Deus, in adjutorium meum intende.
I close my eyes, and she haunts me. She is running full speed through the roadside trees and the knee-deep snow as the day fades into the purples and blues of an Ohio snow belt winter. At first she appears as a doe, lean and young and bounding dangerously toward us. She dodges a few saplings and gains momentum as she clears the ditch, and then the shoulder, landing on the pavement just in front of my sister’s car. It’s funny the things you notice right before a cataclysm. This young woman isn’t wearing a coat.
Breath puffs out of her mouth in little white clouds, ghosts of a halo she might have otherwise worn. The advancing darkness subsumes the black circles under her eyes. The strings of her black bonnet intermingle with loose wisps of blond hair. For a split second after impact, she hangs, suspended just outside the windshield. Nose to nose with me, we commune, two souls on either side of a shattering reality. The setting sun gleams gold on the glass between us as her face drains to a pallor that matches the monochrome and frosty landscape. Her eyes bore through the cracked glass; they are the darkest black I have ever seen, the direct inverse of the snow falling in silent reverence around her.
Sometimes my memory plays tricks on me. Sometimes I can’t begin to fathom what I don’t know about that evening. What I do know is that anything could have happened. Marnie was
driving that day, and I didn’t want to go. We bickered, but in the end, our mother won. Someone had to hold the cat while my sister drove. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just put a pillow in a box and close the cat inside. I’d poke the box to make air holes, of course. Then, Marnie could manage on her own. I felt this would be a better way to transport him to the veterinarian’s office for his follow-up appointment. Marnie was the one to blame for his injuries, after all. Besides, he seemed to be healing just fine.
I witnessed the whole thing one afternoon when Pepper, my fat, gray-blue tabby, lazily stretched across the concrete in the path of my sister’s car. The cat, my childhood companion, first came to us as an adult stray, like almost every cat we ever had. Pepper was a keeper. The first time I saw him, he charged out of the woods straight at me, howling a forlorn cry that made me stiffen and wait for him to catch up. The howls switched to purrs when I picked him up and buried my face in his soft fur, and he patted my face with a declawed paw every time I stopped rubbing behind his ears. He gave me a slow blink with his golden eyes as he put his nose against mine, and I knew then and there that he laid claim to me. Strays choose their helpers, and when they speak to you in this way, you are bound to them. Even in my childhood, it infuriated me that someone would declaw, neglect to neuter, and then abandon any cat, but especially one such as this. From this day forward, Pepper walked with me to the school bus stop in the mornings, and he waited there for me in the afternoons. Some days, his was the friendliest face I saw, and sometimes I thought he was the only soul on earth who was glad to see me.
As Marnie inched her white Chevy into the garage that day, I saw her see Pepper, but he just flicked the tip of his tail as he watched the tires slowly roll toward him. It was a game of chicken, and neither Marnie nor Pepper knew how to bluff. I could have reached out and pulled
him out of harm’s way before she bumped over him, but I knew she saw him, and she didn’t stop anyway. I yelled and cried for her to stop, but she didn’t until she ran him over with the back tires too. Somehow he managed to drag himself from under her car when she put it in park.
Pepper struggled to walk. His hips and back end took the brunt of the car’s weight, but after two weeks of care, he seemed to be on the mend. “It’s hard to tell with cats,” our vet told us, “It’s a survival instinct to not let on that anything is wrong. Eventually they quietly go off to the woods to die alone.”
A few weeks later, Pepper walked into the woods and never returned. I was crushed. Months after Pepper disappeared, there were days when I laid my cheek to the cool, smooth surface of the garage floor, when the unrelenting summer humidity melted me in slow, undulating waves. I laid in Marnie’s tire tracks, feeling the dust from the road, wondering what it meant to die. I yearned to find a way to perceive what Pepper felt and to somehow achieve a tacit understanding of the secrets of the dead. Where was my best friend? Was he still Pepper? Was he waiting for me at some bus stop, somewhere on the other side?
The collision was heavy, and in slow motion. I always imagined suicide to be that way. I wonder now if it was that way for her. She never flinched, never waivered, at least not until the impact moved her, rolling her over the roof after her head smashed the windshield, and the sheath of her body was cast gracefully into the frozen roadside snowdrifts. The muffled crunch of the glass and the metallic thump on the roof must have preceded a deafening silence.
For a minute, Marnie didn’t know what happened; she hadn’t seen the young woman
careening through the trees, and she had no idea what she hit until she got out of the car. Marnie stood beside the woman’s body, shivering, wildly eyeing the rural landscape, the empty road, and the Amish houses in the distance. There were no phones, no immediate calls for help. Marnie couldn’t look at her, and even now, years later, I can’t stop looking at her. The woman lay heavy and bled through her dark Amish dress, her head cocked in an unnatural angle, arms and legs splayed in an arrangement of incoherence, but in my mind, I knelt down and cupped her hand, and I imagined it light and smooth and hollow like a seashell.
When I think of what happened that night, I have more questions than answers. What does it make me, that I didn’t know her name, that I still don’t know her name? Even now, years after the fact, her approach, her determination, her eyes that focused only on death burn in my mind like a calotype series. She must have been beautiful, one of God’s creatures. But at the moment of impact, she testified with an act of true and steadfast decision rather than innocent victimhood. Through my haze of memory and imagination, she looks straight through me while I gape at her and brace for her impact. I can’t be sure, but I would swear she smiles just a little bit. Not a toothy grin, but rather a sanctified smile, with lips touching lightly like hands in prayer.
Tonight I stand on my front porch, listening to thunder in the distance. The water-stained concrete is warm under my feet, and the lightning bugs signal the changing weather. It’s times like these when I feel small, like a slip of energy alight in a vast, expanding universe. This feeling is pervasive in my life, and it leads me to the idea that powerful, universal forces blow around me like the wind from a storm, much stronger and more unpredictable than I could ever be. My main
responsibility is existence, but my mind is seldom idle enough to allow for this kind of simplicity. I have a need to know, to understand this life and the whys and ways things happen. And despite the futility, I find myself in constant combat with the past.
The night the young Amish woman ran in front of my sister’s car, I wasn’t there. True, my mother and I had fought about whether I would go, but in the end, she relented with one of her great heaving sighs. She held the cat while my sister drove. I was going to go with Marnie, but a sick feeling bubbled from the pit of my stomach when it was time to go. I couldn’t identify where the feeling originated, but a voice inside me plainly told me not to go. I felt an overwhelming sense of dread that I couldn’t explain. Was this more than teenage selfishness? Maybe.
I planned to be somewhere else that night, and when my mother called to tell me what happened, I was shocked, but not moved. Her voice sounded fragile and distant on the other end of a faraway line. Her words barely touched me at all. Why didn’t I feel a sense of urgency? Her voice hardened, and I could sense her disgust for me when I told her I was going to go through with the plans I had made to visit a friend who was home from college for the weekend. This, a heavy link in the long chain of my own transgressions, remains with me as a reminder that I sometimes lack the same compassion that I sought most of my life. And when I came home that evening, nobody would talk about the harrowing experience. I was iced out.
There was no afterward, only forward momentum. No need to discuss the past, so no representative from the family went to the funeral. There were no cards sent. No money was donated to the man left with four small children. Marnie jumped behind the wheel as soon as her car came back from the body shop. On the surface, everything was back to normal, but the bone-chilling undercurrent left me puzzled and upset. The next time I slid into the passenger seat of Marnie’s car, I quietly asked her if she was afraid to drive, or whether the accident had affected her. Marnie hadn’t said anything to me about it at all. She gave me a cold sidelong glance and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t see what I have to feel bad about. It wasn’t my fault,” she said.
Equally disturbing was my parents’ reaction when a card and a basket of food came from the young woman’s church. “Why are they sending gifts to us?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we be the ones sending something to them?”
“They don’t want any trouble. They sent this basket to apologize to your sister,” my father said from behind his newspaper. “They’re afraid we’re going to sue them.” He shook the paper as he turned the page.
My mother tightened her lips, fists clenched, and marched straight at the conciliatory gift. She threw the entire basket, cookies and jams and card and all, in the trash. Nobody was allowed to touch any of it. For this, too, I lacked comprehension. I studied the look on my mother’s tight face before I moved forward with the next question. “Who is going to apologize to that woman’s children?” I asked. “What did we lose? A windshield? A headlight?” My father lowered the corner of his newspaper and raised his eyebrows at me. I had pushed him too far. No answers there.
Later, I dug the card out of the trash. It was a letter written in the scrawling cursive of an elderly hand: the church members hoped the accident didn’t change the way we saw their community…so sorry this happened…the young woman was suffering from a terrible bout of postpartum depression…she was in the devil’s clutches. Something about this letter wasn’t right.
My teenage mind could not rationalize the discrepancy between the explanation and the deed. I still can’t.
It’s not that a woman suffering from postpartum depression isn’t capable of something like suicide–or worse–it’s that among the Amish, suicide promises a fiery eternity in the hands of an angry God. I view the Amish lifestyle as the ultimate commitment to stringent religious convictions. They live their creed every day when they hitch horse to buggy, split wood for the kitchen stove, and plow fields without a tractor. Some orders don’t allow zippers. For others, buttons are too worldly. In most orders, a woman may never cut her hair, and she wears it bound for most of her life. If a person lives an entire lifetime at this level of devotion to a heavenly afterlife, what kind of life could prompt a young woman, a person in the prime of her life, to choose the fire?
And then there’s the concept of suicide by car. I can’t help but wonder if the investigators got it wrong. What if this young woman was not trying to die? An Amish woman who seriously wants to kill herself could easily take the hunting rifle from the corner, go out to the barn, put her mouth around the barrel, and pull the trigger with her toe. That’s a sure thing. If she’s not squeamish, she could cut herself with razor sharp kitchen knives. That would give her the satisfaction of watching it happen. If she lived on a farm with a tall enough barn, she could dive headfirst from its rafters. That would not require preparation or thought, just a single step. There are so many ways a person who is serious about dying could bring an end to suffering, but all of these ideas lack one important factor the actual scenario included: other people. For whatever reason, this woman chose to involve my sister and my mother in her death. Suicide is usually a solitary act, and pedestrian suicide by stepping in front of a car is the method of choice for less than one percent of suicides. I find it highly ironic that someone whose cultural values preach the evils of progress would choose a status symbol of an antagonist culture as an instrument of death. If this was suicide, it was also an act of extreme rebellion. It was the ultimate fuck you. What would it take for a person to do this? What kind of push made her fall in this direction?
I think about her, the young woman who has been in the ground for more years than her feet walked above it. I cannot dehumanize her by accepting what I have been told as plain truth, and at this point, I’m not sure whether the facts would do her justice, either. What little information there is seems all wrong, and so I struggle when I think about her, and I make up stories to fill in the gap that is everything I don’t actually know about her life. I wonder what it would have been like to be her. I wonder if she genuinely wanted to die. I wonder if her last breath was gratifying. I wonder if her last thoughts were of her children or if her mind was already in another place entirely by the time she felt the impact of steel on flesh. I wonder if she felt satisfied with what might have been her only, albeit agonizing, agency. I put myself at the scene of her death when I imagine her because it feels wrong to think about her any other way.
Here and now, the late summer wind warms my face, and I close my eyes to listen to the thunder rolling just above the trees. My hands run along the smooth white porch rail. When I open my eyes, the setting sun casts a reddish glow beneath the black thunderheads. I can smell the coming of a clean rain, a murmuring curtain lowering on all of us. More than thirty years have passed since this woman escaped from her life, and yet it remains in my mind as an event with only a hypothetical context. Countless attempted imaginings have left me with this conclusion: whatever compelled that woman to run in front of my sister’s car was satisfied in the near dark of winter, and wherever she is now, her pain came to rest like a dropped coin that flashed as it spun and settled into a final and complete stillness.
Lisa Williams is an educator, wife, mom, and advocate for people with intellectual disabilities.
When she is not reading, writing or teaching, she is most likely wandering the beaches of North Carolina with her family. She is inspired by Cheryl Strayed, Tom Hunley, and her long time friend and writing partner, Larissa Haynes. Lisa Williams’s work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reflect and Write, Zephyrus, and Kentucky’s Best Emerging Poets. She owns a few official pieces of paper from different universities, but her favorite is her M.A. in English from Western Kentucky University.