copyright Ellen Hrkach
I wrote “The Death of Me; The Life of Us,” short fiction, for Image and Likeness: Literary Reflections on the Theology of the Body, available on Amazon. Special thanks to Erin McCole Cupp and Dena Hunt for editing assistance. Below is an excerpt:
“Sarah, you’re too young to read the death notices,” my mother always said. But here I sat at the college library, eyes focused on the obituary section of the newspaper — yes, I still preferred to read an actual newspaper rather than digital.
I also attended funerals of people I barely knew. In the years following my sister’s death, I found strange comfort in learning how other people faced the death of a loved one.
What does death look like? It’s a polished maple casket lowered into the ground, people in black clothes with somber faces, a granite headstone with a name etched on it.
What does death sound like? It’s a priest speaking in monotone. People sobbing. Moaning. Sometimes it sounds like the silence of this quiet library.
What is grief? It’s a space in your heart reserved for those you love who have died and can no longer return that love. It’s an emptiness, a hollow at the base of your throat that rises up and catches when you think of the person you love who is now gone.
What is guilt? It’s the realization that it is my fault that the person I love most is now dead. It’s the dark, rigid rock that holds a conscience captive and continues to torture my soul nine years later.
The blur of the van slamming into her unexpecting body is an image that is burned into my memory. So is the screeching of the brakes and the thud of the van striking her. I was only nine years old that hot and muggy August day. But it was the end of my childhood.
“Let’s play tag,” I said to my six-year-old sister, Rosie.
“No! Wanna go back inside. It’s too hot out.” Her blond hair hung in wet strips, and her clothes were damp from running back and forth through the sprinkler.
“Come on. We’ll play tag, then we can run through the sprinkler again.” I touched her shoulder. “You’re it,” then I ran across our neighbor’s lawn. I wasn’t paying attention. I just didn’t want her to catch me, so I ran as fast as I could and ran into the street. I had made it to the other side when I heard screeching. I turned just in time to see the van slam into her small body. The man behind the wheel, bigger than Dad, got out and stood over my sister’s body, his mouth open. Then he covered his face with his hands and began to weep.
I couldn’t move, nor could I take my eyes from her. Rosie lay on the road, her white Danskin shirt now streaked in bright red-orange. Blood covered her head like a cap, her body twisted like a rag doll. I stared, wide-eyed, unable to move as hope welled up within me when I saw her body twitch. All of a sudden, she was still.
It was quiet, the humming of the neighborhood air conditioners and the man’s deep crying played like the background noise of a TV show. I heard a scream. I looked up to see my mother racing across the lawn and into the street. Bellowed sobs consumed her as she scooped up Rosie’s little body. Drops of liquid trickled from my sister’s bottom, creating a dotted trail on the black road as she carried my sister onto our lawn.
Mom collapsed, Rosie’s blood smearing her shirt, hands and face. She screamed over and over again, “No!”
I’m not sure how much time passed, but I stayed in the same spot in the street. I wasn’t able to move, so I stared at the wetness on the black street, one tiny sandal in the midst of it all.
Only moments before, Rosie was a happy girl who loved everything about life. Now she was gone. And it was my fault.
The squeal of sirens echoed in the distance and became louder until I couldn’t hear anymore — it was too much for me to think, to hear. My eyes continued to stare, but everything became a cloud of colors moving in front of me. Flashing lights. Badged, uniformed shirts in shades of blue. A black and yellow stretcher. The shadows inside the back of an ambulance.
I felt someone’s arms around me and the mumble of words. I blinked and glanced upward. It was Mrs. Grayson, our next door neighbor. “Sarah, did you see what happened?” My mouth was open, but nothing would come out.
Finally I was able to speak, but all that came out was: “It’s my fault.”
In the ensuing weeks and months after Rosie’s death, I couldn’t talk about her or her death. I couldn’t even say the words “Rosie’s death.” At the viewing and funeral, I kept my head down as relatives and friends passed by. I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything. I could hear mournful sounds coming from my parents’ bedroom every night for weeks.
School and life became a fog as one month blended into the next. I stayed away from Mom as much as I could. She wouldn’t want the person responsible for Rosie’s death to talk to her.
Mom never once blamed me, not with words, anyway. She tried to get me to talk to a grief counselor, but I refused. All I did was wake up, go through the motions of each day, and sleep. Every night I wished that I would have a dream about Rosie. The only dream I ever had was a nightmare replaying the moment the van hit her. She was on the road, her eyes open, her small voice saying, “I don’t want to play tag.” I wished I could tell her one more time I loved her. I wished I could tell her that I was sorry.
If I hadn’t asked her to play tag, if we hadn’t been outside, if I hadn’t run across the street…if, if, if. I should have protected her. I shouldn’t have led her into the street. It should’ve been me who was struck by that van.
I didn’t — wouldn’t — cry, either. Every time a sob crept up the back of my throat, I shoved it back down again. I had no right to cry. I had no right to talk. I had no right to live. It was my fault.
We weren’t much of a praying family, but I did believe in God. I tried to pray many times. How could God let her die? Why didn’t He save her? Why didn’t He stop me from playing tag with her? Why didn’t He stop me from running across the street? I was angry at the birds for continuing to sing, and mad at the whole world that moved along as if Rosie had never been a part of it. Eventually, I saw that life was continuing for my parents and brothers. How could the world just continue when my world had ended?
“Is anybody sitting here?”
I didn’t even look up at the guy asking.
I was having lunch at the library. My preference would’ve been for him to leave me alone, but I shrugged. I soon would learn that Jack was persistent to the point of being annoying.
“I’m Jack.” He held out his hand to me.
“Sarah,” I whispered. “Be quiet. We’re in a library.” I shook his hand and he sat down beside me. That’s when I finally looked at him. He was a pleasant enough looking boy: blond, wavy California hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked, keeping his voice soft.
I answered but kept reading. “The Funeral Practices of the Ancient Egyptians.”
I looked up just in time to see his eyebrows lift.
Every Wednesday after that, he was there at that same table at the college library. Sometimes he would offer to share a muffin or other snack. Most of the time I sat there, quiet, reading. He kept the topic of conversation superficial: the weather, current events, sports.
“Our baseball team is going to the semi-finals.”
He nodded. “I play second base.”
“There’s a game at the college baseball field next Wednesday, so I won’t be able to meet you here.”
His eyes widened. “Hey, why don’t you come and watch?”
I was never a big fan of sports, but the way he looked at me, so expectant, I surprised even myself, saying, “Sure, okay.”
I went to the semi-finals and watched the game. Jack actually hit a home run, and I found myself cheering with the rest of the spectators. But his team lost. I waited for him after the game.
“A home run. Wow.”
“Well, we lost, but we did our best.” He hesitated. “Want to go grab a bite to eat?”
I scowled. “I thought we were just friends.”
“Can’t two friends grab a pizza?”
There was still a part of me that wanted him to leave me alone; I hadn’t really had any friends since Rosie died. The way I saw it, I didn’t deserve friends.
Jack and I continued seeing each other on Wednesdays. He always did most of the talking, though. I learned that he had three older sisters and that he was attending college (majoring in microbiology) on a baseball scholarship. He liked pizza and hiking. He was an amateur photographer. We eventually began texting.
My mother pestered me about my “new friend, Jack.”
“He’s just a friend, Mom.”
“Oh,” she responded, her eyes lowering in disappointment.
To read the rest of the story, click here to purchase Image and Likeness on Amazon.