August 15, 2009
I thought I saw you yesterday. She looked as I have imagined you would ten years after that fateful summer day. Long blond curls, green eyes and the sweetest smile this side of heaven. Chocolate ice cream dripping down her sugar cone made me laugh. You always loved chocolate ice cream.
Some days I’m tempted to believe it was all a dream though it couldn’t have been. If it were, you would still be here with us. Or would you? And though I miss you terribly I’m happy knowing where you are, having known for myself the wonderful people you call your family and magical place you now call home.
I’m also glad you don’t remember me. No sense both of us missing a sister. But most of all I’m thankful you don’t remember the way I treated you once upon a time. There are times I ask myself what I would do different if given the chance to relive those years leading up to that one strange summer day. Yet life never gives us that option, it’s only a fleeting wish for so many of us humans through the blundering ages.
Though you’ll never read this letter I can still pretend. Soon it will be just another crumpled piece of stationery to toss away. But our special story is a different matter altogether and the time to tell it is now. I cannot explain the sudden urgency, except to say it’s one of those feelings that seem to force their way out of your heart. That which is already indelibly written from that same place, my own heart. A story leading to that fateful summer day and the way you made it happen in your usual unselfish way. Even after all I did to you and didn’t do for you. You truly deserve what you got.
*Two Sisters – Their Once Upon A Time Summer Story
Part 1 – A Reunion of Sorts – Early Evening – August 15, 2009
The old screen door slams shut, awakening the stray cat who has recently taken residence under our front porch. Afternoons the furry vagabond has a spot reserved underneath a few broken two by fours. Oh how I miss rocking next to mother after supper, spending precious moments stolen away from our hectic lives. Some nights we talk about how our days went, others we simply listen to the symphony of crickets around us. Although father did fix some of the rotting boards years ago, age has simply weakened the old splintering structure. He’s been so tired lately we have not the heart to nag him about it. Anyway tonight I want to be alone so it doesn’t matter. So I’ll walk carefully across the fragile boards, proceed down the cracked slate walk through the one hinged gate of the peeling, rickety fence and across a dirt field.
I head in the direction of a small abandoned church in the distance. Vacant for over a century, the ancient landmark has become my own personal refuge these ten years. Today the sun’s strong rays are like the arms of a friend, reaching brightly out to me from around the stony edifice. A child’s wheelchair seems out of place among the warped mahogany pews. Yet I choose to sit tonight in the rusty metal chair as I muse over all that happened the summer of 1999, climaxing on August 15th , ten years ago to the day.
It is a bittersweet anniversary. A reunion of sorts inviting back not only the wonder but the pain of its memory. A season squeezed between a rain drenched Spring and the Autumn I was as changed as the leaves blanketing the rocks and weeds in our back yard. An experience that molded me into the woman I am today and pray to forever be.
Part 2 – Invasion of The Unfamiliar – Early morning – August 15, 1999
It began as an all too familiar day for the Stewart family. The moon had layed down and the sun rose like the days before. Dad was out the door by 6:00 a.m. as usual in order to catch the 6:30 train to Penn Station. And as I did every morning I peered down from our 2nd story bedroom, my nose pressed against the window after rubbing the sleep from my eyes . Dad holding his toolbox in one hand and the last few bites of breakfast in the other. My eyes would remain transfixed on him until his “train car”, as we called it, puttered and smoked its way down our block and slowly disappeared from sight. Arriving in New York City by 8:30, dad took the subway downtown to a construction site where a 120 story skyscraper had been erected. The company dad worked for had won the bid to hook up the steel giant to it’s power source. It was a two year job nearly completed.
School for us was our kitchen table once cleared of breakfast dishes, first period beginning around 8:00 am. Mom was a great teacher and had taught at a local private school before my sister and I were born. Yet I was too seeped in bitterness by then to notice her educational skills or anything else about the amazing woman for that matter. It’s not difficult for me to pinpoint the exact day it’s destructive seed was first planted in the soil of my selfish young heart.
It was the day mom and dad brought Chrissy home from the hospital. Oh not the day she was brought home a swaddled new born but the day she returned as a crippled two year old. Three months before, Dad had left for work in such a hurry, forgetting to put the gate across the top of the landing leading into the basement. Chrissy fell down the steep wooden steps. The doctors called it a miracle the fact she didn’t die from such a fall. I called a two year old who would never walk again the Stewart’s worst nightmare. I was only seven at the time.
When I was eleven I am ashamed to admit I secretly wished Chrissy had died tumbling onto that hard concrete floor. My life as a fairly happy seven year had ended that very day. Because my mom had to take on a part time job to help pay for Chrissy’s exorbitant medical bills, I was forced to become a caregiver at a very young age. Mom of course hated to place such responsibilities on me but there was no other option. Both my parents were only children so there were no aunts, uncles or cousins to help us. They seldom attended church, if at all, so forget about church folk lending an extra hand or anonymously leaving groceries at our front door. And friends for my parents were a luxury their busy, stressful schedules simply could not afford.
It was two years later, a month after my 13th birthday that I awoke to an oppressively hot, humid day in August. August 15, 1999 to be exact. School was only a few weeks away and I began to reflect on the horrible summer I was having as I lay in bed that morning. A boy down the block who I had a terrible crush on didn’t want any part me because I had a sister in a wheelchair. He told my best friend Marcy it made him feel weird and uncomfortable to be around her. Then I caught Marcy and Bobby kissing behind the block of stores in town a week later. If that wasn’t bad enough mom had taken on a 2nd part time job until we started school again in September. Dad was working his two jobs so once again I spent a summer as a caregiver, a job I never asked for, for a sister I resented more and more each passing day.
After lunch that particular day, instead of wheeling Chrissy back into the house to massage her leg muscles like I did every day, I decided I would take a swim. Reasoning with myself that I deserved the refreshing break especially since the temperature had soared to a record breaking ninety eight degrees. Chrissy could just wait that’s all! So I stripped off my shirt and shorts, letting them drop to the dusty ground, revealing a bathing suit I had donned underneath. I turned from her and ran in the opposite direction towards the small lake bordering our back yard. As I plunged into the cool water I heard Chrissy pathetically crying out “Oh Emily don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me!”
This is the where I must interject the most puzzling fact of my story. You see as I continued to grow more bitter and crueler to my sister with each passing day, she was treating me back with more kindness and patience regardless that my rants and rages had become worse and more frequent. For some reason she insisted on loving me more which may have had something to do with the sudden pang of guilt I felt as I dove into the lake. Though just as quickly as it came, the saintly feeling was suppressed by the refreshing waters enveloping my selfish body. In fact I was so lost in the euphoria of the spontaneous plunge, it took my brain several seconds to register the fact I was somewhere else altogether when my head came up from under the water.
I rubbed my eyes several times as my mind desperately tried to reason out the “twilight zone” scene before me. Lush rolling green hills stretched out before me as far as the eye could see beyond the lake’s mossy borders. A great mansion, something out of a Victorian novel sat like a king on a manicured throne surrounded by a colorful array of floral subjects bowing adoringly in a gentle breeze. And the sun appeared to have crowned the royal looking manor with diamonds while the sky wrapped its azure blue cape about its stony shoulders. Though stoic in its appearance it was welcoming nonetheless and drew me in like a magnet despite the confusion bombarding my mind.
Pulling me from the surreal view framed within my widening green eyes, a shrill, grating voice quickly unclogged my water drenched ears.
I turned to face a girl about my own age who demanded “Get out of our lake at once”. Obeying more from the reflex of utter bewilderment, I stood before the rather rude teen moments later.
“Who are you and what are you doing swimming in our lake” the pale, pointy nosed girl demanded to know.
“Well speak up! Don’t just stand there with your mouth open” continuing her interrogation.
I was tongue tied. So utterly confused and frightened in the most horrifying sense of the word. Finally after about a minute or two I barely stammered out, “I’m Emily. I really don’t know what’s going on or where I am!”
“Follow me then” she replied matter of fact, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “We will go to my parents. They will know what to do”.
As we walked the expansive grounds of the opulent estate towards the house, I felt an unaccountable sense of peace and calm despite the fact that I was a character in some weird science fiction movie I never asked to be a part of.
And I was different. Excluding all the unexplained, crazy things happening around me, I felt it. Different than I had felt in years. And then as if it couldn’t get more bizarre, when we passed the glass enclosed sun room I saw my reflection in the spotless panes and let out a loud cry.
“What’s wrong now?” the annoyed teenager asked, stopping short, her arms now crossed in front of her chest.
“I’m , I’m so much shorter, younger. I look like I’m seven or eight.” I chocked out as my face felt like it was on fire.
“Is that some kind of a surprise to you?” she asked, bewildered at my revelation
As I tried desperately to process all that was happening I followed the bossy teen across the threshold of a pair of regal French doors. Entering into a grand ballroom, I immediately thought of Maria in The Sound of Music. You know the scene. Dancing with her invisible partner across a marbled floor much like the one I was now dripping water on from my bathing suit. I could faintly hear a grand symphony, an orchestra’s music inhaled by the tapestry covered walls over the years and now exhaled in our presence.
From there I followed her into a spectacular kitchen where several pleasant chubby women with dimpled smiles were removing pastry lined pans from it’s several stone ovens. The sweet buttery aroma of scrumptious looking pastries filled the spacious room. My mouth watered, wanting to taste one of the tempting deserts but I remained close on the heels of an angry looking daughter in search of her parents.
We continued past room after room. down a never ending hallway like the ones you see only in dream. It seemed to stretch out a thousand feet. I stopped a few moments along the way peeking my head into a library teeming with a thousand classics. The room seemed as quiet and as sacred as the old church where I am writing this story. I marveled that though each book appeared to be standing in attention like a literary army yet at the same time at ease in the room’s cherry wood arms.
The last room, at the end of the long hallway, where her parents sat quietly talking, was the living room. It boasted a brilliant white grand piano, rich oriental carpets sitting atop gleaming wood floors. The furniture I can only describe as what you would see in a castle though much warmer and comfortable looking. And then there was the huge sunken fireplace I imagined made Christmas even more magical as I placed a seven foot tree and a hundred red ribboned gifts next to it in my mind’s eye .
“Hello little girl, my daughter says she found you swimming in our lake”, a man’s voice said
I jumped, jolted from my daydream hearing her father speak, but I nearly stopped breathing when I turned to face him.
“Speak up honey, no one is going to hurt you” he continued, urging me on ever so kindly.
“Dad?” I barely chocked out
“Who are you?” the gentle man asked once again though now looking confused as I was
“Just tell us”, a woman’s voice asked softly and ever so sweetly
As I turned to face her, once more the air in my lungs seemed to sucked out
The three of them, mother father and daughter just looked at each other puzzled, not knowing what else to say.
Well for the next hour I told them everything there was to know about my life, my parents, my sister, my own home in New York. How I ended up in their back yard with no explanation how or why. And the weirdest part of all, the fact I was suddenly six years younger!
They promised they would help me find my way home yet I doubted they could. Though they were genuine in their offer, I was losing hope quickly. I knew they were as helpless as Oz’s wizard or George Bailey’s Clarence. In the meantime their daughter Karen was forced to take care of me being she was older and I was unfamiliar with the extensive grounds surrounding their grand house. I could tell she resented me but obeyed her parents nonetheless. And because her friends didn’t want to hang out with a little girl, they stopped coming by the estate until it just her and I.
As I mentioned already I had changed since coming up from out the water, buy not only in age. I was kinder and more patient than I’d ever been even after Karen admitted that she wished I never washed up on her family’s private lake. Yet the crueler she was to me the kinder I was back to her until finally I began to see changes in her. At first they were small changes until over time we evolved into the best of friends.
Then one afternoon about a month after I arrived, Karen and I decided to go swimming as the mercury climbed all the way up to the hundred degree mark. After wading in the cool water a few minutes, all of a sudden I felt what could only be described as a hand grasping tightly around my ankle and pulling into the deeper water. .
I cried out to Karen “Help, I am being dragged under! Please help me”
Karen tried with all her might to help me but with no success.
“I can’t seem to move Em! My legs are stuck!!” she yelled frantically back to me.
By the time she screamed for her father to help me I was already pulled underwater and all had gone black.
Part 3 – Another Place Called Home –
When I came to moments later I was lying on my stomach near the lake’s edge, choking up mouthfuls of water.
“Emily, Emily are you OK?”
“Yes Karen, I think so, thank God!”
“Karen? Why are you calling me Karen?”
My head shot up hearing Chrissy’s voice and my heart began to beat wildly seeing her lying on her side next to her wheelchair covered in dirt, tears rolling down her frightened face.
After I lifted Chrissy and placed her securely back into her chair, I began to shake uncontrollably. Though not because of the sudden cool breeze blowing across our dirt field but rather the fact I was home again somehow. In all the magic of the place I had just come from I had almost forgotten how my life had turned into an Outer Limits episode!
Part 4 -Trade Off – No Greater Love Than To Lay Our Lives Down
Hours later as I lay in bed, once again a thirteen yr old girl with a crippled younger sister. The same girl I was before in almost every way except in what mattered most.
Then I did something I hadn’t done in years. I slid out of bed, got down on my knees and prayed hard and long. I asked God to reveal to me what had happened and what it all meant. And why the month I had spent in the mansion with Karen was in reality no more than a few minutes. And before I uttered my Amen I saw him for the first time. Jonathon. My very own guardian angel he later introduced himself as, floating like a eagle above my bed, the tall cherub translucent as a summer morning’s mist. But another figure dark and growling loudly, was also flying above me. It’s presence quickly turning my ahhhs to shrieks of terror and sending a cold chill through my body. Jonathon immediately chased the evil creature, the two of them suddenly gone from my room.
I sat up waiting for Jonathon to return and prayed the other ghostly figure wouldn’t. Hours went by as I fought to stay awake until my head I jolted up from my pillow hearing Chrissy from across the dark room.
“Chrissy are you ok? “ I asked
After a rather long pause she answered “Emily can I bother you for a glass of water. I’m so thirsty. I’m sorry to have to bother you so late!”
“Of course Chrissy its no bother! I’ll get it for you right away.” I answered.
You see I WAS changed in the way that mattered most.
I returned with the cold glass of water a few minutes later, shocked that Chrissy wasn’t in her bed and even more disturbing, her wheel chair was missing.
“Chrissy where are you?” I called out beginning to panic.
I checked the whole house but she was nowhere to be found. Then I went outside calling out her name through the blackness of our yard until a bright figure suddenly appeared who I recognized as Jonathon.
“Jonathan, where have you been? Chrissy is missing! You have to help me find her!” I begged the tall cherub
It was then that Jonathon placed his translucent hand on my trembling shoulder. “Sit over here” he said, motioning to an old oak stump nearby.
“No we must find Chrissy first!” I insisted
“Emily” Jonathon began, “Chrissy isn’t here. Not on this side of the lake any longer.”
“What?” I said in shock “But why?”
“Because of Karen. All because of Karen. She was changing, you saw it, I know you did Emily! The impish creature I chased from your room tonight had orders to see that she was transformed back into the girl you met when you first arrived on her side of the lake. The only way it could be accomplished was to get you out of the way. The plan was to drag you back through to the other side again but this time making you even younger than seven years old, the age Heaven chose for you to be when you were arrived. A plan to turn you into a one year old infant when you washed back up again on her shores tonight. That is why I was commissioned as your guardian angel. If was not only to make myself known to you but to help save your life. Yet it was your sister Chrissy who saw to that.” Jonathon said then paused a moment to let Emily absorb it all.
“Chrissy overheard the demon divulge his plans to his devilish entourage who were there to assist him abducting you at midnight. It was just minutes before midnight if you recall when Chrissy asked you for a glass of water. It was a miracle she was able to crawl from her bed into yours within the short time you went downstairs and returned with the water. Her own plan was for the imps to grab her in the dark, figuring they would assume it was you sleeping in your bed.” he continued
“Why change me into a one year old?” Emily asked still confused
“So you would drown. Chrissy knew it and chose to take your place. She wanted to protect you and keep you from dying. She loved you very much. She was willing to die in your place.” Jonathon revealed to Emily while looking deep into the teen’s watery eyes.
Emily cried out in horror and grief. Jonathon immediately put his hand over her mouth and quickly added,
“Emily, you haven’t heard the whole story. You see Chrissy had her own angel who remained quite invisible the whole time. When he saw the evil spirits grab her, he proceeded to follow closely behind her and through to the other side of the lake.”
“Why did he wait? He could of saved her before she even got to the lake!” Emily countered
“Didn’t she drown before getting to the other side?” Emily continued through her tears.
“No Emily. And I am quite sure any doctor would have to agree it was a miracle she was still alive!” Jonathon answered with a knowing smile.
“But who will care for her? How can I be sure Karen will? And will her new parents find Chrissy in time?” Emily shot out her questions frantically
“Her new parents already have. She is safe and sound and being well cared for. Especially by her big sister Karen.” Jonathon assured her. “That is why Chrissy had to go through the waters, though at the time even I couldn’t see that. Her own angel did”
“I still don’t fully understand Jonathon why she had to leave us.” Emily admitted while burying her face in both her hands.
“Emily, Chrissy is only one year old today!” Jonathon said and gave the grief stricken teen a moment to let it sink in.
“So? What does that mean?’ Emily asked lifting her head slightly, enough to look into Jonathon’s striking blue eyes.
“Think about it Em, one years old!”
“And not crippled!” Emily whispered ever so slowly as understanding finally revealed the amazing implications.
“But what about the evil spirits? Won’t they try to hurt Chrissy again or Karen or any of us for that matter?”
“No, in fact the devilish entourage never did made it across the lake with Chrissy”. Jonathon said with a holy smirk. “Word from headquarters has just confirmed what I already knew. They all washed up on the shores of a another lake instead. A rather hot one if I say so myself”.
Suddenly Emily’s parents burst into her bedroom, having hurried upstairs hearing her cry out a few moments before
“Are you OK Em?” her mom and dad asking in unison
“I am, but mom, dad” Emily began while looking at them forlornly “something has happened tonight to Chrissy!”
“Chrissy? Whose Chrissy? Not that stray cat that’s been hanging around our front porch?” her dad asked confused.
Emily turned around. Shock registered across her face realizing that not only was Jonathon gone from her room but Chrissy’s bed, her stuffed animals and even the glass of water she brought up to her sister. All had disappeared as if never there!
And all Emily could do was to simply bury her head in her fathers chest, weeping until he finally led her back into bed, tucking her in like he did when she was a little girl. Emily’s were tears of happiness but also tears of grief for a sister and a friend she would never to see again this side of Heaven. Yet she did smile in spite of it all. For just before she fell into a deep dreamy sleep she heard her father declare that the next day would be a holiday, the Stewart family’s very own. A day to fix porches and a stray calico’s brand new home.
I have resigned to the fact that no one will ever remember Chrissy though I shall never forget her. How could I possibly convince anyone that Chrissy was my sister and we once upon a time shared a room since I was minus her bed, stuffed animals and the kindest heart I had ever known. But neither could anyone explain the child sized wheelchair that was found among the mahogany pews of the old church. Nor the fact that my amazing teacher, Mrs. Grace Stewart assigned a special project that following September. My assignment, to research the local history of our small town dating back at least a hundred years or more. After a month of digging around I came across a few old clippings at our library relating to one of it’s wealthiest family’s. A family who happened to own a large piece of real estate less than a mile from our humble home.
Now check this out! The owners had two daughters, Karen and you guessed it, Chrissy!. Karen never married but their beautiful Chrissy wed a young Pastor. The announcement of their engagement along with a brief bio of her family was noted in a copy of the yellowed paper’s faded ink. In another clipping dated almost a century later, there was mention of the minister and his wife’s only child, a daughter named, you guessed it, Emily! A death notice announcing Emily’s sad passing and the abbreviated account of her full life before her death at the ripe old age of ninety. The most noted of all her philanthropic deeds was the transformation of her family’s mansion into a 120 room hospital.
The writer of the article also noted Emily had included a stipulation in her will. The old church where her father Pastored until his own death at age 80 was on the same grounds as the hospital. The church would remain as is, whether occupied by a congregation or not. And the most interesting of all, a Farmer’s Almanac published that same year alluded to local folklore of a lake not far from the church believed to have mysteriously dried up one hot summer many years before. I’m nearly speechless….well not quite yet. Give me a moment though and I shall be!
Follow me as I climb the one story to the church’s bell tower. Be careful you don’t fall up, the stairs are quite steep.
Now that we are up here, press your nose with me against one of the tiny windows, go ahead! And don’t worry about the dust, there is something you have to see!
I have to smile. You’ll have to smile too. We are over a hundred years too late. Our Heavenly Father has already gone to work, already rounded the corner of this part of town, in fact I suspect He’s been working a zillion jobs over the past thousands of years. Now look with me in the distance. Can you see the mansion, crowned in diamonds and azure cape wrapped around its stony shoulders? You may have to put on your glasses, especially to read the sign in front of the stoic yet welcoming old house turned hospital. Flanders Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Children. Right there in bold letters! Amazing isn’t it?!
Well you can’t deny what you see with your eyes now can you? But I am quite sure you’ll agree with me that most of the precious doctors practicing in that wonderful hospital may chalk this all up to one huge coincidence. I say its no less than a miracle. The Stewart family’s very own. Now I’m speechless, finally.