You have heard “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”? Death happens the same way: how it seems to creep around your life and lunge at you when you’re distracted. Nothing has been so subversive to my life as the death of my sister.
Six months ago Thursday my life was good. A new apartment with my girlfriend, a steady paycheck, a vibrant sense of creativity, and a general happiness. That morning around ten my father and I were on the phone negotiating the transfer of a couch from their house to my apartment. Neither of us owned a vehicle suitable to the task, and he mentioned that he and mom might consider replacing one of their aging cars with an SUV. I replied with a litany of objections and finally directed, “Don’t get an SUV.” He said, “We’ll see.”
About the time our conversation ended, Amanda Skolnick, my 20-year-old sister, must have left her Iowa City apartment for work. There was a problem with her car’s manifold, so she decided to walk. A few blocks up the street, at the corner of Linn and Burlington, she waited for the walk signal and, when it came, started across the street. I don’t know if the left-turn signal was lit when the kid driving the Ford Explorer entered the intersection, but I know the result. All five-foot-two of her against this monstrosity of a machine. When my dad called me at work some part of me understood I’d never speak with her again.
I remember clearly things we saw along the way to the hospital: the overturned car by the Crystal Lake convenience store, the construction traffic in Marengo, the ad sheet above the urinal at the truck stop in Rochelle, Bodhi limping when we left her at Jenn’s mom’s house in Silvis, the jam on the bridge across the Mississippi, the wrong turns through Iowa City. When Jenn and I finally arrived I saw my little sister bruised, unconscious, and wired to machines.
We made phone calls, we spoke with doctors and the detective, we coached Amanda to over-breathe the respirator and believed it was working, we spoke to her, we cried, and we waited. She survived the night and much of Friday. My heart dropped with each of the numbers on the respirator, and then with the heart monitor.
When we emerged from the hospital — as helpless and empty as I’ve ever felt in my life — everything was an insult: traffic, billboards and commercials on the radio, smiling faces of people on the sidewalk. It seems life should have stopped at that moment, as ours did.
Even now business-as-usual is a farce. My life has not resumed; I doubt it can. The world around me seems absurd and vicious.
Death is subversive in the way it pulls your certainties out from under you. I was certain that I would always have my sister. No matter what else failed me — employment, love, health, faith — and even if we had fought and weren’t speaking she would still exist and be my sibling somewhere in the world. There would at least be a chance of reconciliation. I don’t have that hope anymore.
Nor do I have any consolation. Many well-meaning people have told me I’ll see her in heaven; others say I can count on the promise of the Resurrection; these both aim to counteract or distract me from her absence. A friend who lost her father told me death is a scar on the heart; hers is the most accurate and sensitive description, because a scar reminds its bearer of a wholeness violently and irrecoverably attacked. The tissue does not form and function as it did; I can’t simply pick up the pieces of my life from where they fell six months ago and again be that person I was.