I was only six years old when my cousin died in a car crash a week shy of her fifteenth birthday.
“It smells like death.” I was seven years old when I said these words to my mother. We were walking on Main Street, in our small hometown, on a sunny summer day. It was a quaint setting, yet this sentence came out of my mouth. We were passing in front of a picturesque Victorian house painted in yellow, in which there had been a flower shop for as long as I could remember. The powerful aroma brought me back several months ago to the funerals of my cousin, who had died in a car crash a week shy of her fifteenth birthday. The fragrant flowers ignited something in me, and the memories of that rainy September day flooded into my mind. Perhaps because of my high-functioning autism — which I found out about several years later — the odor of the flowers in the funeral parlor overwhelmed me. They were everywhere; beautiful, but destined to die. I was only six years old at the time of the accident, and those moments appear like a dream; they are blurry and seem to belong to someone else’s life. Yet I know it was after I broke my arm on a slide, and before I discovered The Beatles. The only vivid memory of that period is the fragrance of the flowers. Nothing else. Not even the grief, because as a child, I couldn’t entirely understand death, even though this tragedy affected me for the years to come.
No. It is not entirely true that everything is blurry. I still remember that day when my cousin, my mother, my grandmother and I took a walk to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave, who had passed away a few years before. It was a beautiful day at the end of the spring, not unlike the one where I would tell my mother it smelled like death. While we were there, nobody could have guessed that, a few months later, my cousin would be buried in the ground where we were standing.
It was a long walk — the cemetery was on the edge of town. What is still fresh in my memory, however, isn’t the walk to the cemetery, but the moment we came back home. It was June, and my cousin stopped at the grocery store to buy strawberries. My parents and I were living in a mid-century house set on a quiet, tree-lined street. The afternoon sunlight streamed through the leaves and warmed us while we sat on the porch, eating the strawberries. We were conscious of the brevity of that moment; that magic period between spring and summer. Once again, the odor is still present in my mind today, but this one is associated with pleasant memories. It was one of the last moments we would spend together, but we didn’t know that then. We didn’t know that a storm was coming. We didn’t know that a disaster would disrupt our lives.
Even though my memories of that year are indistinct, that tragedy changed my life. Scars are still there and always will be. My childhood recollections are mostly happy ones — Christmases celebrated with my friend’s parents in a house in the country, weekends spent listening to my father’s Beatles records, summer afternoons reading under a tree in the front yard. I was a shy girl who preferred reading than playing with the other kids. Perhaps I found solace in books to escape the cruel reality of life. After all, nothing terrible happened in The Baby-Sitters Club series.
Yet, despite those agreeable memories, my cousin’s death shadowed everything. It was an unspoken pain, present in murmured words in telephonic conversations, words I wasn’t supposed to hear, but which reached my ears, anyway. I was conscious of the catastrophe that had happened. Besides, I had lost someone I was considering my big sister. I noticed the grief in my family, and I watched the regional news on TV the day after the accident, with the images of the wrecked car. I couldn’t escape the sorrow.
I had entered first grade a few weeks before the accident. When my cousin passed away, the other children knew about it, but for them, like for me, it was beyond understanding. However, I caught glimpses of distress in the adults surrounding me. I knew what had happened wasn’t supposed to happen to fifteen-year-old girls. It didn’t happen in most families. The unfairness of that death struck me when I grew up. An error of judgment from my cousin, one of those errors most teenagers are doing all the time, was her last. Getting in a car driven by an intoxicated man was her final decision. A fatal decision.
The irreversibility of my cousin’s death didn’t hit me right away. It’s the magic of childhood; sometimes, the reality is unreachable, too harsh to comprehend. As an only child in a loving family, I was partly protected from the bereavement, though it was impossible to avoid it entirely. The damages this death caused are profound. They define the woman I am today, filled with insecurities and fears, aware that life can change abruptly in one second.