In my mind, we were in the middle of a conversation. That isn’t exactly how it was. She had told me she had some things she needed to get done. She was starting a new job in the morning, and she was really excited, but it was important she was feeling good and was prepared and well rested for her first day. She would go to bed early. Her regular bedtime was around 8.
So why she was out on the road at 9:30, I cannot figure out. She had wanted to show her husband her new place of work … that was what he told us later. But why then? Why at night when it was growing dark? Had she gone to bed and found she couldn’t sleep and so, maybe, thought an evening drive would help her relax? She sometimes took sleeping pills. They sometimes didn’t kick in right away. He sometimes took pills, too. He sometimes didn’t tell her.
Whatever it was that took them out that night, whether it was a leisurely pleasure drive to see her new place of employment or a quick trip to the store, they would not return for many hours. In fact, she would not return at all.
Where their drive took them, it is impossible to say. Perhaps he was telling the truth and they had gone to see where she would be starting work the next morning, but the medical office where she had been hired as a biller was located twenty miles to the southeast. The car came to rest, on its hood, a mile north of their house on the shoulder of a busy stretch of urban roadway.
There’s so much we don’t know and likely never will. What we do know is that the car was stopped for approximately ten minutes at an intersection just prior to the accident. A witness came upon their Volkswagon from a different direction at a four-way stop. They waited for the car to turn or to drive on, but it just sat there. The witness went on to the store. Upon returning, the car was there still. Inside was a man—the driver—apparently asleep, a passenger who could not be seen clearly from the way they were slouched in the seat, and a dog. The witness sounded their horn, and the driver woke up and proceeded onward. Perhaps he had meant to turn there. Perhaps he fell asleep and, upon waking, forgot where he was or where he was supposed to be going. There was no mention of a signal. It was clear, however, to those observing the car, that the driver was not in a state to be driving. His speeds varied, sometimes well below the speed limit, sometimes significantly over. He weaved all over the road, occasionally crossing the middle line entirely. At one point he swerved off the road and struck something and then, correcting himself, continued onward, while the dog who rode as passenger—Charlie—ran from side to side and appeared to be trying to get out of one of the windows which was rolled down.
At the only point for miles where the road significantly turns, an oncoming car came into view. The driver swerved back into his own lane and, overcorrecting, drove onto the shoulder.
I can only assume the Passat was not the first car to have struck the mailbox that sat in front of the house situated on that curve of Waller Road. Between the house and the road, placed there, I imagine, to ensure that no car could intentionally or unintentionally knock the mailbox over, a pile of large landscaping rocks (the size you would use for a border, perhaps 12″ in diameter and irregularly shaped) were arranged around it and piled high. On the north side of the mailbox was a tree stump that might have been found as driftwood on a beach. It was not fixed, not part of a tree that had grown there, but found and given the dual purpose of decorating and protecting this artificial island where a mailbox stood.
I will say this, and I will say it again: Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good news.
“There was a car accident, and Lisa didn’t make it.”
Those were the words my mother heard when she answered the phone at 1:30 am. I would wake several hours later to find a multitude of messages, missed phone calls, and voicemails: from my brother-in-law, my mother, and the Pierce County medical examiner’s office.
What we were told by my brother-in-law was that they were on their way home when he missed a curve and the car rolled over. He had been trying to keep the dog from jumping around, he told us. “Was Lisa awake?” I asked him later. “I think so,” he told me.” But why she was unable to keep the dog, a terrier, contained, I cannot fathom. She was very particular about the driving of others, about the safety of herself and those she travelled with, more particularly if she was not the one driving. She was not a particularly pleasant back-seat driver; she complained about everything from inconsistent speed to not slowing down gradually enough. Which raises the question: If she was awake, why was she so tolerant of his reckless driving? But I didn’t know enough then to ask the question. He made it sound as if the crash was slow and controlled. He made it sound as if the car ran into a ditch and just kind of rolled onto its top. Indeed, I do believe that was his perception. “How was it she didn’t make it?” was my mom’s first question. Mine was a little different, particularly after I watched the video footage of the wreckage and rescue. “How did he survive it?”
I watched that video footage more times than was wise or healthy. I saw things I can’t unsee. I saw her being cut out of her seatbelt and falling to the ground. Not her; her body. I saw them using saws to cut away the driftwood stump that was also flung dozens of feet and which the car partially landed on. I saw them with their jaws of life. And I saw him get out and walk away. I used to be grateful he survived. For a long time I blamed them both. Sleeping pills, Xanax, alcohol. I come from a family of addicts (my mother excluded). This is my normal. Alcohol and the necessity of swallowing down a lifetime’s worth of pain and anger are, I’m sure, contributing factors to the cancer that took my father not three years prior. My brother, too, was a victim of alcoholism. He died at the age of 46 (the age I was when I lost my sister). The story that I pieced together from comments made on the rescue video, from comments made by a friend of my brother who was also one of my sister’s suppliers, by clues I had pieced together: from occasions when she had forestalled one of my own panic attacks by handing me a benzo in the middle of an archeological exhibit, or the time I spent ten days with her and she slept the whole time, was that they were both using, and they had gone out to get more—so that she could sleep. But now I’m not so sure.
When his toxicology came back he had significant amounts of fentanyl in his system. Hers was considered clean (though there was enough amphetamine to have allowed for a prescription dosage of Xanax.)
So now I’m not sure who I’m angry with. I would be a lot less angry if he would tell us the truth. His story a year and some months later, following charges of vehicular homicide, was that it was her idea to go out. It was her idea to go for a drive and to stop on the way home to buy counterfeit Percocet from a convenience store dealer. It was she who had given it to him—while he was driving (or perhaps while they were stopped at that stop sign). I believed his story then. It seemed plausible. But a clean toxicology proves that there is yet more to the story than we are being told.
Would I truly be less angry if I had the truth? I have given up hoping I will ever have it. Now I just hunger for more details, details that may or may not allow the pieces to fall into place. But perhaps more details, after all, will only muddy the waters. I know in my mind that a trial will not bring closure. Of all the outcomes I wish for him it is that he will get the help he needs. Jail alone will not be justice. I don’t necessarily want that for him. I do want him to talk to us, to tell us the truth, to respond when we text, to send us her things when we ask for them. Two years on we are only now getting the ashes we have requested a dozen times at least. Only now can we lay those ashes to rest and put a name on a stone that will memorialize her death more than her life. For that, for real closure, I know what I have to do. I have to write about it, because that is what I do. I’m going to write about these last six years that have been both the most traumatic and the most incredible of my life. I’m going to write about my father’s illness and death, the end of my marriage, the destruction of my faith, my would-be love affair that never happened (though we all pretend it did because it makes it easy to identify someone to pin the blame on), my brother’s death, my sister’s death, and how it all ties together.
There is more I could say here. I could talk about how, three days after my sister’s death, she came to me. She was so angry. She was angry about the way she died. She was just turning things around, starting over, starting new. Or was she? Is it not equally possible her life and the self-destructive cycle that had been her modus operandi so far, was simply a cycle of behavior she couldn’t get herself out of? Was this her exit point? Was there a part of her that chose this, even if it was subconsciously?
Of the thousands of questions I’m left with, to this, too, I’ll never have an answer. Not, at least, until I can join her and that party on the other side that gets larger and more raucous with every passing year.
Maybe this isn’t the way we should talk about the dead. Perhaps my anger is as much for the opportunity I was robbed of to develop a relationship with my sister wherein I was not the designated bad guy as much as for the fact that she is gone. But that difficultly, I know, was not her, that was the addiction. That was the tarot’s devil card. That was the vice that ruled her life and my brother’s life and my father’s life before them.
She did come back to me a month or so after the event. She came to apologize. My father was with her. They were sorry for the way they had treated me in this life. It helped a lot … for a time. Forgiveness, after all, is a process and not a linear one, but, truth be told, I wanted those apologies when they were living. I wanted a relationship with her that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol. Maybe I have that now. Maybe I’m still waiting.
In my mind, the conversation was interrupted. In my mind, there are ellipses.