Where Were You When…?
On July 27, 1977, my life stood still as I watched my younger sister fall to the ground dead. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we were in Paradise, California, at the 76 gas station. During the next two or three hours, word spread in our church community. People would later tell me where they were when they heard the news. No one asked where I was: I was living it.
That was forty-five years ago! The memory is still present, but the pain and trauma of what happened that sleepy summer afternoon stand in my mind; the wound of that past experience healed but will never leave.
To this day, those who knew Joyce remember where they were and what was happening. They tell me where they were, but they don’t ask where I was when it all went down. The code of “don’t ask” slammed it all shut. They don’t need to know. To this day, I don’t know what was said about where my mother and I were. We witnessed it all in its horror.
The truth is that our trauma was not for public consumption. My younger brother never got to say goodbye to her. I left with two cousins for school, and he was now home alone having to adjust to being an only child—when that wasn’t the plan. You never plan for something like this, and yet I had thought about it because I knew she could die.
Her death messed things all up. We had to re-group, re-think, and adjust to life with no Joyce. Forty-five years later, the memories of people telling me where they were surface. Today is her death anniversary.
My mother and I talked about it when we were older and had distance from it. Death was riding with us that day and somehow my mother knew it. She thought it was going to be her that would die. We finally talked it out and realized that we were glad we’d finally said the words—late as they were to our journey of loss.
The truth is we all remember the “Where were you when…?”question. Those of us who are old enough know where we were when JFK, MLK, RFK, and others were brutally cut down. We remember the Apollo 11 landing, Challenger, the other shuttles, and now school shootings. We stand as witnesses to personal and societal pain.
We’ve taken to gathering at impromptu memorials to share as a community, and yet there is still stigma around personal trauma.
We’re not quite there yet with personal trauma; it’s like the accident that everyone drives by slowly in hopes of seeing the gory stuff. It’s about people wanting to be voyeurs into pain that they would not want seen themselves.
The catch here is that the “Where were you when…?” question enables us to talk through our own trauma around the incident. So many knew my sister, so many loved her, and no one had expected her to drop dead in a phone booth in Paradise, CA. So, the collective mind was collectively blown. Because of the collective trauma, we process it how we can.
For whatever reason, all of this came up forty-five years after the fact. I now live in The Netherlands, I’m far from family, and so, I’ll put this up instead.
Today I purchased flowers for myself and they turned out to be her favorite color: yellow. I’ll enjoy them for her.
I look at the clock and think about the fact that at this time forty-five years ago, we all had to eat. Some of us went for pizza and some stayed home at my aunt and uncle’s place. I went for pizza. I know, weird. The next day, my parents and my younger brother got into my father’s car and drove home and planned the service and all that went with it. Where was I? I was assigned to clean the house and so, like the dutiful daughter I needed to be, I vacuumed and answered the door for people paying respects. I think I’d rather tell people where I was when JFK was assassinated. Where were you when…?