I stood there in front of my sister’s apartment door contemplating the possibilities of what was concealed behind it. I leaned forward and propped myself with my left hand against the door, trying to peer in through the miniature wooden door that served as a peephole for the apartment door. In my right hand I held a smoldering Marlboro Light as if to fend off any potential consolers. Through the crack of the peep-door I could see nothing but an ironing board. I didn’t know what I was looking for, anyway. I was just waiting, waiting, waiting, pacing, chain-smoking, and saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” under my breath. I couldn’t cry. I was too angry.
Dad finally got tired of waiting for the cops to come with the key to my sister’s apartment door and shoved his fist through the little peep-door. He opened the door and I walked into what appeared to be the living room.
There was stuff everywhere.
But it wasn’t just stuff, and it wasn’t random. There were deliberately arranged groups of objects representing relationships that were important to my sister Lisa. The ironing board had a bike in front of it that my sister’s friend Andrew had given Lisa, along with books and pictures of Andrew…they were all things Andrew had given my sister. My stalled mind took this in briefly as I scanned the rest of the living room. I felt drawn to the bedroom, and found it easily, though I had never been in this apartment before.
I stood there in front of the bedroom door, my bag containing my diary, poem book, and a camera slung over my shoulder. I knew that whatever was on the other side would change my life forever, although it already seemed as though someone had picked up my world and thrown it against a very hard, unsympathetic brick wall. I pictured it smashed and pulpy, sliding down the wall, leaving a trail of blood.
I pushed the bedroom door open slowly…the room was in disarray, but that was not unusual. The cold odor of death hung in the air despite the bright California sun streaming in. The air conditioning window unit was blasting icy air through my sister’s bedroom, and I shivered in the cold. Next to the unmade bed, two large speakers posed as a nightstand. My eyes scanned the objects that were purposely placed there, a testimony.
There was a black framed picture of my sister and me, in the picture we are wearing matching outfits from the Limited that she had picked out. We are grinning with our cheeks pressed together affectionately. The picture was barely two years old. There were other pictures with messages scribbled on the backs in uncharacteristically sloppy handwriting. A white glow candle patterned with various brightly-hued flowers sat atop a cast iron candleholder. The wick was pure and unburned. Propped against the wall was a copy of Write On, NVCC’s Writing Center newsletter. I was pictured on the cover, tutoring someone. I was wearing the gray Agnes B. shirt she had given me. Also propped against the wall were books she had suggested I read. Later, on the flight home, I found a slip of paper that read “I Love You” between the pages of one of the books. A pink candy heart with “My Girl” imprinted on it rested quietly upon a business card from a cow store in Laguna Beach, CA. We had gone to that cow store when I was in 11th grade and I was visiting her for Spring Break. She was so excited when she found a whole store devoted to cows because she knew I loved them.
Could it be possible that my life with my sister fit only on a speaker and a half?
I started to collect the things she had left for me and shove them in my bag, then stopped abruptly. I replaced them on the speaker and took the camera I brought and took a few pictures of my “shrine.” I wanted to remember every detail.
Two feet from the foot of the bed, Scrabble pieces were scattered on the floor. But I knew there was a message amongst the strewn chips. The cop I talked to the night before (early morning?) read it to me, and now I would see it. It would be real. There it was, just below a coaster that was illustrated with Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The Message. The proverbial Note. It read:
LISA AND ASHES
To the left was another message about which the cop hadn’t told me:
I commended my sister for her creativity. How many people write a suicide note with Scrabble pieces? I also wondered where her cat, Ashes was.
I took some pictures of the messages and the Starry Night coaster my sister had left for us.
I then turned back to the bed, facing it like a prisoner awaiting a sentence. After a few more seconds of eyeing the bed warily, I stepped forward and took the edge of the tousled paisley comforter between my fingertips. I lifted it gingerly. I let out the breath I had been unaware of holding and thought, Well, that’s not so bad. I took my diary and poem book, turned each to a clean page and pressed them against the blankets. The books came away red and damp with blood. I waited patiently while they dried, staring at the reddened pages thinking, This is the blood of my sister. This is Life all drained out of her. I choked back a sob; I didn’t have the luxury of losing it yet.
When the pages dried, I carefully stowed them back in my bag, then took a couple of pictures of the blood-stained blankets. But I wasn’t satisfied. My soul told me there was more for me to see. I saw my hand reach out to pull the heavy, reddened comforter back some more.
The stench of days-old blood shot out at me like a rabid animal. It was pungent and thick. The odor of death was freeing itself from the heavy confines of the once purple, pink, and blue comforter. Blood nestled there in a great glop of deep red. Thick and clotted, it taunted me: You thought it wasn’t so bad. Ha. Why don’t you lift the fitted sheets and the mattress pad? I obeyed. Saturated deep into the mattress, blood soaked every inch of fiber. I realized then why the comforter was so heavy; it was sodden with blood.
I replaced the mattress pad and fitted sheets, then lifted the covers once more, letting the sunlight in on that cotton cave of death.
I took pictures.
This is from an essay I wrote in 1997 about what I saw in my sister’s apartment after her suicide (she cut open her forearms with a scalpel and bled out). It has been edited from the original that I submitted to an essay contest in 1997. The original version was included in a collection, Virginia Community Colleges 25 Best Student Essays.
This is my most recent version.