The last time I remember seeing you alive we were all at our grandmother’s house, almost ten years ago. It was summer, I know, because we sat outside on wooden plastic chairs with red plastic cushions and ate hamburgers and potato salad and corn on the cob. There were plastic cups — blue on the outside, white on the inside — filled with ice, next to cans of pop and pitchers of iced tea and lemonade.
I know these details because they were always the same details. The only thing that changed was that we got older.
You were standing in the kitchen with a paper plate. Going back for strawberry angel food cake or more frog-eye salad. I was almost done with college and you were in the middle of high school. We were both tired of not being able to make our own choices.
I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t think it was anything. Couldn’t have been. We didn’t know each other at all. I remember I might have asked you if you were having fun. You might have rolled your eyes. But I do remember you saying, “It’s a family thing,” with a shrug. Then, “It’s always like this. Boring.”
You were my mother’s niece and almost everything I know about you I know secondhand. Most of it from your older brother, who would come out to our family farm for a few weeks every summer when we were boys, all the way from North Carolina.
The night of your funeral your brother and I drank a bottle of whiskey I brought from Korea made from deer antlers. It was awful. He told me I would have really liked you. “She loved to have fun,” he said. “She was always so full of life.”
Gone at 21. Can anyone understand how terrible that is? You waited your whole life to have your freedom. You knew that you wanted to be left to make your own choices when your time came. Then to have that taken from you.
Those days before and after your funeral were too sad to ask anyone what you were really like. I brought flowers to your mom. I said I was sorry. I knew that an endless string of apologizing flower-givers for the rest of her life would not fill the hole. I felt it in the hollowness of my consolation. I heard it in the morning when I woke up at your house and watched music videos with your little brother before he went to middle school. I felt it in your mom’s sobs we pretended we couldn’t hear. I knew that feeling would come at unexpected moments throughout your family’s life. The feeling of missing you would come to them out of the darkness and silence and loneliness. There was nothing to be done about it, which made it worse.
There was a service for you at the school, and hundreds of your friends came. They all knew you better than I did and that made me feel even worse. Kids of all social classes and race, boys and girls — they were all in tears. We watched a slide show and a lot of the pictures were of you with groups of other kids. You seemed to be part of a lot of other people’s lives.
Our family is strong but this messed us up. It led to more tragedy, more of us dying, and even though it was years ago, we still aren’t the same. We never will be. We couldn’t help you. Couldn’t save you. We were powerless and now you are gone forever.
I wish I knew you better. I wish I had seen you get older. I wish I could have watched you get that time you had waited so long for.
You were the kind of girl that other guys kill for. The kind of girl that an ex-boyfriend, faced with losing you to someone else, murdered a day after you turned 21. You must have been something. I’m sorry I never got to know you.