Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Valley of the Shadow

I lived a golden life for many, many years in which I never saw death close to me. My family was remarkably healthy and accident-free. My nana died when I was thirteen, but I she didn’t live close and my parents weren’t overcome by her loss, so I didn’t feel death was a bad thing either.

It was during the summer after my junior year in college that Lisa died. She’d lived across the hall from me in the dorms. A girl who walked the rebellious side (for BYU) had finally come around and shaped up her life. She’d come back to church, met a wonderful young man and died in a fiery car crash with him on the way home from his missionary open house. Can you say wow?

Then a few months later, I found out Jennifer died. A friend from grade school whom I thought about often but had never been overly friendly towards died in her sleep from collapsed lungs. No reason.
A year after that, I received a phone call over the summer from one of my professors. Michelle, one of my friends who’d done Study Abroad with me that Fall had died in a car crash.

Within a year, three people my age had died.

Old people could die and it seemed okay. Young people couldn’t die. Especially with no warning. That meant *I* could die. At any time.

It changed me fundamentally, these three deaths. From that time even until now, I don’t take time for granted. 

It spurred a conversation with my family one night as we were all around the dinner table. 

“You know how in movies people interact – they’ll have a fight or something and then one of them dies and the other person had a terrible life because they never said sorry?” I said. “What if we all decide right now that if one of us dies, we all make a promise that we won’t feel bad if we didn’t have our last conversation be all love and kisses – that it’s alright no matter what?”

My sisters and my dad all laughed and agreed. We talked about how dumb it was to waste our time worrying about that type of thing. We’d all assume forgiveness from each other and be happy no matter what.

My dad died last year and I’ve not felt it terribly. I miss him, but it was okay that he went. He was so easygoing I know he’d think it silly to worry about missing him. After all, he said, we’re an eternal family. I’ll just see you later.

On October 17th, I had only been at work for a little while when the phone rang. My sister (Sister #6) Allyson was on the line, panicking, hyperventilating and driving her car. My stomach curled in. As I made her pull over and repeat what she was gibbering, the horrible truth came out: our sister, Sister #4, Meagan, had died that morning. I panicked and started crying hysterically. I wanted EVERYONE to know I was in pain. I keened uncontrollably. My poor boss came running over to me and I could barely get out the news. She herded me into her office where I was helped to sit down and get myself together. She then told me to take all the time I needed and do whatever it was I needed to take care of things.

I called Allyson back. Sister #2, Melanie knew. Only-brother Ethan knew and was on his way to my brother-in-law’s house. Allyson would tell  Sister#5, April, as soon as she could get in touch with her. Mom didn’t know.

Oh my gosh. I was going to have to tell my mom that her daughter, her child was dead. I didn’t want to be the oldest child anymore. That was too hard.

Oh, and my homeless sister, Sister #3- Bethanie, needed to be told.

I was able to reach Bethanie the third or fourth time I called. She was annoyed when she answered the phone and I told her to step away alone and to bring her spouse with her. “What?!” she said, irritably. “Beth, this is about Meagan…” I was totally calm. Beth reacted exactly as I did. I asked her to hand the phone to her spouse, Wyatt. I explained what had happened and asked her to look after Beth. (Yes, Wyatt is a boy’s name, but Wyatt is a girl – long story.)

Allyson finally reached my mom’s house. As together as two sisters can be by phone, Allyson tried knocking. No answer.( My mom sleeps during the day since my dad died.) She crept around the house and was able to get in through the garage. I heard her open my mom’s bedroom door and wake her up. I’m scared more than I’ve ever been scared before. “Mom, I’m on the phone with Allyson. Please wake up!” I could hear her wake up and tell us to go away. Allyson persuaded her to listen. And I told my mom the news. 

She didn’t believe me. It took a few more minutes, recounting what we knew, but she became all business – she got up to go shower and GET TO MEAGAN’S HOUSE. Go Mom! 

I called my husband. He was wonderful. All the news was out. I went back to my desk to work. There was nothing else I could do…

The story came out over the course of the day. Meagan had just had knee surgery four days earlier and came back home the day before. That night, her husband had settled her on the couch with her dinner all wrapped up in saran wrap and the remote next to her. That was at midnight. The next morning, he found her at 7:00am. He leaned over to wake her, but found that she had died.

My little sister had died. My last conversation with Meagan had been a week or two previous. I’d cut it off short because I had something to do. She was bugged that I didn’t want to talk, but I laughed it off. And that was that - my last conversation with her. 

I thought about that conversation – I’d been thinking about her and how I needed to call. But I didn’t. And now I couldn’t. And that last conversation hadn’t been good or nice or … complete. I felt terrible. The conversation from years ago about forgiving each other in case of death didn’t feel as comforting as I wanted it to. 

Brian and I left the next afternoon for Utah, taking Kenneth with us. The trip was quiet and beautiful. I spent most of it looking out the window while Brian drove and Kenneth played in the back seat. I never sit and look out windows, but I did this time. There were beautiful rainbows as we drove.

We reached Utah on Sunday and immediately went to my brother in law, Erich’s, house. He was so together. My sisters had all gathered there, too. We planned for the funeral and the cleaning out of some of Meagan’s stuff. That might seem heartless, but it wasn’t. What else was Erich supposed to do with her clothes and craft supplies? “It’s what she would have wanted.” he said, when he planned the disposal of her possessions.

On Tuesday, I went back to his house with two of my sisters, my brother and his wife and Erich’s mom. We cleaned out Meagan’s craft room. It was the most organized craft room I’d ever seen in my life. Then her clothes. We laughed and cried a little. We marveled at what she had in the closet – stuff we remembered seeing her wear – stuff that was so her. It was the last bit of her we could keep.

On Thursday, my mom and two of my sisters went to the funeral home to dress Meagan for Friday’s funeral. I didn’t want to do it, but knew my other sisters wouldn’t/couldn’t. I also worried that my mom would have trouble. I was trying to be strong for everyone.  I planned out that I would walk in the room and just sit down on the couches until I could muster up the strength to look at her. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately, I couldn’t help but see her as I walked into the room. It looked like she was sleeping. 

Gazing upon my dead sister was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. She wasn’t there. And yet, when I looked elsewhere and just saw her out of the corner of my eye, she seemed alive. But she wasn’t. It was so strange. I curled her hair. I put on makeup. I helped put her temple clothes on. And slowly, my two sisters joined in. My mom was an absolute rock. She’d come privately the day before to see Meagan on her own. It was a good thing for her to do and it made her emotionally available and strong for us the next day.

The funeral was beautiful. No one from the family spoke and I kind of wish we’d been able to, but the funeral directors cautioned that family members mostly cried, so it was better to have someone else speak. The speakers mispronounced her name and that made me sad.

After the funeral was the family dinner at the church. It was the most delicious food I’d eaten all week. Post-traumatic food is tasty. And we all laughed. We didn’t feel separate from Meagan.

I miss my sister. I wonder if she knows I miss her and if she knows I’m sorry about our last conversation. I wonder if she misses me, too.

I can’t believe how long it’s going to be until I see her again. But I have a feeling it will be like no time has passed at all.