Valentine’s Day 1997

We held the viewing on Valentine’s Day, a cold and rainy night. **People came dressed for dinner, a night out, champagne and chocolate. Some filed through quietly, paid their respects to my parents and slipped out the door with their umbrellas. And then in the middle of the background easy-listening Christian hymn music, a cry would go up from the front of the room, a sob that couldn’t be held back.

My brother in the casket, waxy, pale despite the make-up, his short Marine buzz cut spiky with gel. I ran my fingers over it, the black stitches holding his scalp together blending into his hair. You could see where the coroner had used the saw to remove part of the skull, to see what damage his brain had sustained. The coroner’s report read “massive head trauma.” I was surprised he looked this good.

I was angry with the people in their fine clothes, the anticipation of a romantic evening after this duty. Numb and tired from crying, from helping my mother choose a casket. Angry with the funeral home director for trying to sell her a casket she couldn’t afford. The fabric was nicer, made of steel, blah, blah, blah. And I looked at him and asked, what’s the point; it’s getting buried six feet under. You pay more money for a casket that will keep the body from decaying for a longer period of time? And you make more money as a result. That’s disgusting.

My mother pleaded with me to be nice. No, I have no more nice left in me. Bury me in the dirt and let the critters of the earth do their job on me or burn me to ashes and scatter me to the wind; don’t waste your money on this artificial finery. I just wanted to sink into sleep, a long, long nap and when I woke from this dream I could go on with my life as it was before. Not this constant, nagging ache, this realization every morning before I could even open my eyes that something was desperately wrong and out of sync, what was it? Oh yes, now I remember. I don’t want to remember, I want to go back to sleep. But that awareness pulled me into the days and weeks ahead. And still, it remains.

** Editor’s note: My mom finally read this and told me it wasn’t raining that night. The whole week from the accident to burial was beautiful, clear and crisp. I remember the clear weather on Feb. 15 at the gravesite, but for some strange reason, I remembered it as raining the night of the 14th. So, a good reminder in memoir work…sometimes it may be wise to check with others who shared an experience. They have different memories of the emotions, events, whatever, but these little details aren’t subjective. Mom says I need to send stuff to her for fact checking now!

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Last chance

14 years ago today…

I held the phone, helpless. The woman on the other end pleaded with me to ask my mother just one more time to consider donating the healthy organs of her 23-year-old son. Strong heart of a Marine in training, lungs for running, kidneys for two, corneas to see. I’ll do my best, I promised.

But mom couldn’t bear the thought of breaking apart his body even more than it had been by the impact of his skull against the steel side of a van. Motorcycle helmets can only do so much. How many lives were waiting for that last chance that a mother’s anguish could not see light to give?

If you were to die unexpectedly, do your loved ones know your wishes? Are you an organ donor? Have you had this discussion?

One Second

R.I.P. Andrew Leon Wood

Nov. 25, 1973-Feb. 10, 1997

You would be 37 now, probably married, a few kids running around. But you’ll always be frozen in time at 23, muscular body pumped up with protein drinks and your Marine drills, buzz cut hair gelled into little porcupine spikes on your head. As a little girl, Britt loved running her fingers over them—ouch, she’d screech!

Second of five of us—the biggest hell raiser. Loved jumping out of planes in the middle of the night, even after the time your chute caught in a tree’s branches and you dangled there for hours in the dark. Riding that motorcycle fast enough to elude cops on the freeway. The last time I saw you driving away from mom’s house crouched over the frame, I muttered it would be the death of you. Why do big sisters always have to be right?

In the poor neighborhood where you worked and where we grew up, you’d hand out loaves of bread to hungry kids. You pulled practical jokes on your Marine buddies and wore your girlfriend’s new lingerie to give to her.

Life as we knew it changed in one second. Years of shared family jokes, holiday dinners where mom’s turkey was too dry, hot August nights taking turns at the handle of the ice cream maker on the back patio, making our younger sister scream and pee her pants when we told her a spider was crawling on her back. Twenty three years of sibling rivalry distilled into something that promised one day in the not too distant future to be friendship—the kind that only forms once kids are grown enough to make their own terms beyond the boundaries of mom, dad and the rest of the gang.

One second and it was lost forever. Life became divided by an invisible filament of time, before and after you were a tangible part of our lives, before your helmet failed to protect you from “massive head trauma” listed on the coroner’s report. One second—I always wonder whether you knew that on impact with the side of that van under the glare of a setting sun that you were living in the last second of your life. Did you have time to contemplate your mistakes, your joys or was it so fast that one second there was light and the next second it was dark?

Have you had one second change your life irrevocably? How did that experience change the way you live now?