By KELLY EXETER
If, like me, you were walking along Melbourne’s Southbank waterfront on the first weekend in December, you would have come across an arresting sight. A table more than 50m long, with places laid for 250 odd people.
At first glance it looked to be set up for a huge communal meal of some sorts. I thought it was nice that the organisers had set up highchairs at several spots along the way. Then, as I got closer to the head of the table I saw the sign. The one that said:
This many people won’t make it to Christmas lunch. This table has been set to remember the 262 people who lost their lives on Victorian roads this year. They will be missed this Christmas as they are every day.
The realisation that this was a memorial site and not the scene of a community breakfast hit me square in the gut. And my heart ached for the families of the 262 people represented at that table. I knew well the fresh grief they would be feeling with the onset of the festive season because my family has been missing someone at Christmas lunch for the last 13 years.
My 18 year old brother Adam was killed in a road accident in December 1999. He died on December 9th and by the time the funeral was over and the house had emptied, Christmas was upon us. As I stood there at Southbank looking at the places laid at the memorial I thought to myself I know how your families will be feeling this Christmas.
And then I sat down to write this article and realised I actually couldn’t remember a single thing about that first Christmas day without Adam. None at all. We’re a very close family and Christmas Day is a usually a big deal for us. But I couldn’t even remember whose house it was at that year much less what my feelings were on the day. So I asked my family.
My brother said: Everything seemed entirely fake to me. Brave faces, smiling sympathy and general bad acting. Our whole family was grieving and there was no point trying to act happy.
From my sister: I think the reason we can’t really remember much is because there are no photos. I mean who wants to take photos when you feel so completely overwhelmed with grief.
My mum: We had bought Adam’s presents for Christmas already. We exchanged them and used the refund to get each of you a little gift from him. It felt like something we could do to make things better.
When you think of road trauma here’s what comes to mind.
Crumpled masses of torn metal on your television.
Flashing lights and sirens as police and ambulances rush to the scene of an accident.
Tearful families and friends paying their last respects at a funeral.
But what you don’t see are the ongoing effects of a loved one being ripped from a family’s life. Effects that last long after the final well-wisher has left the building. Long after the last sympathy meal has been extracted from the freezer and re-heated for dinner.
You don’t see the grief that never goes away; the constant dull ache that is now a constant companion. You don’t see the massive hole at every family gathering from that point on. You don’t see the wracking guilt of harsh words that can never be unsaid.
You don’t experience the ripped off feeling I do that my brother never got to see me get married; never got to throw my son in the air and hear a sweet little toddler voice say ‘Again Uncle Adam!”
Every year as the holiday season approaches I see the police on tv beseeching people to be careful out there on the roads. To drive safely and with maximum awareness. To not hurry. To not drive tired. To not drink and drive. And every year I see their despair when yet another person is taken from this world before their time.
The Australian road toll has come down over the years; from 1715 in 2002 to 1291 last year. But given road accidents are fully preventable that is 1291 people too many. That is 1291 families walking around with a dull ache in their hearts for their rest of their lives. From just one calendar year. So stay safe out there on the roads people. Not just during this holiday season … but everyday.
Kelly is a designer, writer and lover of all books – great and small. She is also a reformed over-committer and blogs about this at A Life Less Frantic and on iVillage.com.au as one of the iVillage Voices. You can follow Kelly on Twitter here