It was the worst day of my life. Fifty years ago today, my older sister died in a traffic accident eight miles from home. It was a head-on collision at twilight on a two-lane highway. She was riding in a Volkswagen Beetle in the days before seat belts and air bags. She never had a chance.
Frances Catherine Tarleton, about to begin her senior year in high school, popular, smart and happy, returned to the house where she had lived all of her 17 years in a casket. She is buried in the cemetery in the little town where she had grown up. Now her parents lie beside her. She never experienced the Beatles, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, marriage, motherhood, grandchildren and all the other events and sensations of the last 50 years as her siblings have matured, moved on and grown old without her.
My mother was 44 years old on that night and aged a century in a few hours. She would live another 44 years after that night but never get over the loss of her eldest daughter, her third of five children. Each of us would have that night etched in our souls. Each of us would wonder how different our lives might have been if Frances had turned down that invitation to go out, if she had left two minutes later or two minutes earlier, if the two teenage drivers involved had been paying more attention or had been more experienced.
That Sunday night a half century ago has also changed me in this way: I feel an affinity with any family that loses a child, especially a teenager and especially in a traffic accident. I know what it's like to lose a sibling far, far too soon. I know the tragedy of a life cut short. I empathize.
Frances, my big sister who mothered me and challenged me, is not forgotten even after 50 years. That empty spot will never be filled.