Today is my sister Lisa's birthday. It is also the 40th anniversary of her death. I have thought over the years that it's better that she died on her birthday; at least there is only one day of remembering and grieving. Small consolation, I know. At times, it seemed that this day was my mother's day. My dad used to call me every year around this time and "remind" me that the 27th was coming, and "be sure and call your mother." As if I would ever, ever forget. It made me a little angry that it all seemed to be about my mom. That it was all her grief, her loss. Didn't my father lose a child too? It seemed that my grief and my loss was secondary. Which, I suppose it is, because how can you ever compare losing a sister to losing a child? Indeed, how can you compare an apple to an orange?
It is not such a searing pain these days, as 40 years can scar over just about anything that ails you. But it's still there. She was, as you can see, beautiful, and, according to my mom, "She was everything." Her talent was singing. One of the last memories I have of her before the accident was of her singing a solo in church. Standing up in the front in her green skirt. She sang solos in school recitals. She was in all the musicals, Carousel, Spoon River. When we lived in Brussels, she would bring her friends home with her, and they would take over the living room with their 12-string guitars. My dad would set up microphones and record their jam sessions on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. I would peek in from the kitchen. A few years ago I had those tapes converted to CDs and listened to her voice again. I thought it would be hard, but it wasn't. I actually thought to myself, "Well she wasn't THAT good!"
|Lisa, front & center, as a cheerleader at the American School in Japan|
She was funny. Sometimes at the dinner table, when we had very important guests from my dad's company, she would look over to my sister Debi and make a hand signal that said, "I cut one." Then it was up to Debi to maintain control and not fall on the floor laughing. Debi remembers a time at a Hallmark store, reading all the funny cards and cracking up. They went to an Elton John concert and Debi talks about the pure joy and excitement of just being there. They ran up to the stage at the end, while Elton played "Crocodile Rock". When they were driving together in Debi's Volkswagen Beetle, Lisa used to reach over and turn off the ignition. Debi was scared to death, but Lisa thought it was hysterical; she was the epitome of mischief.
My memories of her, from the perspective of the bratty little sister, include my constant refrain of "Those two get to do EVERYTHING!!" I remember banging on Lisa's bedroom door, begging to be let in while she had her friends over. I got into her makeup, and listened to her records. To this day, "Madman Across the Water" and Cat Stevens remind me of her. Especially the song, "Sad Lisa". Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) remain one of my favorite groups to this day, partly because they are amazing, and partly because they are emblematic of my sister's teenage years.
Being a high schooler in Brussels was magic. Over spring break Lisa went skiing in St. Moritz, Switzerland with a group from school. While she was away, my parents bought her a moped. I remember her arriving home, her face tanned from the slopes, and her excitement about the moped. It was "cool" to ride the motorbike to school with her girlfriends, rather than ride the bus. Mom and dad always insisted that she wear her helmet. Often the school bus would pass her and her posse of moped riders, and I would look out the window to see her hair flowing in the wind, the helmet strapped to the rack on the back. It wouldn't do to arrive at school with helmet-hair, I suppose.
My father became ill, necessitating our move back to Louisiana. Right before we left, Mom and Dad let Lisa and Debi take a trip to Spain with Lisa's boyfriend and his best friend. Alone, unchaperoned. I guess Debi was the chaperone. Ha! I was left behind while the movers came. My father had to be transported to the hospital one day, while strange men packed up our house. I was alone and afraid.
I know it was hard for Lisa to leave the magic that was Brussels. I was miserable too. In the early days back in Baton Rouge, I remember Lisa waking me up for school one day and I reflexively slapped her. She slapped me back. We were both deeply angry, and we took it out on each other. She started her senior year at a new school, Tara High. She was well on her way to recreating herself, and had been selected to join an elite chorus group. She was looking at colleges with music programs. She had the world by the tail.
I was twelve years old when "the accident" happened. It was a tender age for me, already damaged by the move and my father's illness, and I couldn't figure out if my later adolescent angst and confusion originated with losing my sister or being a Third Culture Kid. We moved to the Philippines two years after the accident. In the strange new place, I felt incomplete, unformed, awkward. I never fit completely in at school. I was on the fringes, trying hard to be Lisa, trying to recapture her spirit, her enthusiasm for life. Her joy.
I try not to fixate on my loss, but to celebrate her life. I named my first daughter after her, and in many ways, their personalities are similar. My mom said, over and over during the days after the accident, that she didn't want people to forget her. It's much easier to laugh about her antics these days. Yes, there will always be sadness, but it will be peppered with a lot of joy.