I remember clearly the day my sister died:
November 7, 1978.
She was 17 years old. A senior.
It was a Tuesday. Evening.
I remember the day my sister died because I was the one who first answered the door when the Adams County Sheriff's deputy showed up with my Uncle Harry in tow.
I remember opening the door after the heavy knock, the doorbell long broken. The deputy was looking at his shoes, or maybe inspecting the cement floor of the garage. Uncle Harry looked odd, flushed. Maybe out of breath. He didn't look at me or say anything as he lead the deputy up the steps and inside. Sensing something was wrong, I beat a hasty, back-pedaling retreat, bumping into my mother who also came to the door to see who it was.
As I faded into the background, Uncle Harry took my mom firmly by the shoulders, said something I couldn't quite make out, then "Sue" -- he always called her Sue, her middle name, instead of Sandy, "Chris is dead."
She died in a two car collision. Gravel road. Blind corner. No stop signs. No yield signs. No fault.
Then my mother screamed. No moment of hesitation, no pause or moment to let it sink in, what she'd heard. She just screamed. At first guttural, then a mournful wail that seemed fueled from somewhere harsh and bottomless, then collapsed into her brother's arms and began beating him on the back with her fists, raging against whatever power that decided to kick our family in the teeth again. It had been a horrible twelve months for my clan. A year earlier, after a freak accident, my father went to the hospital and never came back. Too much blood thinner followed by too much coagulant sent a clot rocketing through his system until it got stuck and fried his brain. The machines kept him alive for a few more days, then the decision was made to turn them off. He left behind a wife and five children, two sisters and three brothers. Chris was the oldest sibling, I was the youngest; seven going on eight at the time I opened that door. As the screaming continued unabated, frightened, unable to process the scene properly, I continued my clumsy retreat, to get away from that awful, awful noise. Out of the kitchen, through the living room, down the long hallway to the back bathroom where I slammed the door and collapsed back against it, hands clamped over my ears, slouching, contracting and curling into a really small rock.
But the noise wouldn't stop no matter how hard I wanted it to go away.
I don't remember who found me, or when or how. It's gone. Blocked. The next thing I remember was our house was suddenly inundated with weeping relatives and cousins who looked at me funny. I also made the mistake of watching the evening news and saw footage of Chris's flattened Oldsmobile; a grotesque cartoon caricature of a crushed auto straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. It was a decision I still regret making to this very day.
Looking back over the intervening thirty years, speaking frankly, it's been a tough go. The best way to describe my family in one word is volatile. And if you wanted to use two words: Highly volatile. Teetering on the brink when dad died, Chris's untimely death sent us into a tailspin that it never recovered from. Lots of simmering sibling animosity, survivor's guilt, and self-loathing led to eruptions of violence that were just waiting for an excuse, any excuse to detonate; threats, abuse and ugly confrontations, followed by, and made infinitely worse by, a strange silence and a sense that if we just ignored what just happened, a macabre game of let's pretend, then it must not have happened at all. Right? Or worse yet, accepting or taking the blame or fault for everything, and I mean everything, in a wrong-headed approach to keep the uneasy peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, right?
Bullshit. We're a cursed and repressed lot.
But it worked, sort of. Cyclical in nature, our passive-aggressiveness, it wasn't long before the fires got stoked up, tempers flared, and people got hurt again.
But you took it. You took the lumps and buried the scars, emotional and physical, and buried them deep, and you soldiered on. Why? For a mother who tried so hard to keep things together and "normal." So much so that she made a bad situation infinitely worse by her actions and, more often, inaction. And worse yet, using the "family guilt" to try and keep things together for nothing more than an appearance of normalcy.
I try not to blame her for this. Some days it's hard. Some days I'm proud of her, others I felt like I've been thrown under a bus.
Sad; but that's just the way it was, and still is.I'm sure our story isn't an isolated one. Tragedy is not exclusive. And I'm no saint in this story. I bear as much fault, real fault, as anyone else. Things have scabbed over pretty good over the years, but too much picking and tearing have left some permanent damage. In the end, we fake it good most times, the whole family thing. In fact, I'd say we got it down to a science.
But in all honesty, it wasn't just my sister who died thirty years ago, today.