From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Little Monkey Girl

You’d think I’d cry when I think about my sister, but I rarely do. I was six months old when she died in a car accident, and I don’t remember her, or the accident, at all.

When I talk about it, I feel like I’m repeating something I heard on the news, like it’s something that happened to someone else. Like it’s not even real.

This is what happened: My mother went to pick up my brother Alan, older than I am by seven years, from a birthday party at a friend’s house. I was six months old, strapped into the car seat in the back, and my sister, four years old at the time, sat in the passenger seat. My mother went inside the house to fetch my brother and ended up chatting with the mother of the birthday boy in the front hallway, just out of sight of the car. They talked for a few minutes, then my mother said good-bye and started to leave, and then there was a loud screech and a crash.

Right away, my mother knew what had happened. She ran out to the driveway and confronted the most horrible sight she would ever see: The car was smashed into a tree at the edge of the driveway. My sister lay on the asphalt. She wasn’t breathing. She was in a coma for eight days; my parents were deciding whether to turn off her ventilator when she died.

Do you see what I mean, about how the story sounds like a news report? It’s all true, but I feel as if I am telling a lie. Sometimes people ask me questions after I tell the story. “Did your sister drive the car into the tree?” they ask.

“Yes,” I say, “even though she was just four years old.”

They say, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but . . . how did she start the car?”

“My mother left the keys on the seat by mistake,” I say.

“Oh,” they say. “Oh.”

I’ve heard that three out of four couples who lose a child divorce within five years. I know my parents had a terrible time after the accident, but they never divorced. I feel proud of them every time I think of that. I can tell the story of how they stayed together, but, like the story of the accident, there are few facts and fewer details. My mother’s sister came all the way from Missouri to Nevada to take care of my brother and me. She stayed home with me when my parents and brother went to the funeral. She played with me during the following months, when my mother was crying all the time, blaming herself, despondent and depressed. My father was even worse off. He started drinking heavily within weeks of the accident. He locked himself in the den and played sad, slow country songs on the record player. He and my mother fought fiercely and often, but time passed, and they received help from friends and therapists, and my father stopped drinking, and my mother stopped blaming herself, and they survived. Through it all, there I was, living in a household haunted by ghosts. There are people who have never seen their parents cry, but I am not one of them. But grief isn’t all about fighting and sadness. My brother and I were showered with extra helpings of love; we received the portions of love that my sister couldn’t accept for herself.

I want to tell you some things I’ve been told about my sister. Her name was Sarabeth. She was brave and adventurous, but no good at following the rules. She climbed trees she’d been told not to climb, and often fell and hurt herself. She ran inside the house when she’d been told not to run, and stumbled into furniture. She ran across the neighbor’s gravel driveway even though she’d been warned not to, and the pebbles rolled under her feet, and her knees became a mess of tiny scrapes and cuts.

I like thinking of her as daring and mischievous. My sister, the little monkey girl, climber of trees.

I don’t cry when I think about my sister. A few times, I’ve ridden my bike to the graveyard where my sister is buried, but the place is gigantic and crowded with gravestones, and it always takes me at least an hour of hunting to find Sarabeth’s. By this time, I’m hot and grouchy and I just lay down my flowers and touch the plain, flat stone, dip my fingertips into the engraved letters of her name, and walk away. I don’t cry when I tell the story of the accident, and I don’t cry on the anniversary of my sister’s death: April 24th. But sometimes, out of the blue, I’ll read a story about two sisters or a friend will mention her own sister, and it hits me: I almost had a sister.

I wish I knew more about the little girl who lived for four whole years, about the little things that made her unique. Recently, I told my mother that I was jealous of my brother because he had memories: She looked at me for a long time, then went into the other room and returned with a box of photographs. Sarabeth is in all of the photos, and most of them I’d seen at one time or another. Sarabeth—in a diaper and tiny cowboy hat, staring up at the camera. Sarabeth’s preschool class, a black-and-white assembly of smiling children, my sister on the left end of the third row back.

My mother pulled out two pictures I’d never seen before. In one, she stood next to a baby stroller with her small fingers on the handle, as if protecting it. She was only as tall as the stroller, but she stood as if she were guarding it. In the stroller was a wide-eyed baby.

“Is that me?” I said.

“Of course it’s you,” said my mother. “She loved pushing you around. She never ran or climbed trees when you were nearby. She preferred to help me take care of you.”

I’d never seen a picture of Sarabeth and me together before. I don’t think there are any others. I’d been so young when she died.

In the second photo, Sarabeth was alone. She wore a yellow-and-white checked dress and no shoes, and there was a thin red bow in her hair. “I wonder how old she was here,” said my mother. “Two and a half, maybe.” She turned over the photograph, then brought a hand to her mouth, then started giggling.

“What?” I said. “What’s so funny?”

“You and your sister,” she said, handing me the photo. “I can’t tell you apart.”

I took the photograph and turned it over. It was my name written in cursive on the back, not Sarabeth’s.

“This is me?” I said, studying the little girl in the picture. It could have been either of us. My mind kept repeating what my mother had said: You and your sister, you and your sister, you and your sister. Then it hit me: A long time ago, I had a sister!

For one moment, holding that photo in my hand, this actually seemed real to me, and I started to cry.

Danielle Collier

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