Posted by Peat
Note: I wrote this post eight years ago on my old blog, but never migrated it to my new one. It was too personal, to make part of my online author persona. But now, with the event old enough to vote, I kind of feel ready to share again. With mild editing, the original post still holds up. It’s sad, and you may not want to read it.
It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It was also my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary. My dad got up early like he always does on weekends to go bike riding. When he got back, I was going to cook brunch for him and my mom, and then I think they had dinner plans.
But my dad’s bike hit a pothole and blew the front tire. He was sent headfirst into the pavement, breaking a rib that pierced his lung. I was just warming up the griddle when we got the call to rush to the hospital. We tried to call my brother, too, but he wasn’t at home, and this was before cellphones.
This wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that my dad had a biking accident. Injuries go hand in hand with sports, and he accepted that. He was in good spirits when we arrived, if a bit drugged. The rib hadn’t stayed embedded in his lung, and it had sealed itself back up like a self-repairing tire. He needed to stay overnight for observation, but he was going to be fine.
The days plans ruined, my mother and sister and I headed home. There was a police cordon up the block from us we had to drive around, but we didn’t really think anything of it. Someone must have had a fender-bender.
A few hours later, the police came knocking on our door. “Are you the mother of John Jr.?” they asked my mom.
Fuck! I thought. What’s Johnny done now? Bad enough dad’s in the hospital on their anniversary, but he has to go and get in trouble again, too?
In my defense, Johnny was ALWAYS getting in trouble. I’ll wager anything that the same thoughts were running through my sister and mother’s mind, which is why you could have heard a pin drop when the policewoman said, “There’s been an accident. Your son didn’t make it.”
Turns out Johhny didn’t answer the phone because he and his wife had been on his motorcycle, riding out to see my parents for their anniversary. Someone pulled out the wrong way of a one way parking entrance, and they didn’t have time to stop. The officer held my mom as she cried.
“What should we do?” my sister asked. “Should we call dad?”
I shook my head. “If we call him, he’s going to check himself out of the hospital, and start walking around with a punctured lung.” I sounded very sure of myself as I made a decision I had no moral right to make, and one I knew I would have resented the fuck out of if it had been made for me.
The police needed someone to identify the body, and again I took over, refusing to let my mother or sister do it. I went with the police to the station, and they left me alone in the morgue. I broke down crying there, and some nurse came in to put her arms around me. I pulled away, ashamed and furious that she had intruded on something so private. I know she only meant well, but if looks could kill, she would have dropped dead on the spot from the glare I gave her.
When I got back, I packed everyone in the car and drove us to the hospital where my brother’s wife was in intensive care. I held her hand as she came out of the anesthesia after who knows how many operations, and all I could think about was the ring they had to cut from her finger.
I sobbed and made her a promise. “You’ll always be my sister,” I said, “no matter what.”
“Great,” she mumbled sarcastically, rolling her eyes. I laughed in spite of myself.
It’s been 18 years now. I’d made a promise that all my family kept. My sister-in-law’s children are as much Cassie’s cousins as any bound by blood. I’ve made my peace with what happened long ago, but I still get melancholy on this day every year. It seems only right, and I wouldn’t change that feeling even if I could.
They say there are days that serve as markers in your life. There was your life before this day, and your life after this day, and the two will never be the same. September 11, 2001 was one such day for almost everyone, but we all have them. For me, May 24, 1997 was one of those days. There can be no denying that it changed my life forever. It estranged me from some people, and brought me closer to others, shaped how I look at the world and my friends, family, religion, and mortality. It affected everything so deeply that I wonder if I would even recognize myself if this hadn’t happened.
We are shaped as much by tragedy as we are joy.