Thirteen years ago today, my older half-sister Michelle Smith died.
By this time thirteen years ago, I, at 11 years old, was back here in San Francisco from what was supposed to be a fun weekend trip up to Petaluma with my Dad. It's hard to remember the specifics, but I know we went somewhere, and when we returned to the house and listened to the messages on the answering machine, the only thing distinct was my mom's voice, shouting and crying hysterically.
My dad asked his then-girlfriend to usher me out of the room while he listened to the message again to try and make sense of it. I went outside and played Patty-Cake with his girlfriend. I had no idea what was going on. I was worried about by mom, but for some reason, the thought of something truly terrible having happened did not --could not-- cross my mind.
A few minutes later, my dad brought me down and sat me on the white textured couch we had. White couches are a stupid thing to own. If you do own them, they're more of a statement than a functional piece of furniture. They'll always get dirty, even without an 11 year old and a dog in the house. (For the record, if you're stringent about cleaning and don't have those plastic covers over every piece of furniture, then I guess it's fine. Needless to say, my dad isn't either of those types, then or now.)
Anyway, my dad told me first that Michelle had been in an accident. The first thing that popped into my head was a rather steep hill covered in ivy not that far from our house. It's right beside the Rose Garden, and I knew my sister liked to ride her bike through there. I always thought it was dark and winding and scary. My 11 year old-self thought that there were bears and lions in Golden Gate Park, and that you were more likely to see them in places like that than up in the pretty rose garden. I imagined that she'd been biking on the crest of that hill and fell down, broke her ankle. I seem to remember stories of her having broken her leg or ankle before, so in my mind, it wouldn't have been the first time.
I don't remember if I asked if she'd just broken her ankle. I don't remember if I'd asked anything, doubting and scared, or naive and laughing. My insides were probably like Jello, just quivering, unable to stop.
I do remember being in the back seat of the car, stuck in traffic on the way back to San Francisco. I'd wanted a fun weekend in Petaluma, and now I had to go home. But I was worried about mom, freaked out about Michelle: I'd just had a fight with her about my Dad not long before I'd left, and I felt weird about going back home and having to "face" that, so to speak. I was thinking of how weird it would be, my mom and my dad and his girlfriend in the same room.
The next thing I remember, I was walking back up the stairs to my mom's house, to the dining room. It didn't look too much different from how it looks today. I remember my mom sitting at the head of the table on the left, her back to the piano my sister used to play all the time. She'd recently gotten more interested in the acoustic guitar, though. Besides, the piano was always out of tune, and Michelle was more interested in becoming a filmmaker than a pianist.
I remember the house being filled with cops. I got scared. I felt cold. I think it was then, seeing all the strangers in my house, my mom looking completely broken at the head of the table, shouting or crying or both, that I realized something was really wrong.
I don't really remember much about the next several days. There was a visit to the hospital. I'm not sure if it was for my mom to identify Michelle's body or to arrange for her to be sent to a mortuary or what. I didn't get to see anything. It was probably for the best, though seeing her at the funeral probably wouldn't have been much better.
There was a story that I heard in bits and pieces: Michelle had been out hiking with her friend Rayanna (not even sure if I'm spelling it right; we haven't heard from her since then) at Land's End, a stub of land not too far from Ocean Beach. Back then, it wasn't closed off, but everyone knew you weren't supposed to be over there. There were no fences, no railing, no anything. Just dry grass, dirt, rocks, and the ocean 200 feet below. Michelle and Rayanna weren't part of any sort of hiking expedition. There were no trail leaders or expert backpackers or anything like that. No equipment. I don't even think there were cell phones back then, at least not that Michelle or Rayanna would have owned.
I think I was told that death was immediate, that she wasn't in any pain. I kind of doubt that, nowadays. Part of me wants to believe it, of course, but it also hurts to think that she didn't --couldn't-- think of her family in her last moments. If she had, I wonder, would she have thought of how awful I was to still have a father when she didn't? Did she still think I was the worst bratty little sister ever, or would she miss me? I'll never know. It's one thing to tell yourself something to make yourself feel better, but the truth is something else altogether. They're not always the same.
Over the years, I've been to what I thought was Land's End a few times. Most of the time, I've been wrong. I went to the caves near the old Sutro Baths ruins, thinking that was Land's End because my dad told me that it was the "closest I'd ever get to it." I remember seeing people that had climbed over the rusty, single-bar railing sitting up on the rocks, wanting to yell at them because no matter how immortal or careful they were, my SISTER had died there. Were they even thinking of their family or friends in that moment?
There was another place, just past Point Lobos, higher up and surrounded by trees. It was a high cliff with a rocky beach below it, remnants of the Sutro Baths and the war cannon installations here and there. Some people had a tendency of making dirt circles and things like that up there. I kept wanting to see a symbol in them, a message from Michelle to me. Something.
I think this past spring was when I really saw Land's End. There was a sign there that mentioned Painted Rock and Land's End, talking about how dangerous it was and how people had died. Once, I think I wrote (or maybe I was tempted to write, I can't remember) "My sister was one of them!" on that sign. People still went right over the stupid rope fence and walked to take pictures of the stunning view of the ocean and the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge to the right and Marin County to the left. You could hear the fog horn, hear ships coming into port.
There wasn't enough room for more than two people to walk up there at a time, but there were still lots of people there. I wanted to yell at them too, but I was too choked up: angry at them, angry at myself, angry at the world. This spring, I went to the real Land's End alone.
Before, I'd been with other people. Some of those people I brought because I felt they needed to know the truth, the "me" that still was struggling with her half-sister/only sister/only sibling's death. Some of them I brought for purely selfish reasons, because I wanted comfort. I know I used them, and it was wrong, but my story and my feelings at that place have never been anything but the truth. I still think that it's hard for people who haven't really experienced death so close to them to know what I went through. They can just hug you or pat you on the back or say "I'm sorry," and that's all they can do.
For each person, what they need during that time is different. For me, I didn't know what I needed for myself. I decided to be the rock for my mom. Other people reacted to my reaction. The only person I remember being there "for me" explicitly was Christopher Garcia. He'd been a friend of mine at our after school program, Claire Lillienthal.
By the time summer ended, I already felt like it was the "Year of Hell." I didn't hold very high hopes for the remaining five or so months of the year. Having a transition like that, from elementary school to middle school meant that I changed a lot. I was a bitch in middle school. It could have been a lot better. I could have been a lot more mature. But I'd been through hell, and I didn't think anyone else could understand. No one really seemed to be genuinely trying, anyway. At that age, how can you? I'd hoped Chris Garcia would have given it more of a shot, but he chose popularity over me. That was a bit like twisting the knife already stuck in my chest.
He moved away before high school started. I remember seeing him on graduation. We didn't speak to each other, but I desperately wanted to. Years later, when I was working at AMC Theatres on Van Ness, he came to see a movie with a friend. I was so dead-tired that I thought I was dreaming. I didn't think to beg my supervisor to ask for my 15 minute break then, even though there was a line starting to wind throughout the lobby. He checked out the list of shows and couldn't find anything interesting, but he came up to my window in the box office, grabbed my hands through the window, and told me he was sorry for everything he'd done in middle school. He said he was a Marine now. I didn't stop to think for his phone number, his email, where he was stationed, anything.
I can honestly say he was the first boy I was ever truly in love with, and while that might have been a misplaced love due to the death of my sister, I'll always cherish what he did for me. Part of me still wants to see him again, if just to hug him for a good five minutes straight.
I made a lot of enemies in middle school, but a lot of lifelong friends, too. For those that stuck by me and have understood, that have come to know the truth since then, thank you. I hope we'll have thirteen and more years together.This is my sister.
I miss her very much.