When I opened my personal email inbox early this morning, I immediately read: SAVE THE DATE – Liz Padilla Memorial 5K – Sunday, October 2nd.
I’m on a listserve to receive announcements from my sister Liz’s former employer, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Brooklyn Bar Association (http://www.brooklynvlp.org/), so it should not come as a surprise by now that around this time of the year, the VLP starts gearing up for what has become a successful annual community event and fundraiser. Still, the reality for the reason behind this event rarely ever feels less than a shock to my entire being.
Please read the following excerpt from a piece of the memoir that I am writing. If you are interested in learning more about this project, please do contact me or leave a comment below. I welcome all feedback. If you are an agent, editor, or publisher and would like to discuss this project and plans for publication, I would love to hear from you.
An excerpt from Drawing Down the Moon:
I knew right away the call was bad news. My father never called me at work. He said, “I’ll be there in ten minutes to pick you up.”
This from a man who gets lost in the suburbs of northern Virginia. The only places he successfully and regularly navigates while in a vehicle are Washington D.C. and a few sprawling cities in South America. But suburban America with its garish strip malls and indistinguishable chain restaurants confounds him.
I knew I couldn’t stop him, though, so I flew from the building to stand on the most public street corner I could find, hoping he would see me, and no one else, and I could quickly duck into his car. Quitting time on a bright summer day felt like Friday. My coworkers were sparse, having headed out for happy hour or working in the field. I was employed at an international nonprofit organization and its staff was often not present at headquarters.
His voice had been rough and he was brief. “Your sister has been killed in New York. She was riding her bike to work and she was hit by a truck”. I must have replied, because he said “I know”.
They were words I would not hear again soon, because it’s not possible to know what it’s like to have one’s own heart torn out, while sitting in the office just a few hours from where a heart lived in the body of my sister for 28 years.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the light pouring through the window. It seemed to have changed since I hung up the phone, and I blinked several times without moving. From my desk I could see across the river and glimpse the pointed top of the Washington Monument. Fifty weathered flags stood tall in a circle beneath this enormous grey obelisk, ever waving, representing our country. I liked the view; until that phone call I liked my life very much.
The first thing I thought consciously was “That’s why she didn’t answer my e-mail today!”
My sister Liz was efficient, funny and smart. From her small nonprofit office in New York City, she responded to email messages quickly and on target. She’d long ago opted to use her law degree to recruit well-paid attorneys to donate services to vulnerable, down and out types who needed legal services and couldn’t afford them.
And now she was dead and I didn’t know the first thing about the code of behavior that is supposed to kick in for those of us who are left behind. The feeling of emotional loss combined with physical nausea was overwhelming. I thought about jumping out the window after my father hung up, but instead I took a few deep breaths and concentrated on not throwing up.
It’s not that I wanted to kill myself, but I needed to do something that would make me feel something other than the pain that was scorching my heart, my lungs, my mind…it’s like trying to stop a razor blade from nicking your skin while you aren’t paying attention in the shower. You can’t take back the moment when you slice yourself, and the blood flows fast and dark into the drain.
Receiver still in my hand, I listened to the dial tone until one of the women down the hall hustled in to see if I was ok. I powered down my computer and took my bag before I left the office. The woman was kind and nervous as she walked with me down the hall, into the elevator, and across the lobby.
Finally, I fled into the car unmistakably owned by my father, its bumper spread with stickers for causes that include the International Juggling Association, Amnesty International, and National Public Radio. Its trunk was filled with books and sneakers and camping equipment. Its seats littered with mail, half smoked packs of cigarettes and lip balm and empty water bottles, which I pushed over to make space for me.
Defined medically, death is the ceasing of the heartbeat. Organs shut down, one by one. Sometimes people hang on for a moment at the end. I pictured her lungs collapsing. Her pretty smile… leaving.
Liz was gone. She was forced off the bike lane when a truck driver opened its huge, clumsy door abruptly, his vehicle parked illegally on a busy Brooklyn street a few steps from a recommended route for commuting cyclists. In that very moment, life as we knew it ended for all of us.
In my world, people didn’t just disappear. I pondered where exactly my sister had gone, and I didn’t have immediate answers. It felt wrong to believe she was really dead, so I didn’t for a while. Had I been a believer, I would have prayed for a miracle. I’m not, but I prayed anyway and pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until they bled. I became a willing victim for pain and instantly began to mourn the future. I plunged into darkness without taking a breath first.
Ever a planner, I enjoyed preparing for trips, meetings, and dinner parties. I reviewed training plans and schedules to find the most effective and efficient one for running events. J, my husband, complained that I didn’t live life sufficiently in the present because I was always seeking something better down the road.
Suddenly and sharply broken, I couldn’t plan anything or think properly. The person that had been my friend, my partner in family peace and my ally in family battles, my younger but all too wiser sister because she knew me best, had been stolen from me, and my life felt stolen, too.
Half hurting and half numb in those early hours, my father and I traveled wordlessly to his home on a green street already beginning to fill with cars, people, casseroles and coolers. Neighborhood kids walking to the swimming pool down the road glanced at our home curiously. Visitors brought bottles of wine and beer, huge bouquets of flower and sweets. My cousin’s preschool daughter tottered into the kitchen, spied a cake perched on the table, and announced, “Look, Mommy, it’s a birthday party!” before her mother hushed her, chagrined at her daughter’s delight.
Her words gave me my only smile that night. It did look like a party. Evening turned into night, and night stretched into morning, and for a day or two I neither ate nor drank. I walked around aimlessly and sat on the floor or a folding chair while several hundred friends and neighbors entered our home to speak quietly or sob loudly with my parents, drop off cards and flowers and more food.
The following days brought more of the same, as my father’s ten brothers and sisters and my mother’s eight brothers and sisters, and their respective children, my cousins, made their way to Virginia. In his mid-80s, my grandfather was energetic and completely astute, but graver than I’d seen him before. I guess he couldn’t think properly, either. Among his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Liz was the first to die, and this was not in the patriarchal plan. For many years, he encouraged everyone to bear babies and grow the family, a proud product of the Catholic Church.
Our family came from humble and religious origins but now included doctors, lawyers, professors and engineers. My grandfather was an immigrant success story, and at the time of my sister’s death my immediate and extended family enjoyed money, food and ample and comfortable shelter.
Yet we were unprepared for unexpected death, not ready to lose one of our own, and we all sat around alternatively crying and laughing, talking and being silent, drinking and fasting during these first few days.
Then they brought her ashes home.