I was fixing dinner for my younger brothers and sisters when I got the call. “The kids have been in an accident down by Crooked River Bridge. Can you get down here?” I gathered my brother and sister, who were still at home with me, ran to the neighbors, and secured a ride the three miles from our house to the Crooked River Bridge.
The car was lying on its side on the embankment, just a few feet from the water. Two symmetrical rows of dirt lined the road, where the car had skidded, throwing all the gravel aside. The windshield was on the ground beside the car, completely opaque from shattering, but perfectly shaped, having flown from the front window.
I scrambled down the embankment, looking for my two brothers and two sisters who had been in the car. Being the oldest of eleven children, I was used to mentally accounting for where people were. We did this everywhere we went, so that no one would be left behind. As I neared the car, I saw eight-year old Leslie sitting on the ground, softly crying.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” I asked.
“My leg hurts. I tried to walk and it bent right here,” she said, pointing to her thigh, where a leg should not bend.
“An ambulance is going to take you to the doctor, okay?” I knelt beside her and wiped away her tears.
I moved a few more feet, toward the front of the car. As I did, I could see sixteen-year old Bruce. A man I didn’t know was standing by the front of the car. He moved toward me and held up his hand to stop me from coming further. “He’s dead,” he said quietly, so that Leslie couldn’t hear him.
Immediately my knees buckled and I reached for something solid—the roof of the car to my left—and held myself up. I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t possible. With so many children in our family, we were used to accidents and mishaps. Broken bones and stitches were common enough as to not cause too much anxiety. But dying? That didn’t happen to us. The man had to be mistaken.
Once I caught my breath, I moved forward enough to reach out and touch Bruce’s dark hair. It felt soft. There wasn’t any sign of injury, no bruising, no blood. His eyes were closed and he looked like he was peacefully sleeping.
“Is there any way you can get in touch with your parents?” someone asked me and for the first time I realized that I was the oldest family member here. I had to be responsible and think of the kids. I said a quick, silent prayer and moved away from the car and up the embankment.
During the next hour, a brother and sister were transported to the children’s hospital by helicopter. Another sister and brother were taken by ambulance to a local hospital. I called my parents, who were on an overnight temple trip to Dallas, and arranged for the uninjured children to go with friends for the evening.
At some point, a friend offered to drive me to the hospital, where they needed me to be with the most critically injured of the surviving children. I walked across the bridge toward the waiting car. In the middle of the bridge, I stopped and looked over the edge. I could see Bruce in the car.
“Come on, we really need to go,” my friend urged me. But still I stood there. Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks and my heart hurt. Not figuratively—it literally hurt. How could I leave him there? As long as there was family here, maybe it could all be a mistake and he’d come walking up the embankment with his crooked smile, amused at the trick he’d just pulled on us. When I left, there would be no more family here, and illogical as it was, I felt that if all of the family left, he really would be dead. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave him. He needed me to stay with him so he wouldn’t be alone. I don’t know how long I stood there crying, but soon an arm wrapped around my shoulders and guided me to the car.
I’d never experienced tragedy like this before. My family’s world was forever changed. My life would never be the same. Until I see him again, there will be a wound in my soul. As the years have passed, that wound has scabbed over. It is never completely healed, but now I can go for stretches of time without feeling it. Yet every so often, I bump up against something and rip off the scab. I cry and I remember and I hurt, but the hurting feels somehow right. It lets me know Bruce isn’t forgotten. Then I bandage it and move on.
I've wondered if this is healthy. Is it right to still cry after more than twenty years? Am I normal? I’ve decided it is okay. The remembering hurts, but the pain helps me focus on family and what’s important. Since that day, I’ve never said good-bye to a member of my family without telling them I love them, even if I’m just running to the grocery store. Some laugh and think its crazy, but I think it honors Bruce. Bruce was younger than I was, but his unexpected exit from this life has taught me to value those I love and let them know.
I didn’t get to tell Bruce good-bye. I didn’t get to hug him and tell him how proud I am to be his sister. I didn’t get to tell him that he’s one of my favorite people in the world. For that I am sad. But what should I do since he died without me saying goodbye? Express my love for those still here. I’m sure that wherever he is, when he hears me tell my husband I love him as he leaves for work, or when I tell my children I love them as I drop them off at school, he knows. He knows I love him, too.