INTERVIEW FOR PRIMA MAGAZINE AUGUST 2005
By Carrie Buckle
When Catherine Lucas, 40, from London, was a teenager, she was involved in a horrific accident that changed the course of her life forever. This exclusive interview reveals her tremendous courage and spirit.
'My friends and I sat chatting on the grass outside school, as I waited for my mother, or Tate, as we called her, to pick me up. It was a beautiful summer's day and I was coming to the end of my first year in sixth form. I was 17 and really excited about Tate taking me for a driving lesson. She'd been teaching me for the last four months, and my test was only a few weeks away. She pulled up in our old, blue mini-van and I knew she was in a good mood by her huge smile. I jumped in the driver's side and we set off down a long, straight road that led home. The sun was beating down on me through the window, so I pulled at the jumper that was draped over my shoulders. But it didn't come off as easily as I thought it would, so I tugged at it and lost concentration - just for a second - but that was all it took.
Suddenly, Tate screamed and grabbed hold of the wheel. I'd accidentally swerved over to the left of the road, so she tried to straighten the car. But she over-steered and we veered off to the right, crossing over the central line. I was terrified that we were going to hit an oncoming car, so I let go of the steering wheel, relieved that she had taken control. She steered violently to the left, crossing a grass verge, and I remember thinking, 'Thank God for that. We are going to be okay.' I felt a huge sense of relief. It all seemed to happen so slowly - we were only going about 30mph."
Then there was a terrifying crashing noise as we went into a ditch. Glass exploded all around me. Somehow I ended up crouched on the floor, with something heavy on top of me. I tried to see what it was, but my eyes were stinging, full of what I thought was petrol. The engine was still running and I was petrified that it would burst into flames. "Mummy!" I called out. But all that met me was a devastating silence. I knew straightaway that she was dead. With a horrifying moment of insight I suddenly realised that she was slumped on top of me, pinning me to the floor. I stayed there for what seemed like eternity, feeling the heavy dripping of blood from her body onto mine. Eventually I heard voices saying, "Don't worry, you'll be fine. We'll get you out in just a moment…" "How could I possibly be fine?" I thought. I'd just killed my mother. She was lying on top of me, the taste of her blood in my mouth. I felt as if I was living in a nightmare.
The car was smashed to pieces. The doors were cut off and I felt hands on me, lifting me out. I stepped onto the road and rubbed my eyes. The world was shockingly normal - the sky was still blue, the sun was still shining and the birds were still singing. But in a matter of moments my life had changed forever. A paramedic led me to an ambulance and I kept asking: "Is she dead?" He just said he didn't know. "I know!" I wanted to scream. Then two men appeared, carrying a long, white, zip-up plastic bag, which they laid down on the grass. I asked if she was dead and again the paramedic said he didn't know. "Well if she's not dead," I said, "why have they put her in that plastic bag?" That was the last time I saw my mother.
The next thing I remember is lying on a stretcher in casualty, looking up at a nurse who was picking fragments of glass out of my face. The only injuries I had were a few little cuts. A doctor came and said, "I have some bad news for you. Your mother is dead." I knew already, but it made it real. I wanted to start screaming and never stop, but I felt numb with guilt. The nurse started to cry beside me, but I couldn't shed a tear. I felt as if I didn't deserve to grieve and I didn't deserve to be comforted because I'd done such a terrible thing. I taken my 56-year-old mother's life from her, and stolen a wife, sister and friend. How could I ever make up for that?
I dreaded seeing my father. I remember walking towards him in the hospital hallway, tears pouring down my cheeks. He put his arms round me and asked if I was alright. All my effort went into holding myself together because inside I felt as if I was falling apart. At the same time, I wanted him to recognise this and reach out to me. But no one in our family, including my sister Bonnie, who's now 52, and brother Geoff, now 45, ever talked about emotions. We never hugged one another or said how we felt.
When I returned home, to the old stone house I'd lived in since I was five, everything seemed just the same. Except that Tate wasn't there. A full-time mother and housewife, she was an amazing person, brimming with charm and vitality. She was beautiful in an unconventional way - slim, with brown curly hair, expressive brown eyes and a lovely smile. Growing up I loved her spontaneity. She could make even the most mundane activities seem exciting. The house felt empty without her and the aroma of her cooking wafting from the kitchen.
Spending time in the house, with all the memories of my mother, made my guilt all-consuming. The only way I knew how to deal with the pain was to bury my feelings as deeply as possible. They were too horrific to burden anyone else with. Instead, I went through the motions. I got up each day, smiled and chatted, and later even got back into a car and managed to pass my driving test.
Within ten days of Tate's death, my father and sister enrolled me on a cookery course in London, as a distraction. Surrounded by strangers, I got through each day on autopilot. On day, I overheard a man complaining bitterly that his mother was dying and his words made me angry. I turned to him and said, "If you are so worried about it, why don't you go and be with her?" Somewhat taken aback, he replied, "Oh, you couldn't possibly understand." "Yes," I said, in a strangled voice, "I think I can. My own mother died a month ago and I'd give anything to spend just another minute with her. Go and tell her all the things you have wanted to say, don't wait until its too late." He looked at me, then took off his apron and walked out of the class. I watched him with envy and satisfaction. Envy that he could do what I could not - say goodbye. Satisfaction that someone else might be spared the feelings of remorse that I had. I longed to be able to say all the things that had been left unsaid - "I love you. I'm sorry. Thank you for being my mum."
When I returned home to finish my A-levels, I was haunted by flashbacks. But every time I went through the accident, all I could think was that it was my fault she was dead. Tate had quite a serious temper and I was sure she'd be angry and not forgive me for what had happened.
I went away to study English Literature at University in London I had a boyfriend called Ben and, when I finished my degree, I landed a good job at a television production company. To the outside world, I seemed fine, yet on the inside, the guilt never left me. It wasn't until I was 25 when I watched a documentary about fatal accidents that I began to think differently. There was an interview with a nurse who'd been driving home from work when she hit a child who ran out from behind a parked car. She had no chance to stop and the child died immediately. "If only I could have stopped… If only I had left work later…" she said. Suddenly I could see that we were both blaming ourselves for something beyond our control. In that moment I realised I wasn't responsible for my mum's death. Even if the accident was my fault, the outcome of it wasn't. The immense guilt that I carried around for eight long years melted away. I realised that the only person I needed forgiveness from was me.
From then on, I started living life in a new way. Tate's death taught me that life could end at any moment. I couldn't re-write the past but I could do something about the future. After years of thinking about therapy, I decided to go for it. It was tough opening up the wound that I'd tried to cover for so long, but once I started talking about my emotions, it helped me deal with what had happened.
The accident made me appreciate how precious my family was and I started to be able to show my love towards them. I remember going to stay with my father, Cyril and his new wife, Vicki, in California for Christmas one year and felt that I really got to know him. We sat outside by the pool each afternoon, under an endless blue sky, sharing stories about his life and memories of Tate. Dad brought out countless photograph albums crammed with happy family snaps. There were pictures of my parents on honeymoon in Corsica, with Tate posing in a bikini, looking so young and full of life. Plus, pictures of Bonnie and Geoff when they were little, and me as a baby. I really appreciated what a great upbringing my parents had given us. Before the accident, I don't think I ever told my mum or dad that I loved them and I don't remember them saying those words to me. That was one of my biggest regrets when my mother died. Now I never miss a chance to say "I love you" to Dad, Bonnie or Geoff.
It's been a long and painful journey to where I am today, but I've finally come to peace with it. Difficult things happen to all of us, but it's possible to heal and become truly happy, no matter what has happened. I no longer live my life in the shadow of guilt. Writing a book about my experience has helped me deal with my emotions - there was many a time when I had to stop writing because I could no longer see for the tears. I still think about Tate often, but not in a painful way - instead I feel tremendous appreciation for the time that I had with her. I have a favourite black and white photo - it's of her holding me as a baby on her lap and, every time I look at it, my heart fills with love for her.