One Fatal Mistake
By: Author Unknown
In a lush Victoria park, Mercedes had decided to swallow a tiny pink pill given to her by a friend.
The first time I really saw Mercedes-Rae Clarke, she was in Year 7, standing in the schoolyard, a tiny bird of a girl with big brown eyes and an impish smile. She was 12 years old then and my daughter Kate’s new friend.
I had heard about ”Merch” from Kate for months. Mercedes had moved into my daughter’s French-immersion class in Victoria, Canada earlier that year, a new kid thrown among a tight group of students who had been together since kindergarten. Soon she was among the most popular in the crowd.
All the boys had a crush on her, and all the girls wanted to be her friend, consulting her on hair and clothes and music and all the things 12-year-old girls spend so much time talking about. Kate would say, ”Merch says this” and ”Merch does that.”
But this was the first time I’d had a good look at her. And I thought: What a beautiful girl. What eyes! She had a big smile and a big laugh for someone so petite and delicate. The other girls towered over her.
Over the next 18 months, I got to know her, driving her in a carpool to dance class each week, often hosting the sleepovers that seemed to occur almost every weekend at someone’s home.
This is the Mercedes I knew: an adventurous, outgoing sprite who loved to shop and socialise, excelled at dance, loved to try out new hairstyles. My daughter Maddy, two years younger than Kate, idolised Merch because, unlike with some of the older girls, when Merch came over, Maddy wasn’t excluded. Merch would brush Maddy’s hair and give her a new hairstyle and include her in all the talk.
A video of Mercedes from a school camping trip last year shows her sitting by the campfire at night, stuffing one marshmallow after another into her mouth until she reaches an astonishing ten, cheeks puffed out like a crazy chipmunk, and her classmates doubling over in laughter. That was a typical Mercedes moment: an imp with eyes dancing in merriment, playing the crowd.
A few times, on dance-class nights, her mother, Sherry, would call to say she couldn’t get away from work just yet. Could Mercedes stay with us until she could pick her up? Sherry worked at a downtown funeral home as a mortician. I knew her call meant a family was having trouble with a death and she needed to spend extra time with them. ”Of course,” I’d say, knowing first-hand the juggle working mothers do to keep children safe, with friends.
Sherry was a hardworking, strong mother of three. Along with Mercedes, she had two sons: Chris, a married adult, and Kody, a year older than Mercedes. Sherry bravely left an unhealthy relationship with Mercedes’s father to forge a new life on her own in Victoria with her two younger children. They lived in the suburbs, but Sherry wanted Mercedes to have the benefits of a French-immersion programme near her work, and that meant a long commute to and from town for the two of them every day.
The last time Mercedes was at our house, before the fateful day that changed everything, Kate and Mercedes spent a lazy August afternoon, hanging around our backyard, jumping on the trampoline with Maddy and mugging and posing with our digital camera.
And then, around dinnertime on Monday, September 5, 2005, the day before she was to start Year 9, Kate burst out of her room, tears streaming down her face. Mercedes, she wailed, had tried the drug ecstasy. She had never tried any drugs before. She was now in hospital on life-support!
The day before, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a lush Victoria park, Mercedes had decided to swallow a tiny pink pill given to her by a friend. She was with two friends; one had tried ecstasy before and said it was fun. That friend had bought three pills for about $10 each from a guy on the street in downtown Victoria.
When the three girls swallowed the little pink pills, Mercedes began almost immediately to vomit. Soon she complained of a terrible headache and that she couldn’t see. Then her eyes rolled back into her head, and her body contorted in a seizure. One of the girls ran to the nearby house of a family friend to get help.
When Sherry arrived at the hospital about 90 minutes later, Mercedes was unconscious, medical staff working around her. She never woke up again. Over the next 24 hours, she continued to have seizures, her blood pressure skyrocketed, her temperature soared, she had multiple heart attacks and resuscitations. She was placed on life-support on Sunday night. Everyone prayed a miracle would save her.
By late Monday night, Mercedes’s brain scan showed no activity: The tiny pink pill had rendered her brain-dead. Sherry was faced with what must be a parent’s most agonising decision: to disconnect her child from life-support, donate her organs and let her die. The medical staff gave the family time to say goodbye. On Tuesday, the halls outside Mercedes’s room were full of people: cousins, aunts and uncles, and friends. Sherry asked that close friends such as Kate come to see Mercedes.
For Kate and me, saying goodbye to Mercedes in the paediatric ICU is a devastating memory that will never leave us. She was lying, pale and motionless, in an ICU bed surrounded by machines, tubes in her arm and throat, her lungs rising and falling to the whoosh of a ventilator. Her beautiful brown eyes stared out, vacant and dull.
Mercedes was removed from life-support that Tuesday evening. Her organs were harvested for transplantation. Because Sherry was a licensed mortician, the hospital allowed her to collect her daughter’s body directly from the operating room. Sherry and her friend and colleague Bill wrapped Mercedes in a blanket and took her that night to the funeral home. There Sherry washed and prepared her daughter’s body for her funeral. To me the tenderness and despair of performing such a final act for one’s own child is heartbreaking.
For Sherry there are important messages she needs the world to know: Mercedes was a good kid from a good home who made a single bad decision.
Sherry says the coroner’s office told her a few weeks later that the drug was pure ecstasy – not laced with crystal meth, as rumour had it. Sherry also wants the world to know: ”Ecstasy is seen as the fun drug, the one to take to a party and have a good time with, not nearly as bad as crystal meth. But ecstasy can kill, too.”
And Sherry wants other kids to remember Mercedes. If they hear friends talking about trying ecstasy, she pleads, have the courage to tell a parent or a teacher: It could save a life. ”Mercedes made a mistake for all of you,” she says. ”Learn from her mistake.”
A few weeks ago, when we pulled out the digital camera for a family occasion, we stumbled upon a forgotten picture of Mercedes: that last day in August, caught in mid-air while jumping on our trampoline, big smile, hair flying, skinny arms and legs flailing – so alive and vigorous. So full of promise.