Winter Mournings

by
Julie R. Enszer

For Lara Diane Enszer, her memory is a blessing

I.
I always wondered what it would be like to receive a call with bad news. What would happen? When
would the call come? What part of my life would it interrupt? Would it be like the movies? Would I
grip the telephone and drop down onto a fainting couch elaborately covered with damask and
tapestry pillows? Would it be like Lifetime—Television for Women? Would I be sitting in a kitchen, or
standing next to the counter by a refrigerator with pictures held onto it with magnets? Would I know
before the telephone rang? Would I be gripped with a premonition causing me to answer the
telephone with the reticence of anticipation? Would I answer the telephone with a relaxed lilt that
would be transformed to shock and then disbelief?

I confess: I created elaborate fantasies to answer these questions.  I would joke with friends about my
“fatalistic fantasies.”  I believed, in an odd way, that the fantasy would serve me in time of crisis,
making the entire unimaginable experience somehow more manageable.  I believed that the
unknown could be mastered through imagination.

While I’m making confessions, it actually went farther than the fantasies.  Sometimes I tempered my
happiness with the concern that there was a message on my answering machine at home informing
me of tragedy.  Sometimes I mitigated joy with the notion that someone was trying to find me to
inform me of death, illness, or some other, incomprehensible, tragedy.  Sometimes I paralyzed my life
with scenarios made up in my mind.

Finally, I stopped imagining fatalistic futures because two things happened.  First, I discovered that
my fantasies seeking to master such uncertainty were, in fact, unneeded.  If tragedy came, I had the
internal resources to respond to the reality of the situation without the precursor fantasies.  Second, it
happened.  One day in December, I received the call.

II.
Do you know about moments of luminosity? Moments when light from some unknown source seems
to emanate from everywhere and illumine everything? I had one of those moments of luminosity on
December 10th, 1995.  It was as if there was a flame inside me, right below my rib cage that burned
with the softest and warmest light ever.  Light poured out of my fingers and my toes; it lit up
everything that I saw with my eyes.

It started this way.  My best friend and I had just eaten at the International House of Pancakes.  The
light inside me that had kindled earlier in the day, burned brightly by the time we departed the
IHOP.  We returned to the communal house I created, which had suddenly become quiet. Only me
and my best friend. One roommate left after getting married, another moved to upstate New York to
live with her partner.  As the communal life I had built around me disintegrated, my best friend and I
fought even more bitterly with one another.  They were painful fights; the kind that cannot be
resolved by simply agreeing to disagree.  They were long fights that dragged into every interaction.  I
felt more alone than I had ever felt before.  The physical emptiness of the house reflected the
emotional emptiness of our relationship and our life together.

And yet after months of fighting, there seemed to be a calm descending.  Earlier, we had joked
together and cautiously agreed to share a mid-day breakfast.  We had eaten the greasy IHOP food
with extra butter. We drank the winy coffee sweetened with sugar and cream.  We had found a space
of truce.  No fighting.  A moment of peace.  I felt reengaged in life.  I felt the flame.  I felt a moment of
luminosity.  We returned home with no agenda other than a nap and a book.  As was our habit, we
walked to the kitchen in the back of the house to check for messages.  The green light was blinking.

III.
Prior to that blinking light, I thought of December as a time of extremes.  The terminal month of the
year marked by a joyous celebration for Christians.  The longest night of the year mitigated by the
inexorable return of the sun.  December vacillated between extremities: endings and beginnings;
darkness and light; despair and promise.

After the green light revealed its message to me, December changed forever.  No longer about
extremes, December is now about the edges of our existence.  December is now not about extremity;
rather, it is about liminality.  Liminal spaces exist between two things.  Liminality is the transition.
Liminality is the space of change, but not the rapid acceleration or hastening from one state to
another.  Liminal spaces are about living in the moment between two things.  The past is clear and
known, but from the liminal space the future is unknown and murky.

For me, December is not in extremis; it is liminal.  December is perched between death and life.  While
others may celebrate the birth of a lord, I remember the death of my sister.  On that Sunday
afternoon, a message on my answering machine from my other sister said, “Call home right away.”
Those words brought to a crushing end the moment of luminosity and opened the liminal space of
my sister’s death.  Each year remembering her loss is less painful, more removed by time, but still my
Decembers are in conflict with the extreme season.  My Decembers are liminal.

IV.
This is how it happened.  My sister, Lara, was driving a 1984 Mustang.  I know that she adored that
car.  She reveled in the freedom that it gave her to go wherever she wanted to go.  I think that she also
loved that it was a muscle car, but old, so it balanced its coolness and hipness with the enforced
frumpiness of age.  I know she bought it for cheap.  Lara was, bless her soul, always one to watch her
pennies.  Call her frugal.  Call her cheap.  She never purchased or owned anything expensive.  She
was not extravagant, she was exacting.  Everything she possessed was perfectly in sync with her
vision of her life, although often the things that she bought required some work to realize their
synchronicity.

Lara was a treasure hunter.  She scoured resale shops, and owned more clothes than I could ever
imagine.  All used; all purchased for less than $5, and most for less than $1.  All worn after a few
tweaks, alterations, slits, stitches, or other changes.  She loved the external expressions of who she was
as reflected in her clothes.  As she became an adult, her external expressions expanded to include her
car and every object in her house.

Lara was driving that 1984 Mustang to a morning rehearsal for her dance show.  There was a picture
of her in the local newspaper announcing the show.  She stood by the beach.  Her long, blond hair
uncharacteristically down.  She looked at the camera and at the ocean.  Despite all of the other photos
of Lara that I own, it is that one that fills my memory.

Driving to her rehearsal she had to turn on Route One, a left hand turn.  The sun was in her eyes.  Her
sightline was obscured.  As she squinted, she pulled out.  A semi smashed into her.  She died
immediately.  It was December 9th, 1995.  She was on the Oregon coast.  It took the state troopers a
day to locate my parents in Michigan; there was no easy, high-speed internet then.  My parents called
my other sister, Greta.  She called me.  I was at the IHOP.  She left a message on my answering
machine.

V.
I was twenty-five years old when Lara died.  I had been the executive director of Affirmations
Lesbian/Gay Community Center for one month.  My sister’s death suspended my life for a week.  I
was cradled in a liminal space.

I should not have known so much about funerals.  I should not have known to call the funeral home
to arrange the transportation of the body from the west coast.  I should not have known how to
arrange a service, how to make a program, how to place an obituary.  I did know because already so
many around me had died.

It wasn’t just knowing what had to be done though, I like the activities that follow death.  Their
concreteness.  The certainty of knowing: these things must be done.  I like having a list of things to do
and checking them off.

What I don’t like immediately after a death is waking up in the morning or from a nap and thinking
for a moment, oh, a new day! A new hour! And wanting to leap out of bed, but then having the
memory of immediate death descend upon you like a bag of potatoes that someone has just thrown at
you.  I don’t like the feeling that catches your breath and makes your limbs heavy and your neck feel
as though it is going to break under the weight.

The problem with death, though, is that it extends beyond that first week.  Those first seven days are
filled with tasks and public appearances and beautiful cards from friends and family and flowers, so
many flowers.  They are all a blur, of course, the body just reacts and walks you through everything;
but that liminal space, I find comforting and more tolerable, even pleasant, compared to what
happens next.

After that first week, life continues.  Days continue to come and go.  People resume their lives and
their work.  They want to have fun and laugh.  They want you to return to how you were before the
death.  Or at the very least, as a more mature, more thoughtful, you than you were before surviving
this death.  After the first week, people call you tentatively.  They ask you how you are doing and
want to be reassured that you are fine.  Then they don’t want to ask you about it anymore.  They
want to forget it.  They want you to move on.  I can understand that.  I have felt that way with others.
However, in the midst of it, it is so painful, and there are very few who understand and care and listen.
In my family, my youngest sister was filled with questions.  What happened exactly? What if Lara
had been driving a newer car? Would she have survived? What if there had been air bags? Would
that have helped her to survive? What if the police had been called sooner? Did the ambulance do
enough? What if? What if? What if?

I couldn’t answer her questions.  I didn’t know and didn’t care to suss out such possibilities.  I did
know that my sister’s death was immediate and final.  In an odd way, I was thankful for that.

VI.
My sister’s death changed they way my family approaches December and the holidays.  As a family
unit we are highly conflicted about Christmas, both in spoken and unspoken ways.  My father, raised
Presbyterian, had an early and profound conversion to humanism and agnosticism.  His beliefs
inflected our outlook on Christianity.  My mother, raised apostolic Lutheran, has recently returned to
being a practicing Christian, bringing some ridicule from my father, my sister, and I.  I’ve converted
to Judaism.

We still celebrate Christmas with the appropriate gift giving, eating, and other rituals.  However, my
sister’s death has left this pall upon the month.  Now, without speaking of it, we measure years by
how many years since her death.  I think we all secretly wonder why we should celebrate the
universal myth of a miracle, when our family was denied one.  Our family was denied a miracle—the
magic of my sister walking away from that car accident, or the remembered last minute item she ran
back in the house to get altering the timing of her trip.  We resist celebrating a miracle in this month
when we were given instead: tragedy.

VII.
Sometimes I imagine what life would be like if my sister had had a miracle.  If she had lived.  I believe
that there are actually two kinds of miracles.  One kind is the flashy one, which everyone prays for.
Flashy miracles are the kind where someone is lying sick in the hospital until—miraculously—they
are healed by some inexplicable force.  When a flashy miracles occurs everyone knows that
something great has happened.  Everyone falls down onto their knees and thanks G-d.

I don’t wish for that kind of miracle for my sister.  I don’t wish that she had somehow survived and
then fought her way back from serious injury.  I know that I recoil from that scenario in part because,
while we are not a family without faith, we are a family committed to humanism and rationalism.  It
is unlikely that we would have sustained Lara’s life, artificially, long enough for a miracle to occur.
Her immediate death saved us from those bedside decisions.  I am thankful for that.  I appreciate that
Lara and G-d together saved us from the hospital dramas, from the hours of hope and prayers and
discouragement and desperation.  Moreover, while Lara liked her clothes and her cars flashy, a flashy
miracle seems very unlike my sister.  Flashy for her was for her own pleasure, not to dazzle and
inspire others.

The other type of miracle is the small miracle.  Small miracles often go unnoticed.  Small miracles are
the kind where your alarm clock malfunctions and you leave the house five minutes later than you
would have, thus avoiding the crushing ton of steel on your body.  Or the kind where the sun wakes
you up unexpectedly a half hour before your alarm and you leave fifteen minutes early after enjoying
a morning cup of coffee.  The speeding truck around the corner on Highway One is then nine miles
farther up the road when you make the turn.  It never sees you; it never hits you.  Or you leave at the
exact same moment, but you decide to take a different route to the theatre and pick up your dry
cleaning on the way in, even if it means you may be a few minutes late.  Those are the kinds of small
miracles that I sometimes wish for Lara.

If Lara had been given a small miracle that December ninth, we would have never known that she
was supposed to die that day in a car accident.  I like to imagine that because then we wouldn’t be
grateful that she was alive each day, we would have just carried on with our lives: laughing, fighting,
talking, sorting out ways to become sisters as adults, and friends.

I think about miracles, because I like to imagine what it would be like to have had the opportunity for
my sisters and me to be three adult women.  Children no longer.  That potential for the future is what
I miss most about my sister.  And that pain of missing her, that grief, is still so powerful ten years
later, I can’t even write about what it might be like to have her now.  I cannot think about what it
would be like for the three of us to be together today, three women in their thirties.  I cannot think
about the relationships that we had just begun to forge as adults when she died.  The sadness of that
loss is still too immediate.  It causes me to cry.

I think instead about what it might be like for me, my dead sister, and my living sister to gather in
thirty-five years.  I imagine the future, unformed, yet healed from grief and loss and pain.  I imagine
us gathering when we all are crones.

I imagine Lara living out on the west coast in a house that, while ramshackle in appearance, is
thoughtfully and intentionally put together.  She was a scavenger, my sister.  She was able to put
together anything from nothing and recycle everything into something new.  That skill would have
served her well in this adult life – I sometimes imagine that I am her, in order to jump-start my own
creativity.  I know that Lara would be living close to the ocean because she loved the ocean.  I imagine
that she would be living in a rural setting.  She had chosen that at twenty-two, to my amazement,
and it seemed to suit her in some profound way.  I know that she would have long, fine hair.
Probably completely grey and probably wrapped in a bun or pony tail, unless I am lucky enough to
catch a glance of her standing next to the ocean, as she faces out to sea, the wind sweeping her hair.
I know that Greta and I would have to fly in to see her.  I imagine us mumbling from our urban-
centric lives about why and how we ever agreed to come out to the end of the earth for this holiday.
Sometimes I see us with lovers and partners in tow, with even more muttering about the reason for all
this.  Sometimes I see the three of us alone.  I imagine the three of us like the three graces, which we
are really not like at all, but which satisfies me on winter mornings when I am imagining a small
miracle for my sister.