An Open Letter to My Brother’s Girlfriend, 27 Years Later

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This is an open letter to my brother’s girlfriend, 27 years after he died in a car accident on a straight Arizona highway. He was 27. I was 25. How old were you?

You lived in California with Bill and we’d never met. Bill told me about you—that you were pregnant. I’m sorry you lost your baby along with the man you loved.

To me, you were just one of his many girlfriends—the one who was driving when you went off the road, the car flipped, and my brother died. It was impossible for me during those days to not feel like—ok, you’re dismissed now. I didn’t want you punished, but I wanted you gone from my life as fast as you’d arrived. How fast were you driving? The fact that you were drinking isn’t for me to judge. Those were partying days and I’ve had my own.

What could be a worse punishment than losing your baby and your boyfriend? Maybe losing them, plus experiencing the guilt, then add in having to face his family who crossed arms more than opening them.

After all, you were just the girlfriend—not a wife, sister, mother, father, or even a stepparent. You were an outsider to us.

Yet, you were the one close to Bill. You lived with him, made love to him and created life with him.

But, I was his sister! And, my mother was crumbling before me. The picture in my mind placed you way in the background.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know—how it might have felt for you. Now, 27 years later, I have a clue, as the girlfriend of a suddenly deceased, fully alive, thought-we-had-tomorrow-in-the-bag man. Healthy! Happy! Gone.

I’m not so much apologizing as acknowledging how intensely challenging the entire ordeal must’ve been for you.

The love I shared with my boyfriend, Kevin Fire! Lentz, was extraordinary—better than any relationship I ever had. We were deeply in love and loving every minute of it.

You had to be in your late 20s when you had this life-erupting event. In hindsight, it’s likely you felt you found the love of your life with my brother and held tremendous hope for your future with him.

He was excited about the baby. He talked about you. I don’t remember the specifics, but he always spoke positively of you. Now, I consider that for where we were in our lives, that meant something. He didn’t talk much about his other girlfriends. They usually just showed up.

I’m sorry for the pain you endured and the scars Bill’s death must have left on you. I pray you’ve found peace, joy and light and your journey has smoothed.

Sincerely,

Bill’s Little Sister

Holding Hands

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“He won’t look like you expect. You can go in and we’ll give you some time alone with him. But, I have to warn you…” the funeral director said with an eerie calmness, “his head is covered. It was mutilated beyond recognition. It’s a natural temptation to want to see his face and I can’t stop you. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I encourage you to not lift the face covering.” Giving me key instructions for navigating this new turn in my life, this stranger reached out and touched my shoulder, then peered into my eyes and said, “Honey, trust me, you don’t want that to be the last image you have of your brother.”

I walked slow, steady, and stern into the sterile lifeless room where Bill lay on faceless display. I stared at the long tan fingers on the hand that took 27 years to form and would never wear a ring; the hand that punched my upper arm 20 times in a row just for being the little sister; the hand that unclasped a simple gold chain from his neck as his voice said, “Here, it’s yours;” the hand that stuck its thumb out for a ride while the other hand pushed me to follow; the hand that hid under winter gloves while carrying my skis and poles; the hand that power-shifted a green Vega while “Give me two steps and you’ll never see me no more” blasted through open windows; the hand that held the phone while girlfriends giggled on the other end; the hand that slammed a courtroom door good-bye; the hand that slapped Mrs. Sharp in ninth-grade English to signal the secret, “Bill can’t read;” the hand that held cigarettes like an actor; the hand that carried our two-year-old nephew while walking in Juarez; the hand that videotaped my wedding bash; the hand that held a beer and rested on the passenger door just 24 hours ago. The hand was undeniably Bill’s:  sporting small scars from long days doing construction and fixing and fiddling with a thousand car parts, yet still soft from youth and running through dozens of girls’ hair. I held the hand, caressed and kissed it, then cursed it for being cold, for being there instead of with my mother.

I moved my focus up to the covered face I saw clearly in my mind. Death did a little dance and I could watch if I was willing to pull the curtain. I froze. The funeral director said the wrong thing to the wrong girl. He didn’t know just telling me not to do something lit a fire in me to do it. And the temptation to lift the sheet started in my stomach and moved into my chest. A crowd of instigators chanted in my head, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

I let go of my brother’s hand. I needed to see his face. This is my brother. My one chance. I’ll look if I want to look. Nothing can change the fact. This situation cannot be different. Looking under that sheet is looking at the truth, of which I am not afraid. My hand pinched the corner of the sheet. I heard my mother whisper from the hallway, something I couldn’t understand.

I turned and ran, pushing past my mother, falling onto the bathroom floor, sobbing like a teenager taken over by hormones. “Why’d they have to smash his fucking face?! Why his face?!” My mother and sister comforted me with strokes on the arm while my father, stepmother and stepfather gawked from the doorway. Now, I was the accident.

I flashed back to a ski accident on a run called “Big Mama.” I’d gone over a five-foot jump because Bill had called me a wimp. He stood at the bottom of the hill, daring me down. I leaned too far back and immediately popped out of both skis upon landing. My anger at my stupid brother blocked my tears. And then there was his hand, pulling me up, as he said, “You did it! Are you ok?”

“I’m ok now,” I said to the gathering as I rose from the bathroom floor.

“Are you sure?” my mother asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure. You can go in now.”

I watched my mother walk towards her son, his body and a temptation worse than the alcohol that had once weakened her. Although my brother’s hand would be cold and could no longer hold my mother’s, the images of it would forever hold me and give me the strength to hold my mother’s hand.

We Were Stargazers

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Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. January 4, 2016. 5:00 AM.

Black sky blanketed in twinkles. My sister, her 29-year-old son Trevor, and I (coffee in hand, bundled up), stood outside gazing skyward awaiting the predicted meteor showers.

Jayne saw one! Then Trevor! Then one flashed in my view! For the next 45 minutes, there were lulls, but I bet I saw a dozen falling stars. Fast and bright. They lit me up the way falling stars always do, glistening with personal hope, like the Universe just winked at me. And grandeur—a word that’s too big for my tongue, but belongs with stars, planets, and the vastness of a thing called GALAXY.

Like a miracle maybe you didn’t see, the stars dropped so quickly we rarely witnessed the same ones. When we did, those danced into our view like strings just outside of a kitty’s reach. Then gone.

With each sighting, a rush—like the kind from learning to ride a bicycle—flashed through my body. I got kissed by pure, childlike excitement. Breathtaking.

Worth it. Totally worth it to get up at what I consider a ridiculous hour to share something beyond my nephew’s knowledge and explanation, even beyond the three-ring bonding, which is badass for any family that has a history. Once you get what these moments mean, you stop missing them. Can you imagine missing out on a miracle?

Sometimes, I force myself to go greet falling stars with family and let the Universe sweep my soul and make room for something bigger—like authentic, effervescent oohs and aahs.

 

Why I Love Christmas

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I was the baby of three children. In my mind there was my dad’s favorite—my sister, my mom’s favorite—my brother, and the extra child—me. It seemed my parents loved me in a perfunctory way. Of course they loved me; I was their child.

But there was no call for anyone in our family to reach out, hug another or say the words. And for me to tell them I loved them? Well, first of all, it didn’t occur to me and if it had, I wouldn’t have risked the rejection.

My parents weren’t bad people. Somehow though, they took their parents’ failings and rationalized them into sound child-raising principles. When as a little girl, my tongue would get the best of me by offering some idea, or worse, my feelings, a towering figure condemned, “Who asked you?!”

At Christmas though, someone did. My parents asked me what I wanted. They actually wanted to know. There was no right or wrong answer to get in trouble over. They even wanted a list! Then, miracle or miracles, they tried their best to give me what I wanted.

Inside each gift I found proof that my parents loved me and cared about my heart’s desires. For that one day, I was allowed to be excited, have opinions, and even play. On Christmas day, children came first. We were a family. We kids were the only ones who fought, and it was over toys.

For that one day, my parents’ attention focused on us. I was allowed to hug my mother and show appreciation.

On Christmas day we ate a predictable meal, usually ham, my favorite. We weren’t forced to sit at the table for hours “until you finish everything on your plate.”

My dad couldn’t work on Christmas. He stayed home all day.

Spoken or unspoken, my parents obviously decided they wouldn’t fight. No arguments, no anger. Maybe they had their moments, unnoticed by a child, but the peace in our home didn’t feel pretend. It felt real. It was the peace of Christmas, if only for that one day.