Hannah, I Miss You by Miriam Wagstaff

February 12, 2019

This article is in conjunction with the art featured in the new 2018 Winter Issue.

Life is fleeting and fragile—you never know when it might flicker and go out. Like a quivering leaf in November, you never know if the next wind will be the one to detach that leaf and bring it fluttering to the ground. I learned young that each day you spend with someone might be your last; I learned that life brings painful experiences along with the good, and that some leave scars that last a lifetime. Every person comes into close contact with death at some point in their life, but sometimes that first encounter occurs at a very young age. In the summer of 2008, the heart-wrenching experience of losing a beloved one came to me—came like an unexpected arrow—shaking my soul to its very core, and forever changing my view of life.

I remember the excitement I felt when my mother told us we were going on a pioneer handcart-reenactment trek. My sister Hannah and I talked over our excitement; I remember her light brown eyes sparkling as she talked. We were 6 years apart, but the age difference wasn’t something we focused on—she always treated me as if I was only a year or two younger. I looked up to Hannah; she was my best friend, and I would tell her all my deepest secrets.

My family left home on a bright and sunny Monday morning. We made several stops along our way, and arrived in the late afternoon. The campsite was just off the main road. It was dry and dusty, surrounded by juniper trees laden with pale blue berries. The dirt and rocks crunched under my shoes as I jumped out of our van. I saw a shiny metal picnic table, and by it, a firepit, with scorched stones scattered around. We introduced ourselves to the several trekkers who had arrived before us. Someone made a fire, and we assembled around it with our new friends. Later in the evening, Hannah and I brought out our violins and played duets round the campfire.

Tuesday morning—the long-awaited day—finally came. Hannah and I were up before the sun. I crawled out of our tent and looked up at the chilly morning sky. It looked like a pale violet blanket draped over the surrounding hills and junipers. The cool air felt like clear quartz crystals shooting through my lungs, and penetrating every corner of my body, from my fingertips to my toes. Hannah and I joined our parents in the van. My mom told us she’d woken up with severe hip pain, and because of this, she and my dad would drive around the area taking “scrap” landscape photographs for my dad’s paintings. They would meet up with the rest of us in the evening.

The sun was just peeping over the hills as we ate our quick breakfast of granola with rice-dream in small paper cups. I scratched the wax off the outside of my cup while waiting for the rest of my family to finish. Hannah surprised all of us by asking if she could go with my parents that day and join the trek later—almost as if she had a premonition of the fate the morning held. But our parents wanted Hannah to look after me; I heard them telling her to take special care of me and make sure I stayed safe.

Our parents drove away after Hannah and I joined the others walking on the side of the highway. It was early morning and we were headed due East; the angled rising sun was so bright I could only watch my feet trudging along the sandy gravel. The road only had a foot or so of shoulder, so most of us walked directly in the right lane. I looked behind me and saw Hannah in the very back of the procession visiting with a friend. We had walked for thirty minutes when I was startled by a terrifying crashing sound. Objects in the handcarts behind me went flying in the air, and I went tumbling into a ditch. I looked up and saw an unfamiliar truck rolling to a stop a hundred feet up the road, and in front of the truck wheels, a young woman lying stretched out and still. My eyes glanced over her as I looked for Hannah, but I remember feeling shocked and horrified by what I saw.

After a few minutes had passed, I became seriously worried. Why hadn’t Hannah found me? I called out her name, but my little voice was covered in the confusion of other voices. No response. I again searched the disordered scene with my eyes but couldn’t see her anywhere.

Karen, the friend who had invited my family on this trip, came up to me, and in my growing panic I cried out, asking if she knew where my sister was. She looked down at me with tears in her eyes but didn’t speak. Finally, she gestured towards the young woman lying still and motionless in front of the truck. By now, a group had gathered round her; phone calls were being made, and the girl, who was Hannah, was lifted onto a blanket laid out on the road. Even then, the truth didn’t fully sink into my eight-year-old mind. I felt an instinctual urge to run to my sister, to throw my arms around her, and then everything would be okay. I remember trying to follow my urge to spring forward—like a grasshopper, eager to bound away from danger to safety—but I found myself held back. I looked down and saw Karen’s firm arms circling around me; she anticipated my movement. I let out a choked scream and tried to kick away, but she held me close. I remember intense feelings of anger and resentment welling up inside of me—my first real acquaintance with those emotions. When I finally realized the truth, torrents of hot tears started pouring out both eyes like a burst of torrential rains, but these waters were steaming hot.

Karen took me by the hand and led me back to the campsite. I remember sitting in the back of a fifteen-passenger van, facing west. The tears had stopped; they were like a cloudburst—heavy and torrential when they came, but brief in the downpour. Karen stood outside the van and dialed up my mom’s phone. She was frightened and blamed herself; she lost her nerve at the last second. I remember listening to her voice coming through the open door: “Rebecca, there’s been an accident…” She hesitated, “Here’s Miriam.” And she handed the phone to me. After a second or two, I heard the words “Hannah is dead” coming out of my mouth. In the van, sitting alone, I heard my mother’s first cry of grief—raw and unsuppressed—it went straight through my little pulsing heart. It tore through my tight stomach like the antlers of a provoked and angry beast. In her shock, my mom dropped the phone, and the connection was lost. I was gripped by complete fear and helplessness; I knew now that Hannah had left me, and with growing terror the thought came that my parents wouldn’t come for me—that I would be left completely alone. They didn’t call back, and it took them nearly an hour to drive back to us. Watching the clock was like watching the moon—I couldn’t detect any movement forward; time seemed to be frozen.

My parents drove directly to the accident scene, but there was nothing to be done. I rodewith them in the cab of the ambulance that carried Hannah to the nearby hospital. I remember sitting in the small cold hospital room—cold in temperature, color, and sound. The gray floor and white walls looked very straight and uniform, contrasting with my completely shattered feelings and thoughts. Hannah’s lifeless body was laid on the small bed. I remember listening to my mother’s weeping, softer now but still so distressing. I looked over at my dad. He showed less emotion, but I could feel his pain. It’s hard to see your parents this way when you’re young. I saw a side of them that I was completely unfamiliar with. The events of the day were already terrifying, and when I finally joined my parents, they were like strangers to me. I reached out and held my sister’s hand. Her slim fingers were cold to my touch. I half expected the familiar squeeze back, but none came.

Wilson, David. Photograph of Hannah Wagstaff. Summer, 2007.

Hillsdale Cemetery is a beautiful and quiet place—away from towns and civilization. It is in a wild area where rabbits pause, their noses twitching; lizards bask in the sun, and Golden Eagles soar in the clear sky, free and uninhibited. Cicadas send a constant humming through the air. The smell of sagebrush is strong—especially after a heavy rain. The graves are on top of a smooth sloping hill, surrounded by a tall white fence, which in turn is surrounded by the beginnings of distant rosy colored mountains. The atmosphere is one of serenity and peace. My parents chose this place for Hannah—a place where she could rest with her ancestors. They chose to have a simple funeral and burial, held the morning after the tragic accident. Two woodworking friends labored overnight to build a simple casket made of spruce. Hannah looked so beautiful lying there; she seemed to be only sleeping. Her long brown hair was spread out on the pillow, her slim brown hands folded over her olive-green dress. As the service came to a close, I kissed my dear sister’s cheek and took one last longing gaze at her face.

Over the next few months, we received many cards and emails expressing sympathy: sympathy for our loss, sorrow for our pain, remorse for Hannah’s passing. But she didn’t pass away, she was jerked away. Gone before we even had a chance to say goodbye. We couldn’t help asking why was she taken so soon? Fourteen is too young for someone to die—too young for someone so full of life.

And then it came to haunt us all—blame, that horrible liar. We all felt it, my parents, Karen, and yes, even myself. I felt ashamed for living on when my sister was dead. The thought came to me that my parents loved Hannah more than me, and that they would have been happier if I had been killed instead. My mom scheduled grief counseling sessions for our family, but the man we went to seemed to have no feelings; he had an overbearing nature and no understanding.

I remember him laughing many times throughout our first session. Perhaps he thought it would relieve the sadness and tension, but it felt to me like rubbing a raw blistered hand along a gravel road. We were all relieved when my mom discontinued the painful sessions.

This sort of experience takes time to heal from. It is like a deep gash from a knife, and like that painful wound, it takes time and patience to heal. A wound this deep leaves a scar you carry for the rest of your life. You feel like you will never laugh again, and then when joy and laughter do come, you feel guilty—guilty that you are living on and experiencing joy, while your beloved sister lies alone not many miles away. It took my parents a long time to smile again—really smile, not just with their lips but also with their eyes. My mom and I sometimes talk about Hannah; we both tear-up as we bring back sweet memories. I don’t know if I’ve ever spent time talking about her with my dad aside from brief, “I remember whens…,” but I know he thinks and cares deeply. Sometimes I see it when the corners of his blue eyes moisten, and his lips press closer together suppressing the tears.

Hannah, I miss you. I miss your voice and your laugh. I miss your sweet, even, serene smile, and your beautiful soft eyes. I miss your warm, sisterly touch. These memories start to fade like a vibrant sunset, only vivid for a short time before twilight and darkness set in. I am left completely helpless as they grow weaker; I grope in the dark at every memory I can reach—trying to keep it alive, trying to keep it vivid, trying to stretch it out for one extra second. Then, in that moment of despair I remember this isn’t the end; I will see you again, and when I do, you will hold me in your arms and whisper, “It’s okay—I love you.”