I’ve been struggling with this column for days. I even went into semi-seclusion for a week without realizing why—until yesterday—when an old friend offered his condolences.
My sister Lisa died two years ago today. The call came that morning, while I was working on The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese. Trying to meet another deadline. It was BJ, my former brother-in-law. I knew the minute I heard his voice it wasn’t good. I hadn’t talked to him in probably six months, if not longer.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” I said. “But you must not be. What’s wrong?”
“Well, I’m okay, but your sister isn’t,” BJ said.
At least, that’s how I remember it. BJ called me first, he said, after their oldest daughter called him with the news. “I knew you’d want to know.”
This past week it seems like it’s been that long, some 730 days ago. At other times, it really does feel like she was standing right there next to me—and then I blinked, and she was gone.
I’m still trying to figure out what to write, even as I carry out the task. Do I talk about my 2011 trip to Tennessee to help her start her life over, after she did a stint in jail? Or how, just a few months later, she jumped bail, sticking me with the tab? Or how, in return for helping Lisa, another sister accused me of killing her? (Funny, I don’t remember being her dealer.) Maybe that’s a starting point, but I’m not quite ready to write that story. Not yet.
What I think I’d like to say is this: until the drugs took over, Lisa was never without a smile, a funny joke, or a way about her that suggested that life was far too short to be taken seriously, so why not enjoy it while you can. She and I were polar opposites: I was quiet and serious; she was loud and rowdy. I liked pencils and books and wearing dresses. Lisa liked to run and climb and scuff the knees of her jeans. We fought like cats and dogs when we were children, but we were also best friends.
“Your graduation picture was on the bathroom mirror the day she died,” BJ later told me at the funeral home. He said it was the only family picture Lisa still had.
When Lisa eloped to marry BJ at age 15, I think she did so because he really saw her. She had become invisible to us; I had already flown the nest and was expecting child number two. Mom was working full-time, so she needed a babysitter for our three younger siblings. Dad was absent. Again.
Lisa liked the excitement marriage to a long-haul trucker driver promised, and she often went on the road with BJ. She also liked the way he pampered her, taking her to car races and concerts, buying her clothes and cars and not one, not two, but four different diamond wedding ring sets over the course of their life together.
Then came the day when Lisa, BJ, and our entire family traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to meet their first daughter, He Young. Lisa had never been happier than when that beautiful little Korean baby doll was placed in her arms. When their second little girl, Kang Hee, joined their family, it seemed like Lisa’s life could not be any better, richer, or fuller.
Who can say what causes one person to become an addict, while another one turns up his or her nose at the stuff? What forces have shaped our genes, long before birth, predisposing us to addition? And why is it easier for one person to later kick the habit—cigarettes, liquor, narcotic painkillers—while another person dies an early death from them?
I wish I knew. But I don’t, and I know I’m not alone. From loved ones to medical and psychological experts, there is a large army of people who want the same answers.
Here’s what I do know: Lisa loved our “uncle” Bruce, and at family dinners, those two could laugh loud and long, inspiring a sense of wistfulness in everyone around them. None of us had quite the same relationship. She was an excellent cook, far better than me, and she regularly whipped up a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy, fried eggs and potatoes, and bacon on the weekends. And our three younger siblings delighted going anywhere with her, for she was so ornery and so much fun that she was less like an older sister and more like a favorite aunt.
Lisa was also generous, opening her home to a stray friend in need more than once, letting them live with her and BJ for many months or more. She also loved watching football with our father, especially after the move to Tennessee made their home a perfect pit stop, whenever Dad passed through on his way back to West Virginia.
There was the Lisa from her West Virginia years, and the Lisa she became after moving to Tennessee. Her daughters mostly only knew the second one. I hope they eventually get to know the other one, the girl with the easy smile who loved to laugh and crack jokes and make delicious country meals that many people will only eat if they go to Bob Evans.
Scratch that. That many people today never eat, unless they cook at home, in their own kitchen.
Because that Lisa was the real one. She was my sister.
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My latest book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, was released November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!