The juxtaposition of the gun violence debate and my sister’s birthday occurs this April 10th. That's her birthday. Well – it would have been her birthday, if she had lived longer than 27 years.
On July 13, 1979, I had just turned 18. I was living at home, with my parents, getting ready to go to college in August. It was a pretty good time for our family, a family that had seen some challenges and tragedy. My brother had survived Viet Nam, physically and emotionally, I had finished high school unscathed in any permanent way. My mother seemed to finally exhale. She’d lost her first husband to a brain tumor and a child to complications of spina bifida. She’d nursed my other brother through polio to see him recover sufficiently to be lied to by the Air Force about their plans for him and sat by the phone for the year he spent loading bombs on planes in Viet Nam.
There is this peculiar state of being, when something life changing has happened but you don’t know it yet – kind of a mundane psychological Schrodinger’s Cat scenario. Just before the phone rang early that morning, we resided in that particular Twilight Zone.
And then the phone rang. It was the days before cell phones, so the call meant every landline in our home jangled, and at 3 a.m., it’s as jarring as a scream. No one calls with good news at 3 a.m.
But sometimes they call by mistake. That was my hope. I lay in bed, literally holding my breath. I didn’t want to move to investigate. Perhaps if I lay very still, it would turn out to be a wrong number and my life would not change. Magical thinking – but what else did I have in my toolbox? Then I heard my parents rushing around and that hope collapsed. I remained paralyzed – a few more minutes of not knowing, a little more denial. I didn’t know what I’d find out, only that it was something I didn’t want to hear. I heard the door opening and was gripped by a new panic: whatever they’d learned had caused them to forget my presence altogether, and they were going to leave without telling me. I rushed out to the kitchen, and my mother, looking wild eyed, called to me as she left.
“Pray for your sister – she’s been shot.”
My parents didn’t tell me to pray. Not ever. Not even my mother, who had spiritual beliefs, unlike my agnostic-at-the-most father. I think that startled me as much as the second half of her sentence, which made no sense at all. My sister lived in what was then a good area of Chicago, Rogers Park, in a lovely three flat. She was talented, smart, and well loved by her family and friends. She was in a great relationship. She was as happy as I’d ever seen her. Somehow, I thought such things mattered when it came to being protected.
I sat up waiting to hear more. Around 9 a.m., the doorbell rang. It was our dear friend and neighbor. She was crying. I opened the door. She tried but couldn’t speak. This was not helping. I asked questions.
“Is she okay?” Judy could only shake her head and get out one sentence. “She’s on a respirator.”
I tried again. “Will she survive?” She shook her head. I remember thanking Judy; that could not have been an easy task.
So it took my sister five days to die, because even with a bullet from a 38 in her head, her body was young and strong and wanted to live. My parents and brother sat next to her while she slowly died, filled up with fluid as her kidneys failed, her beautiful strong body and face distorting so badly that the funeral director pleaded with my grandmother not to look at her, and would only let her do so after he’d put a veil over her face to shield us from some of the worst of the damage. She died and we buried her next to her father and brother.
There’s never been an arrest in my sister’s murder, so I don’t have a tale of justice, or lack of, to relate. I can say this, though: a murder in the family is like a bomb going off. The dust settles and everything is changed beyond recognition. I didn’t go to the school I had planned to go to, unable to leave my parents alone. For years, I thought that when anyone was late, they were dead. My children have no aunt, and now that my parents are elderly and frail, I have no sister to share the experience and responsibilities with.
My mother? She never recovered, never. Every April 10th, she mentions to me, almost incidentally, “today would have been your sister’s birthday – did you remember that?” One great fear, I think, of parents who lose their children is that they will be forgotten, having had too short a time to make much of a mark on the world. My sister, at least, was an adult. The parents of the really young, the not-yet-out-of-primary-school or younger – well, I can’t imagine.
I don’t know who killed my sister and in doing so, pretty much murdered my entire family in the process. I know it wasn’t a well regulated militia. I know no one was protected by her death. She died at home, not invading someone else’s. And I know, based on the police theory, that it wouldn’t have happened without a gun, because they believe, based on the logistics of the crime scene, that whomever shot her did so meaning to scare her – not hit her – and missed.
So April 10th would have been my sister's birthday. I remember. Always.
Anyway, offered for your consideration – from this corner of the uniquely America Twilight Zone. The one filled with fallout and consequences of an insane policy that has resulted in untold anguish.