The following excerpt is from a collection of memoir and poetry I compiled and published some years ago. It captures the moment I learned of Carolyn’s passing.
“Train Up A Child”
It was August. Late August. It was late in the day as well as the month. Later than I realized.
At 9:15 p.m. the sky was still light outside the open window above the bathtub. Have you ever noticed how the sun seems to cling to each day of summer? In winter it hurries across the sky as if embarrassed by its lukewarm weakness, shuttling quickly past in order to escape from our sight. In summer, though, the sun rules the heavens and gives up to the night as reluctantly as the myriad of children that fill my secure Mormon neighborhood.
If fact, if it hadn’t been a Saturday evening—the one evening of the week when every mother in every home on my street calls their kids in early to bathe in preparation for the Sabbath—I would have probably been alone in the house when the doorbell rang. I would have been sewing, or cleaning, or baking, or on the phone talking hope in Christ to a fellow mortal who, like myself, was struggling with the effects of addictive behavior in their own life or in the life of a loved one. As a lay counselor in an addiction recovery program, I have shared a lot of such support over the years and received tenfold as much as I have shared. Thank God. That night I would definitely need it.
Since it was a Saturday evening, I wasn’t alone in the house. In fact, all of my children under sixteen—eight of them to be exact—had finally come straggling in from “hide-n-seek” and “follow the judge to court” and were now watching a video, waiting for their turn in the tub.
Meanwhile, I was on my knees, my gut pressed against the side of a tub boiling with bubbles and bath water, trying to keep the shampoo out of my youngest child’s eyes as I lathered her hair. Shiny and slithery with soap, she slid around in the six inches of water like a little eel, not cooperating at all.
Behind me, at the closed door, came another demanding knock. I fully expected to hear my five- year-old’s lisping voice, insisting again that I open the locked door—never mind the four times I had already told him it wasn’t his turn yet. In the background I could hear the familiar sound of a Disney refrain from Mary Poppins.
I was about to yell at him again, “Spencer! Go watch TV. I told you already, we’ll be done in a minute.” Then I realized that this time it was my fourteen-year-old knocking.
“Mom. You need to come. There’s someone at the door that wants to talk to you. I think it’s important.”
“Ouch! Ouch!” Julyn, My three-year-old was putting her bubble covered fists up to her eyes, trying to rub the shampoo out of them.
“No! No!” In exasperation, and with a clobbering sense of fatigue, I raised my voice at her. Great. Whoever was on the front doorstep just below the open window was sure to have heard my tone of voice, my barely contained anger. What if it were someone from my ward?
Well, too bad. In defiance to whoever it was even being on my doorstep at such an ungodly hour on Saturday night, I made no attempt to hurry. Let them wait. Or better yet, go away. Calmly, I turned the tap on, adjusted the temperature and wrestled Julia onto her back. I did lower my voice, though.
“Lay back, Julynie. Relax. The water will wash the shampoo out of your eyes. Put your hands down. Stop struggling.”
Still crying, she complied. The cries quickly subsided to whimpers and I sat her up.
“Mom! Mom!” Now it was my ten-year-old’s voice at the door. “You need to come to the door, Mom.”
“I know. I know. I’m coming as fast as I can.”
I lifted Julyn over the edge of the tub, stood her on the already half-saturated bath mat and started drying her hair.
“It’s a policeman, Mom.” My fourteen-year-old’s and ten-year-old’s voices came through the door in unison. I could tell they were both standing outside the bathroom door with their faces pressed against it.
My heart sunk through my stomach. “Oh, crap,” I muttered. I draped the towel around Julia’s shoulders and climbed to my feet. The knees of my jeans were wet.
I turned the corner from the hallway to the top of the split-entry stairs and looked down at the two figures standing in the now-gathering gloom of my front doorway. The sun had given up its hold on the evening and finally admitted its need to be done. Where had it gone? Only moments before there had been that warm, pink alpine glow that characteristically casts across Utah Valley from the west against the east mountains in the evening. Though the light was totally gone, the August night air was still full of warmth. I could feel it battling with the air conditioning to get in through the open doorway. There were no lights on in the house, either.
My littlest, Julyn, clad only in the towel, and all seven other children were standing around me, or kneeling on the couch that backed against the black wrought-iron railing that separates the entry from the living room. They peered down over the back of the couch and the railing like the “peanut gallery” I often called them.
Both of our cats, usually relegated to the outdoors, had taken this opportunity to come indoors. Gingerly, probably surprised at having no children scoop them up to toss them out or maul them, they circled the men’s legs and began to climb the stairs. The glow and sound from the TV seemed to flow around the corner into the living room and down the stairs at my feet.
I recognized one of the two men who stood on the step. The other was in uniform.
“Colleen?” It was my bishop’s counselor who spoke first.
I was confused. Relief that it wasn’t some irate father accompanying the policeman clashed with bewilderment that Brother Dunn was there at all. My mind was searching desperately for some sense in what was happening. As I look back, it feels as if the events were already taking on a slow, surrealistic motion, as if some part of me knew what was coming and was trying to postpone it.
“Colleen,” Brother Dunn began again without waiting for me to acknowledge him. That’s the first moment I caught the urgency in his manner, in his voice. Time slowed down even further. It seemed to take me several minutes to descend the half dozen remaining stairs.
“Is your husband home, Colleen?” Something about his question stopped me on the bottom step. I still stood slightly above them. Some of my children had trailed me down the stairs.
“No. He’s still out of town on a business trip. He’ll be home in the morning.”
“Wow! Look at all the badges!” one of the children hanging over the railing exclaimed. “How come you have so many badges?”
Hearing my child’s question and then seeing the uncomfortable half-smile of the uniformed man standing beside Karl, I was suddenly aware of something else that did not compute. He wasn’t dressed like any of the policemen I’d met before. He wasn’t wearing a holster and gun, or a night stick. His uniform was brown, and it definitely was decorated with a lot of ribbons. He held a hat in his hand which he turned a couple of times before looking up. His gaze met mine and I caught a glimpse of something I didn’t want to know.
“Colleen.” It was Karl speaking again. Still trying to get through the thickness of the congealed time that was threatening, already, to grind to a complete halt.
“I’m sorry, Colleen. Since Gary isn’t home, I’m afraid we’ll have to talk with you.”
Why was he here?
Why was he with a highway patrolman?
Utah Highway Patrol. The beehive emblem on the man’s shoulder finally registered on me.
No. This wasn’t about a local police visit for some childish prank like when Nathan had taken a joy-ride after school, last week, on another 2nd grader’s bike.
The highway patrol. It had to be about Carolyn. Maybe she’d been picked up for drug use. They had her in custody. I could handle that.
For the first time the solemn officer spoke.
“Could I please have your full name?” he asked.
“Of course.” I told him my full name.
“Mrs. Bernhard, I need to confirm that you are the mother of Carolyn June Bernhard?”
Maybe they had picked her up for possession . . . trafficking?
No, wait, this was a highway patrolman. . . . Maybe she had been in an accident.
Maybe she was in the hospital.
In a millisecond I was in each one of those projected scenarios—talking to her across a desk at the police station; sitting by her hospital bed, holding her hand; waiting outside ICU; bringing her home in a wheelchair . . .
“Mrs. Bernhard, I regret to inform you … ”
There wasn’t a sound in the house. Had someone turned off Mary Poppins?
“Just a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down …”
No. It was still playing away. Playing away.
“… that your daughter, Carolyn June Bernhard, …”
His words were clipped, short, to the point, sharp, practiced, chosen—like the moves of a heart surgeon trying to cut only as deep as he absolutely had to.
” … was killed in an automobile accident on I-15 at approximately 5:15 this afternoon.”
I don’t remember what I did then, what I said, or how I gestured with my hands or with my face. And I don’t remember with my conscious mind, but I know I heard some of the gasps that escaped several of my children.
“Karl,” I heard someone say. “Please, hold me.” I stumbled off the bottom step and Brother Dunn put his arms around me. I felt mildly surprised that he could see or hear me. I stared over his shoulder at the stars that were beginning to appear in the evening sky. My soul felt like a computer on search, scanning the entire universe. Where was she? Where was my child? She wasn’t gone. She couldn’t be. She had to be somewhere under those same stars.
It would have been one thing had it been a grandparent or a friend who had died without my knowing it for all of these hours, but my daughter? I couldn’t comprehend that for over four hours now I had been in the world, while she was not. I had gone on breathing, eating, talking, laughing, worrying over bills and when I would get my handouts for Primary done.
Shouldn’t a pit have formed in my stomach four hours ago? Or at least a twinge of nausea as she died? Shouldn’t it have felt like someone was peeling away a piece of my soul? Shouldn’t a shiver have gone down my spine as she passed? You know, like they show in the movies. I mean, even Lassie has more sensitivity, more intuition. I mean she knows when there’s even a quiver in the fabric of her loved ones’ lives.
But not me. No, not me.
The front of my wet shirt, the knees of my wet jeans, suddenly chilled me.
Numb, I looked from the stars to the porch lights. Every porch light on my street was on. And more lights were coming toward me. Cars were pulling up from every direction, parking up and down both sides of my street. I could see figures walking toward me in the dark. Neighbors. Ward members, carrying flashlights. Maybe they could help me find Carolyn, the way they helped Carol find her son, Brian, that night he fell from a neighbor’s tree on a summer evening in August a year ago while playing night games and suffered a concussion. Or maybe I could step out into the street on this August night and call Carolyn home just one more time:
“Olly, Olly Oxen, Carolyn! All home free.”