Half my current lifetime ago, on a busy highway in the Mojave of California, my two eldest brothers died in a grey 1987 Honda Civic. Neither of them were wearing a seat belt, neither of them suffered more than a few seconds. A few seconds. Long enough to exhale a breath, for the heart to beat a few times, for a head to settle on the shoulder of the brother sitting in the driver's seat.
Half my life ago I was a sixteen year-old with a learners' permit and a crush on a boy named Zach. Naive and relatively unfettered, living in what had to be the whitest place in America, where autonomy was not being a member of the dominant religion, I had no idea about the horrors of humanity and that terrible things could happen to my family. We didn't even have to lock our doors at night. But in an instant, that sixteen year-old who wore overalls to high school during sophomore year in January 1999 was jolted from Utopia by a single-car accident in the desert.
I've been working on an essay about Tom and Andy, about their deaths and our family. It's tentatively titled "An Incomplete Family History", a title which (I think) has many different meanings and interpretations. It's not part of what will be my thesis project, but I hope to submit it for workshop at some point this semester. The problem I'm having is filling in the holes. A few of my peers at Columbia read the first draft for me and gave me some great feedback about where I need to add and explicate. It's easy for me to read it and fill in the details because I was there and I experienced it all. It's hard, though, to write what was so long ago.
As of January 6th, the day they died sixteen years ago, I've lived more time on this earth without them than with them. It's strange how certain memories fade, like Christmas of 1998 when we were all together for the last time, while certain others remain so vivid that I most certainly just walked into my apartment from my parents' dining room circa January 7th, 1999. The day after they died isn't a blur to me. It just happened. I was just there; standing in the dining room, against the wall next to the big window, staring at the dining table. A huge flower arrangement was now resting in the middle of the large rectangular table. Smaller ones were filling the living room tables and the kitchen counters.
The dining table was covered in a table cloth but the surface was filled with trays of food. Deli meats and cheeses, cookies, fruit and vegetable trays, bags of rolls to make sandwiches with the meats and cheeses on the trays. So much food, so many flowers, all before noon. We only found out they were gone at 9:30 the night before, roughly six hours after the accident. How had friends and neighbors heard so quickly?
I stood in that corner, shielded from view of the front door by a wall that jutted out to create an archway into the living room, and stared coldly at the cookies and rolls and meat. Tom didn't eat meat. And he was a diabetic like me. He would've hated the attention his death was garnering from people he didn't know. Andy would've schmoozed and charmed all the people calling on the incessantly ringing phone, greeted all the visitors hanging on the bell with condolences and flowers, sympathy and food.
Beneath my feet the carpet was dark brown, same as it'd always been. I could see the upright piano in the living room through the archway, it's top is now sullied - or adorned? - by flowers. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I'd gone to school early that morning to talk to my teachers and tell them what happened. The formidable English teacher Ms. Ause made me wait in a show of authority then hugged me and shed a few tears when I told her why I wouldn't be in class for the next few weeks. She had Andy in her class when he went to Cottonwood.
I wished the phone would stop ringing and the doorbell would stop dinging. Let us figure out what we're supposed to do now, how we're to adjust to this grand loss, how we feel before you call and come by to unconsciously be consoled because you don't know how to feel or react when a friend has just lost two sons, two brothers, at the same time.
A sixteen year-old, not knowing what to do, knowing to be gracious but not wanting to, accepting the kindness of her community but resenting it at the same time. Wanting to go back to December 28th and telling her brothers not to go to California. The trip wouldn't end well for the rest of the family.
I can recall that day as if it were ten minutes ago, but I cannot remember the last Christmas I spent in my brothers' physical presence. They both went to Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeline though we're Mormon and not Catholic. They gave me an Old Navy gift card, I remember that because I was wearing the pajamas I'd bought with it when the chaplain and police officers came to our house to give us the news of their deaths.
Generic scenes of me and my siblings sitting on the floor and the sectional in the living room, around the Christmas tree, opening gifts flash through my mind. It could have been any Christmas a few years prior and a few years following. I don't have a specific memory of Tom and Andy there. I can see my sister sitting on the couch in a pretty light blue wrap sweater, but she's pregnant so that was Christmas 2001. She wasn't pregnant in 1998.
The twenty-fourth day of December in the year of our Lord two thousand and fourteen, my family was together in its entirety for the first time in three years. Both my remaining brothers and their wives, my sister and her husband, my five nieces and four nephews, my parents, and me. Eighteen of us in total. We had to forgo our traditional roast pork and Yorkshire pudding Christmas Eve dinner because we were too large a party. After dinner, as we've done for the last fifteen Christmas Eves, we went to Murray City cemetery and lit six luminarias at the base of the bench that reads Jackman, over by the cannon.
For much of the second half of my current lifetime I've wondered how different it would've been if that accident hadn't happened on January 6th, 1999. Now I've either gotten wise or used to it enough to not wonder, to know that their time was finished. I don't know why their lifetimes were so short, eight and nine years shorter than mine is right now. But when my entire lifetime is complete, I know I'll get to see them again and ask them what they've been doing in the meantime.