On Frozen Pond
Many years later, when she was no longer a child, she believed she would be able to process it. Her older friends had always told her it was time to move on and get on with her life, but a small part of her knew, deep down, there was never any moving on. That was a lie people told themselves to make it easier. It never got easier.
She was just a child when it happened, but for the rest of her life she would remember the silent scream, the sadness in the eyes of the emergency medical technicians that cold winter day as they braced themselves against the bitter wind, a thin screen of blown snow creating ghostly shapes in the low winter sun as they buckled under the sudden dead weight of a slight, slender teenage girl who had drowned saving her baby sister, an imaginary princess immersed in an imaginary fairy tale, beyond thinking, in a fairytale wonderland of happiness ever after.
She was 16 now, driven by disconnected feelings of guilt and helplessness, determined not to let others see her pain, hiding it on the inside, crying often but hardened in her resolve not to let others see it. She remembered their faces that day, and even their names. There was Del Brubaker, and Breonna Browne, first on the scene, first responders called out of the warmth of their homes early on a midwinter’s morning by the panicked voices on a crackling smartphone — the signal was never that good this far out in the woods, even for emergency technicians. There was Bear Claw Colvin, the self-styled mountain man and indigenous fishing guide who knew the quickest route to the lake, even in deep snowdrifts, and Eddie Anhalt, the deputy coroner who surprised himself by how quickly he rousted himself out of bed early on a Sunday morning to get to the scene of the latest tragedy on a lake known for its tragedies, and Ann McLerie, the worker from child services who had experience in calming traumatized children, but never anything quite like this.
Deep down she knew her parents blamed her for her older sister’s dying that day. They didn’t say as much, of course, but it was there just the same, in the sudden, unexplainable silences, the way they could never quite bring themselves to acknowledge her small achievements in life as she grew through her early teens, not so much a rite of passage as an act of survival, and contrition — not contrition to those who secretly blamed her without saying so out loud as much as contrition to the memory of an older sister who had been her friend, her defender, her secret guardian, her role model, the single most important person in her life as she knew it then. They say, as with blame, the further one gets away from a tragedy, the harder it is to single out one thing that caused it, but she saw it as quite the opposite. The further that day receded in her childhood memory, the closer it seemed to her. She saw it every time she looked in the mirror. She had her sister’s eyes, her nose, the line in her jaw, the way her hair seemed perfectly set for her head.
More importantly, she felt her sister deep in her bones, in her very life’s blood, as though her older sister had found a way to live through her. Her small achievements were not so much her achievements as their achievements. She had learned the hard way, not just that day but almost every day since, that you can’t control everything, but you are obligated to take care of the things you can. Her personality changed, or perhaps her sister would say she was becoming who she was meant to be all along. No one changes. We become more of the person we are.
When she saw a wide-eyed girl her own age being picked on in school, she stood up to the bullies.
She started doing things for other people, without being asked and without expecting anything in return. She didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do. She did it because she knew it was the only thing she could do. She hurt on the inside, always, and the hurt was getting worse, but she never let it show.
She read books — serious books, well advanced beyond her years, and she learned about cowardice and bravery, true bravery, and how everyone deals with death in their own private way.
She felt deep anger often, but she learned to control her emotions. She knew others saw her as cold and unfeeling, but she knew herself to be someone different from the person others perceived her to be. Comfort the afflicted. Give voice to the voiceless.
There were times when she felt like a stranger to herself, but her sister would tell her this was always who she was meant to be. Self-aware. Self-questioning. Fragile on the inside on occasion, but never bitter. She learned that life can be interrupted, but never postponed.
They say pride is the greatest sin, but she knew that not to be true. She learned to take pride in who she was, that she would jump to help those who needed it, without thinking. A reflex motion.
They say memories fade over time, that they become more unfocused. She found it the opposite, though. She was so young that day she fell through the ice, the fairytale princess in her own fairy tale, but she remembered it as if it was yesterday.
They say that time heals, and she saw the truth in that, even if only in a small way. As she grew older, in a strange, intangible way, she felt the spirit of her sister drawing closer, not just in a ghostly, spiritual way but as an actual physical presence, her guardian, her defender, still watching over her from the beyond.
She saw that every time she saw a frozen pond, no matter how small, a life force, tangible, ever-present, nodding at her from the silvery sheen of ice gleaming under a low winter sun.
And she knew that, every time she sensed her older sister, so near and yet so far, they were on the side of the angels.