I held her close and cradled her head.
Soft, velvety cheeks. A round rosy nose. Dark hair like mine, but curly. Eyes, blue, that sparkled like the ocean I’d seen in storybooks. I kissed her sweet-smelling face. Her soft, pudgy hand with tiny fingers, curled inside mine. My new baby sister, Anna, melted my heart. I won’t be alone anymore and she won’t be alone. I caressed her face and whispered, “I’ll stay by your side for always.”
Soon left with the responsibility of caring for her, I became my sister’s substitute momma. I loved her and took care of her as best as a seven-year-old could.
The day we ran out of baby formula and diapers, I didn’t know what to do. I waited until Anna stopped fussing and fell asleep in her carriage (we didn’t have a crib for her). Then I ran to the corner to a hole-in-the-wall where I knew my mama and stepdad Jimmy was.
A blinking neon beer sign over the door clattered when I pushed it open. Dimmed lights hung from the ceiling. The hazy, smoke-filled room from cigarettes made my eyes water and nose run. Loud music played on the jukebox. Boisterous men and women engaged in a game of shuffleboard; others threw darts. Still others sloshing their drinks perched themselves on bar stools, carrying on like screaming peacocks.
“Whataya have?” yelled the bartender. I jumped at his voice, thinking he meant me.
“Hey Charlie, whose girl is this?” a man grinning with a silver tooth asked.
“She’s Ruthie’s little girl,” Charlie answered, pointing in the direction where Mama sat.
The all-too-familiar rowdy voices of my parents cursing at each other reached my ears. I ran toward them. When I told Mama about Anna, she and Jimmy started arguing over money.
I waited, feeling forgotten, wishing Mama would hurry and come home with me. Then someone handed me a nickel to play the jukebox. I remembered my manners, thanked him, put my coin in the slot, and punched in the numbers to Spanish Eyes.
At last, Jimmy gave Mama what she wanted, but he remained roosted on his stool.
When we returned home, we never imagined that someone had called the law. They met us at our front door holding my naked sister, wrapped in a soiled blanket.
“Is this your baby?” an officer demanded of Mama.
“Yes . . . yes . . .” her voice cracked.
“Ma’am, have you been drinking?” The other cop asked in a gruff voice. But before Mama answered, he stepped forward and said, “Turn around and put your hands behind your back. You’re under arrest for child abandonment.”
“Ma—?” I choked back the burn in my throat.
To my horror, the police officer put handcuffs on Mama and started telling her something about “remaining silent.”
Why can’t she talk? “Tell him, Mama,” I insisted and started to cry. I turned to the officer to explain, “We were going to buy milk and diapers for my sister . . .”
He didn’t hear me and shoved Mama in his police car. She looked at me; her face glistened with tears running down as they drove away.
“Where . . . is he taking my mama?” I choked, sobbing. I hovered close to Anna, ready to grab my sister, to run fast and hide before he took us to jail, too. In my confusion, I don’t recall what he said except that they were there to help and take us to protective custody. I protect my sister, I thought. I begged him not to separate us.
The cop drove us to a children’s hospital for routine examination and to remain there for safekeeping until a suitable family member claimed us.
(TWO YEARS LATER):
A siren blared nearby.
I turned to Mama and asked, “Where’s Anna?”
“That drunken louse came by to bother me again,” she huffed.
“Mama, you said you were finished with him.”
She swatted the air with her hand as if shooing a mosquito. “He insisted on taking his little girl for a short walk.”
A neighbor came running and whispered breathlessly with Mama. Right then, a police car pulled up, its radio static coming from within. An officer climbed out of his cruiser and walked toward them. Within seconds, someone let out a cry, and her voice sounded familiar. In shock, I witnessed my hysterical Mama sprinting down the street. I stifled a scream. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t know what happened, where she was going, or why.
I don’t remember who drove us to the hospital. But once we arrived, a nurse pointed down the hall to where they cared for her. Except I couldn’t go to see her because I was too young.
I had to see her.
My legs trembled as I crept to her room and peered through the glass-paned door on my tiptoes. First, I saw a blinking monitor. Then I saw her—my baby sister—with soiled feet still in her favorite, green denim dress, tattered and torn. On her back Anna lay motionless, her curly brown hair matted with blood. Her face was bruised and swollen; her baby blues closed tight.
I felt light-headed as I slumped on the floor, pulling my knees to my chest, crying.
That night, we returned to the scene of the accident. I will never forget the puddles of congealed blood that saturated the street. I wanted to scream. To run. To hide. Blood-soaked rags from my sister littered the pavement.
Others offered shallow words of comfort. “Don’t cry,” they said. “Think positive thoughts,” they chimed. “The doctors are doing everything they can for your little sister.” But all I heard was my sister’s blood calling out to me, along with my broken promises: “I’ll protect you,” pounding in my head.
A couple of days after, I awakened to the sound of rain and a car door slamming. I peeped out my window and saw a taxi pulling away from the curb. My grandparents, their faces grim and eyes downcast, walked to our doorstep. A shiver ran down my spine and a horrible dread washed over me. I threw myself on the bed, a knot lodged in my throat. Then I heard my mother’s wails. I curled up in a ball and covered my ears. God, it hurts! I cried. Make the pain go away.
My sister was gone. Forever. A month earlier, we celebrated her birthday. She had just turned two. I was nine but felt ancient. Empty. And heavy. The weight of the world on my thin shoulders.
Like a fuzzy videotape, fragments of blurred images and sounds played across my mind: Anna’s dancing blue eyes, laughter like the morning sun, vibrant flowers . . . Mama’s primal screams, hushed voices, muffled sobs.
At the funeral, I held my breath and willed my feet toward the small white casket. Grandma squeezed my hand. I took my finger and stroked my sister’s face which reminded me of a doll made of plastic, stiff and cold to the touch. Heavy make-up could not conceal her bruises. Her grotesque head was cradled by a bonnet, much too small. She wore a new green dress, cleaned and pressed, with no stains. Or blood.
I glanced up at Grandma. “Your sister’s in a better place now,” she choked. Then I placed a small cross under Anna’s tiny, rigid hands. My tears blinded me.
“. . . If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.”
Why, God? Why? Why did you have to take her?
Anna, I’ll love you for always.
Mama sat by the farthest wall away from people, away from the coffin. Her eyes were swollen and red. She didn’t seem so tough then. I went to sit by her.
The year 1968 was a year of deaths that shocked and changed history. But the girl in her little green dress was the one who mattered to me. She was my sister. My best friend. She lay in an unmarked grave.
(FOUR DECADES LATER – a flight to Miami):
The area was a lowly, plain grass-field devoid of even a tombstone for my sister. No headrest. No name was written. Or flowers anywhere. Just hard soil. Plenty of weeds. I crumbled to my knees and sobbed.
Anna, I’m sorry. Sorry, I couldn’t do better. Sorry, I failed you. I promised, “for always,” yet fell so short. If I could hold you now, I would.
Never let you go.
If only I’d done more, fought more, loved more. I see myself holding you. Holding you so tight, that time stands still. Darkness cannot swallow us. Pain cannot touch us. Death cannot rip you from my arms. Sorrow cannot engulf us.
God, it still hurts . . . bring healing.
Before I left the cemetery, my brother and I purchased a tombstone and had it engraved.
“Por fin,” I imagined my grandma’s words.
Yes, Grandma, finally,” I whispered. “At last and long overdue.”
In memory of my sister, Anna R. Molloy, who was struck down by a hit-and-run driver.
© M.A. Perez 2013, All Rights Reserved