I am not the guy who sleeps with his phone so the simple fact that I looked at Facebook soon after rising on April twentieth is odd; but I did. Truth is, for years I gave people my wife’s phone number rather than my own. My phone is frequently nowhere near me while hers is usually at hand. I trained friends to call Patricia and have her tell me to please call them. I had to stop that practice when she moved to Florida three months before I did, but I digress.
That morning Facebook held a post from my little sister Linda. It spoke of living every parent’s worst nightmare but provided no details, only a petition for prayers. My heart fell. One of her children must have been in a car crash and was in the hospital. I checked for text messages. “Please call as soon as possible,” time stamped 7:01. My phone log showed that I had missed a call from her at 5:23. They live one time zone to the west so she had called before 4:30. She had not left a voice mail message when she’d called.
Another odd circumstance for a Wednesday was that my wife was at home. “Honey, something must have happened to one of Linda’s kids,” I said to her. “She left a message on Facebook but no details. I think somebody was probably in a car crash. I’m going to call her.” My home in Florida has cell phone reception reminiscent of the 1960’s TV show, Green Acres. This may be the reason why I never heard the 5:23 call as I seldom answer a phone that doesn’t ring. My reception is so exceptional that in order to have a conversation I must go outside.
Pat responded to the cryptic message in the usual way with the usual words. Oh, no. Please give her my love. The sort of heartfelt, powerless things we say when we don’t know what to say and are nearly a thousand miles away. I grabbed a cup of coffee and went out to my back patio to call Linda. As I sat down my phone rang. It wasn’t Linda, it was our brother Greg. “Have you heard?” he asked.
“No. I was just going to call now. I saw the Facebook post. Figured somebody was in a car crash. Is everyone alright?”
“No, Keith, everyone’s not alright. Annie’s dead. They’re not sure how.”
“Dead?! What do you mean dead? Was she hit by a car?” I asked.
“No. At least they don’t think so,” Greg answered. “That was one of their first theories but now they don’t think so. Something to do with her stomach and then her heart stopped and they found her at the top of the driveway, face down with gravel embedded in the backs of her hands and a gash across her face. They thought she’d been hit by a car and then thrown by the impact but there are no broken bones. Linda’s a mess.”
Greg told me of the frantic calls Linda had made. How worried about Greg she had been because her news was so bad and unexpected. How she had asked repeatedly if he was alone, if he had someone there to comfort him. How she had worried about how her news of terrible personal tragedy would affect him. He retold how Annie, our fifteen-year-old niece, liked to walk to the top of their rural Mississippi driveway and talk to God and listen to music on her i-pod: That the spot holds a rose bush that had been a gift from a deceased friend.
The fourth of five children Annalisa used the spot at the top of the driveway as a sanctuary, a place to be alone but still be in sight of her family and home. She frequented the little corner and it was common for her to go there at night. The driveway is rather steep and has a slight curve so the area provided seclusion but because of physical proximity and the light pouring outward from inside the house being next to the rosebush also afforded inclusion. It is a private place where a girl who shared a bedroom with her big sister and a house with two of her three brothers could go and think, meditate and pray, free from the contacts and interruptions of family that both ground and confound us.
Annie’s (her name is pronounced “Aunie” as though you were saying “ah”) visits to the rosebush were so routine that no one thought anything strange when she stayed out there for hours. It was common place for her to do so and Linda and her husband Paolo went to bed without worry. Nearing midnight her younger brother Daniel asked Marisa, “Where’s Annie?” but Marisa told him not to worry, that she was fine. As the night stretched on Daniel decided to ignore his bigger sister’s advice and began walking up the driveway where he figured to find Annie. He did, but not as expected.
Greg told me of Annie’s wounds. How she was lying face down with her heals toward the street and her head closer to home. That the cuts to the tops of her hands indicated that she was either dead or unconscious when she hit the ground because if she had been conscious then the palms would have been injured, not the backs. The lack of blood from the gash on her nose reinforced the theory that she’d been dead when she hit because otherwise there would have been a pool from such a large cut: No heart beat equals nothing to push the blood out except gravity.
With Daniel’s discovery mayhem erupted. Paolo administered CPR, Linda called 911, oldest brother Nic along with Marisa and Daniel prayed and cried and the paramedics finally arrived and took over CPR while preparing the defibrillator. No pulse meant no defibrillator magic. At the moment no one knew what had happened or how, only that this young girl, daughter, sister, was being taken away by ambulance and that the police would have to investigate. It wasn’t until a week later that they would be told with some authority that Annie had passed before she hit the ground and that even if the family had been by her side when she collapsed they could not have saved her.
My heart ached for them as I thanked Greg for his call and disconnected. I immediately called Linda but she did not answer. I repeated my attempt to call her three times that day and sent her text messages but could not contact her. I sat with grief and bewilderment, concern for Annalisa’s parents and siblings and especial dread that Daniel, who had found her, might somehow misguidedly blame himself. I felt my impotence mix with uncertainty and realized how tiny was the burden I carried in comparison to the stones Paolo and Linda had had thrust upon their chests.
I went back into my house and shared with my wife what I knew. The reason Pat was home that Wednesday was because her eldest sister had flown down to Florida with three of her grandchildren for a week-long visit. I contacted our son who lives in Iowa with his wife and told them what had happened and that we didn’t know when the funeral would be. We faced Limbo moving forward and purgatory of the mind in regards to how such a young and healthy girl’s life could end so quickly without external violence. An autopsy would have to be performed and funeral arrangements would have to wait on the autopsy. A quicksand of molasses engulfed the too familiar routine of funeral arrangements. Everyone would have to continue their lives without knowing what had happened or when the burial could occur.
The sadness was complicated with logistics. My wife was scheduled to fly half way around the world on Saturday the 23rd, leaving for a two-week business trip, while our younger son was flying to Iowa to celebrate his 23rd birthday with his childhood friends. Additionally, our big sister, who lives a scant ten miles from Linda and family, was scheduled to have a mastectomy the next day. There were a lot of balls being juggled, some life threatening, some nearly unalterable and thus we were reduced to waiting for news in hopes that we could give support to both of my sisters in their times of anguish.
Solace from a distance is most often comprised of words. I wrote poems for Anna describing who she was to me. Poems of life, poems of passing, thoughts on the deeply held convictions that my sister and her family feel regarding this world and their faith. I wrote a poem for my big sister who faced physical butchery in the hope but uncertainty that the cancer could be cut away and purged and I wrote a poem to this same sister and our brother Greg, her twin, in honor of their shared birthday. Words, ineffectual but not so fleeting as I wrote rather than said them. I hope they brought comfort, they are a meager but heartfelt offering.
The police in Walnut, Mississippi are unaccustomed to seeing seemingly healthy children die and questions concerning Anna’s habits and lifestyle had to be addressed. Drugs, boyfriends, illegal activity, enemies, co-conspirators in crime had to be suggested but in the end the simple fact that Anna’s heart had stopped was accepted as the cause of death and funeral arrangements were made. I set out solo on the 800-mile drive prior to the sun rising on Monday the 25th.
My route took me to Atlanta, a city I lived just north of for eight years and where our two children were born, and Birmingham, where I lived for half a year and fled from after behaving abominably to the woman who still consented to be my wife five years later. Birmingham always puts me in a foul mood because of mistakes that I made while living there and seeing a caravan of half-a-dozen dilapidated cars, each towing another dilapidated car that had the words “IN TOW” slapped on the back window with duct tape formed letters on the trailing cars made me nod my head in accordance with my opinion (albeit unearned on Birmingham’s part) of the city. I laughed out loud when there was a slow down on the highway and I saw that though each of the towed cars had added trailer brake lights to the tops of towed vehicles none of them lit up when the front car applied its brakes. I was glad to head north on I 65 while the twenty-first century Grapes of Wrath convoy continued trekking west.
I continued north and then headed west, first along the Alabama and Tennessee border and then into the most northern region of Mississippi. I, like many a Yankee, tend to look down my nose at the south. Their ways are not mine and what some think of as culture can be equally viewed as intolerance. GOBs can rub me the wrong way and those with strong faith who are outspoken are likely to put me on edge. A prejudice, that, like my feelings toward Birmingham, are more my problem than theirs.
I was blessed to be able to spend six nights and five days with Linda and her family. My brothers Greg and Steve along with their wives flew in from Washington DC and brought four of their five combined children. All seven of Sue’s children returned to the nest, two from Florida, one from DC, one from Chattanooga and another from Wyoming, towing spouses and grandchildren. My son Kevin and his wife Katie drove down from Des Moines, skirting a tornado. Tony Laudadio flew in from DC as soon as he was able. Paolo’s sisters and his parents arrived from the north east. We relatives flocked, pilgrimaging to the home of my sister who had suffered so terrible a loss. And family was not limited to those with blood ties. The gifts of food, companionship, food, cards, food, letters, electronic communication, offers of rooms or entire homes to stay in, food and a truck that was made available, “In case y’all need something bigger for a while,” were generously offered or delivered by the community. Over seven hundred souls came to Annalisa’s wake, many standing in line for well over an hour, just to embrace Linda and Paolo and offer condolences.
Losing a child is said to be the most difficult event a parent can go through but the faith of my sister and her family was unwavering. The congregation at Unity Baptist Church in Ripley, Mississippi may not be large but it is full of faith and love and is an inestimable fount of goodwill. Upon discovering that Anni had died instantly Paolo observed, “She always liked to run down the driveway when she was through praying. It looks like she slipped from this world straight to heaven without changing pace.” Thoughts that he holds as truth and words of comfort to all who believe.
My faith is minimal and what I have is not fundamentalist in nature, yet it was the good old boys, the salt of the earth residents and my sister and her husband’s ever present faith in the Lord that most humbled and pacified me. Faith may not be able to move mountains but it can surely change lives. My ability to pray and believe is tepid and weak but I shall continue to offer the weak prayers that I have. I know that the Laudadio’s faith will help to sustain them and the next time we sophisticated, educated, half warm semi-Christians smirk at a heartfelt profession of faith I hope we stop and think of sour grapes because like Aesop’s fox we are missing out on a wine most divine. Rest in peace, Annalisa Elizabeth Laudadio, and by the faith you and your parents share you shall greet them in heaven.