Friday, September 12, 2014

Stop all the clocks

The most surreal part about the whole thing - other than that Emma is dead at the age of 17 - is that both times I got the news in the same manner, in the same place, at the same time of day, from the same person.

When Emma had her accident four years ago, I was sitting at my desk at work at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Denver time, when the phone rang.  It was my dad, who told me that Emma, my niece, had been hit by a car and that nobody knew if she would live or die.

But she did live.  She survived, and she worked incredibly hard to recover and regain her strength and to get on with her life.

She had dodged the bullet.  Her card was supposed to have been pulled from the deck.

But it wasn't, apparently.

Because there I was, four and a half years later, sitting at my desk at work at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Denver time, when the phone rang.  It was my dad, who told me that Emma had been killed in a car accident.

No, I thought to myself.  I've gotten this call before, and I know how it ends.  She doesn't die.  It turns out OK.  He's got it all wrong.

But the other part of my brain, the powerful part that remains firmly rooted in reality, understood. Somehow, in the cruelest twist imaginable, she had survived only to be taken again, for good.  

It feels ridiculous to even try to explain anything.  It's all the same platitudes you've heard a million times about the death of a young woman at that thrilling time of her life when everything is starting to happen.  It's the worst thing imaginable for a family.  My brother Josh and his wife are devastated beyond anything I can comprehend.  My mother and father are crushed by the loss of their first grandchild, and by the pain that their wonderful son is enduring, and will continue to endure for the rest of his life.  My brother Sam and I are heartbroken by the pain that our brother and our parents, whom we love with everything we are, are going through.  And for Josh's wife, Lori, whose grief is so intense and bottomless. And for Emma's sisters, who, after barely getting over the trauma of her accident four years ago, have been blindsided by another trauma even more unspeakably awful.

For our beautiful, wonderful, precious Emma, who was, quite simply, one of the best people I ever knew.  For the life she was so excited to embark on, but now will never experience.

I know everyone is a great person when they die.

But in Emma's case, it's really true.

From the day she was born, she was a bubbly, funny, sassy ray of sunshine.  She was the first grandchild for my parents, the first baby born among my brothers and me, and she was a shining star for us.  A happy, spectacularly gorgeous baby and toddler.  A sweet, affectionate, smart little girl who took care of her younger sisters.  The preteen who was atypically agreeable at a point when most kids are surly and pushing at boundaries.
5-year-old Emma hanging with her baby sister, Lydia.
Dancing with her at my wedding.
In Detroit for our Grandpa Leo's 90th birthday.
With the cousins and sisters who loved and looked up to her, at Sam and Camille's wedding.
Even her response to her accident was remarkable, but so very her.  She recovered, and then she worked.  She worked and worked and worked to get stronger, to succeed in school, to be a good friend and daughter and sister, to be a great athlete.  College lacrosse coaches were interested in having her play for them.  She decided she wanted to go to the Naval Academy, and she survived the first grueling cut of applicants after taking their initial entrance exam.

 And she was growing into such a fantastic young woman.  In meeting with the people who have been congregating at Josh's house since she died, I keep hearing these stories about how she would see someone at school who was shy and eating lunch by herself, and Emma would go and sit and eat with her.  She befriended a classmate who was timid and self-conscious, and encouraged her to not be afraid to be herself.  Her coaches and teammates loved her for her attitude, her work ethic, and her effervescence.

I think the accident imbued her with a preternatural gratitude for life, and a level of maturity about the tenuousness of our existence on Earth that most 17-year-olds can't begin to approach.  She knew how lucky she was to be alive and healthy, and she was determined to live every moment to the fullest, appreciate the beauty around her, be kind and open to all, and give and receive love without reservation.

She was truly a good, sweet person,  growing more overtly comfortable in her own skin, more overtly kind and generous with each passing day.  She was loved by all of us, and by her friends and teachers and coaches and employers and teammates and everyone else she encountered.

Emma's last instagram:  "Loved the sunset last night #sunset #beautiful"
I loved that girl so much.
To say that it's all so grossly unfair is the goddamned understatement of all time.

We went to the funeral home to see her today.  She is going to be cremated, so this was it.  The last time we would ever see her again.

She looked so peaceful.  We all took turns talking to her, stroking her hair.  I kissed her goodbye.

She was cold and her skin was waxen, but I needed to see her and touch her.  As awful as it was, I needed to see her like that to help hammer home the truth.  It's too unfathomable otherwise.  I needed the punch in the gut.  And I got it.

She is gone.


  1. Anonymous10:01 PM

    Beautiful writing Wendy. What a fitting tribute to such a young lady! She is off selflessly preparing places for you all in heaven. That is her job now.

  2. Tragic beyond words. Wendy, your letter is beautiful and I am so sorry you and your whole family is going through such a loss. Emma will always be your angel.

  3. I am so sorry. I never had the good fortune to know Emma, but everything I've read about her, and heard about her here in her hometown has been just as you say--she moved through life differently from other people her age, and she was good and kind to other people. We are all the worse off for her loss, but the better for ever having had her presence. I will keep you all in my thoughts through all the weeks, months, and years to come.

  4. I am so incredibly sorry. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  5. I am so sorry for the pain that you and your family are enduring. I have three daughters. I can only imagine the pain. I am so, so, so sorry.

  6. Christy Calbos3:46 PM

    Oh gosh, terrible....I am so awfully sorry, Wendy ~ much love and many prayers for all of you.

  7. Anonymous12:39 PM

    Wendy, your writing is beautiful. I remember Emma as a fun bubbly kid on the sidelines of the rugby pitch cheering us on. She always had a smile on her face and was great with her sisters. I hadn't seen her in many years as she got busy with sports and school activities but heard stories about her. I am so very sorry for your family's loss and hope that the wonderful memories and stories of her help to ease the pain.