There's a story in our Boomerangst section which looks as if it stands alone. It's by Kathy Torpie who writes about her devastating car crash 13 years ago last month. But like all stories there's another side - or sides. This is mine. In January 1994 I was teaching at Auckland University's summer school.
Some classes leave you drained, others lift you with their zest and energy. This definitely fell into the latter category. Apart from learning, we seemed to have a lot of fun together in those important informal moments outside the classroom. One of the students was a stroppy Kiwi-American - Kathy. She'd trained as a psychotherapist, had been an ocean sailor, mountain climber. But at the time she was just one of a group of talented writers. At the end of the course students not only exchanged emails and addresses, they also suggested we have a reunion.
So a few months later, we finally got around to meeting at a restaurant in Mission Bay. Same crowd, different environment - still lots of fun. After the others had gone Kathy and I lingered, chatting about writing and the possibilities for her. I remember her driving off and thinking she'd come all the way from Muriwai on the West Coast for this little party.
It was the last time I saw Kathy as I knew her then. The next day, the phone rang and one of the other students told me what had happened. A drunk driver had crossed into her lane when she was just minutes from home. Another car was close behind her. The impact shattered every bone of her facial skeleton.
In her book she writes:
'As my face struck the steering wheel, my upper jaw snapped off so that it hung like an unattached dental plate, according to one surgeon. My ribs were broken and both lungs punctured. The bones of my left forearm and wrist broke and my legs were so severely fractured that broken bones tore through the skin. One section of my lower leg was reduced to splinters. The knee cap was shattered beyond repair and a huge chunk of flesh torn from my leg below the knee, leaving a hole that could be covered only by removing part of my calf muscle and placing it over the hole.'
She was alive - but only just. When I visited her in hospital much later she took my hand and asked me to run it over her forehead. There, the fine architecture of bone had been replaced by metal. Kathy had lost her face but not the challenging spirit I'd first noticed in class. Sometimes she went through unimaginable pain, often alone. But when we talked about the accident and its aftermath, she'd say in her dry way: 'Well Paul, shit happens'. I could never bring myself to tell her what I'd always thought: that if only I'd let her leave just a few minutes earlier, that might not be the case.
In the years that followed I lost count of the operations she had. Finally she got around to writing her book Losing Face
. Perhaps because they've always had a book or some writing I like shoved at them, my daughters avoided the manuscript when I brought it home. Then my youngest began reading - and couldn't stop. And for good reason. The book is not just about losing face but gaining another identity. It's sobering and at the same time, wise.
Thirteen years on Kathy's face may be different, but she hasn't really changed. Sometimes pupils are a living lesson to teachers.