I was folding towels, of all things, when my phone went off across the room. Expecting nothing pressing, I kept folding towels. It went off again, beeping that a voice message had been left. I kept folding. Then it buzzed some more, with another call. As if my phone had decided to become a square flightless bee of some sort, strange. I crossed the room and looked, it was a Dominican number, but not one of the ones my sister had used before to call me.
Picked it up, and it broke my life.
There had been an accident, a fatal one. My sister Sara, was dead. It was two days after her 36th birthday. “Do you want us to call your mom?” Said the sad anonymous voice on the other side.
“No.” I squeeked, “I’ll do that.”
It would appear that the worst phone call I ever received would be quickly followed by the worst one I had ever had to make. There we were; both faces in a small box, keening and sobbing in turn, on opposite sides of the country, now the only survivors of a once four sided family unit.
I floated the idea that we really didn’t have to tell anyone else, this sorrow could end with us. We could tell the rest of the world that she decided to move to a tiny tropical island, and devote herself to the study of some new creature. The illusive Sara bird perhaps. We could say that this particular island was so remote there were no communications and dedication to her work would mean she had to live there year round, you know, “for science.” An old joke among Team Squeam members to justify any ridiculous plan of action, these things were always done in the name of “science”.
No one else would have to know the colors in the world were now dim. My mother; in her infinite wisdom, said this would be more cruel than just telling the truth, and so we discussed who each of us would call and ruin. For the next day I made and received calls that are indescribable. I started thinking of myself as the “devastator”, calling out of the blue and telling people who deeply loved my sister, and me, that she was never coming home (but for the actual shitty reason, not the one I wanted). The next couple days were spent fielding calls and making arrangements, receiving an education in the bureaucracy of dealing with the corporeal remains of a US citizen who died abroad.
The details of her death were readily provided by the (no longer anonymous) man who delivered the shittiest news of my life in the kindest way a human could. He quickly became a friend to me, as he had been to my sister. That whole day he stayed with her as she was taken to the hospital morgue. He picked a funeral home that works with the US embassy and remained at the hospital the rest of the day till her body was transferred. We made odd requests that were facilitated without hesitation.
By the fourth time we talked in the early evening, and he said he was still at the hospital waiting with her, I wanted to tell him to go home, rest! There is nothing his presence there will change for her. Then it hit me that he was doing for us, what he would have done if she had been his kin, and fresh tears scoured my face as I thanked him again for all he was doing. He was her manager at the adventure company she had been working for as a councilor. He had the forethought and quick thinking to tell the hospital initially that he was her cousin and so was able to act as a family member, easing the process for my mother and me. He had seen with his own eyes the risks my sister was chronically making, and like the rest of us, cautioned her that she was taking unnecessary chances, but loved her nonetheless.
She made defying death look good. With a twinkle of the eye and a gleeful smile she traveled the world, often alone. Sara jumped off buildings, including the world’s largest bungee jump (at that time) in China.
She skydived for her first time on her 18th birthday (many times after that), her jump ended in an ‘off landing’ Meaning you didn’t land where you planned, she ended up in a Christmas tree farm. She had no problem being on, or jumping out of planes of any size.
She dived with sharks in Fiji, without a cage. You know, like you do.
She ‘parahawked’ in Nepal, a combination of parasailing while fed an Egyptian vulture (Bob) buffalo meat mid air. I mean, doesn’t everyone?
At 20, she tubbed down the Mekong River in Vietnam, where apparently there are people who will throw you a rope from the shore, reel you into a river side bar where the drinks are served in buckets. According to her, it is also possible to be hired as one of the rope throwers. The compensation for this job was a bucket of booze and a place to sleep, of course she took that opportunity and was a rope thrower for a day or two.
She became a master diver and loved to be underwater, like diving shipwrecks in Thailand and Guam.
One of her main motivators to scuba dive was a not so secret bid to try and make friends with any fish or marine creature she could swim with. I was always telling her to beware of rapey dolphins (look it up, I’m not kidding) and to “blow more bubbles”.
She lived for extended periods in more far off places than most people know, never mind go. Places like Tibet, China, Thailand, Guam and the Dominican Republic, to name just a few. She spent months and months in these places and I’m pretty sure that from 18 on, she spent more time outside the US than in it.
When she was 19 she lived in Lhasa for a time, working at a Tibetan orphanage, hanging out with dissonant monks and recording the 40th anniversary ‘celebration’ of China’s occupation of Tibet.
Later on that same trip, she hitchhiked along ancient pilgrimage routes through the Himalayas to bathe in sacred lakes.
She attended far-off festivals and celebrations, always learning about cultures not her own. She immersed herself in the verity that this world’s incarnations and rituals have to offer.
Even when she was home, she was always up to something dangerous. During the CZU complex fires she lied her way back into the evacuation zone on the second day of the fire to get more of our mother’s things and ended up cutting the fire break that saved our mom’s house with a neighbor. (She got in with an expired press-pass, that became a valid press-pass the following day, when she actually did receive an assignment to take pictures of the fire for publishing) For a month she continued to return daily; officially for the newspaper, and unofficially as part of a coordinated effort to take care of the animals who would not come when their people had to go.
I would receive requests for pet wellness checks and property checks and relay the info to Sara, who would feed animals and take pictures of peoples’ properties. Often providing them proof that their house was still there, but also taking pictures when it was not, so our neighbors could start insurance claims for lost homes. We only found out recently that a burning branch had fallen on her at some point in this effort, an injury (like many) she kept hidden from our mother and me.
Sara recorded the raw wildness of the earth, everywhere she went. I could list more, but you can just look for yourself on her website. Some times it felt like she was always leaving me behind. Though more accurately I was always staying behind, committing my time to a career and then a family. I was more than welcome to come, but the nature of this type of travel is unpleasant for my homebody. All there was to do was let her go, and hope each time she would come home eventually.
On July 25th, 2022, that hope ended forever with a little slip, and a long fall. By her normal standards this was such a safe trip. She was working for a guide company as a counselor for teens experiencing the Dominican Republic.
At this point in her life she was a master diver, trained extensively in survival first aid and was spending more time with manatees, sea turtles and coral restoration than sharks.
It all amounts to the same thing, an unnecessary risk that would cost her a future, and me any hope of seeing her again.
This is the beginning, the bread of the shit sandwich I’m currently constructing. The meat will come next, as we do all the obligatory tasks that someone’s death assigns their survivors. Yet another thing on my bill I don’t remember ordering. I know that they’re many more surprises, because that is who my sister was. My mom and I have always joked that we don’t actually know she is not in the CIA. It seems far more likely that she was a woman who lived her life on her terms, going on adventures and answering to no one but herself.
The bitter sister in me is mad at her for many things, but the better sister in me knows that she lived a life without compromise with anyone, including me. My respect for her will remain after my anger is gone. In the end, I just miss my best friend and the hardest thing to do is to let go of the future with her I always looked forward to, when she would stay in one place and I could be with her again. A time when we could tell stories of all the things that happened during our years of physical separation, a thing made impossible by one final impulsive decision.
Her’s is a story of action and adventure, of far off places and hundreds of friends all over the world, but it is also a cautionary tale of needless risks. Proof that you can be a certified genius, in the best shape of your life, doing something that should be well within your abilities, and how the conditions from an extra rainy day can change the world. You can only cheat death for so long; because all death has to do is play fair and wait, for you to forget your mortal state.
I am changed forever by the loss of my sister, and all I got was this shitty sandwich. Thank you for reading and take care of yourselves and one another.