NDJ:8 Fern Richie

Grief Suspended

“No, sweetheart, she didn’t make it.”

My younger sister Louise was a dreamer, looking for the next adventure, the next opportunity to break from the expectation that a young lady’s greatest aim was to gain admission to the Junior League of Birmingham. She’d moved to Washington, DC following college and worked as an energy analyst, often traveling to the Gulf Coast where she put on her hard hat and prowled around offshore oil-rigs. I always admired her spunk, her ability to laugh at the craziness that was our family and to create possibilities when things looked bleak. So I wasn’t surprised when she and five of her DC friends, also native Alabamians, chartered a small plane to fly home for Thanksgiving in 1979. I remained in Nashville for the holiday but looked forward to a December trip with Louise and my older sister, Ellen, to New York City for holiday shopping and theater. Instead, Ellen and I, along with my husband Bob, spent that December weekend cleaning out Louise’s apartment, selling her car, and moving her possessions back to Birmingham. The plane had crashed into a mountain in northern Alabama during the landing approach to pick up the final passenger on the return flight to DC the Sunday after Thanksgiving. No one survived.

 I learned of Louise’s death the following day. I was at home, folding laundry, when I looked up to see Bob coming through the door around lunchtime. Odd, I thought, “This is his day to operate at the VA. He shouldn’t be here now.” But, perhaps already sensing that his presence at the lunch hour portended something ominous, denial was already my operative mode. “Hi there,” I said with feigned cheeriness. “Home for lunch between cases?” I innocently asked, as if reverting to a childlike wish that Bob’s being home for lunch could be simply and sweetly explained. Then, for a moment I felt the gravity of the situation, though not yet knowing what that might be. “No,” Bob replied, “Come, sit here with me.” He took my hand and led me to the sofa. I don’t remember any prefacing remarks – there likely were some – just, “there’s been an accident. Louise…” “But she’s OK, right?” I interrupted. “She’s not hurt is she? She’s not hurt bad is she?” I pleaded. “No, sweetheart, she didn’t make it,” Bob gently replied, as he took my other hand and squeezed them both tightly. A sad and anguished look haunted his deep blue eyes. I remember shock and disbelief. No tears, no words, a feeling of no feeling. I shifted into cerebral mode, the usual doubts and questions quickly moving through my mind. “Maybe they got it wrong?” “How could this be?” Then, “Not Louise. She’s only 25 years old.” Next, visual images of what the accident might have been like – a plane slamming into a mountain in a thunderstorm, the night dark. A fiery crash. Did she know what was happening? Was it quick and painless, or agonizing and awful? I could not remain in that mental space for long, wondering about Louise’s experience of death. It was too horrific.

I went through the motions calmly of packing a suitcase, cancelling my appointments for the remainder of the week, and getting someone to look after the dog while we would be away. Bob and I got in the car for the 3-hour drive from Nashville to Birmingham. I kept waiting for the distressing and disorienting effects of grief to rush in – sadness, despair, anger. When would I begin to feel the pain of my loss?

Then I realized that I was feeling. I was feeling dread; the dread of the work ahead… the work of caring for my parents in this time of crisis and chaos. Over the years I had gotten pretty good at suspending my feelings and needs in order to attend to my parents, particularly my father. So, almost reflexively, unconsciously, I was holding my grief in abeyance.
 As Bob and I made our way through the basement garage of my parents’ home, a family friend opened the door at the top of the stairs and said, “Fern, it’s high time you got here. Your father is a mess and needs you.”