Difficult memories have a way of punching me in the face, each year over and over, and this year is no different. Occasionally, it’s been because I just look up and see the date, like an unexpected but automatic explanation of why I’m emotional or why the day just went chaotic. Other times, like this year, the significance of the number of years has been on my mind for weeks.
Chris was just one week shy of age 20 when the accident happened, experiencing his birthday unconscious and hooked up to all kinds of tubes and machines. He’s been gone twice as long as he was alive. In reality, it was a lifetime ago. And yet it feels like only a few years. As if I were able to see and speak to him today, and things would be no different. He would still tease me mercilessly. And then hug me as if he would never let go.
I was only 14, and just beginning to not be the “stupid little sister.” He had only moved away from home earlier in the year to work and save money for his wedding. He wrote me letters addressed “Stoogehead,” which I still have safely filed away in a drawer. He gave me the ultimate gift in asking me to be in his wedding that summer. He was the first to introduce me to the “big kid” amusement park, King’s Island, for my 14th birthday less than two months before. (Oh, how I wish there were photos for proof of how special it was for me.)
The news of the accident reached me late in the evening, just before the lights-out bell in the dorm. My family had gone to a state park to celebrate his birthday a week early, but since school had just started, and friends had just returned from the summer, I chose to bunk in the dorm room with my best friend, who is still like a sister to me. I heard my name over the intercom, requesting that I go to the office. (Getting called to the office wasn’t unusually strange for me, except that the school year had barely started and it was 9:00 P.M.) I walked down the stairs and outside to the other building thinking, “Something happened to Chris.” I’m not sure why, but somehow I knew.
The two staff members who told me that Chris had been hurt didn’t know the exact details or how critical the situation was, but told me that he was being transported to a larger hospital. I waited to allow the tears until I left their presence, thinking, “If I cry when I don’t know how bad it is, they’ll think I’m stupid. But I want to cry because I don’t know how bad it is,” knowing that it might be hours or days before learning details other than second-hand. Fortunately, I had friends with comforting shoulders to listen and soak up my tears and even cry alongside me. Morning came, and the school president announced in chapel that his condition was critical, and I shed more tears, wondering how I would make it through a day of classes and get anything from them. During my first hour English, I was summoned from class to ride the 85 miles to the hospital, sobbing most of the way, or trying to shield my eyes from the sun that now just seemed to set them on fire. Arriving at the ICU and seeing this nearly 6 ft. tall, strong, healthy guy breathing only to the tune of the respirator was surreal and unimaginable. His skull was fractured and he had a blood clot on his brain, I was told. How could this be? Why couldn’t it be me instead of him?
Today, September 17th, marks 40 years since that accident that resulted in the death of my older brother, my only sibling, Chris. It isn’t an event to be celebrated, but it’s there. On the calendar. Showing up year after year. Seared into the memory like a brand that won’t be overlooked. A scar that has healed, but is ugly and can’t be unseen. I want to ignore it, but it won’t be ignored.