Fifty Years

by cindy

“It was very quiet inside the long, black limousine. I do not remember who sat with me. I do not remember any conversation. I do remember turning around in my seat, looking back at the cars in line behind us. This somber parade, identified by small, bluish-purple flags, stretched all the way down the hillside to the entrance of the cemetery and beyond. So many cars. So many people. So much sadness.

I remember feeling numb at that point. I remember thinking of all the people, many of whom I did not know, who had come to the funeral home to pay their respects. Friends came too, some from great distances. The lines of mourners had waited patiently to share their words of comfort. By the end of each evening, however, I realized that we had spent our time comforting them instead, just as we would continue to do on this day and for many days after, once this ceremony was over.

It fell to us to explain the unexplainable, that a twenty-two year old woman on the cusp of her life, eight days before she was to marry the man she loved, was dead. I repeated the words that told the story, over and over and over:

“…pulmonary embolism…clots…both lungs…birth control pill…sudden…no warning…backwards…concrete landing…massive brain damage…frontal lobe destroyed…no hope…resuscitation…ambulance…no hope…”

I was nineteen. And my world had shattered.”

This story has been waiting for its words for fifty years. I write it now, finally, in an attempt to honor my sister and to memorialize her for those who never had the opportunity to know her. I write it to recognize, at long last, what her loss meant to me. If she were here, sitting beside me or peering over my shoulder, she might certainly chide me for being melodramatic. At the same time, I smile to think how fascinated she would be by this method of typing—on a computer, aided significantly by the program’s spell check. In 1969, we were still using typewriters, happy to have a full bottle of White-Out nearby. Computers were mostly the stuff of science fiction, surely a part of our imaginations, were it not for that one small building on campus, the one that few ever entered.

I write this story now, though, because the anniversary of her death–March 28–inexplicably failed to catch my attention this year, of all years. This earth-shattering event, this thing that had changed me in an instant, was something I used to think about daily. For years, I would play the memory-reel in my head. For years, not a day went by without seeing those images. Remembering. Always, always remembering.

“It was a normal Thursday evening. Sitting in my room in the sorority house, I was studying for my last mid-term. After my exam the next morning, I would drop off my latest project in the art building and then be on my way home to West Virginia. It was the beginning of Spring Break and I had the entire week off, a week that was to be filled with bridal parties and celebrations culminating with her wedding.

My bridesmaid dress hung in the doorway, shrouded in plastic, along with other dresses for the various parties. I knew Pam would be packing the last of her belongings at her apartment in D.C. and at some point, we would join up and begin the car ride home, together. Usually she was the planner, the organizer, the person-in-charge of this two-sister team and it was odd that she hadn’t contacted me about the trip. This bothered me; it wasn’t always easy to find a ride into the city from campus and I knew I needed to get one lined up unless she had decided to drive out to campus to fetch me.

I called her. Her roommate answered. “Pam’s not feeling well right now, Cindy,” I was told. “She’s lying down. No, you can’t talk to her at the moment. We’ve called your parents. They’re worried enough so please don’t call them. They’ll get in touch with you when they know more.”

I called my parents. “There’s a problem with your sister,” my father said. “The ambulance is taking her to the hospital now. We’ll keep you posted but until then, your mother and I ask that you stay right where you are. Please do not try to go to the hospital. We don’t need to be worrying about both of you.”

I had no idea where the hospital was in D.C. I had no way of finding it even if I managed to locate someone with a car and time to drive me into the city. I stayed put. For once in my life, I heeded my parents’ wishes. Instinct told me, though, that whatever was happening was not good.

Pam was elegant. Tall and thin, poised and proper, her ability to speak with ease and intelligence endeared her to adults. Her skills as a calm, confident leader developed through her years in college. She was one of the those incredibly smart people who could succeed in many fields and her natural curiosity caused her to change her college major each year—from nursing to English to journalism to American Studies. I clearly remember the uproar when she announced to our parents that she was transferring out of the nursing program. The uproar gradually diminished with each change after that. Flummoxed, my parents finally stopped arguing about it. Pam was strong-willed and stubborn. More importantly, she knew what she wanted and was going to succeed with or without their approval. Upon graduation she worked as a top aide to Joseph Tydings, U.S. Senator from Maryland. The energy and excitement of working on Capitol Hill suited her. It was a job she loved.

Three years separated us in age and three inches separated us in our shared bedroom. I know I tried her patience on a daily basis and, truthfully, I reveled in that. Younger sisters frequently make it their mission to annoy the hell out of older siblings. I was pretty good at it. During one squabble, she took tape and ran it down the length of our room, dividing the room in half. I was not to cross onto her half. Ever. The one flaw in this plan was that I would have to do just that in order to exit the room.

“Well, Cindy, just make sure you go to the bathroom before you come in here!” she stated, hands on hips, eyes shooting sparks.

“Well, Pam,” I smugly retorted, “what if I suddenly have to throw up? Maybe I’ll just throw up on your bed!”

Like most of our arguments, this one probably devolved into some hair-pulling and arm-scratching. I rarely won those: her arms were longer and so were her fingernails. I was shorter and couldn’t easily reach her hair. Brutal. Yet, we loved each other. And I was not ready to lose her.

“After I shared what was happening with David and a few other friends, I sat on the floor of my room. I looked again at those dresses hanging in the doorway. I fought back the whispers in my head, the whispers that were telling me that I was not going to be a bridesmaid. As the evening wore on, with no word from my parents, those whispers became stronger, more insistent. Rising, I located the black dress that we wore for some sorority functions. I hung it in the doorway with the others. I knew. Somehow, I knew.

Eventually my roommate finished her studying and sat with me. In the early hours of that Friday, we both fell asleep. Sometime near dawn, the phone rang.

“Cindy,” my father said, “your sister died this morning.”

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t form words. I was strikingly mute. My roommate took the phone from my hand and listened as my father gave her the instructions for me to follow. He would be driving the many hours it took to get to D.C. and would deal with things no parent should ever have to consider: Identification…Autopsy…Remains…Transfers…The death of his daughter…”

As years went on, I was often asked if I was close with my sister. And my answer was “Yes. After a fashion…” We fought many a battle, none of which held any great significance. It never really mattered whose tissue had missed the wastebasket or whose turn it was to dry the dishes. At the end of the day, what mattered most were the conversations we had in the quiet of our room. It was she who encouraged my study of art. It was she who encouraged my selection of college. It was she who helped me navigate the moods and fury of our father, explaining to me that no one, no one, is worth the devastating energy it takes to hate them.

It was she who understood how close David and I were and that we planned on marrying. And she was delighted. She knew a “keeper” when she met one.

At the time of her death, she and I had truly become friends. Great friends. Perhaps the best of friends. I had no idea how I would ever move forward without her. I was unprepared to navigate the world without her guidance. She was my North Star. And now, I was lost.

“I returned to campus right after the funeral. Friends who knew about the wedding were excited to hear all about it. Of course, there hadn’t been a wedding and I needed to tell them what had happened. It was awkward. And difficult. Those friends who already knew seemed to forget how to act around me. I’m sure they were trying to be considerate, but I was trying so hard to be normal. I wasn’t even sure what normal was anymore.

The semester eventually ended. I was relieved to return home for the summer but then I discovered that home had changed too. We were all shadows of ourselves. We didn’t discuss Pam. We just didn’t speak of her. She hovered there, just out of sight, out of reach, and none of us could quite muster the courage to acknowledge her ghostly presence. I suppose we were each protecting our wounds as best we could, slowly allowing a scab to grow.

At summer’s end, I returned to campus once more. It was easier now. I suppose the scab had started to suppress the pain but progress remained achingly slow. October neared, and with it, Pam’s birthday. Pain poured back in, as intense as ever. I wanted to do something. So, I decided I would honor her memory by recognizing her birthday. Recognizing it in my own way.

I placed a long-distance call to the florist back home, a small, family-run operation. It’s entirely possible that I called collect but I really don’t remember for certain. I do remember that as soon as I began to speak, I started to sob. Patiently, the person on the other end of the line listened to my halting request.

“Could you please deliver a single red rose to the gravesite of Pamela Randolph?, I stammered. “She is buried in the Bridgeport Cemetery. And could you please mail me the bill?”

“Do you wish to leave a card?” the voice asked.

“No. She’ll know who it’s from.”

Thus began a tradition that I carried on for years. Just me and Pam. Together again, in a way.”

So, how did I get past this? How did I heal?

I didn’t. Not completely. No one ever does. The scab on the wound gradually thickened into a scar and I found ways to move forward. In spite of all the odds, forward is the only possible direction to go.

My father turned to alcohol which only fueled his already uncontrollable anger. His last conversation with my sister had been on the night of her death. They had argued about something and he hung up on her. This I know from my mother who was with him when it happened. His last conversation with her ended in anger and then she was gone. He never addressed it with any of us. He never admitted to his folly. He never acknowledged the regret he had to have felt. He died angry and bitter, firm in his own denial.

My mother stoically drew in her pain as she was wont to do. It did not surprise me years later when she developed cancer in her jaw. This petite woman with towering strength had gritted her teeth through most of her life, willing herself to remain calm and composed even in the most trying circumstances. And she had had many of them. This eighteen-year breast cancer survivor, this pillar of our family who had never smoked and rarely drank, died of oral cancer. It was terribly unfair. But we don’t get to choose, do we?

As for my siblings, I would guess that time did its work. They were all pretty young when Pam died and time, as it generally does, helps soften the wounds. I have little doubt that they, too, were inalterably changed. Her death is a significant part of their life stories just as it is a part of mine. We don’t erase these things. We don’t want to. We need to remember her and what happened. The loss becomes a part of us, a deeply painful part of our core. But their stories are theirs to write. I will leave that task to them.

For me, sharing the pain became a necessary discussion as I made new friends. Pam’s death informed everything I did, every choice I made, everything that I believed. It informed everything that I was and still am. For me, it wasn’t enough to explain where I grew up or what I studied. To learn at nineteen just how valuable life is and just how quickly it can end was a lesson very few of my peers understood. With my sister, I was whole. Without her, I was not. I wasn’t sure I ever would be.

Life continued unabated. Dave and I married. We had children. We lived our lives and became immersed in the the day-to-day activities work and family entail. Before we knew it, fifty years had flown by. Over those years, we lost many more friends and family members, some in tragic ways. Sometimes, a certain loss would cause that metaphorical scab to crack and pain would again pierce our hearts. And then, as always, time would work her magic.

And the roses? How long did I send the roses? For ten years. Every October, I placed a call to the same florist. Through those ten years, Dave and I had three children, the last of which, our daughter, was born on Pam’s birthday. Of course, I had already arranged for the rose to be sent that year and the bill, having arrived as usual by mail, was waiting for me when I brought her home from the hospital.

Early the following autumn, I received a call from my mother. October was approaching and with it, my sister’s and my daughter’s shared birthday. After chatting for a bit, my mother, in a voice as gentle as I can ever remember, said,

“Cindy, you have done something so lovely for many years. The roses you have sent surprised your father and me and at first we couldn’t figure out who had sent them. But we now know it was you. And we thank you so much. Now, though, now you have another special birthday to celebrate. And it is time that you focus on hers.”

And so I did. I stopped sending the rose. Though I never forgot my sister, her presence in the corners of my vision slowly receded. Having my own children to love and nurture had managed to keep me moving me forward. Perhaps that is why it has taken me this long to write this story. Having done so at last, I have come to realize something extraordinary.

Fifty years ago, I lost something precious. And though moving forward had its struggles, life has given me gifts I never could have imagined. I have three children whom I loved from the minute they were first placed in my arms. In turn, they have given me my six grandchildren who are the greatest treasures of my life. While I am forever sorry that they never knew Pam and that Pam never knew them, I do feel that she has always been here, watching, smiling, guarding them just a little. And maybe she has been watching over me as well. Oh yes. I miss her still. I always will.

Once upon a time, I was who I was because of her. Now, after all these years, I am who I am because of my family. I am who I am because of them: my husband, my children, my grandchildren. Life is a balance of what we lose and what we gain. I realize now just how much I gained. I am whole because of them. And that’s just how it was meant to be. Extraordinary.

In Memory of Pamela Leigh Randolph
October 9, 1946-March 28, 1969
Easter 1968, Pam and fiancé David Distad