In 2002 author Michael Quinn lost his 23-year-old daughter Veronica in a car crash. Here, he writes about spending another Christmas without her.
VERONICA is twenty-three, her degree course in Speech Therapy at Trinity College, Dublin just finished. The North Eastern Health Board has offered her a job in Navan. I have my old Toyota Carina serviced and give it to her.
Today is Wednesday, Sept 4, two days before she begins work. She has to go for a medical. It is one o’clock. I am planting bulbs for spring near our gate. Veronica stops the car for a moment as she drives out. She smiles at me.
“I had to go back for my money. I’ll probably not need it.”
At ten past one I come in and tell my wife Terri, “That’s that. We’ll have snowdrops and crocuses in January.”
At a quarter past four they call me to the kitchen. There’s a policewoman. Veronica is dead. Dead 20 minutes after she spoke to me. I scream and fall. The policewoman helps me up and hugs me, hugs me, repeating over and over, “I’m so, so sorry to have to tell you this.”
Friends drive us, and our children Ruth and Colm, to the morgue in Dundalk. I thump the glove compartment and the dashboard. We wait in the shivering evening to be led into the morgue. There is a sacred, shocked, devastated silence in it. Dead. She could not be dead. Her smooth forehead is cold. Her hair still so beautiful, so Veronica.
These thin lips will never sing again, never kiss again, never again smile her bright, disarming Veronica-smile. I cannot cast loose, I cannot unlease the heaviness that grips and shackles and suffocates my chest.
Friend arrive, hushed, faces drained, all helpfulness, hustling tea and sandwiches through roomfuls of mourners. Mindlessly I eat. I am starving to share this grief with my children. I hug each as they arrive home into the kitchen battered, lost, broken. I long for each next one to arrive. Our daughters switch yelling for moaning and back to yelling, their wounds naked: our sons are pale and frozen, ripped out of the world they know. Thomas, Veronica’s boyfriend, is held up. I yearn to hug him.
Time stops. The house is a thick, steaming sauna of grief, a fog of pain for the hundreds of visitors who file in to sympathise. It is better when they have no words: I don’t want to hear religious platitudes. And I have no room in me for anyone else’s losses.
For the funeral we float balloons from the altar to celebrate the life of our precious party girl and her sense of fun. The priests fuss but defer to us when a friend takes them aside, “These guys have studied bereavement: they are experts.” My sister Anne’s children welcome the coffin into the cathedral with traditional music that aches and wails. A fiddle weeps for us. The members of the folk group in which Veronica had sung all leave their work to sing for her. From the pulpit I read aloud Maya Angelou’s powerful poem, ‘When great trees fall’. No fear of me crying because Veronica’s own spirit of love fills and raises me into the moment. We walk numb behind the hearse, seeing no one. Each of us drops a rose into the grave.
In the weeks that follow, friends prove themselves. They bring pots of stew, salads, lasagna. For a full year Ann Daly arrives every weekday to clean the house and to listen. My thoughtful sister Brenda speaks of Martha and Mary, “I’m afraid I’m Martha. I’m only able to do the practical things. Where can I plant these bulbs in Veronica’s memory?”
Some people’s grief lasts as long as a wake and a funeral, as long as a rainy day in summertime. Then they avoid us, “We’re afraid we’ll only upset them.” I wish they wouldn’t. Or they attempt to cheer us up. Or they hurry to change the subject when I mention Veronica. One friend I had valued tells me, “You’re taking it all too seriously; you need to lighten up, move on.” His lack of understanding bewilders me.
Our grief is like the Donegal rain that comes in Atlantic blasts followed by gusts of drizzle, then allows the skies to clear a while, growls and returns in strength and vengeance tomorrow. If our tears keep coming, let them come. I need to talk. I will not hurry my grief or bury it. I don’t like the limp, “Sorry for your trouble,” but I’m not angry — they know nothing else. I like it when people cross the street to shake hands and ask me how I am. I like when they’re specific, “I’m sorry about your daughter,” or “I’m so sorry about Veronica.” I love when they name her, “How are you since Veronica died?” It hurts, of course. It hurts to remind ourselves every Wednesday, “This is the day she died — about now, about twenty past one.” My heart is broken open but I don’t want to close it. I want to lean into the pain. I would not be without it and I don’t want it to fade. I do not, do not, do not want Veronica to fade.
We will face the hard things that are called for. A few friends are cautious when we arrange to meet the driver of the lorry from the crash, “Are you wise?” We have a coffee with him and reassure him, “It was not your fault.” We go to the ‘car graveyard’ outside Dundalk to see the crashed car, the steering wheel crushed in towards the seat, everywhere tiny bits of broken glass and dried blood. Here is the pink silk cushion she was sitting on at the moment of death. I hug it to myself. I will keep it forever.
I revolt each morning as I wake up to shock: she can’t be dead! She can’t. My mind struggles to put the clock back, to stop the accident, to move her car to the side for the narrow little second of the crash. Even a fraction of a second.
I enter into Veronica’s mind as I write a letter from her to each of my children. In it I express her love for them, her sadness at leaving them, her hopes for them. I am consoling myself as much as them.
On Christmas Eve, one solitary bulb pushes up a bright, delicate snowdrop where I had been planting the bulbs that day. It is startlingly early, three weeks before any other appears. My poet sister Brenda calls it ‘a sculptured teardrop’ and her lovely poem suggests that we are being invited to allow spring into our lives again. No. It is too early. I want to hold and hold and hold the images of my Veronica still.
The snowdrop speaks to me of a short, beautiful life fully lived, for it also meets its accident — two days later, a boy looking for a football tramples it, and the next morning I find it crushed, the teardrop’s white petals shed into the soil.
Things have to be done after a death. “You’ll need to think about a gravestone,” they tell us, “and a memorial card — and you can’t leave her room like this: it needs to be cleared.”
What’s the hurry? I don’t want to change her room. I don’t want to remove the netting she has hung artistically across a wall. I would hate to wipe out the lovely shapes that she herself had laboured to paint and decorate onto these walls. They are sacred. Nor I don’t want to take away her teddy-bears or her posters. I will keep as much of her as possible. Stuff can wait.
Her headstone waits four and a half years and simply states: ‘To our lovely Veronica, died September 4 2002 aged 23”. At the corner of the stone is a copy of her own handwriting, “Love always, Veronica.” It is how she signed all her letters to family and friends.
I attend a course given by Johnston McMaster from the Irish School of Ecumenics.
“It’s unfortunate,” he claims, “that all the Christian churches ignore the psalms that speak of anger and vengeance. The churches are not comfortable with anger, yet we need these psalms if we are to have a more mature relationship with God. We need times to rage at God as Job did.”
He suggests we try praying at home with one of these neglected psalms.
I am not aware of any anger with God over the loss of my daughter. I have been given permission to rage, however.
I reach for all the unspeakable words to express my fury. I rage, I rage, I rage. For three days I rage until I am exhausted, emptied… Where now can I go from here…? I have thrown everything at God, said the worst things I could think or imagine. I have hated God derided God. I cannot pretend normality now. I sit quietly, almost lifeless, all my push and energy gone.
In that silence I hear God sobbing, “Michael, you think I didn’t want to save her? I am broken-hearted for your beautiful daughter. This was not my plan for Veronica. She died because her car hit a lorry. Oh, I had wonderful plans for her… all come to nothing. I did not want her to die.”
God and I sob together. Our grief weeps into my hankies. I had not known this softer God who lets us rage and weeps along with us.
I move on slowly, recalling the sequence, the loss, the significance.
I am not exaggerating her goodness when I say that Veronica’s presence to people was sacred, was something ‘holy’: in her short life she had learned to love more than I ever will. She had lived more fully and had accomplished more than I ever will.
“I remember how you bantered At our kitchen counter
On Tuesday evening
Telling Thomas he’d a dossy job
As we stood around
For the last supper.
And then on Wednesday, oh Wednesday.
At one you left, came back to get your purse and left again,
You shut our yellow door and for ever crossed the back door step
That once had been a mountain For our baby daughter.
At five past one you stopped the car beyond the gate
And smiled at me and said,
“Forgot my money! I may not even need it.”
And you were gone in our old faded blue Toyota.
And I went back to planting bulbs For winter.
You sang going down the road,
Reaching your highest note,
With brimming heart and spirit overflowing.
When I had finished planting, I came in and said,
“We’ll have the snowdrops up in January”
At twenty past you crashed.
The singing stopped
The song shattered
The blood and water leaking
Your head bowed down
Your life of loving
And some months later, one wee angel snowdrop
Heralded new birth on Christmas Eve.
And each of us has had to slowly learn
To sing again.
I often pray with Veronica when
I turn to God.”
Ten years later. Another anniversary, and a protest from our grandchildren, “Do we have to go to Newry and be sad again?”
We stop and wonder: “They’re right, you know. Veron was such a party girl. Even as a student she had weekly ‘Smartie Parties’ with her friends.
“Why don’t we celebrate her anniversary by inviting her friends and their small children for a ‘Smartie Party’?”
The friends arrive, a few with their men. They are pleased to meet up, to catch up on years of parent-talk, job switches, scraps of stories. Some children have never seen so many sweets on one table! There’ll be lots of toothpaste and brushing tonight! The adults join in the games. They struggle at first, then they discover that they are children themselves. It’s hard to know whether the parents or the children are enjoying themselves most.
Veronica’s spirit has descended on this gathering. This is her kind of anniversary. We miss her, and admit as much to one another, recalling her capers, her generosity, her soul-talk. Heads shake, smiles and wry grins remembering our lovely, madcap, marvellous Veronica.
“Can we have a Smartie Party every year?”
A year later, the eleventh anniversary is even more fun. A ritual is set.
nNewry-based Michael Quinn and his wife Terri, originally from Carrigtwohill, Cork, founded the parent-support charity Family Caring Trust almost 30 years ago. In an article in The Guardian on parenting, writer Sharon Maxwell asked the chief professional officer for the Health Visitors’ Association for England, Wales and Northern Ireland what book would she recommend for parents — Penelope Leach, Sheila Kitzinger, Dr Spock or Chris Green? “None,” the officer replied, “they all make parents feel guilty. But if you were to ask me who was doing the most effective work in helping parents, it would have to be Michael Quinn, the director of Family Caring Trust.”
In 2002 Terri and Michael received the Bethany Family Institute Award for their innovation in introducing a pro-active response to family relationship education. Over half a million parents have experienced at least one of the low-cost community-based courses and they have been translated into 19 languages.
* Michael Quinn’s new book An Armagh Childhood is available on Amazon.com for £7.99. All proceeds from the book will go to Family Caring Trust. Michael has donated the fee for this article to Family Caring Trust
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