A Survivor's Tale

Blood and Roses

I'm forever cleaning up after my sister's murder

My sister has been dead only 24 hours and there's still a lot to do for the funeral, but first I have to clean up the blood.

There are companies that specialize in crime-scene cleanup, but the guy I contacted can't get here until late tomorrow. We have to begin moving everything out of her house and I don't want people to see it this way.

My sister's house is in a middle-class neighborhood in Tampa. Her neighbors seldom spoke to each other, until the police cars and county coroner's van pulled onto the street. They watched from a distance with folded arms, occasionally leaning in to whisper to each other. They shifted their weight, from one foot to another, as they watched the officers wrap yellow tape around palm trees in my sister's front yard.

I hadn't been in her house in years, but it is exactly how I remember. She still has the mocha rug with a single worn path, flattened to almost white, between the living room and the kitchen. Her old Zenith rests on a cheap entertainment center, with the bottom drawer neatly lined with DVDs. Some are still wrapped in plastic but with the price tags torn off.

On her glass coffee table, magazines and unopened bills are sprawled around smudges, a few glass rings, and the remote. The detectives said she still had it in her hand when they found her, lying dead on the sofa.

There is a splatter of dried blood on the armrest where her head was when she fell asleep watching TV. They said the bullet her ex-boyfriend fired entered her right temple, crossed both hemispheres of her brain, and out again, where it lodged in the back of the sofa. The upholstery shows a gash from where they removed it. White stuffing has spilled out from it like a frozen waterfall.

On the floor near the sofa is a black stain, like a gigantic bruise. This is where my sister's new boyfriend fell when he took a bullet to the chest. He had come in from the bedroom when he heard the first shot. The one that killed my sister. The bullet tore through his left aorta and he fell, face down. His wounded heart pumped out his life into the carpet. I'm not sure how to cover this up.

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In the hallway leading to the bedroom are opened boxes bulging with books and papers. On her bed are square stacks of shirts, folded military-style, and more boxes with open flaps. Her new boyfriend had just moved in a few days before and they were still unpacking his stuff.

Tomorrow, we'll have to decide what to do with everything, but right now I have to deal with the blood.

I look under the kitchen sink, but there is only a near-empty bottle of Windex and an unopened box of SOS pads. My sister is also low on paper towels.

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I scrape off some of the armrest blood with my thumb. It flakes off like old paint. I aim the Windex, crumpled paper towel in hand, but the pump won't work. I shake it a few times, but nothing.

Maybe this is a sign. Maybe I should leave something of my sister behind. After all, this is all that is left.

I find a blanket and gently drape it across the couch's back and fluff and arrange some pillows over the armrest. I leave the stain on the floor alone.

I didn't confront her death in the usual manner. I never cried and I didn't drop into a deep depression. My means of closure was to understand the circumstances around her death. By knowing the full story, maybe I'd be able to accept that she was gone forever.

First, I mailed away for her autopsy report, which detailed the nature of her wounds, her health status at the time of death and her last meal (burgers and fries, which was not a surprise). Next, I spoke at length with the on-scene homicide detective. He walked me through the crime scene step-by-step, including how they found her, what she wore and the approximate time of death. Finally, I read her last e-mails. She seemed happy and upbeat. Her final one was to our mother and noted how she wanted to come over for a visit that weekend and would ask me to come along. "I'll call him about it," she wrote. But she never did.

It has been nine years now. The house has been sold. Her possessions have been given away, all her clothes donated to Goodwill.

There was a gap between us when she died. We were beginning to close it. Our kids were older, we were older, and we found more time for each other. Just when she was back in my life, she was gone again.

Now all I have left is her number stored in my smartphone. I have never been able to delete it. I want to talk to her—tell her about my day, ask her advice, invite her to play golf this weekend. I want to fill in the missing pieces.

But whenever I call, a women's voice says the number I have dialed is no longer in service.

This is the latest in a series of stories this month about how we cope with various types of tragedy and loss.

Tags: memoirs