I was in Kilkenny when I got the call. At his sister’s hen, in fact. The call too many families and friends of farmers will be familiar with already. The call the rest of us dread.
“Hello, it’s me. I wanted to let you know that I had a little accident with the tractor earlier . . . well, a big accident, really . . . ”
I was sharing a room with one of his sisters, and I could feel her eyes on me now as the voicemail played out.
“He asked us not to say anything,” she said when the recording ended. “He wanted to tell you himself.”
“And he waited until I was here to do it?”
“He knew you wouldn’t go if you found out earlier.”
He was right. I would have been on the first train out from Dublin to Maynooth, feeling, no doubt, the way I was in those moments after hearing his message — my stomach in knots, my heart thumping, my mouth dry.
“He’s ok,” his sister said then, but I wasn’t convinced.
When the dust had settled, it registered that had he been seriously hurt, he wouldn’t have been able to call me at all. But rationale tends to go out the window in times like these.
An hour or so later, he sent over some photos taken by the guards who had arrived at the scene. I saw the tractor cab on its side, one back wheel missing. The trailer it had been pulling had been upended, too. I found out later that the road was closed for close to three hours as the cattle were rounded up and the vehicle towed away.
That Jack and the stock he had been transporting to the mart that morning had walked away with nothing more than a graze to his forehead was nothing short of a miracle.
I excused myself from the dinner table to ring him. His sisters understood. Unlike them, I hadn’t had the chance to see Jack in person after the accident. I didn’t have the peace of mind that comes from seeing with your own two eyes that your loved one really is ok.
He answered quickly and we spoke in low tones, me standing in the lobby of the Lyrath Estate Hotel — its grandeur, admittedly, somewhat lost on me that night. I asked him how he was feeling. “Blessed,” is what he said.
He kept repeating how lucky he’d been; lucky that it happened when it did — when there were no children crossing the road to the nearby school, lucky that the wheel and vehicle had come to rest where they did and when they did — avoiding a collision with any other vehicles. He would never have forgiven himself, he said, had someone else been hurt, or worse.
He talked about insurance, about needing to collect the tractor. He couldn’t understand how something like this — a wheel just coming undone — could happen to a relatively new vehicle.
He seemed to busy his mind, and our conversation, with thoughts of all things practical and sensible. No doubt in an effort to stop himself from dwelling on the one thing that I myself could not ignore — the reality that he had come so close to death.
I knew it was there, though, tapping at his conscience. When I suggested that he try not worry about the what ifs and what could have beens and focus instead on the fact that he had been given another chance, that he was, indeed, “lucky,” he responded with a different adjective, echoing his earlier comment: “Blessed, is what I am,” he said, “blessed.”
That was about as much as we got into that night. He assured me that he was ok, and asked me to return to the party. I did, but I was there in body only. I worried that later that night, when Jack turned off the lights and put down his head, the enormity of what had happened would come roaring at him — loud, brash, unable to be ignored. I didn’t want him to be alone.
He’d mentioned that his head hurt a little, so, making fear of concussion my primary point of concern, I asked him to make sure that someone stayed in the house with him that night. With all four sisters and his niece in Kilkenny, his brother obliged. Not without protest, I’m sure — albeit in jest. None of us were under any illusion as to how lucky we were to have him with us.
It’s coming up on two years that Jack and I have been together. Not long, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, but long enough for him to have become an integral part of my world. Imagining life without him didn’t bear thinking about — and yet, this event had forced me to do just that.
When I saw him the following evening, I looked hard to find the small scratch on his brow, just beneath his hairline. I pictured the tractor laying on its side, the jack-knifed trailer behind it, and I knew, without question that it was only for the guardianship of some higher power, that Jack was sitting there beside me that evening.
The next morning, he asked if I’d like to go to mass with him. It was a mass to mark the anniversary of his uncle’s passing — an uncle who thirty years before, had died in a farming accident.
In the weeks and months that have passed since, I’ve noticed a shift in Jack’s mindset. He seems more willing to look for the positives in a given situation, and less inclined to sweat the small stuff. Of course, life as a young, full-time farmer continues to throw him curve balls — delayed payments, a calf with a broken leg, and, as it turned out, the insurance company’s refusal to pay out for the accident, citing the reason that it was down to a “mechanical failure.”
As difficult as this was to process, as unjust as it is, Jack refused to let it get the better of him mentally. “Control the controllables,” is a common utterance of his these days.
As for me, I’ve had my eyes opened to the reality that a farming accident is not something that only happens to “other people.” No matter who you are, what age you are, or where in the country you are, if you’re involved in farming in any way, you are involved in what remains Ireland’s most dangerous occupation, with tractors and the attached machinery, the leading cause of death.
A line from one of my favourite books, The Lovely Bones, plays over in my head: “tomorrow is never a promise.”
How true that is.
A split second is all it takes for your world to be turned upside down. Luckily for Jack, and for all of us who love him, his world, and ours, righted itself that day. In 2015, the families and friends of 24 other farmers across Northern Ireland and the Republic weren’t as fortunate.