Thursday, October 02, 2008
Twenty years ago today, my older sister was murdered.
Twenty years ago today my phone rang late in the evening and I heard my father's voice. Given the hour, I knew this was not a good news call. My mother had been sick for a long time and I expected him to tell me that there was some emergency regarding her health. Instead he said, "Carole's dead." I think it took a while for those words to sink in. I don't remember much about the conversation. I don't know how much my father knew at that point. I'm sure he knew that she had been stabbed to death while putting groceries in the car. I don't think he knew much else than that she had died quickly shortly after arriving at the hospital. I don't remember if I called my brother or if my father had already spoken to him. I know I called my brother-in-law, who was in shock and not sure what to do. I think I advised him to talk to Carole's pastor about making funeral arrangements. At some point I called a friend of mine. Most of my conversations with her tended to be one-sided with me listening and her talking about herself. Old habits die hard and I didn't want to be rude. I listened for a while and when she finally took a breath, I told her that my sister had been murdered. I don't know why she was the first person I called after family. She was always stunned that I let her talk and then told her. I don't think I was really very aware of anything really.
I remember that the next day I had some kind of errand I had to do for my parents in preparation for going up to my sister's house and the funeral. I have no idea what it was any more. What I remember is feeling as though everything was strange and like I was walking under water. Even though it didn't make any sense, I wondered how everyone on the bus could be acting so normal - could be laughing and talking and arguing - when my sister was so suddenly and violently dead. The next day my brother and my parents and I drove up north to Carole's house. My brother and I were fairly recently estranged. I remember the added horror of having to be around him. I remember being angry that he was alive and my sister was dead. I don't often talk about my brother. It's a long, complicated story and not a happy one.
To write the whole story of the next days would take too long. I had never been to a funeral before. My sister's body was in an open casket for the wake. I had always thought funerals and wakes were foolish, but in this case, I think it made it all more real. It allowed for some kind of goodbye. I know it helped my sister's children. My niece Diana has written beautifully about it. What I remember about that moment was my sister's hands. The body/face - so still - didn't look like my sister to me. But her hands - which were always in motion when she talked - were hers. Because Carole's death was a murder the funeral had the surreal air of a pagent... I don't remember much about it. I remember that our car broke down on the way to the burial. My father was in a panic that we wouldn't get there. We did. I think someone gave us a ride.
I walked under water for a long time. I went through a phase where I had (literally had) to tell everyone I met that my sister was dead and that she had been murdered. I'm not sure why. Maybe to make it real. Maybe as a way of processing it. I've written a number of things about it which you can read here if you would like to.
But let me tell you a little bit about Carole. She was a wonderful person. She was a wonderful mother and her children are a reflection of her goodness and her capacity to love. They didn't have a perfect life - who does - but I think they always knew they were loved.
Carole was 10 years older than me. There's so much to say about her but there isn't really room or time in this format. She was a very good big sister. She gave me my first real book, KING OF THE WIND by Marguerite Henry. I have very few memories of my childhood, but I remember my sister sitting on the end of my bed and reading that book with me. She had a funny way of helping me correct my grammar. Every time I would say "Me and you" or "me and whoever," instead of the correct "You and me," she would pretend to cry and say "You called me mean." For some reason that turned into her being the Mean Queen. When she went away to college, she wrote to me often and many of her letters were from the Mean Queen. She encouraged my writing. The rest of the family encouraged me by criticizing me and telling me not to quit my day job. Carole bought me books about how to get published.
In later years it was my job to try and get my sister out of bed in the morning. This was not an easy task. "I'm awake," she would moan, clearly not the least bit awake. "I'm up."
Carole was passionate about politics and history and music and ideas. She introduced me to The Weavers and Odetta and to many others whose names won't come to me at the moment. She gave me books to read like John Brown's Body (worth reading the preface even if you don't read the rest) and Cry the Beloved Country and the poetry of e.e. cummings. She took me to Europe with her when I was a sophomore in college. How many big sisters would do that? And she gave birth to three people who are among my favorite humans on the earth. I didn't always (often, ever?) feel acceptable to my parents. I think I knew that they loved me in their way. But Carole loved me. She opened worlds to me and she saw me and she liked me anyway. I loved her very much. I miss her still. And yet she is very much a part of me. It's hard to believe that it has been twenty years since she died.
I'm writing this too late at night. October 2nd caught me by surprise this year. I guess that's a good thing. I have always tried to recognize the day by doing something I consider to be "life affirming," so that I celebrate the life of the beautiful soul who was my big sister rather than wallowing in the ugliness of how she died.
Today is also Gandhi's birthday. I like that. I like that the anniversary of my generous, passionate, compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful, peace-loving sister's death is the birthday of someone who stood for peace and non-violence.
I was going to go to bed early tonight and then I realized that it was October 2nd and I suddenly had to write this. Why it couldn't wait until morning, I don't know. It's 3:00 am. I'm not going to re-read it. I'm just going to post it and hope that it honors my sister as it is meant to. Maybe I'll fix it in the morning. But for some reason I need to post it before I go to sleep.
I miss you Carole. I love you. You were the best sister anyone could have had.