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I was just a little girl, nine years old, playing marbles in my blue gingham-print dress at recess. I admired my fourth grade teacher because she always reminded me of Miss Honey from Matilda. I played on the playground; elaborations on the game of tag--giggling with my friends as each of us had a turn being “It.” Math lessons were a time for zoning out, for making elaborate designs with markers on the pages of my notebook. I realize now that there was nothing but happiness in the simplicity of my fourth grade life.
On the night of September 27th, 1996, there was a lunar eclipse. My older sister, Mary Beth, and I had spent most of the evening on the lawn outside of the planetarium. We looked up at the sky, feeling autumn in our hair. She dropped me back off at our house just in time to watch my favorite program at the time: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I put on my pajamas and flicked on the TV in my room; he was in the middle of his monologue. I sat down on the floor to watch, laughing with the audience whether I understood his jokes or not--doing so made me feel intellectual and adult like my six older siblings.
The phone rang.
I was used to these late night phone calls since my Dad is a pediatrician and almost always on call. I thought nothing of it.
I was highlighting things in the American Girl catalog for my Christmas list when my Dad came running down the hallway in a panic, wearing the same pinstripe pajamas that he’s worn for years. He woke up my mother, and I glanced out the open door, annoyed at the ruckus. I don’t remember exactly what he said to my Mom, but I know it ended with this, in a shaky tear-stained tone that I’d never heard out of him before:
Chrissy. Christine. Christine Anne Callie. My second mother; my twenty-year-old sister. The only one who smoothed back my hair with her perfect fingernails, singing Tears in Heaven, Fields of Gold, or Under the Bridge off-key. The only one who would hold my hand at night when I awoke from a bad dream and was too scared to go back to sleep. She spoke nearly fluent Spanish and was spending her junior year at Colby College abroad in Salamanca, Spain. We found out later exactly what happened to her: she collapsed and died of cardiac arrhythmia. It didn’t make any sense--a healthy twenty-year-old’s lungs just randomly filling up with fluid--but that was the reality we had to face.
Three months before my American Girl reverie was interrupted with news of an unthinkable loss, I saw her for the last time, boarding her flight back to Spain at Tucson International Airport. I was the last person she touched before getting on the plane. After the flight attendants closed the heavy doors and the plane took off, I cried uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. When my Mom asked me what was wrong, I told the truth.
“She’s never coming back,” I sobbed.
“What are you talking about? Of course she’s coming back, don’t be silly.” My Mom told me. I wasn’t convinced. “Before you know it, she’ll be home for Christmas,” she continued.
Unfortunately, Chrissy never made it home for Christmas. And the calm voice of reason that tried to comfort me at the airport that day was now replaced with a painful sob that only a mother whose child has died could make.
One by one, the rest of our family showed up at our house. Albert, Trina, Mary Beth, John and his girlfriend Violette. Margie was beginning her freshman year at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. She would fly home a few days later. That night is a blur of ad nauseam hugs, tears, frowns, cries of disbelief, horrible sobs whose sound I’ve repressed over the years. John didn’t want to believe it, and kept asking for an autopsy report. Violette held me as I stopped crying but entered a daze of grief and disbelief. My little brother, James, was only three at the time--he didn’t understand. The only thing that I remember vividly is my Mom’s futile attempts to talk to Chrissy’s host family, but the language barrier only created confusion. She would hysterically repeat broken atrocious mixtures of Spanish and English until she gave up. No one knew what was going to happen. All we knew was that our family had lost one member, and grief began to ravenously and mercilessly consume us whole.
The night of the funeral, Margie came and picked me up early from Girl Scouts. We were in the middle of a game, so I was angry to have to leave. Upon returning home, there was a flurry of activity--everyone was rushing, putting in earrings, drying their hair. I was told to put on a nice dress and comb my hair, and my Mom clasped a gold crucifix around my neck. I had no idea what was going on because no one told me that we were getting ready to attend Chrissy’s funeral. When they finally told me, I went downstairs by myself and danced to Sarah McLachlan’s Angel until it was time to go.
My heart nearly stopped upon entering the church--I don’t remember anyone ever explaining to me what a “viewing” was; that my sister would be in the room with us in an open casket made of bronze and surrounded by bouquets of flowers. I got more and more nervous as we approached her casket, and I barely recognized her. Her nose was crooked from when she collapsed on it, and her skin was deathly pale. I reached out, shaking, to touch the hand that once held mine, but I abruptly gasped and yanked it back when I felt her cold, waxy, stiff skin. Our family sat in the first few pews; I sat in my Mom’s lap. A single tear fell off my face and onto her hand. The evening was a slow haze of eulogizers and tacky songs, and the murmur of the ten Hail Mary’s--a Catholic funeral tradition.
The Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death.
I can honestly say that my family was never the same after Chrissy died. She’s not even “Chrissy” to me anymore, she’s “Christine.” Her room is thick with haunted silence, and I don’t like to go in there. Sure, we got over the grief eventually, but it was never the same. Oddly enough, this loss only strengthened my parents’ faith in God and Catholicism. I, on the other hand, wanted to sever all ties with the higher power that had taken my sister away. My faith in God has recovered a little since then, but not much. My Dad has never really recovered. He still cries at the mere sound of her name. I became, and still am, extremely bitter about it. I don’t like to reminisce, and I inwardly roll my eyes at his tears.
I’m pretty close with my siblings, but I’ve never shared a bond with any of them that was as close and deep as the bond between Christine and I. That’s probably why I’m so bitter about the whole thing--no one ever smoothed back my hair or sang to me like she did. That void has never truly been filled. Our family, I’ve grown to realize, is not defined by religion or customs or holiday traditions--we’re defined by Christine’s death, by that late night phone call from seven years ago.
I still flinch when the phone rings at night.