April 28, 2012 was my first prom. I didn’t have a date, so I went alone. I wore the dress that my mom had purchased so I could be in my cousin Elisa’s wedding. I never got to wear it as a bridesmaid, because the wedding was called off the week before it was slated to take place.
My cousin-in-law Ashley did my nails and my cousins, Elisa and Trisa, did my hair and makeup. It was one of the first times I remember feeling truly beautiful. I went to the dance, danced one slow dance, stood around for much of the night and came home with a cardboard cutout of John Wayne. It was fun.
None of those things are the reason I remember that night. I remember that night because of what happened the next day.
April 29, 2012 was a Sunday. Mom, Elisa, Trisa, and I went to church as normal.
Afterwards, we decided to drive over to Nyssa and spend the day at my aunt’s house. Out in the back country of Eastern Oregon, “The Ranch” is a little pink house surrounded by fields and hills; where cell phones are about as useful as a sundial at midnight and the nearest town is thirty minutes away.
The afternoon was too beautiful to stay inside, so while Tio Rob, Nick, Ian and Aj – Trisa’s boyfriend – took the opportunity to go shooting up near the Owyhee Reservoir, the women folk decided to cut across the field behind the house and go for a walk.
Mom, Tia Kathy, Elisa, Trisa, Ashley, and I climbed the little hill that brought us up onto the canal bank and started off. Spring was in full swing. The sun was shining on fields so green they looked living emeralds dancing in the breeze that kept the temperature just right, and any clouds found clinging to the sky were mere decorations, too thin and wispy to be threatening.
As we walked, Elisa showed us some moves from the water aerobics class she taught when she worked at the pool. We laughed at how ridiculous we looked, our arms spread out like wings, spinning little circles first one direction, then the other. Someone got tired of carrying their empty water cup and left it in the middle of the road, planning to grab it on the return trip. We lost all sense of time and distance. Until the phone rang.
Somehow, at just the right moment, there was enough of a cell signal for my mother to get a call. She stopped and pressed a hand over her ear to catch all the words coming through the fragile connection. The rest of us kept walking. We didn’t hear the color of her “What?!” over our giggling.
“Guys, let’s go!” The tone of Mom’s voice killed the afternoon’s mirth. “Aj’s been shot.”
Trisa started to sprint for the house before Mom clarified, “Not your Aj. Cousin Andy.” We all took off, but Mom called us to a stop, “Guys we need to pray!”
We gathered in a circle and held hands. As we lifted up the situation to our Heavenly Father the tears began to flow. “Father, we lift up Aj to you. Lord, we don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that you do. Please be with Laura and the family and show us what to do. In your name we pray, Amen.”
Then we ran. The walk that had seemed like minutes on the way out felt like hours in reverse. Without realizing it, we had gone much further than planned, and now all we could do was keeping trudging along, helplessly. I walked ahead of everyone with my mom. We held hands, as if our combined efforts could fight off the monstrous pain that had just blindsided us.
As we rounded a bend in the canal, still ten minutes or so from “The Ranch”, a pair of ditch riders drove up behind us in a white truck. I assumed they would just drive by, but the next thing I knew I heard our names, “Connie! Anna!” and Mom and I are jogging back to where everyone was piling into the bed of the pickup.
The world rolled by a little faster, but we hardly noticed. The breeze might still have been delightful, but I didn’t feel it. The sky was still blue and cloudless, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see that Pepto Bismol house. I looked out the back and watched as we passed over the forgotten cup, leaving it rolling in the dirt behind us.
The pickup pulled to a stop at the gate that separated the neighbor’s field from the ditch bank. We climbed down and I heard Tia Kathy addressing the driver. “Thank you very much. We just heard that my nephew has just been in an accident.” I ran around the side of the pickup to avoid the rest of the explanation.
The truck drove away and we hurried back to the house. While Elisa, Mom, my little sister and I took off for Vale, with the intention of ditching Megan before going to St. Alphonsus in Boise, the rest decided to go look for the boys and bring the news to them.
The drive back was numb. I remember calling my dad and telling him, “Dad, Andy accidently shot himself.”
“Here. Give me the phone,” I let Mom try to explain what was going, though in reality none of us really knew.
Our plans slowed to a bitter stop the moment we got to Grandpa and Grandma’s. Instead of immediately jumping back into the car and driving straight to the hospital, like I thought we would, things came to a complete stand still. Mom was calling Dad trying to figure out what she should do with Megan, everyone was rehashing the few details of the accident we knew, and I stood in the drive way, chipping the gel manicure that Ashley had so painstakingly applied to my fingers just two days before off every single nail.
Finally, leaving Megan with Grandpa for Dad to collect, Mom, Elisa, Grandma and I squeezed into Grandma’s Cadillac and took off for Boise, stopping only in Nyssa to pick up Tia Kris and a couple Subway sandwiches to split.
At the hospital we met up with Tia Laura and took turns holding her in long, tight embraces.
“There was so much blood.”
“I could see his eyes trying to focus on me.”
I turned away as another wave of tears overwhelmed me, images of my younger cousin floating on the surface of my mind. I closed my eyes, trying to push the thought away, but it sat on my chest, immovable, like a slab of concrete.
Why did I come? I am just as helpless here as I was at home.
“When they get him stabilized they’re going to fly him to Portland.”
We left the hospital having seen only the door behind which my sixteen year old cousin was. As we drove home we once more joined hands and prayed for God’s will to be done, uncertain of the outcome.