By Kelly J. Baker.
I’m haunted by a person I never met.
My paternal grandparents lost their middle son, Carl, in a car accident. He was almost 20. His car collided with a parked semi truck. He died. My other uncle, Stevie, walked away from the accident physically unharmed. I can’t speak to other harms. We never talked about it, and Stevie died seven years ago. I wish I knew what he would say. This tragedy came to define my father’s family. Carl’s death was a gaping wound. Sometimes, woundedness bound them together. Grief tied them together tightly, so that no one had room to breathe. Yet this loss also distanced them from one another in irreparably intimate ways. Their mutual pain became particular and separate. Carl’s absence made him even more present, unfortunately unavoidable.
His death served as a reminder of the tenuousness of life and the finality of death. They survived and he didn’t. He haunted them, and later, me as well.
I never met Carl because he died almost three years before I was born. Yet, he lingered. I was told throughout my childhood that I was like him. This was not necessarily a compliment, more often it was an accusation tossed out in anger. I learned that Carl was funny and warm, but also willful and determined. He didn’t follow the path dictated by my grandparents, and they wanted us all to follow their rules. He challenged them. I challenged them years later. I often wonder if they loved him more because of his refusal to bend while I am pretty sure that they loved me less. Carl was the cautionary tale that I refused to acknowledge.
The story of his life was often avoided. My mother, who divorced my father when I was three, was more apt to talk about Carl. She loved him like a brother. He brought her joy. My father did not. The story of his death came to me in hushed whispers, eavesdropping, and short conversations with my mom.
Here’s what I can piece together. Before the accident, Carl and my father had a shouting match about Carl’s (reckless) driving. My father vowed to never ride with Carl again, and he never got the chance. Those last words spoken in anger haunted him. When my father was depressed, he would say that he should have been the one to die. Nobody, he told me, would miss him. Carl was the favorite, he explained, as if that explained anything at all to a child. The stark pain of his words have stuck with me. His anguish was visceral.
As a child, I became accustomed to the seesawing of my father’s moods. Hyper happiness interspersed with bitter depression. After determining his mood, I would alter my approach to him. When he declared he should have died, I told him how much I loved him. I was convinced that if only I loved him more, maybe he would not say such things. When he would let me, I hugged him while he cried. As an adult, I realize no amount of love would have cured what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. As a child, I had to try. I blamed myself for the moods. Sometimes, I still do.
In those painful moments, I imagined what things would be like if Carl were still alive. His pencilled portrait graced the wall in my grandmother’s living room. I can barely remember what he looked like in the portrait. He had shoulder-length hair and maybe a moustache. I’m irritated that memory fails me. I spent hours upon hours trying to decipher who he was in each pencil stroke. I stared and stared, waiting for some clue to who he was. No one would directly talk about him, and I was too reluctant to ask.
The pain scabbed over the wound, and it was best not to pick at it.
Instead, I imagined my dead uncle and how he would fit into our wounded family. Would he like me? Would I like him? Would my father be happy? Would my grandmother be less rigid and demanding? Perhaps, I would fit in. On the bad days, I thought Carl would have rescued me from the moods and my desperate attempts to fix the someone who I couldn’t actually fix. I hoped someone would step in and save me.
I will never know how life might have been different if Carl survived that wreck. That’s the problem with ghosts. They are just present enough to harm and never present enough to help.
I grew up and became older than he ever could be. I walked away from my father’s family to save myself. Some wounds never heal. Some hurts become unbearable. I like to think that Carl would understand my decision, but I also know it doesn’t really matter. Still, I hope.
Kelly is a writer based in Tallahassee, Florida. She has written for The Atlantic, Killing the Buddha, Chronicle Vitae, Women in Higher Education, Books and Culture, and Christian Century’s Then among others. Kelly can be followed on Twitter under @kelly_j_baker.