Freak Accident

The night my oldest sister died I hung new curtains over the large window in my living room. It
was a chore that had been on my to-do list for weeks and I’d bought them following a brutal heat
wave which had caused over 100 heat-related deaths. I was never in danger of dying; just of
being uncomfortably hot. And my new curtains were intended to filter the sun and make the
room bearable for a future heat wave. 

That night, my middle sister sent me a text message that simply read, “She passes…” Passes? I
knew she meant our older sister was dead. She’d just been admitted to hospice the previous day,
and apparently only about 11% of patients leave hospice under what they call a “live discharge.”
She hadn’t eaten in a month, since she was first admitted to the hospital, so it was unlikely that
she would be a part of that 11%. I spent the days after her death oscillating between grief – those
early stages of grief where it feels like the moment your legs go weak while riding a roller
coaster – and admiration of my new curtains. Somehow the curtains made me feel better. And
when I thought about it, I realized that it was because of the planning – planning for a future
heatwave was a reminder that I was alive, and had a future. Also, the curtains were just very

Of course, it’s of interest how my older sister died. All I will say is that it was a freak accident at
the hands of someone else. And because I know this someone else is devastated, I won’t reveal
more. But imagine a scenario like this: you’re taking a bath and someone you love accidentally
drops a hair dryer into the water. Or a curling iron. This is not what happened to my sister, but it
does convey the absurdity of the split-second event that ultimately killed her. A terrifying
reminder of the precarity of every moment. Like that split-second you realize that you didn’t
chew a grape well enough, and there’s no one there to save you as you choke. Or you’re driving
and, because you’re running late, you decide to take a risk and cross the railroad tracks, despite
an oncoming train, only to realize that you’ve miscalculated. Except, imagine it isn’t you taking
the risk or unknowingly making a fatal, split-second decision; it’s someone else. And you’re
helpless to intervene. 

So. My older sister passes away, and I hang my new curtains. As I reach for the curtain rod I grip
the side of the ladder extra tightly, because I am now constantly aware of the “precarity of each

moment.” I climb the rungs slowly, as if incapable of moving any faster. And I know that I will
probably be this cautious about everything for the remainder of my life. This is the first lesson
from my sister’s death. 

I also learn that death is death and pain is pain and no matter how absurd the circumstances, the
ordeal is torturous and hard. If one is crushed underneath a war tank on the battlefield and dies a
hero, or crushed by a parade float carrying a band of holiday elves, there is still a loss and a
funeral. The difference is that, with the latter, those who survive are left with competing
emotions when retelling the story; you have to hold the attention of your audience long enough
to relay that the ending is tragic, and has broken you, and is not, in fact, a comedy of errors. 

I learn that grief drains you in a second, and the moment I read the text, it sits heavy on my chest,
making it nearly impossible for me to breathe or think. So, I take to my curtains. And when my
arms begin to tire from the repeated motion of reaching for a new curtain ring, affixing it to the
top curtain hem, and clasping it onto the rod, I decide instead to clean up my inbox – another
task suited to someone who doesn’t want to think. Except, after a while, I somehow lose track of
time, as if I’ve blacked out, and when my eyes refocus, I find that I’ve filtered the emails by my
sister’s name. They go back a decade and a half and most, maybe 70%, are unread. My chest
begins to burn and, in my head, I chide myself for not replying. My sister had a habit of
composing subject lines that betrayed the enclosed message which was, usually, that she was
disappointed over my distance, both my physical distance and otherwise. Then I remembered
why I never opened them: “Are you going to miss Christmas again?” or “I found a job for you –
at home…” Home, as in my hometown, which is 2,286 miles away. The job offers were never
sincere – but were a reminder that I’d left her, and that she (and the rest of the family) wanted me
back. I had, however, replied to an email about a muffin recipe, and a separate one with a
technical question about a spreadsheet. Then there were the dozens of emails with photo
attachments; one photo showed my sister holding me on her hip when I was a toddler and she
was a teenager. Her head is turned to face me and she’s smiling as if I belong to her; I am not
looking back at her, but forward, and reaching out for the person beyond the frame and behind
the camera – who is most likely our mother. My sister had taken a digital photo of the old,
physical photo and emailed it as an attachment; the original photo was yellowing and creased

and I could see the outline of her wooden dining table in the background. I imagined her sitting
there, going through our family album with photos of the two of us fanned out on the table, along
with crumbs from breakfast and coffee stains. “Nice!” I replied. My sister never had children and
I was too exhausted from my own to absorb her messages of disappointment – so I left most of
the emails unopened. My chest begins to throb, so I close the email and return to my curtains.

The fourth lesson is about how to be a sister. And not just a sister, but someone in the world that
people will regret losing. Or how to be a friend. Or a wife, a mother, or a neighbor. If you die in
a freak accident and people use the word “karma” when discussing your death, I would guess
that more empathy for others was warranted while you were alive. Or perhaps more therapy. So
in the days after I hang the curtains, I am extraordinarily attentive and generous. I give my kids a
lot of candy and buy them toys they don’t need, a few of which they may already have. I don’t
bother searching; I just buy. I’m deliberate in making espresso for my husband, taking care that
the crema is golden and thick; I offer to pour more wine and prepare special dinners. I assume
that everyone’s love language is baked goods. I call and text people just to ask, “How are you?”
My apologies are long, a bit groveling, and mildly insufferable. I send flowers. I’m exhausted. I
know that I can’t sustain this for the remainder of my life, but I take the lesson: every interaction
contains a sort of precarity, and the goal is to leave each one with as little harm as possible,
ideally no harm, and, in fact, leave behind something good. And it’s precarious because it only
takes a moment – of frustration or impatience – and it’s those moments when we aren’t guarding
ourselves for optimal kindness that are the most memorable. It’s called negative bias. But we do
what we can to exercise the muscle of patience and empathy – to try to be remembered for more
good than bad.

But the important things often come too late; like hanging curtains following an historically
brutal heat wave just two and a half weeks before autumn. Reading an email received three and a
half years earlier. Or deciding that you should suggest to the people that you love that they may
regret not exercising the empathy muscle. So, I indulge in the meditation of hanging curtains,
await the next heat wave, and digest the lessons of my sister’s freak accident.

Jennifer Taylor-Skinner

Jenn Taylor-Skinner is a writer, podcaster, and musician who deals with topics including race, gender and politics. She is working on a book about the intersection of race, gender, and social isolation. She lives in Seattle with her husband, and two children.

Jenn Taylor-Skinner is a writer, podcaster, and musician who deals with topics including race, gender and politics. She is working on a book about the intersection of race, gender, and social isolation. She lives in Seattle with her husband, and two children.

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