Setting My Past on Fire 6:
My youngest sister, who is still one of my eight older sisters, has always been (dare I say) the closest of my siblings. Lisa. Just fourteen months and fourteen days older, she was more like a best friend than a sibling growing up. We played together. Read the Bible together. And for a short time, before two of my older sisters moved out and made room in the five-bedroom house we grew up in, we even shared the same bedroom. At ages 5 and 6, we looked so much alike, people mistook us for fraternal twins. The Bobbsey Twins, they called us, after the book series that was popular at the time. At family gatherings, if prompted, we even sang the Doublemint gum jingle, locked arm in arm, “Double your pleasure, double your fun,” like two identical twins camping it up for the camera in lockstep.
Anyway, as can happen with friends and even siblings, my sister and I grew apart. Eventually she went to business school. I went to art school. She got married and then moved to Florida. I stayed in Indiana. And that was that. We never really spoke much in our twenties. Or thirties. Come to think of it, even into our forties. But a few years ago, she and her husband and three boys had moved to the suburbs west of Chicago. So I found myself on day six of my two week exodus from the Mid-Atlantic and from my past, on my way from Indy to Chicagoland to visit Lisa and her family.
As had become the norm on this trip, and really ever since the killings had taken place just over a year prior, flashbacks from my past were coming fast and furious. Driving north on I-65, as it crossed over US 30, I saw an interstate sign for Michigan City and started to chuckle, thinking back to 1989. My friend Rick’s older sister was competing in the Miss Indiana Pageant in Michigan City, and the two of us were running late to watch the spectacle. Front row seats and backstage passes to see beautiful girls, two years older than us, wearing evening gowns and bathing suits? We were not going to miss it.
“How fast does this thing go?” Rick asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, sensing and immediately accepting his less than subtle dare with a side-eyed glance. This wasn’t some wannabe American muscle car, like the Firebird I drove back in high school. That wasn’t cool to me anymore. I was in art school now, and I only drove European speedsters. An ‘84 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible to be exact. You scoff, but this thing had serious zip. I had never tested its top speed on the highway, let alone with the top down. But I was feeling more than up for the challenge. I stepped on the gas and immediately the wind came rushing in from over the top of the windshield. 80. 90. Then 100 miles per hour. The car began to shake, and so did we, from shear laughter. The corn, now as high as the car, flanking both sides of the road as far as our eyes could see, was a blur of green. Now at 110 mph, we were making great time. And then I saw something I didn’t understand.
“What’s that?” I shouted to Rick, the speed and wind making it otherwise impossible to be heard.
“Where?” Rick shouted back.
“There,” I yelled, pointing ahead and to the left at a strange low hanging cloud, seemingly just inches over the top of the tassels of corn. The car was going so fast that I nearly lost control just lifting my hand from the steering wheel for that mere second. I quickly grabbed hold of the wheel with both hands but my eyes remained fixed on the cloud.
“Whoa,” he replied. “What is that?”
Whatever the dark cloud was, it wasn’t stationary. It seemed to be moving. And fast.
“If that’s a thunderstorm, we’re headed right into it,” I said with a mix of trepidation and excitement.
“This’ll be interesting,” Rick laughed out loud.
The accelerator was glued to the floor, and I wasn’t letting up. And neither was the mysterious mass in the sky, now appearing to be a strange shade of brown. “I think it’s just a dust cloud,” I shouted. “Probably from the fields.” As we drove further, it got closer and closer to the highway. It was as though we had engineered the whole thing, meticulously calculating a rendezvous between the space shuttle and the International Space Station, we on our trajectory, the dust cloud on its own. A collision course with destiny.
“We’re totally going through it,” I hollered as it came closer, then closer and closer. And then, impact! The rapid-fire sound of a thousand thuds struck my windshield in a gooey splat.
“Fuckin’ bees!” Rick screamed uncontrollably, as dozens of dead bees and a few live ones got sucked into the vacuum of the open roof. I slammed on the breaks, laying a thick layer of black rubber onto the highway for hundreds of feet. When the car finally came to a stop on the shoulder, we both jumped out and began flailing about, shaking our heads, wiping dead and dazed bees off ourselves and each other. And then the laughter started again, this time to the point of tears.
Thirty years later, the tears were still coming, slapping the steering wheel in uncontrollable laughter. I hadn’t laughed like that in so long. Then catching a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror, it suddenly felt so wrong. Although it had been over a year since my wife had killed herself and my girlfriend, it still didn’t feel right to be laughing. About anything. I wiped my eyes and sobered up, and the familiar cloud of sadness and grief appeared like a comforting, heavy blanket. Just like that, the tears of laughter had become tears of grief and despair, a disorienting rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows I had grown accustomed to, accepting it as my penitence for loving too much and not enough.
By the time I turned into my sister’s driveway, an hour later, I managed to pull myself together, checking my red puffy eyes one last time for any stray tears. This overnight visit was just the distraction I needed. Walking up to the porch, I took in a deep breath at the familiar scene. I had never been there before. But the pristine yard. The neighborhood. A bittersweet reminder of the first house Jennair and I had shared some twenty years before.
Lisa opened the door and after giving her a quick obligatory hug, I handed her two bottles of wine, a red and a white. Minutes later, standing at the center island of her beautifully appointed kitchen, I was greeted by her husband and two oldest boys who I hadn’t seen since they were just kids. Noah, now 19 and Wyatt, now 22, were surprisingly tall and athletic looking. But most strikingly both looked so much like I had looked at that age, not surprising I suppose, given the striking resemblance my almost twin sister and I had shared for so many years. While Lisa began to uncork the bottle of red, I decided to just get it out of the way.
“Well, you’re going to find out soon enough,” I warned. “Last week, before I left Philly, I did an interview for 20/20.” The corked popped loudly, as if timed to be the perfect exclamation mark.
“You what?” Lisa exclaimed.
“Oh, and it will air next month. And I wrote a book,” I said, waiting nervously for my sister’s response. I didn’t know what to expect. It could have gone either way.
“That’s amazing,” she exclaimed, pouring a glass for each of us. “I think that’s exactly what you needed to do. Tell the truth.”
“To the truth,” I toasted, raising my glass.
“To the truth,” they returned, clinking our glasses together.
The truth is I hadn’t known how much I had needed their support until that moment. My decisions to write a book and share my story with ABC 20/20 were fraught with uncertainty. I still had no idea how they might be received. But I just knew I couldn’t stay silent anymore.
Later that evening, as I got reacquainted with my nephews at dinner, I reflected on all the things they didn’t know about the world and hadn’t yet experienced. They still had their whole lives ahead of them to shape just the way they wanted. Noah, a Private in the US Army, was about to be deployed somewhere in eastern Africa. And Wyatt, a recent college graduate, was hoping to launch his career as a filmmaker. I wanted so much to warn them not to make the mistakes their uncle had made. I wanted to warn them about every possible hidden danger. But I stopped myself. Life is messy and living your life by trying to avoid mistakes and heartaches isn’t much of a life, I reasoned. So instead I just listened, taking in the wide-eyed hopefulness of their plans and uninhibited aspirations. I envied them. But mostly I was proud of them.
The next morning, just after dawn broke, Wyatt joined me on a run through the sprawling suburban neighborhood. He told me about an upcoming job interview and asked for my advice. Just be yourself, I told him. And show them what you can do for them. As much as you want a job, don’t accept it if you don’t feel like it’s the right fit. Because eventually, that right fit will come along.
At a stop light, we stopped to catch our breath. “What are you going to do with your career, now?” he asked.
“That’s a really great question,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Truth is, I have no idea. But I know I’ll figure it out.” In that moment, I realized that I too still had my whole life ahead of me. A rare chance for a new start.
Later that morning, leaving my sister’s neighborhood, I pulled over and stopped. And with a smile on my face, I hit the switch to put down the top. It was too nice a day not to. Back on the road, surrounded by corn on both sides and nothing but blue sky above me, I fixed my eyes on the horizon, alert for any unexpected dark clouds lurking above the corn. Cause you just never know.