdened by the path walked by another. So, we’d settled on William as a middle name, a touching tribute. Or so we’d thought. She’d still remind us from time to time that we had up to a year to file for a name change.
As I held my arms out, expecting my son, all empathy I had for her vanished as she walked him towards the window instead, singing gently as she went. If I hadn’t found it so soothing, blood may have begun pouring from my eyes. You see, she always allowed her long-forgotten accent to seep into her words as she sang to him. Her perfect English elocution forgotten in those moments. She always sang to him in French, her mother tongue, and there was something so beautiful about her natural tone that I couldn’t complain. I could still remember the first time I heard foreign words from her lips. It was like an explosion of human history in my brain.
She knew as well as we did that any language other than the bastardised version of English-American was not State-approved, but she couldn’t help herself.