*This is an edited extract from Life As I Know It by Michelle Payne with John Harms (MUP, RRP $32.99, eBook $14.99), out now and available for purchase here*
The plan was for my dad to do the school run, but he got stuck on the phone on an important call and signalled to my mum that she would have to take them (kids).
Mum drove off along Kennedys Road.
At the same time, a local mum was taking her kids to school, and collided with Mum’s car at the Gillies Street corner, crashing into the driver’s door.
The car rolled onto its side.
The kids (some of Michelle’s brothers and sisters), who had minor injuries, were able to scramble out of the car but Mum lay motionless, her body hanging out of the driver’s seat window.
Petrol spilled out everywhere.
“Everyone run, it’s gonna blow!” Patrick (one of Michelle’s brothers) yelled.
“Pat [Michelle’s father], you need to come. There’s been an accident.” Kenny Williams, a local trainer, went to fetch Dad.
When Dad left, Therese and Maree (two of Michelle’s sisters) were still at home with Andrew, Cathy, Stevie and me (some of Michelle’s other siblings), and they waited, sitting on the couch, not knowing what was going on.
He came back about ten minutes later with Bernadette, Patrick and Margie (some of Michelle’s other siblings).
He walked in and all he did was shake his head.
And they knew, straight away, that our Mum had been killed.
Father John Keane, the priest who has been closest to our family for many years and a wonderful friend of Dad’s, came over.
He still describes the moment with total sadness and devastation.
“It was a terrible scene,” he says, in his Irish accent.
I think about my mother a lot. I feel she is always with me.
But when I think about that specific moment, when she was taken, which I do from time to time, I don’t think so much about an accident I was too young to remember, or of a mother I didn’t know for long.
I think of my dad and my brothers and sisters. I try to imagine what Dad was feeling.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to have someone you had made a life with, your best friend, your everything, gone – just gone.
Then having to tell your children.
If I feel like I’m doing it tough, I think about that and wonder how he got through it, while always retaining his positive attitude and his faith in life.
It gives me so much strength, and perspective.
While I am deeply, deeply saddened by what happened I don’t have a sense of loss.
I know instead the sadness.
And I think it is that feeling that has helped me to empathise with others.
I don’t have an imagined sense of my mother’s personality. But I know she is my mother. And I know what a mother is, and what motherly love is. I know mothers. I watch mothers.
My sisters are beautiful mothers. My mother’s love is an ever-present spiritual love.
And I know fatherly love. My father’s love is spiritual, too, but I have lived my life with my dad, I know him, and so that love, as tough as he can be, is immediate and real.
The older kids say that Dad became more openly affectionate after the accident, especially with us younger ones.
Perhaps he was being gentler, more tender, because we didn’t have a mother.
Perhaps he was responding to his own grief, which I realise, as I get older, must have been profound.
At the time, my immediate needs were physical.
Thankfully I took the bottle without hesitation.
A local Irish woman from the parish looked after me, and then Bernadette, who was eleven at the time, took it upon herself to feed me through the night.
Click here to go to Part Two, as Michelle Payne recalls her different childhood, how she used to call for her mum and an almighty fright.