A neighbor found her body many years after she had gone missing. He was walking in a wooded area near his house, and stumbled over a bone - a skull - I am not sure what part of what was left of her, exactly. Like any sane person, he called the police.
The police came, with lots of vehicles, flashing red and white, and large staked lights shining through the night, illuminating the ground. My mother and I knew what it was long before they trekked up to our house and told us. They made a drawing of how the bones were arrayed. A forensic person came and made sure there was no foul play obvious in the story of what remained. No trauma was detectable. Smooth bones, lying in the woods at the edge of a lawn.
You can see the spot, more or less, from the back of my mother’s house. The house my sister flung herself out of on that bitter cold January night. I was not there. My parents were not there. Nor was my sister’s daughter, nor my baby. No, we were all at a warm hotel. We had run away from my sister.
She was acting, well… psychotic. Threatening to burn down the house. She had bruised my parents with physical objects, screaming at them in a whipped fury, face red, eyes of a wild and irrational animal. The physical bruises were nothing compared to the emotional wounds my father and mother carried within; the wounds my mother still bears, invisible to the world but never erased.
I am familiar with those invisible wounds for I bear them too, although every one experiences pain as singular, yet universal. A human mystery. A snowflake of misery, unique in its shape and design, but easily recognizable as a snowflake, cold and crystalline.
We were at the hotel, a relatively cheap one in town. Crowded together, uprooted, strangers to each other in misery, fear, guilt, and intimately connected by the horror of Megan - daughter, sister, mother, aunt - undone. My sister must have been asleep when we stole away, me with my baby daughter, my parents with my sister’s toddler. I can recall the night as one of the coldest I have ever known. Hard stars were shining mercilessly far away in the night sky, the air sliced my stifled lungs with every inhale. We were weary. My presence always seemed to exacerbate Megan’s pain and explosive anger.
There was the perverted excitement of the unknown, the bustle of change. My father had called the police to come to the house and get my sister. My mother believed this was done so Megan could be taken back to rehab. Later, she believed this was not the plan. I know this, my sister was sick and she was a black hole, sucking away life and hope and peace. I could not wait to get away and flee to Michigan, away from her and the dysfunction that swirled around her gravitational pull.
The next day I was scheduled to head back on a plane to graduate school. And I went back. This, in spite of the fact that my sister had disappeared.
When the police man came to the door, a disoriented Megan - in her twenties, the prime of her youth, but looking haggard and hard - answered. The man asked if she was Megan Lisbeth Vance. Even in her most compromised states, she was never stupid. She answered, “No, I’m not her.” And when he bent his head towards the communicator on his uniform, she slammed the door during that moment of inattention, and she ran. She ran in a blind panic, and she took nothing with her as she went.
She ran in socked feet across the wooden floors with fine oriental carpets my father had painstakingly picked out in the Middle East and carried home. She ran by the warm kitchen where she would stand and talk with my mother in her better moments. She ran through the add-on sunroom my father had desired so he could have more light for his granddaughter - her daughter. She passed her little girl’s toys and blankets and dear things. She ran from leftover Christmas decorations. And she ran out of her life.
She plunged into the back yard in the darkening night, alone, without aid or shelter. She was altered, high on drugs or coming off a high, feeling betrayed and furious. She stumbled through the bracken and brambles, the underbrush, seeking escape, escape. There was a small hill. Did she tumble down it and loose her breath? Hit her head just hard enough to knock her out, but not damage her poor skull? Did she hurt herself so badly she gave up? Or did she rather just curl up around the large tree at the base of the hill so she could not be detected, and then fell asleep?
On this side of knowledge there will be no answers. What is known: she curled up around that tree and she died. How do I know? There was a drawing shown to me from the Carter County sheriff’s office - little bones wrapped around the tree in a fetal position. It is indelibly seared into my mind.
She died almost certainly from exposure. Did she make a conscious decision to die? Were her final thoughts angry and vengeful? Was she scared and lonely? Did she mumble penitent and pleading words? Perhaps all of these things are true. Or none.
To us, for many years, she had simply disappeared. Had a friend picked her up? Had my mother’s worst nightmare come true; had a predator gotten her and was hurting her? Was she in hiding somewhere? Was she dead?
My father and I both thought the answer probably lie in those woods somewhere. I could never bring myself to walk them, although my father paced them, looking. But always in the wrong place. Law enforcement did their part. Nothing.
My father was dead before her bare bones were discovered by accident. The day after that night in the hotel, I got on a plane and left with my daughter before it was clear that she was really gone. I left my parents with that uncertainty and pain. And I dreaded when I got a call from them. I did not dread to hear that she was dead or still missing. I dreaded to hear she was found alive.
For many years I dreamed she had returned. And they were nightmares, not good dreams. I would wake up distraught - from the reality of what the dream told me about my desire. I did not really mourn my sister; I was glad she was gone and that she had taken with her the nearly continual and destructive storm that had engulfed my family for years.
It is different now, and I am on a journey to love my sister again. I need to mourn her loss, as painful as it is. I hope to touch, even if just partially, the complex array of emotions that dwell in me. My sister’s disappearance and her life, so deeply stained with addiction and mental illness in its later years, have functioned to obliterate the child I knew and loved.
It has been easier to bury good memories of her and to erase some of her humanity, to kill empathy and sorrow, than it has to fully embrace her, in all her complexity and brokenness. The anniversary of my sister’s birth just passed on Veteran’s day. She would have been forty-one years old. She disappeared nearly fourteen years ago. It is past time for me to try. And to my sister I say, I am sorry, so sorry Meggie.