Sometimes stuff happens, tragedies you can’t control. All you have left are memories of the good times, the jokes, the days spent. But the memories that once brought you joy, now cut into your heart like a silver blade. You feel the gash so deeply, but know other people are feeling it much worse. You know you shouldn’t feel the pain this strongly; you were never quite close enough. But you do. And you wish, more than anything, that you could grab those joyful, cutting memories, hold on tight, and never let them go.
I awoke, dazed and disoriented, to a sound coming from across the hall, one that initially sounded like strangulation. It was only four in the morning, and I thought somebody was in great physical pain. Eventually I realized it was the sound of my daddy crying, something I was not accustomed to hearing. I was so scared; I immediately burst into my own silent tears, heart racing. Someone must have died, I thought to myself. What if it’s my Poppie? He was, after all, pushing ninet. I had only known one grandfather, my maternal one passed when I was two years old, and I was not ready to lose him. I reflected on every memory I bring to the surface, unsure how to cope.
My dad was on the phone, and I heard him promise to call his eldest brother. I steadied my breathing to make sure I did not miss a word and braced myself for the truth. He spoke between sobs and gasps, but I could still hear what he said. “I just got a call … Stephanie was crossing the street early this morning … she was hit by a taxi …” She was gone.
Stephanie Dees was my cousin, the eldest daughter of my dad’s only sister and fourteen years my senior. She was born in Cleveland, but moved to England at a young age. Since she moved away from home and completed university, she had been living in Prague. I only saw her maybe once a year, so how could we ever be close? In fact, I was nervous when she came to spend Christmas with us, ten months before the waking nightmare transpired. Her sister, Mallory, had been in town a few weeks previously and we had a great time; I felt we had a lot in common. But Stephanie was a few years older than Mallory, I didn’t know her as well, and I feared it wouldn’t be as comfortable. The last thing I wanted to be was the annoying younger cousin.
My worrying was for naught; we ended up hitting it off. The age difference was large, but we could still enjoy spending time together. Maybe not like peers but perhaps distant sisters. We went shopping, and she participated in our Christmas Eve traditions of church, Chinese food and a “Lights on the Lake” drive-through spectacle. On Christmas evening (after all the gifting and feasting of Christmas Day was finished), my parents, her and I went to the movie theater and watched The Golden Compass, because she had enjoyed the Philip Pullman novels. Although I had not yet read them, I enjoyed the movie and was pleased to see that she too had an appreciation for fantastical, age-transcending literature. During the Christmas Eve car ride we’d discussed The Wizard of Oz, and the much darker Return to Oz, and of course agreed that Harry Potter was brilliant. As the younger one, I always looked up to my older relatives and have to wonder how they actually felt about me. I appreciated her company, her quirky British humor, her artistic spirit, and I was so excited when she visited again that August, right in time for the New York State Fair. She had decided to move into an apartment with some friends in New York City and was stopping by before she moved in. Not only were we going to be living in the same country, we would be living in the same state.
The memories we carry with us are not always the most moving or noteworthy, but there is something about them that makes us hold on. The only part of our day at the fair that I remember vividly, other than the fact that she accompanied me on any midway ride I wanted and took my photo at the top of the Ferris wheel, was a moment near the start of our day. We were in the Byrne Dairy building getting chocolate milk (25 cents for a serving of paradise), and she wanted to keep the clear plastic cup that proclaimed “I Love NY” as a souvenir. She could not put it in her purse very well with dairy remnants still encrusted on the bottom, so we headed to the bathroom to wash it out. Of course, the line to the ladies room was snaking out quite a distance; no way were we going to stand in it. So my cousin’s solution was to go right up to an employee behind a station peddling fudge, hold out the cup and politely ask if he could wash it out for her. The employee kind of looked at her for a second, but complied without comment. Meanwhile, I had my head against a nearby wooden pole, cracking up. When she returned to us I whispered, “I can’t believe you just did that!” Her response? With a sparkle of a mischievous half-smile, “You can get away with a lot in America when you have a British accent.”
She was so full of life. How could she be gone only two months later?
I heard the words my dad spoke, but they just didn’t seem real. Shock managed to stop the world for several seconds; reality was irrelevant. I must have descended into full hysterics because next thing I knew both of my parents were sitting with me on my bed. My mom massaged my back as I hiccupped into my salty-soaked pink pillow. At some point that morning (or afternoon) I managed to rise from my mattress and change into civilized clothing. In the evening we even left the safe confines of our house to get dinner. By that point I was too numb and used up to shed any more tears, but nothing felt real. The world was spinning in all its usual chaos, but I was just a spectator.
That was October 4, 2008. I was thirteen years old, awkward about everything and on the brink of starting North Syracuse Junior High, a place where two middle schools converged into one intimidating brick building, full of new hallways and new faces. I usually stop my story here: I lost my cousin Stephanie in an awful chance accident involving a taxi. News articles give the facts, whilst being unbearable to read. There is no reason. There are no answers. There is just pain and grief for anyone that ever met her. Yes, we do romanticize people when we lose them, but the emotions aren’t any less real.
A few days after Stephanie’s death, we received an email from my aunt, her mother. Attached was a picture from our trip to the State Fair, one that my mom had snapped, that had been found on Stephanie’s camera. The photo was captured in the Dairy building, and in it I stood next to my cousin, smiling, as we held our plastic “I Love NY” milk cups up to the camera. That picture is the last one I will ever be able to take with her, and it is now held by a magnet to the whiteboard on the wall of my dorm.
My father, the writer of the family, wrote the obituary, a moving newsprint tribute. He referenced the chocolate milk cup, stating how she could find joy in the simplest of things. I carried the piece of newspaper in my school folder for years. I did not attend the wake, held at a funeral home just a few minutes drive from my house so our grandparents could attend. I heard it was closed casket, thankfully. Nobody could stand to look upon the shell of a body that once held such a vibrant soul. I did not attend the funeral. I spent the night at my then best friend’s house and met my family for dinner right after. I just could not handle the pain, did not want my own grief and the grief of everyone I love staring me in the face. So I never said goodbye, not like she could have heard me. Sometimes I wonder if I should have sucked it up, sat through the calling hours and the service. But the only thing that actually haunts me is that I still cannot remember if, the last time I saw her, I actually bothered to tell her that I love her.
The shock came at a vulnerable time. I was one month into the eighth grade, in a new building more than twice the size of the one I inhabited the previous year, still trying to find my footing. I did not know any teachers or counselors well enough to confide in them, I barely had any true friends left from the Hell pit called middle school, so I basically kept to myself. There was something particularly loathsome about talking my feelings out to my family, as they were undergoing the same experience. Even now, five years later, my spine tenses and jaw clenches when she is brought up in conversation. I don’t know why; I just cannot face it in that context.
I cried a lot in the following months; I didn’t know what else to do, and I’m notorious for being the weepy type. The situation just seemed to embed itself in my conscious. I remember several months later, possibly in March, I got into an argument with my mom about who knows what that reduced me to tears. Then for really no good reason my petty whining switched itself to grief and remembering. I just sat there on my coffee-colored couch in my living room, staring at the thick carpeting, crying my eyes out for what must have been several hours. Mom had no idea what was wrong with me, and, to be honest, neither did I. That was the most frustrating part. I could not even express to myself how much I was being affected.
It was a long road from that October morning. I never grieved through a reasonable process or in logical steps. I still shed tears in my dorm room when the calendar marks the day. I have seen how fragile human beings are; I’ve become incredibly cautious. But at the same time I wish to enjoy the random plastic chocolate milk cups that life hands me. That is the good stuff.