Her mother dressed her in fashionable dresses, leaving her waist length brown hair loose and lovely, while my mother stuffed me into overalls and cut my frizzy bangs at an awkward angle. When I went over to play there were tea parties instead of teepees made of sticks and dress up games instead of chase. She had shelf upon shelf of Barbies, all in their original boxes, and when I tried to play with them I was reprimanded. She was prissy and I was rough, as different as two little girls could possibly be, yet every time we had to be parted we cried and begged our parents for just a little more time.
At the age of twelve we got what we asked for, but in the worst possible way. Her parents were in a boating accident – her father killed on impact and her mother in a coma with severe brain trauma. She and her brother moved in with our Papa, right next door to me.
I remember fighting my way through the adults until they allowed me to sit next to her at her father’s funeral. I clutched her hand and looked straight ahead. And when the minister finished a monologue with “for all the Days of Our Lives”, we looked at each other, unable to stop the grins and tiny giggles that escaped simultaneously. It was our favorite soap opera, we watched it with our moms all the time, but we knew how much her father had hated it.
I was so excited when she started attending my school. We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other at lunch, recess and of course every day at home.
But it soon became apparent that our differences, however easy to work around when we hadn’t seen each other daily at home, weren’t so easy to ignore anymore. She became part of the popular crowd and I took a backseat, watching from the sidelines as she crooked her finger and got all the things most young girls are interested in – the good looking boyfriend, being a member of the cheerleading squad, and being invited to all the coolest events and parties.
I was jealous and resentful that she walked in and things seemed to fall into her lap, but I kept that to myself and I felt guilty for even feeling that way. Her father was gone and her mother was the child rather than the parent, living next door with a nurse maid. How could I possibly begrudge her the attention? She deserved to be happy and enjoy life as much as possible.
But my feelings of discontent grew as, little by little, she developed a habit of putting me down in front of other people. She would have her friends spend the night and I would be there, sitting on the edges, only included as an afterthought or a joke. I would go home crying, devastated about the way I was treated, but too afraid to stand up for myself for fear of losing the good parts of our relationship.
And there were a lot of good parts. When we were alone or just with family, we were the best of friends. We had sleepovers and inside jokes. She comforted me when my dad went on drunken rampages and I comforted her when she was depressed about her family. And the summers were the best – spending every day in our bathing suits with our other cousins, swimming and tubing, riding our bikes barefoot in the hot afternoons, picking handfuls of honeysuckle and exploring every inch of the woods around our houses. She played a major part in a lot of my fondest childhood memories.
Then, when we were 15 and 16, in the summer of 2001, our cousin Ben died in a Jet Ski accident. And we turned to each other first. I was home alone with my sister, doing chores as quickly as possible so we could go swimming, and she was just down the hill at her house, vegging and waiting on us to finish. We each got a call about the accident from someone different, but at the same time. After I hung up I took off running through the house and out the backdoor, across the porch and down the stairs, shouting her name...and she was doing the same. We met with a crash in the grass a few yards from my house and held on.
Later we prayed on our knees and I’ve never begged God for anything as hard, before or since, as I did that day in the hour after receiving the news of the crash, waiting to find out if he survived. And when he didn’t, I became something she was already well on her way to becoming – reckless.
The three of us had been born three months apart – her birthday was in March, mine in June, and Ben’s in October – and though he was the baby, I’d been the only one to really hold back on the partying, only occasionally indulging in smoking or drinking. But soon after his death I was sneaking out of the house with her, getting high most days and drunk every weekend.
She still treated me badly at school sometimes, and even at home if the neighbor girls were around, but the closest I ever got to confronting her then was a letter that she shrugged off. Because of Ben, my fear of confrontation had turned into my fear of losing her...and I was willing to be occasionally miserable in order to keep us close. I made every concession I could and when it sometimes became too much, I avoided her for a week or two to get my head on straight, always eventually giving in. After all, we’d been through so much together.
People began to notice how unbalanced our relationship had become, namely my mother, and started badgering me about standing up to her, about taking instead of always giving. Instead I continued to run when she called and I let all the resentment, all the hurt and anger continue to build up.
After we graduated and went our separate ways, it got a little easier. We still saw each other often, but not every day. In the past my attitude with her had been largely submissive, obviously, but because of the stuff I was going through, every little thing set me off. Combined with all those stored up years of fat jokes and nerd jokes, it turned me into almost as big a bitch as she was. She was thinner and had better hair, but I was witty and well read. I took every opportunity to make her look like an idiot, but with a smile on my face and more cunning than she’d ever managed to use when insulting me in public. And for a long time I was satisfied with that, with what I thought of as subtle retribution.
Over the next few years I still gave far more of myself than I thought was fair, but I’ve always been sort of a masochist. Then (I believe) the addition of being a parent stole the last shred of patience I had for the old games. I finally began to let her know that I thought she was ungrateful and took advantage of me (albeit often with my help), but instead of a reaction I expected (anger, sadness or denial), she practically laughed in my face. That, and an upsetting diatribe about what a shitty mother I was, ended it. I turned my back, ignored her calls, and went on my way.
In the long stretch of months that we didn’t speak, I had plenty of time to think about our situation. I admitted my areas of wrong doing (to myself, and later to her), but I still felt good about my decision to cut off contact. At first I felt healthier, and generally happier, without the added drama.
But soon I missed her to the point of nearly caving and calling. I missed the stories that only we shared, the laughter and all night gab sessions. She’d always been the first person I told everything to and though I knew I needed the space I’d created, it hurt.
It was nearly two years ago that, after months and months of silence, we had our first adult discussion about why things were the way they were. She was living with her then boyfriend and, for reasons that had nothing to do with me, was alienated from the majority of our family. I’d been the last one to cut off contact and the last one she’d expected it from. As I sat there on the couch I could literally see the toll it had taken on her and it shocked me. For the first time since I wrote her that letter in my childish, bubbly script, I told her how I really felt...about everything. And she listened without a trace of a smirk or hint of a laugh.
We were up all night and well into the morning, crying and confessing, hugging and promising. Underneath all the negativity that surrounded our relationship, we’d always loved each other.
And over the past year we’ve really worked at changing the way we interact. I’ve become more assertive and outspoken with her...and she’s curbed her temper, become more thoughtful. But it’s a process and, though she’ll always be my family and I’ll always love her, there’s a scar there. I knew we could never go back to being those two little girls, arguing over which game to play and nothing else, but I hoped we’d still fight tooth and nail to stay together, just like they did. I hoped we’d still go to each other first when shit went down.
I hoped, but until this past Monday, I really wasn’t sure.
I woke at 5:15 to the radio alarm playing Lady Gaga and the phone bleeping and flashing red. I switched off the music, reached for the phone and turned over on my back, squinting at the bright screen. Three missed calls, all within the last 10 minutes, were from her.
And then I saw the text message, sent a mere three minutes before: “He shot his self in the face beside me. Help.” I jumped up and fumbled for my glasses, putting them on to make sure I’d read it correctly. Unfortunately, I had.
I hit redial and she answered immediately, sobbing and managing to tell me that she was going to the hospital; he was still alive. “I’m on my way”, I said. “I’ll meet you there.” The moment we hung up I ran around my room tugging on clothes. I grabbed my purse, slipped my feet into flip flops, alerted my mom and ran out the door.
It takes an hour to get there in good weather, but it was freezing and pouring down rain that morning. And while I navigated the dark, wet roads at a pace I wouldn’t normally, I thought about what I’d say to her. Even without knowing all the details I was horrified. I wasn’t thinking about him at all – I didn’t wonder why or how. I liked him alright, but I’d only met him a few times and he was still just the boyfriend to me. All I could think was, “After everything she’s been through...dear god, I can’t even begin to imagine...I’ve got to get there.”
Arriving at the hospital, I parked and ran through the rain, cursing my flip flops and lack of umbrella. My glasses fogged as I sloshed through the lobby, wet pants legs clung to my ankles and dripping hair was plastered to my neck. I rode the elevator alone to the third floor, getting out in front of another, nearly empty, lobby.
We saw each other at the same time. She was sitting in a chair next to two women and as I moved toward her she stood up and took a step, clearly unable to do more. But we crashed into each other with the same force that we had on that summer day ten years ago.
I held her thin, shaking frame tightly, until her knees started to buckle. Then we sat and I held her over the armrest, noticing that the two women she’d been sitting beside were staring. The one closest to us introduced herself awkwardly over my cousin’s crying. It was his mother. “I’m glad you’re here for her”, she said.
After a few minutes I was able to let go and she began to tell me the story. The more she spoke, the sicker I felt. She’d told me before that he had anger and depression issues, had threatened to kill his self before, but the way she’d relayed it made it sound like it was all in the past. Apparently things were strained and he “flipped out” too often. She’d always been able to calm him and talk him down before, but not this time.
And still, after I knew the details, I couldn’t think about him and his issues. I didn’t think about how I’d laughed with him at the wedding the weekend before, how young he was or about what a blow it was for his family. All that would come later. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was how close she came to being killed, how horrific it must have been to witness such a thing and how maybe, if I’d been talking to her more often, she would have told me everything from the beginning and I could have helped her get out of the situation.
After speaking with his mother, it was decided that I would take her back to their neighborhood to get her dogs safely put away. She has two Great Danes that she loves more than anything and they were scared and alone. She immediately agreed and we left.
I didn’t think we were going into his house where it happened because the dogs were at his mother’s right around the corner, but she said she needed her keys. I was hesitant, but I couldn’t let her go alone so I followed her into the entryway. While she went to the bathroom immediately inside the front door, I stood in the foyer. I stared at a cell phone lying halfway open on the carpet, surrounded by broken glass and shredded items, and shuddered.
When she came out we decided to get some of her clothes so we wouldn’t have to come back, but that required us going through the master bath and into the closet, where he’d done it. I’ve always been an extremely squeamish person, covering my eyes during anything bloody on TV and occasionally vomiting when around bodily fluids, so she told me I didn’t have to go in there...that she’d already seen the worst. But again, I couldn’t let her do that alone.
I cannot go into detail, but it was the most grisly thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She was unable to go all the way in after all and I had to make my way around the closet, picking things that were clean and holding my breath. I steeled myself and thought of nothing but getting her out immediately. It wasn’t until she was settled back at the hospital that I made my way to the bathroom and was sick.
All day we sat and waited, alternately speaking to friends and family as they found out and called to check on her. She broke down every once in awhile, finally passing out from a pill and exhaustion for about half an hour.
He made it through surgery, but was still critical. His parents were able to see him for a moment late that afternoon and they allowed her to go in too. She wouldn’t leave the hospital until she’d seen him anyway, and when she came out she nearly collapsed. I said “enough”, and took her home with me.
These past few days have been exhausting, emotionally and physically. She’s getting a little better each day and truthfully, I’m in awe over her ability to keep going. He’s as stable as he can be at the moment and won’t be awake this week so she’s staying away from the hospital for now. Yesterday she saw a trauma therapist and it went well. She’s still staying at my house and between our family, his family, and their friends, there’s someone with her all the time. I’ve been managing the phone calls, the insurance information and anything else that crops up. Making sure she eats and rests.
I’ve been silently struggling a bit, trying to comfort her and keep things together. It’s a repetitive, draining task and I’ve never had to deal with anything quite this difficult before. But I love her and I’m going to keep helping her and listening, distracting her and making her laugh. And though I’d never wish this tragedy on anyone, ever, positive things have happened as a result. She’s getting therapy, which we’ve been trying to get her to do for a long time. Bridges are being mended. He’s going to get the help he needs.
And I know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that we’re going to be ok. Because when everything fell apart she dialed my number...and I fought my way there, without hesitation, to hold her hand.