I knew the minute it happened. The sudden tears, the intense pressure inside of my chest and the struggle to breathe told me something had gone terribly wrong. I asked my husband Joe to call my sister. She was my twin and as far back as my memory goes, we were always feeling what the other one felt. And although we lived sixty miles apart, she in Bell's Harbor and I in Rock Shore, we were like one.
Joe called Elizabeth's number as well as her husband Dan's. I begged him to keep trying despite his skepticism. He was growing more concerned with my sudden ill health than my sister's well-being. My shaking hands and the weakness I felt when I tried to stand up not only prevented me from calling her myself, but kept me from getting in the car and driving up the familiar stretch of coast to see her. Joe would have no part of it though. The more time that went on, the more persistent he was about taking me to the emergency room to be examined.
Although angry at the time, I couldn't blame him. He simply didn't understand the bond between twins. We were Liz and Linda; not identical but inseparable in mind and spirit. Joe started to move me towards the car imploring that I go to the hospital, but on this cold December night I screamed out "Nooooo! You need to trust me! Something's happened to Elizabeth! I know it with all of my heart!"
Joe had a look of defeat about him as he called Dan. The last two hours had been exhausting, but finally he answered. "Dan, Linda's been worried...She has had..."
Dan cut him off in a tone that was barely audible. "Liz is gone." He then sobbed.
I don't remember much about the moment Joe told me my sister had died, but I do remember the look on his face. I will never forget how ashen he had become, or the pain I saw in his big brown eyes as they pleaded for forgiveness for the words he was about to speak. His mouth and jaw had become rigid, as if fighting to hold back the painful words which would change my life forever. I don't remember his words. I just know the room became black as it began to spin and the ground I had planted myself so firmly on all of my life had suddenly crumbled beneath me.
"Mom, it's me, Annie. Wake up," I heard my only child say. It had been two months since Liz had died and I was in a deep state of depression. It seemed the only strength I could manage to find was to roll over onto my other side. I had made it through the funeral and all of the days before and shortly thereafter by running on nervous energy, facilitated by coffee and lack of sleep. Liz had no children and our parents had long since passed so Joe and I helped Dan with funeral preparations. Poor Dan. His only love of ten years had been taken away from him in an instant. Liz had been driving back from the grocery store and was hit head-on by a man in a pickup truck when he swerved into her lane, pulverizing her little car. The driver of the truck survived; Liz, well...they say she didn't suffer.
"Mom, you need to get up. Dad called me and said all you do is sleep anymore. I took time off of work to come help you. Please, get up."
"Annie. It's you," I said groggily. The sleeping pills I was prescribed when Liz first died were not something I still should have been using, but it was the only way I knew of to cope. The fact that my daughter and husband felt shut out of my life was the last thing I thought about at that time. I wasn't there for them or for Dan. He could have used my support but I couldn't see past myself, my pain. I may have had an inkling of insight into their pain, but it just didn't matter.
"Mom, I just drove two hours to see you so please, get up." she said as she began to pull my arm up.
"Okay honey. Okay." I rubbed my eyes and stretched my arms out for a hug. I missed her. My sweet girl. So loving and so worried about her mom. She could never know the pain I felt though. She didn't understand and neither did Joe. Although I didn't want to get out of my safe haven that was my bed, I did. My little girl—now twenty—needed me to be strong. My body felt as though I was carrying the weight of the world as I dragged myself into the kitchen to get some coffee. I managed small talk and even ate a few bites of a sandwich, but it was all I could handle. I was back in bed in an hour with my arms wrapped tightly around my chest, protecting myself from the outside world. It was time to escape back into the memories of Liz and me playing as children. I dreamt of the two of us running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, laughing without a care in the world.
"Forever my sister. Forever my friend." Liz said to me when we were five.
"Forever my sister. Forever my friend." I replied.
Annie came into my bedroom later and said "Mom, do you really think this is how Aunt Liz would want you to spend your time? This is unhealthy! You need help. Maybe you could see a counselor or join a support group. Something. Anything!"
"No." That was all I said. That was all that needed to be said. Despite my increasing hatred I was harboring inside of me for the man who killed my sister at the age of thirty-nine and my obsessive thoughts towards hurting him, I still refused to seek help. I was sick and I needed help, but I was stuck.
The days went by though dark and filled with sorrow. The pills were gone on the insistence of my family and as a result I stayed awake, yet I was never present—never there for them or for myself. Not like I should have been. Not like they needed me to be, not like Liz would have wanted me to be.
After several months of dragging myself and my contempt through empty days; always searching for the strength to become my former self, I received a phone call. "Linda James?"
"Yes. Who is this?"
The pause was long and heavy, but finally the caller answered "My name is Terry...Terry Carlton. I was driving the truck and I..."
My head began to throb and my heartbeat was loud enough to be heard through the phone, I was sure, when I interrupted. With clenched teeth and searing pain spilling out with each syllable I said, "Yes, I know who you are. You're the son of a bitch who killed my sister."
There was a silence before the purging came. "You took her from us! She was beautiful and you selfishly took her away! I want you dead! You don't deserve to live, you miserable, cold hearted bastard! What the hell are you calling for? What could you possibly want from me? You've already taken everything!" At this point my voice was shaking and I began to cry, but I continued. Holding nothing back, I let him know how much she meant to all of us, then I called him every bad word I could think of and he was silent through it all...until he began to cry.
For some unknown reason I didn't hang up. I listened as he began to speak. Terry told me he had been charged with manslaughter and was awaiting trial, but I already knew about it. We all knew about it. He cried as he told me about that fateful evening. He had just left his parents' house after having dinner with them. He was headed back to college after a short winter break and had to be back at his job at a coffee house early the next morning. On the floorboard of his truck he noticed a packet of pictures he had developed from the last few days with his family. Not wanting them on the floor he instinctively reached for them. This is the moment the deafening noise from the impact and the brightness of the headlights will forever be etched in this young man's mind. This is the moment that changed our lives. He was twenty-two and on some level I felt a little sad for him, for the choice he had made. Because of a careless decision, he had altered the course of his young life, our lives, and had ended Elizabeth's.
I was silent after he finished. It felt satisfying finally letting him know how I felt, but it was draining. I felt weak and my knees shook after he confided in me about that unspeakable night. It was more information than I wanted to deal with at the time. Terry then asked me for forgiveness but I couldn't give it to him. I couldn't even begin to think about forgiveness. Not then anyway. I didn't understand how he could feel as though he deserved it. I couldn't understand why it mattered. Why he felt the need to call was beyond me and I felt it couldn't change what had happened. But despite my confusion, that night I slept better than I had in months.
Three years to the day Liz died, I stood at her graveside. The ground had spots of snow on it which was all that the damp coastal air would allow. My face was cold and my heart hurt as I looked towards the dark grey sky. "Elizabeth, I love you," I said to the clouds. I turned my head quickly as I felt what I knew was a hand on my shoulder and in the same instant I heard Liz say gently in my ear, "Linda, free yourself from the pain. Forgive." I was breathless for a moment, and then I just stood for a long time, motionless, frozen. I knew what she meant and so I did what I never thought was possible—not for Terry, but for myself; for my family and in honor of my sister. I drove home and wrote only those three words on a piece of paper. I forgive you. I felt a release of tension drain from my body and I smiled. I could feel her there next to me in that moment and I knew that it was the right decision. I sent it to the state prison where he was serving five years and I closed the chapter.
"Honey, it's time to leave. Annie called and is waiting for us at the restaurant," Joe says as I am trying to find the right words to end this story. Ten years have gone by and there are so many life lessons, opportunities for growth, and memories I want to share. But Annie and her husband Bill are waiting for us to celebrate the good news about their pregnancy. Annie says if it's a girl, she wants to name her Elizabeth. Coming from someone who knew her like no other, I can say with certainty; nothing would please Liz more. Forever my sister, forever my friend I whisper to myself, as I write the last line of my story.