It will be 22 years this December since my sister died. It is hard to believe. She has been gone longer than she was alive.
Camille, my sister, was killed in a car accident when I was 16. She was 21. It was early in the morning, Christmas Eve day. My entire family was spending the holiday at my Aunt’s house in California. Everyone was there; cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone except Camille. Camille had gotten married when she was 19 and was living in Iowa with her husband. I don’t know why she hadn’t come for Christmas. There is so much of that night that I still don’t know about to this day. So many details, that, at 16, no one wanted to tell me, and, still today, I don’t really want to know. I feel like an ostrich with its head in the sand. The fact is, she’s gone and knowing details won’t make a bit of difference.
What I remember is being woken up by the oddest sound. It sounded like an animal wailing. It definitely was not human. It must have been fairly loud to wake me as I was a good sleeper at the time. I later learned it was my father. I never knew a person could make a sound like that. I went back to bed, but my dad came in later, sat on my bed and said, “Camille’s been killed in a car accident”. Just like that. No buffer, no “l have something to tell you,” just..... that. I remember I laughed. My Dad is known for his good and sometimes warped sense of humor, and somehow I just knew the punch line was around the corner, but he just got up and left and my Aunt came in. Somewhere along the line it became a reality. I heard the words “drunk driver”, and that another car was involved. To this day I don’t know if the drunk driver was in Camille’s car or the other one. I only know that everyone else involved walked away from the accident. Only my sister was injured. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and was thrown through the windshield. She was flown by life flight to the nearest hospital, but I don’t think she survived the flight.
The rest of the weekend is a blur. The next day was Christmas, but I have no memory of it. I remember being in Iowa and seeing her husband and feeling so bad for him. They were fighting at the time of the accident so he didn’t go out with her that night. We took her back to Texas to be buried. I felt very helpless and useless and alone.
My mother and Camille never got along so she went to live with my grandmother when she was 15 and I was 10. When my parents split two years later I was the only one to choose my mother in the divorce so I hadn’t spent more than the requisite Christmas holiday with my sister since I was 10. At the time of her death my mom and I lived in California, so being back in Texas, I felt like an outsider in my own hometown. Everyone there saw my sister on a day-to-day basis. Some how I didn’t feel I had the right to mourn her because they knew her better than her own sister. So I cried quietly to myself and tried not to get in the way. My sister Claire had her own new husband; my dad had his girlfriend. At some point, I realized my brother was alone as well. He is six years older than me and I just didn’t think he would need to lean on his little sister, but, when I watched him pass her coffin, I saw such pain on his face that my gut reaction was to just go to him. We sat there hugging each other and I didn’t feel so alone.
There were two other things that made me feel that, in some way, I belonged. First, my dad let me pick out the marker.That might sound odd, but having that little bit of a choice in a situation I had no control over helped me feel grounded. I picked out a stone with roses engraved on it. I just remember thinking it was pretty and that Camille would like it. Then, when I looked in her casket, I saw things that I’m guessing my dad had brought; her cheerleading pin and I think her bible was in there. I can’t remember what else, but it was full of things from her life and I remember being so sad because there was nothing from me. I felt like we had missed out on so much of each other’s lives that I just wanted her to have something from me in death. I was wearing a gold pinky ring so I asked if she could have it. The mortician put it on her finger, and for whatever reason, I felt relief. At least she would have something from me. That’s really all I remember about her immediate death.
At first, when I came back from the funeral, things seemed normal. I didn’t live with her and, because she and my mother didn’t speak, phone calls had been rare. So life went on. During the day it would cross my mind and my stomach would drop. I would remember something she said or did or someone would ask me about my family and it would hit me again.
I remember asking my father at the funeral, “ What do I say now when someone asks me how many siblings I have?” It seems like such a silly question, but I still don’t know how to answer it properly. “I have 3 siblings” doesn’t seem right. It is too present tense and feels like a lie. But I don’t want to say “I had a sister” because I feel that dismisses her presence in my life. And I definitely feel her in my life, now more than ever.
The immediate searing pain of losing her has passed, but the dull aching pain has increased over time. When you are 16, you can’t grasp the gravity of losing someone and how much it’s going to affect your whole life. Every milestone I’ve ever had has had a trace of sadness because she’s not here to share in it. She wasn’t at my wedding. My boys will never know their Aunt Camille.
When Camille went to live with my grandma, I remember thinking to myself that someday we’d have a chance to be close again. Someday I’d have my own phone and we’d call each other, and visit and share advice about kids.... someday. I was only 16, so I try not to beat myself up for not trying harder to keep in touch with her. But, if i’d known that I wouldn’t get a ‘someday’, I would have written, I would have called, I would have told her I loved her. That’s not something sisters say to each other a lot, at least not in my family, but I would have said it. That’s what hurts me the most. That’s what I lie awake thinking about. Did she know how much I really loved her? My memories of her are so few and it seems like the ones that stand out are the ones where we were fighting. The ones where I said, “I hate you! Get out of my room!” Isn’t that sad? I distinctly remember saying “I hate you” but I’m not sure I told her “I love you”. I know we had good memories too, but for some reason, it’s easier to remember the bad ones.
One of the byproducts that I’m still dealing with is resentment towards my parents. I love them both very much, but, under all that, is the resentment at how badly they let the divorce divide the family. I was 12 when they divorced and my mom and I moved away. If I wanted to talk with my family in Texas, I was pretty much left to my own devices since my mother and father refused to speak to each other. How they thought I would have the know how to cultivate a relationship with siblings who were 1500 miles away is beyond me. I blame them for the fact that I’m not particularly close with any of my siblings, but especially Camille. I can’t understand why they let they’re own feelings hinder what turned out to be the last years I had with my sister. Now that I’m a mother myself, it mystifies me even more.
There is a saying that goes something like “I wouldn’t change anything that happened because it’s made me who I am today.” I would disagree with that, because, of course, I would give anything to have my sister here now. But I will say that I’ve learned a lot of life lessons because of what happened. No matter what happens between my husband and me, our children will always come first. I tell my children I love them everyday, and I encourage them to tell it to each other. I tell my husband I love him everyday, because I know I may not get that chance again. I try not to live in fear of losing someone again, but I have seen how real the possibility it is. I know first hand how fragile life is, so I can’t help being neurotic sometimes. Like when my husband takes his seat belt off for a second to hand the boys something. Or when we leave our kids overnight at their grandparents’ who live on the water. Or any time someone other than me has the kids in a car..... I admit, I stress out. My husband doesn’t always understand, but, until you’ve watched your own father lean over the casket and kiss his daughter on the lips for the very last time, you can’t understand. You just can’t. The fear of losing one of my own children can sometimes be crippling.
Now I’m married and I have two little boys of my own. The pain hits at odd times now, but for the most part I’ve made peace with it. I’m not a religious person, I don’t really believe in “heaven” and “hell.” I do believe in a Higher Power, but I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that is. The one idea that gives me peace and helps my neurosis is thinking that she is somewhere watching out for me and my family. The last thing I do before I leave my children with anyone is to ask Camille to watch over the boys and protect them. I use her as my own personal bodyguard and I can’t tell you how much better it makes me feel.
A few years ago, this was probably 15 years after she died, she came to me in a dream. I knew she was already dead and I remember I looking at her and crying and telling her how much I loved her and did she know? Did she know while she was alive how much I loved her? She looked at me and smiled and said, “yes,” she always knew I loved her. It was the most realistic dream I have ever had. I woke up crying, but I felt so at peace. Something about that dream gave me the closure I never had.
I wish everyday I could have my sister back. I wonder what life would be like if she were still here, what my family dynamic would be like. My family has never been the same, especially my dad. We hide pain with jokes. We don’t ask a lot of deep questions. I think everyone has been walking on eggshells for the past 22 years. The walls have been built up so high, I don’t even know how to begin to break them down.
But the family that I have created, my husband and sons..... we talk, we laugh, we love. There will be no walls in my family. I tell my boys about their Aunt Camille. They ask questions that sometimes make me cry, but I say that’s good! I don’t hold back. I want them to see how special a sibling bond should be! I want them to understand that they need to appreciate each other even when they are wrestling on the floor and sitting on each others’ head! So, yes, I’m happy with who I am today. I’m happy in life. I actually consider myself lucky because I’ve come through all this and remained fairly sane. I’ve taken some knocks and learned some hard lessons, but I don’t take life for granted. Everyday with my children is a gift and I know that better than anyone.