The following is a combination of what I remember and what my mom reminded me about. I’m putting it in this format because it’s easier this way.
Some of it might be disturbing. It’s disturbed me all these years.
We were at Nannie and Grandad’s farmhouse in Marion, Virginia for Easter. I was nine years old. It was Spring of 1983. Lisa wasn’t there with us as she normally would be, because she had gone to a tennis match at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with some friends from Concord College in Athens, West Virginia.
I was in the kitchen with Nannie and Mom. It was nighttime, but not too late, because I was still up. The phone rang. I answered it. I don’t know why I was answering Nannie’s phone. Maybe I was expecting Lisa to call.
It went something like this:
“Angela?” She’s sobbing and hard to understand.
“Lisa? Are you ok?”
“I want to die, I just want to die.” She cries.
“Lisa! No, no! Please don’t say that. Where are you?”
“I’m in a phone booth; we had a flat tire.”
I get my mom’s attention and try to tell her what is happening.
Mom takes the phone from me, the long, coiled goldenrod colored phone cord hanging down. Mom’s end of the conversation goes something like this: “Lisa, honey, it will be ok. You go on back to Concord and I will meet you there and you can come home. Angela wants to talk to you again.”
Mom covers the mouthpiece briefly and whispers to me, “Keep her on the phone.” She hands me the phone, then grabs her keys and heads to the neighbor’s house, about two miles down the road, to call the State Police to find Lisa and help her.
I try to keep Lisa on the phone, I tell her how much I miss her, that I love her, and what we did on the farm that day. A child’s small talk is well, small. Lisa continues to cry and tells me that she’s not good enough and she’ll never be good enough. That her father doesn’t love her. “But daddy loves you!” I say, meaning my Dad, her adopted father. But she means her biological father doesn’t love her, he abandoned her. “I love you and Nannie and Grandad love you. Mom loves you. We will come get you and you can come home.” I am not calm—I am crying, too—but I am not as hysterical as Lisa. I am taking my job of keeping her on the phone very seriously.
Then Lisa, sobbing and frightened, says, “Oh no, there’s a cop.”
She has hung up on me and I have failed my task of keeping her on the phone, of keeping her safe.
In my head I see her, tears streaming down her face, her blue eyes bloodshot and her blond hair disheveled, alone and lonely, rain running down her glass encasement that is the phone booth. A cop car pulls up, tires crunching on the gravel. A look of fear crosses Lisa’s face and she hangs up on me. A cop, in my nine year old mind, is not someone to be feared, but someone to help you. Maybe Lisa and the people she was with were drinking. Maybe that’s why she’s afraid.
“Lisa? Lisa?” I say into the empty receiver. My mom is still at the neighbor’s house. I turn to Nannie, still holding the receiver, “She said she wanted to die! She said she wanted to die!”
I look around the kitchen, helpless. I didn’t want to hang up the phone and break the already broken connection, but I didn’t want it to be busy if Lisa called back. I gently return the phone to its cradle. Details sharpen, they distract me from the sense of impending doom. The grey buttons of the phone with their white numbers and letters against the goldenrod. A popular kitchen color of the seventies, still here in the eighties. There is a handmade notepad holder hanging on the wall by the phone. Its wood is stained a dark brown, the shellac rough in places. The white paper runs against the base. Please-God-let-my-sister-be-ok. I throw out this silent prayer in my grandparents’ kitchen. A prayer I would repeat throughout my life with her. Let her be okay. Let her be happy. Please God.
My mom drives to Concord College to get my sister and bring her home, thinking she’ll be there. When she gets to Lisa’s dorm room, her roommate tells my mom that Lisa is in the hospital in Charlottesville. It will be one of the worst times in my mother’s life, as she prays and cries the whole trip: an anxiety-ridden, worry-filled three and a half hour drive with Lisa’s roommate and the roommate’s boyfriend.
When my mother gets to the hospital, she seeks Lisa. Upon entering the room, she sees Lisa, bruised and cut, flat on her back with all kinds of tubes running in and out of her. She walks forward and leans down to Lisa, who says, “Mommy, my teeth are all broken.” Mom soothes her and tells her it will be all right, that they will do everything they can to make her better.
Lisa is flat on her back because her head trauma is so severe that her brain is swollen and the doctors are afraid that if they move her she will go in to a coma or die.
Those first few nights, the hospital staff allowed my mother to sleep on a chair next to Lisa’s bed, because they didn’t know if Lisa would live or die.
After hanging up on me, Lisa had run out into the road in front of a car. Intentionally.
Its side view mirror hit her in the face, knocking out four of her front teeth and chipping several more. Every bone in her face was broken: her nose, her cheekbones, her jaw, including her mandible. The hard pallet of her mouth was broken; split in two. Her ribs were broken and she had internal bleeding. There was a gash on her elbow; her knees were cut up, as were her heels.
A paramedic who was at the scene told my mother that Lisa was still conscious for a few minutes after she was struck by the car. He said she kept trying to crawl back into the road.
She kept trying to crawl back into the road.
She was determined to die.
These are the horrible and graphic visions in my head:
Lisa’s busted, bleeding face, blood pouring from the hole where her teeth used to be, and her fingers scrabbling on the pavement, trying to pull herself to the road, blood spraying from her mouth as she cries, “Just let me go, just let me go.” But the words are all garbled because half of her front teeth are gone and her palate has been split in two, and her jaw broken.
There’s a gash on her elbow, also pouring blood. As her feet attempt to push her forward, I see that she’s lost her shoes, and the heel of her foot is badly hurt, too. We will later find out that the bone is chipped.
Then she passes out.
This is one of the memories that have haunted me since I was nine: I couldn’t keep my sister from hanging up the phone and she nearly died. Another part of me says WTF you were nine and she was determined. There are no magic words to stop someone…are there? Failing my sister because I was so young and useless and my reaction to her when I first saw her in the hospital are some of the boulders I have carried around my neck for years. Here is where I sling those boulders off, or try to anyway. I’ve got to because I can’t keep this guilt with me. For one thing, what could I have done? I was nine years old. I’ve had to tell this to myself lately because until recently I thought my nine year old self might have the wherewithal to talk my 18 year old sister out of flinging herself in front of a speeding car. I need to learn to fucking forgive myself already.
That’s all for now.