Candy Rant

"I killed a rat with a stick once."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Day

This is my account of what happened the day my brother-in-law died. It took a very long time to write (and it still only covers the first two hours), and then a longer time to decide whether or not to post it here. In the end, I let my sister decide. She said yes.

There will probably be a few more posts on this subject, about the days following the accident, as I can write them, simply because I don't know how else to deal with my sister's trauma.

I never mention her by name, because she has a very unusual first name that would be easy to find online.

Friday, May 30th, 2008

I've been in my hometown since Monday. Helping my mom take care of my dad, and lazing about watching TV with them in the evenings. My sister comes over for a little while each night and we torment each other. My husband thinks it's funny that 2 middle-aged women wrestle like teen-age boys when they're together.

This morning I ran to the bank for Mom, and picked up a few things. I went into panic mode a couple days ago, because I found out that the summer creative writing class I was signed up to teach in Phoenix, which is terribly under-enrolled, (9 students instead of the official range of 15-25) is going to happen anyway. I have not prepared. I am preoccupied with that. Because I am now screwed.

But right now it's time to go to Walmart. These little errands are so leisurely in a town this small that it's downright relaxing. I enjoy being my mom's personal assistant, going to get anything she remembers she's out of, or any restaurant food that sounds good, and bringing it to her, trying to make her life a little happier.

3:45. Ready to walk out the door. My parents' phone rings.

I see from the caller I.D. that it is my niece Michele on her cell phone. As is customary on calls between the women in our family, I pick up the phone and instead of saying hello, I meow. Long story.

Michele: Candy? (she is crying) Dad's been in a bad accident on his motorcycle. In front of the armory. They won't tell me anything else. They said we should get to the hospital. I can't find Mom! She's not answering her cell phone. Will you call her school and see if they can find her?

My sister always answers her cell phone. I look up the elementary school where she is a media specialist. No one answers. I try her cell phone again, and leave a message. I'm afraid for her, driving home among such upset. "Please. Be. Careful," I say.

I should go right this minute, to the hospital. But I call both my brothers first, and ask them to pray. I pull out the paper with my mom's church "prayer chain" members, and tell her to start calling. I still have the Walmart list in my hand. My mom has listed "grape seed oil" and "Vitamin E" and "Citrus Scope." I put the list on the counter and pick up the car keys and leave. Mom can't go with me. Dad can't be left alone. And it is probably better that she doesn't go.

My sister's house is 4 blocks away. I stop there, just in case she is home and not within earshot of her cell phone, and maybe outside, and not answering her house phone. I leave the car running, the car door open, and run up the small hill of her backyard. I try the door. It is locked. I hear her house phone ringing and ringing and ringing.

I get back into the car and hurry to the hospital. I run to the entrance of the emergency room. I blurt out my brother-in-law's name. Where is he, I ask. The receptionist walks to a door and points. Big double doors with lots of metal. I go through them.

At first I can't figure out where I'm supposed to go, or what is happening. Then I see several people in a small room. Is this the right room? I don't know any of the faces looking out at me, but they seem to be expecting me. Later I find out that one of the unfamiliar faces is the hospital chaplain.

I go inside. My sister and her daughter Michele are crying. My sister is crying hysterically. She is holding onto Michele, yelling Michele's name, facing away from me. Michele looks at me and her face is broken into a thousand pieces. Her son Cole, 11, is crying and also broken and his eyes are filled with pain. My sister turns around and sees me and screams my name. She screams my name as though I must DO something. I must rewind this tape. I grab her and I feel myself instantly breaking into pieces.

"I just talked to him this afternoon!" she cries. "How can he be DEAD?!" And I start crying and trying to catch my breath and all I can say as I hold her against me is "Oh my God."

The room is filled with misery. As though we are trapped in a tall brick tower and the moat has risen and spilled down onto us from the top.

A minute passes. "Where is he?" I ask the staff there with us. They tell me he's in "another room." No shit. Because I thought he was in THIS room and we had just somehow missed it.

They take us across the hall. Through another set of metal doors.

And there he is. On his back, lifeless. My sister starts to scream. "Patrick!" she cries, so woefully that I will never be able to describe it, even to myself. She is doubled over in pain, looking down at him, and says "You JUST started to feel good!" Then looks at me and says "He had some kind of bug for a couple of days and just started feeling better."

I am sobbing with her. I feel a shock I have never felt before in my life. I grab her and hold her so tightly that I'm afraid of breaking her ribs. She yells my name. "Why won't you wake me UP?" she screams. "This can't be happening. Oh my God."

And the pain flows into every part of the room. My brother-in-law does not have a scratch on him. I expect him to open his eyes and sit up. And this will all be over, and my sister will wake up. She has somehow taken me into a nightmare with her. But we will all get out alive.

My sister is trying to take in this reality that is right in front of her, but she cannot do it. She doubles over again, puts her fists between her knees, while gut-wrenching sobs fly out of her like large dark birds. There are 6 of us in the room. My sister, her husband's body, Michele, Cole, me, and the chaplain. I go to the chaplain and whisper "What can I do for her?" He says "You just do what you're doing. Be here for her."

Which is nothing. Or it feels like nothing. This is my older sister. I am 48; she is 60. She was like my mother when I was a baby. Her life went on an upward swing when I was born, because she had gotten two brothers first. Then finally, a baby sister whose hair she could style, whose clothing she could fuss over, whose fat cheeks she could pinch as she carried me around. She is the stable one, the one who keeps her shit together, who can be counted on, who is always the one giving. Now she needs someone to help. To fix this. And all I can do is hold her.

For a moment, just my sister and I are in the room with Pat. I take her over to him and we pray over him, thanking God for the 42 years they had together, asking God to gently take him in, and to let him reunite with his parents, and his brother, who died just three months ago. We touch his hair and his face, and we keep praying. The expression on his face, even in death, looks like a smirk. As though he is about to tell us one of his stupid jokes.

At some point the chaplain has come back into the room. He listens to us pray from a far corner to give us some space, and when we are finished, he is wiping tears from his face.

The quiet moment has passed, and the second wave of what has happened hits my sister.
She says it again: "Why won't you wake me up?!" Even when her regular doctor comes in, on his rounds, she says "Dr. Johnson, I know you'll give me something to wake me up, since nobody else will." And he tells her he is sorry.

"It's OK," she says. "I know it's all going to be fine, because I know that at 5:25 a.m., my alarm will go off and this horrible nightmare will be over."

None of us know what to do. I look around the room. On a table by the wall is Pat's purple motorcycle helmet, which did not save his life. And there is his wallet, and his cell phone, and his twisted license plate, which was apparently torn off during the accident.

The police are here. Three of them. They tell us what happened. The guy in the car behind Pat was driving 60 miles per hour (the speed limit was 40), Pat was in front of him, slowing down to turn left, and the man was not paying attention. He hit Pat while still going 57 miles per hour, according to the computer system in his car. Pat was knocked 50 feet and was dead at the scene, killed instantly. One cop tells us that he himself arrived within thirty seconds or so, having been in the area, and yelled to the people gathering around Pat, "Leave the helmet on!" in case he had a neck injury. But Pat was already gone, lying on his back in the middle of the 2-lane highway.

We want to know who the stupid bastard is, the one who hit him. We instantly hate him. There has been a ticket issued for "Following Too Closely."

"That's IT?!" my sister says. "He kills my husband and that's IT?! What about wreckless homicide? What about murder?"

They speak in their trained, calm cop voices and say that a murder charge would have to include premeditation, and all those other things they say to people who have fallen into a thousand pieces.

None of this is helping, because my sister's husband is still dead. He is still on the cold metal table under the harsh fluorescent lights.

As horrific as the past half hour has been, there is much more in store. My sister's son, Robbie, doesn't yet know his father is dead. Michele called him and left a message on his cell phone that there has been a wreck and to come to the hospital. We are on pins and needles because Robbie is not only a very emotional man, but he now has to make a 90-minute drive from Indianapolis. During rush hour. Since he got the message, he has called Michele back several times, but she cannot bring herself to answer. She's afraid that if she tells him their father is dead, he will have an accident himself. He and his father have become very close in the past few years, talking on their cell phones every day, especially when Robbie is driving the long haul to work. We can't tell him this news on the phone.

But then he calls his dad. The cell phone next to the scraped motorcycle helmet is ringing. We are stunned and don't know what to do. The chaplain helps. He answers, tells Robbie that "Your dad is here in the hospital, and the doctors can fill you in more on his condition when you get here."

The rest of us are slowly soaking in the truth. We are all sniffling, red-faced, our eyes swollen. My sister takes out her contacts and throws them away. She goes back to her coping mechanism and says "I've had really bad nightmares before, but none of them have gone on this long. It'll be a real relief to wake up."

Michele and I have been making phone calls. She has had to call Pat's sisters and tell them. And the misery compounds. I've called my mom and my brothers. I can't help being grateful that my mom wasn't here to see the worst moments of my sister's life. It would have crushed her.

I've called Scott a few times. Last night on the phone, we had a fight. For us, it was a bad fight, because we so rarely fight about anything. We had both been tired and preoccupied and on edge. I tell him on the phone today that none of that shit we fought about matters at all. I become a huge Hallmark movie cliche on the phone. But I have to make sure that he knows how deeply I love him.

We sit on straight-backed metal chairs and we are offered cheese and crackers and soft drinks by the hospital staff. Cole, my great-nephew, sits quietly drinking water from a styrofoam cup. His face is tear-stained and when the nurses ask if they can get him anything, he meekly says "I guess I would like some more water." I don't know why this breaks my heart even more, but it does.

I didn't know, until now, how much my sister loved her husband. I mean, I knew they loved each other, but I didn't know how blazingly happy they were together. How can you ever know what's going on in someone's marriage? Especially when you've left your hometown and your adult life is completely separate from your sister's? As close as we are, she doesn't talk about her marriage much, and I just took for granted that since it had lasted 40 years, it was at the very least, content. Apparently I wasn't even close. The things she will tell me in the next few days will illustrate for me just how outrageously happy they have been together.

It's been an hour and 15 minutes since Robbie called, upon leaving Indianapolis. We try to brace ourselves. We make sure that he will be brought directly back to us, to be told only by his mom. Although we are all still in shock, the whole thing will be fresh for him. It is a terrible wait.

The hospital staff moves us to another room, a room next door to where Pat is. We need to buffer the news for Robbie, and not have him come in to instantly see his father's body.

We move around the room, sitting, standing, rubbing our faces, taking sips of water. We are like chess pieces that can't find our places on the board. We make more phone calls and we cry until there is nothing left. Each time another wave of agony hits my sister, I go to her and I squeeze her and part of me believes that I might be able to pull some of the pain out of her and into my own body. I believe it a little, but it doesn't work. I feel myself entering new back alleyways of my heart, feeling new potencies of love and grief that I have never felt before. It is as though my only purpose on Earth has become a sharp arrow, one goal: to lessen her pain. And with that thought is the immediate realization that I can do very little.

We hear someone outside the room say "Here he comes." It's Robbie.

He enters the room. He is already crying, his face filled with agony. He looks at all of us.

"Is he alive or NOT?!" he yells.

My sister looks at him, her face bathed in sorrow, and shakes her head in such a tiny gesture of "no" that it's barely detectable. Robbie slams his keys down on the floor and adds himself to the group of us that are in pieces. He falls against my sister, lost in sobs, in disbelief, and there we are, starting from the beginning again.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Tonight is the "visitation" for my brother-in-law. Tomorrow is the funeral. The owners of the funeral home are expecting this to be the highest attended service the town has seen in a very long time. My sister is a grade school media specialist (her husband was killed on her last day of school for the year), and 28 of her co-workers drove en masse to her house to see her yesterday. Before they left, I asked them to come outside for a prayer. We stood in a big circle and held hands and I thanked God for the 40 years she had with the love of her life, and for all the people who love her and who loved him, and asked for an extra measure of strength for her. For God to hold her in his hand like a tiny baby, and to assure her that he is along for the awful ride.

I have never seen anyone be so shredded and so strong at the same time.

Pat, my brother-in-law, loved his dog, Petie, so much that Petie has been given a fresh bath so she (yes, a female named Petie) can go to the funeral. My sister has gathered up several things to put into the casket with Pat. She had her grandkids give Petie a good brushing, then they put the hair from the brush in a ziploc bag to lay next to him.

In a few days, I will need to write more about all this, and so again I will give you a Bleakness Warning. I never intended for this blog to become a hub of grief. It is just what keeps me functioning.