Pre-accident hindsight on school and family life.
I was fourteen years old when I started my freshman year, and like every other kid in that stale high school, I was just trying to play it cool to fit in. Fortunately for me, I have never been the best at “playing it cool”. So, while my peers seemed to be easily transitioning from awkward to a little less awkward, I remained as awkward as I had ever been. Spoiler alert, their transition was just as messy and uncomfortable as mine, but no one sees that common trend as it’s happening! Anyway, my friends and I were all in band class every morning, went to some kind of practice after school, and spent our weekends talking about the new kid. Actually, I can’t particularly remember what we would have been doing on the weekends, but I assume talking about the new kid couldn’t have been a far stretch from the truth. Speaking of not remembering exactly, I’ll pause the tale here to explain something that will occur often throughout my story: over the years I’ve lost track of specific details such as what we did on the weekends, what people might have said exactly, and dates, among other things that will come up as we go! The faded memories, however, won’t interrupt too much and rest assured, I’ll wait until I start a fiction novel to invent elaborate fillers. Now, resume play! A few of us had gotten our driver's license, some of us started to branch out to try new things, but for the most part, we ate lunch in the cafeteria while complaining about the lukewarm milk. In general, there was really nothing spectacularly special about my freshman year. I was a mediocre clarinet player who wore sweats almost every day. I told lame jokes that weren't funny to anyone outside my circle, and tried to bend the rules without getting into trouble but mostly failed. In the fall a few of us would walk to the gas station to get a fountain soda, and wear our pep band shirts to the football games. There was a few of us that joined an organization called Key Club, which meant we started to raise money for UNICEF, read the daily announcements, and things like that. I think that most of my friends reading will agree that one timeless tradition of freshman year that pretty much lasted through our high school career was going to Baylee’s house across the street to steal cheese sticks or fruit snacks! It seemed at the beginning of my freshman year, to me, that our family was similar to what it had always been. I was the spoiled little sister and my siblings were the cool older kids who had already started their adult lives. My sisters as well as their friends had started to have kids and I was always being called “Auntie Freddie”. Paul took me places I needed to be and we fought about who was to do the dishes. Dad was still working in the oil field as he has for as long as I can remember, and he even had got Paul hired onto his crew in the summer of 2011! We were all human, which included being a little broken, mad, and even a pinch crazy! Nonetheless, we loved each other. We, with the exception of my sisters who were lived out of town, ate dinner at the truck stop, watched Jay Leno on the television, and went skiing when dad was home. In hindsight, I’d say life was rather normal if I believed in normal that is.
Paul’s dead. One sentence that I am reminded of daily. When people lose their humans you hear them say, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about them.” I never used to believe that, but as I approach the five year anniversary of his death, I get it. Some days I hear a little melody or see a sunset that reminds me of our crazy shenanigans as kids, while other days the silence screams louder than I think I can bear. Nevertheless, everyday is a day I remember my brother. • There was a week between hearing the news for the very first time and covering his casket with dirt. In that week the flow of people, food, and confusion was virtually nonstop. As a freshman I had been rehearsing for a few months to perform in our school play which conveniently fell on the Friday and Saturday following the accident. I had lost my childhood best friend, my tag team partner, and my big brother three days before, but I went on stage anyway. It was then that I subconsciously cleared out a wee little space within the depths of myself to bear the pain I fought tooth and nail to believe was not true. I failed to recognize then, but have come to know with time, that it was in those days I had split myself and became one person living two individual lives with drastically different stories. I don’t regret performing because it truly captured my ability as a rookie actress, I truly found joy in being a part of it, and it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. However, going through with the seemingly insignificant play became the grand entrance of what would soon become my darkest valley.
March 28th, 2012. This was a Wednesday. I had a doctor’s appointment in Billings so Dad came into my room early, maybe four thirty or five, and turned my light on. I clawed myself out from under my covers, put some dirty clothes on, and tied my hair back. I walked to the kitchen, poured some creamer and Folgers into a to-go mug, and loaded the truck to head out. In the front seat I was dozing in and out of sleep when Dad’s phone rang. I could tell it was Paul calling by the horrendous police siren ringtone my dad assigned to him. He had gotten off work in North Dakota and was on his way home. I can’t confidently say what all they talked about because I just didn’t really pay attention, but if I remember correctly, Dad lost service and the call was ended. I readjusted in the seat and continued to fall in and out of sleep for an hour or so before I was woken up again by that boisterous police siren. Dad picked up the call, but there was no one on the other end.
I sat through my appointment and listened to my doctor explain some possible causes of my pain. I watched Dad behind the doctor messing on his phone. When he looked at me, he said that Steve was with Ashly and they were going to meet us in the parking lot to talk. Steve is Ashly’s dad and Ashly is my eldest sister who was living in Billings at the time, but what did the two of them need? The doctor finished his assessment, gave us the information we would need, and we started towards the truck. As Dad and I walked through the hospital, we tried to figure out why they insisted on meeting us so unexpectedly with such urgency. Dad had a hunch that maybe Ashly needed to move back into our house or needed money, but neither of us could come up with a good reason as to why they would need to talk so suddenly. The spring sun was shining through the windshield and a carefree breeze was blowing through Dad’s open window as we sat in the truck waiting. I was just picking up my phone to casually scroll through Facebook when their car pulled in and parked next to ours. I put my phone down to get out, but Dad gave me a look that told me I didn’t need to be a part of whatever was going to happen. So, I picked my phone back up. Before I could open any apps, Ashly knocked on the window next to me. Without looking at her I began to roll down the window. I heard her shaky voice ask me to get out of the truck. I really had no desire to listen to anything she had to say, so I sat there and shook my head in silence. I heard a sniffle and I turned to look through the rolled down window at my sister, who’s eyes were bloodshot with tears. She proceeded to deliver me a two word message that I couldn’t believe. In that instance I was convinced she made it up out of pure evil. Every part of my being stung with rage and I glared at her in disbelief for lying about something that would be so detrimental to our family.
I couldn’t look at her any longer so I transitioned my focus to Dad standing on the other side of the truck. It was through the tint of the back window I saw him. Before I could even blink, I watched his entire body overflow with misery. I saw him interlock his fingers behind his head and look to the clouds with devastation. I became overwhelmed with panic and began repeating to myself again and again, “It’s not real. It’s not true.” In what felt like a single heartbeat, I opened the door and raced to to the other side of the truck. As Dad’s chin began to lower, his arms fell with an unintentional grace, and our eyes met. In that moment, I knew it was true: Paul’s dead.
Growing up Dad would take us at least once a summer to Yellowstone National Park. Our trip in 2008 was particularly special because Paul had just gotten his motorcycle endorsement so we got to ride the bikes through the park. One afternoon Paul and I pulled over by a stream to fish while Dad went ahead to reserve a campsite. We started getting our fishing gear out of the saddlebags as Paul began to joke about the thin grass trail leading from where we parked on the road to the water. He made up an extravagant story about the two of us getting murdered by a herd of buffalo that own the trail before Dad could get back to scare them away and save our lives. On and on he went while eleven year old me was just having a ball. I was laughing with my eyes closed, but I could hear Paul’s story turn to just quietly whispering my name with an increasing sense of urgency every time he had to repeat it. I opened my clenched eyes to see him pointing at something down the road and in an instant my laughter was silenced. We couldn’t believe what was happening! Moseying along the same yellow line we were parked was a real life buffalo! As it got closer and closer to the bike our breathing got heavier and heavier. The animal eventually reached the front tire and there was a fifty-fifty chance of it walking along the side of the bike unoccupied by humans or the side Paul and I were standing on, and of course it came along our side! I remember us being so close to the buffalo as it walked by that I curled my toes in my shoes because I was sure that they were going to get crushed under it’s massive hooves. Those three or four seconds between the motorcycle and giant animal felt like hours, and when it was over we both bust out laughing with fear and relief! It was crazy!
That’s how it was for Paul and I growing up. Every Time something crazy could happen it did! I’ll admit that most of the time we put ourselves into situations that could only end in a strange, unexpected plot twists, but even when we’d try to be casual and do it completely by the books, things would somehow turn out crazy. It was like we constantly drew the short end of the stick, and March 28th, 2012 was no different.
Now that you have an extremely vague nugget of who I am from that lousy excuse of an introduction, we’ll start to dive right into the raw journey of my last four years. Ready or not, here I go!
March 25th, 2012. This was a Sunday. I regrettably fail to recall what happened throughout the sunny part of the day, but I know sometime before sunset that Dad and I had dinner at the truck stop a mile from our home. As we got in the truck to leave the house, I texted my older brother where we were going so he could meet us there. We sat in a booth next to one of the windows where we could see the rain outside. Paul never did show up to eat. Dad and I went back to the house and everything was like any other night. Paul lounged on the couch with our new puppy, while Dad and I raced to the bathroom. All of us sat in our living room and watched Jay Leno together like any other night. I ate some chips, and at some point Paul got up to take a shower. After a while the commercials came on and Dad took his signature deep breath that told Paul and I he was going to head to bed. We followed Dad into his room and I forget exactly what we talked about, but like any other night, we probably covered what had happened that day, our different plans for the upcoming week, and laughed too hard about something that wasn’t even funny.
I was fourteen and Paul was nineteen; but still, we both gave Dad our separate hugs, a kiss, and told him we loved him a few times before walking into the hallway. By that time, Paul had moved from his upstairs bedroom to the basement so, like any other night, we gave each other a hug in the hallway before he went downstairs. I vividly remember the next few seconds in slow motion. His hug had turned into a tight squeeze that popped my back and took my voice hostage. I wasn’t able to beg for mercy verbally so I straightened my right arm and with precise technique slapped his bare back as hard as I could! He let me down and we both laughed, just like any other night. We then exchanged a nonviolent hug, told each other goodnight, and that we loved one another. Nothing was out of the ordinary and it had been just like any other night, or so I thought.