I once read an article or story where the author argued that anniversaries are pointless. The author proceeded to mention that the only purpose of anniversaries is to celebrate an event and have a party.
Today is the one year anniversary of my sister Jayla's death. It's also the one year anniversary of my mother's paralysis and my brother's silence.
It would be an understatement to say that the last year has been difficult. As if it wasn't enough to lose Jayla, my favorite person in the world. Maybe you're not supposed to have favorites among your siblings, but Jayla was always mine. Tom, my older brother, was just always so stiff towards me. When Jayla was born, I was just a kid. I felt an instant bond even the day my mother brought her home from the hospital. My dad, who left about two years later, laughed and said, "These kids are inseparable. Let's see how they do when Kevin goes to school."
I've thought a lot about Jayla's death the last year. I've had a lot of time to think, see. My mother doesn't quite open up like she used to. She barely ever moves from this one spot by the window, where she can see a tree she planted with Jayla when Jayla was four and went to school. I remember when the tree was just a sapling, but now it's quite tall, and in a few years it'll be a full tree. My mother sits and watches it all day long, like she has nothing else to do. Sometimes she'll come to me and say she wants to go outside, and then I'll wheel her out to the garden. But even that's rare. It's easy to think out there, because nobody in my house talks anymore. Tom literally stopped speaking after the accident. The psychologist says he's capable of speech, but he just won't. Speak, that is.
Some stupid, very not tactful kid asked me once, "So what happened to you?" My reaction was, at the time, to shove the kid. I ended up getting the crap beaten out of me. My mother wasn't pleased in the least, but she never talked about it, and I never explained myself. If anyone left the accident more scarred, it was me.
I remember the day clearly. We were just driving. Mom had decided that today would be a good day to take us to the beach. It was the sort of day that we all loved – warm, but not bright. The sky was gray, meaning the water would be rough, choppy, endless, and blue-gray. Each one of us had a certain fondness for blue-gray. All of us have – had – blue-gray eyes. Jayla's eyes are gone, now, and Mom's eyes have faded away to steel gray with no blue spark.
It was a nice day, and we were driving down to the beach. Just another Sunday. Just another Sunday. Just another Sunday in the middle of May, before finals. Tom was a senior then, and I was a junior. Jayla was only a freshman. I'm a senior now and Tom's nothing. Before the next school year, I called up Tom's college of choice and told them that he would unfortunately be unable to attend their school the next year. They promised that his acceptance was on hold – he can go back whenever he wants.
But that day, that fateful Sunday in May… We were driving, talking, laughing. And then came the accident. They always say that "life shattering accident". But it wasn't life-shattering. With Jayla gone, it was like all need for life disappeared. Mom lost her will to fight for life the moment the car skidded and crashed into the other car. Jayla's body flew, Mom's body snapped, I lay on the pavement for five minutes, stunned by the pain from my broken arm, and Tom… Nobody knows what happened to Tom. He hasn't spoken since that day.
"And the beach is so lovely on days like these," Jayla said, clapping her hands. "We'll swim, and…"
"Jayla, stop talking already," Tom said, turning around from his seat in the front. "Mom, make her shut up already."
"Oh, come on, Tom! She's excited!"
"Yeah, but there's a difference between being excited and chattering endlessly about it," I pointed out, unable to hide my grin. "Sorry, Jay."
"Kevin, you're mean!" Jayla laughed as we began to fake fight.
"Hey, you kids better stop fighting back there," Mom warned. "We can just as easily turn back and go home."
"No, Mom! Kevin and I are just playing."
Those are Jayla's last words. "Kevin and I are just playing" It seems to sum up our relationship perfectly. Jayla and I were unnaturally close, and then… One accident is all it takes for your world to come tumbling down. And my accident came on that day.
It's been one year since Jayla's died. When I flew out of the car, I couldn't move. For five minutes, I just lay there, feeling pain like I'd never felt it before. That was the only time I'd ever broken a bone. It must have been from the impact of hitting the ground… But those five minutes are what scarred me. Maybe when you look at me now, you can't see it, but in those five minutes, Jayla was still alive. And when I finally stood up and walked to her, she wasn't.
They always say that you shake a dead person because you think they're just sleeping. I didn't think Jayla was sleeping. I thought she was faking it. I sat down next to her and said, "Come on, Jayla. I know you're faking. Don't do this. Hold on. I know you're faking!" She wasn't, and for the last year I've been faced with the thought that had I come during those five minutes of intense pain, I might have saved her.
I woke up this morning feeling heavy. Not heavy, like fat, but heavy with thoughts and feelings. This morning's no different than any other morning, you could say. But that's not true. Mom decided this morning would be the first time she'd drink since Jayla's death. By the time I came down for breakfast, she had taken her first shot.
"Mom, don't drink," I said quietly as I sat down to eat. "Where's Tom? I've got that thing at school today." She shrugged, and rolled away. There was a whole vodka bottle on her lap, and it seemed that she intended to spend the whole day drowning in it. It's not like I could stop her, so I just went back upstairs to get my backpack and make sure Tom had woken up.
He was awake and sitting on his bed, staring at his unlaced shoes. He looked up when I entered, and pointed to his calendar. There was a small black smudge on the date, like he had written something but had then decided to blot it out.
"Yes," I answered, understanding him perfectly. "It's today. Can you come at lunch?" My brother sat silently for a moment (not that it's strange), and then pointed at his feet. There was something dulled in his eyes today, and they resembled Mom's grayness. "We'll go visit her. I promise. Listen… I've got to go to school, okay? You'll come?" Tom looked away and nodded. "Keep an eye on Mom until you go to work, alright?" Tom nodded again, and I grimaced. "See you later."
I realized at some point earlier in the year that my life was like one constant monologue. The only times I had full conversations were when my dad visited (once every few months), and occasionally at school. I should probably mention that while I wasn't popular before the accident, I was generally well-liked. Since then, I've lost all of my friends. I've heard claims that I'm now "emo". Another former friend described me as moody and taciturn. I'll admit, I'm not as cheerful as I once was, but my sister died. Sorry that I'm grieving.
So today. I went to school with that heavy feeling in my chest getting harder to carry around the closer I got to school. Maybe I should explain why. You see, my school decided to make a memorial service for Jayla. And I was part of it.
On top of everything else, I now had to stand up in front of the whole school and explain my thoughts on the person I loved most in the world. I now had to say a eulogy to my "dead-for-a-year" sister. In a sense, it's even worse than the funeral.
The funeral. Ah. There's an event I wouldn't like to repeat. It was liked closing the door on Jayla, and none of us were ready to do that yet. Mom came in a wheelchair, I came in a cast, and Tom came in what we thought would be a temporary silent stage. That was when we still hoped that Mom might recover and that Tom would speak again. I'm still waiting.
I got to school early, and went straight to my first period classroom. My teacher seemed unsurprised to find me there, and smiled at me as I walked in. I said nothing, and sat down in my seat silently.
"You know, Kevin," she started, sitting on her desk in front of me, "if you ever need someone to talk to…"
"No, thank you," I said softly. "I'm fine."
"Well, if you ever…"
"I'm fine," I repeated, trying to sound more firm. The teacher shrugged, and sat back, waiting for the day to start. I was just waiting for it to end. For the most part I was like my friend had described. I didn't communicate well anymore. I didn't find it easy to joke and laugh when the laughter could be cut off so quickly. I think I disconnected myself quickly, and those severed ties may be permanent.
The day sped by quickly. Before fourth period, I got up and went to the auditorium. A few teachers were helping set up for the service. There was a huge, bloated picture of a smiling Jayla hanging behind the stage, framed by smaller pictures. One such picture was a photo of Jayla and me when we were kids, playing around in the backyard. Jayla was smiling directly at the camera, but I was looking off to the side, blurred. It had a snippet of my dad in it, because it was taken on one of our rare visits to his home. I suddenly remembered that day, teaching Jayla how to kick a soccer ball. The tears rose up unbidden and unwelcome, and before I started crying outright, I rubbed at my eyes and took a deep breath.
"Kevin?" Ms. Baker, the guidance counselor approached me. "Hi. Hey, are you okay? I'm sure this is emotional for you… but…"
After Jayla died, Ms. Baker decided that I would become her personal charge. She tried to delve deep into my mind, but I pretty much stopped her. She still checked up on me obsessively, but it was getting better.
"I'm fine," I said roughly. "Just… I don't really want to do this."
"Well, nobody's forcing you…" Her voice trailed off as I walked away. I didn't want to hear her stupid words now. I was just waiting on Tom and Mom, who had both promised they'd come. A few minutes later, Tom arrived, but he came alone.
"Tom, hey." We stopped in front of each other and I took a deep breath. "Where's Mom?" Tom lowered his head, and I understood. Mom was at home, getting drunk. Mom's not an alcoholic or anything, but today, as we all know, is special. Today is the anniversary of Jayla's death.
"Okay, well. Have a seat, alright? I'll be speaking soon." I reached over and gave Tom a quick hug. He half-smiled, half-grimaced in response, and moved back towards the seats. I watched my brother with a sort of sadness. We were never good friends, but this last year we had bonded. I only wished we could have consummated that bond with speech, but Tom hadn't spoken in one year…
I stood around backstage, waiting for the school to come in. It took a few moments, but slowly, slowly, every student filed in and took a seat. Mr. Barton, our principal, spoke first, blabbering about how Jayla was a model student and a good friend to all. He didn't mention anything about her – the only things he knew came from her permanent record. People ignored what he said – they usually did. Then Ms. Baker spoke about how Jayla was an inspiration to all. Her speech was solemn and deep, and some kids actually sat up and listened to her. When she got of the stage, a few kids clapped. Then it was my turn.
I stepped out onto the stage, feeling that heaviness suddenly turn to stone. I froze. You can call it stage fright, but it wasn't that. I didn't have a speech to remember. I just had words that I wanted to say, but couldn't phrase. I wanted them all to understand, but suddenly I was struck dumb. Then I saw Tom, sitting in the front row. He was crying silently, but through his tears, he watched me. He was waiting for me to speak, to say everything he wasn't able to. Suddenly finding both courage and incentive, I told them everything.
"Some of you knew Jayla," I said, feeling small and insignificant among a room full of people who had once either been my friends, or people who had admired me and had known who I was. "Some of you knew Jayla," I repeated, "but I don't think you knew her too well." There was a ripple in the crowd as a few of the now-sophomores began to whisper, but I continued. "I don't think you knew the real Jayla, the one who lived in my house and always made a mess of my bathroom." Someone laughed, but the auditorium was suddenly so silent that they stopped laughing immediately. "Jayla was and will always be my sister. We shared similar genes in addition to a bathroom. When we were kids, we used to climb into each other's beds when the storms got too loud. We built forts together. We learned to swim together. Jayla taught me about art, and I taught her about life. It worked well, until one year ago.
"One year ago, my family decided to go to the beach. Like any family, we were determined to leave at 6 in the morning, but ended up leaving a bit before 8. Like any family, we had to stop to fill up gas. Unlike any family, it would be the last time. On our way to the beach, my mother's car skidded on some oil on the road. We lost control of the car and crashed into oncoming traffic. Jayla was thrown out through the windshield. My mother's spine was damaged, and she'll never walk again." I was about to mention Tom, but his tear-stained face stopped me. I didn't feel that in my heart. I felt Jayla in my soul, and I didn't think she'd say that.
"And here I am," I continued, voice suddenly wobbly, "one year later. Oh, yes. Many of you claimed to have been friends of Jayla's. But none of you knew her like I did. I've spent this last…" I stopped, feeling everything falling down on my head. I could see some kids crying, and I knew that I had to continue. "I've spent this last year trying to see what life is like without Jayla. I've figured it out. It's a bleaker world. It's not as beautiful. She could make the most mundane things seem beautiful and incredible, and now everything's flat and twisted.
"Jayla was beautiful. Jayla was brilliant. Jayla could have been so much to the world, but it was all cut off for her. Jayla wasn't suicidal. She didn't deserve to die at that age. She deserved a whole life, to have children, and to die happily in her sleep. But that's not what happened. One year ago, Jayla died, and lost all hope for her dreams.
"I've tried to move on, but I love her so much… It hurts me every day, thinking about how something like this could happen. I wish I could have been sitting in that seat instead of her, but I know that's dumb. What's done is done. I just wish…" I had to stop to wipe away my tears. Suddenly I didn't feel ashamed to be crying in public like this. I didn't feel like a sissy or a girl. I felt like I was suddenly, for just a moment, in a place with no gravity, floating on the air. "I just wish that it hadn't happened," I finished, knowing that I must look dumb. Without another word, I walked off stage and headed outside the building. Behind me, I heard the sound of people crying and some kids clapping for me. But I didn't care. I didn't want to stand there anymore.
"Kevin? Are you okay?" Ms. Baker came over and stood next to me. I laughed through my tears and shook my head fiercely.
"Do I look okay?" I asked thickly. She said nothing as I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. "Do I have to stay? Can I go home?"
"Of course," Ms. Baker said softly. "I'll excuse you from the rest of your classes. And… Kevin? If you ever need to talk, I'm here." She walked away, and I collapsed on the ground, crying my soul out. I hadn't cried like this since the night after Jayla's funeral, when Tom and I locked ourselves in the bathroom. We sat there the whole night as family members swarmed around our house. Tom cried silently, but I sobbed and screamed and pounded on the floor. I wasn't going to pretend that it didn't hurt me, that it wasn't killing me.
A gentle hand interrupted my crying behind the school. I looked up to see Tom standing above me. He bent down and wrapped his arms around me. He was crying just as heavily as I was, but his were silent. Together, we sat and cried and cried.
We finally stopped, and then I said in a bitter tone, "I've got the rest of the day off. Let's go to the beach." Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. He waved them in front of my face, and then stood up. I followed him out into the parking lot, and he pressed the keys into my hand. I took them, and sat behind the wheel. This was Tom's personal car, the one he had had since before the accident. Mom's car had been totaled, but Tom's car was still good. It felt strange to be sitting behind the wheel, but then I noticed that Tom's hands were shaking. He was in no condition to drive.
We had been driving for at least three hours when we started to feel hungry. Tom pointed to a small diner on the side of the road, and we pulled over. The place looked reasonable enough, with burgers, milkshakes, and pies for emotional hearts in need. Tom sat down at a table while I went to the bathroom. On my way out, I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were puffy from crying, but my nose was no longer red (as it usually was after crying), and my shirt wasn't quite as wet as it was earlier. We ate silently, filled up gas, and left.
I just drove around in circles for the next four hours. We had a full tank of gas to carry us anywhere we wanted, to the beach or back home, but I just drove. Sometimes I would turn aimlessly into small towns along the way then turn around sharply to head back.
After five hours of driving, I finally stopped and nudged Tom awake. Without saying I word, I gestured for him to get out of the car. He did, without a word, and then we both stood outside in the crisp May evening. Tom stepped forward, recognizing where we were.
"Mom's probably passed out," I said, speaking to him for the first time in hours. Then, even softer, "Talk to her, Tom." I bit my lip as tears rose to my eyes. "Tell her how you feel." Tom looked at me in the darkness, and walked forward a few steps, until he stood before a small headstone. He coughed once, and then again, and then he was crying, and clutching at his face.
Softly. "I love you." Barely aloud, the words sounding like a breath, but they were true. Tom had spoken. His mouth was covered, his face was tear-stained, but I had heard it. He'd spoken.
"Jayla?" he whispered a few moments later, voice still barely audible. "I know this is dumb, but you know… I haven't spoken in a long time. Jay, I haven't spoken in a long time." He wiped the tears away from his eyes and leaned over until he was pressed against the stone. I took a step forward, and joined him. The stone was cold and ground was hard-packed, not like the last time it was when I was here. I reached a hand out and took Tom's cold fingers in mine.
"Kevin?" he whispered, turning his head to me. "Why did she have to die?"
I wish I could have answered that. I wish we weren't just lying here now, silent. Mom is probably in an alcohol induced sleep, but her sons are out with her daughter tonight. The clock will strike twelve soon, and Jayla's anniversary will be over.
I'm here with Tom, staring up at the stars. It's cold, but not too cold. Sort of cool and pleasant. The sort of weather Jayla liked. She would have come out tonight and stared up at the stars. She would have painted them and explained to me something about how the Ancient Greeks thought something or other about certain constellations. I would have told her to shut up, and then we would have lain side by side on the grass until morning. Now Tom and I were doing it, staring up at those twinkling diamonds far up, wondering if out there anybody had to deal with the death of a beloved sister.
The man who said that anniversaries are pointless excuses to celebrate and to have a party is a fool. What am I celebrating now? The death of my favorite person in the world.
"Happy anniversary, Jay," I said aloud. The words sounded just as stupid like that. Then it hit me what I should say. "Jay? Hope it's beautiful for you." No wherever you are, no heaven. Just what I felt. I hope it's beautiful for her. Tom squeezed my hand gently, and then echoed after me, "Hope it's beautiful for you, Jay." And then softly, so softly it was almost inaudible, "Make it beautiful for us… We love you."
I looked at my watch, and saw the number 12:03 blinking at me. Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my sister Jayla's death, my mother's paralysis, and my brother's silence. Today is the day we'll make the world better because of it.
Dedicated to the families of all car-crash victims