Part 1: Bearer of Bad News
I woke up suddenly to an assault on my senses: light from the bathroom was streaming in on my bleary eyes. I saw my husband pass by me, clothing himself after a shower for his early morning hospital shift.
“Hey there,” I croaked, feeling flirty. “Looking good there, sexy.”
He smiled faintly, then knelt down beside my side of the bed. His hair was still wet. He smelled good, a mixture of tangerine citrus soap and the faint smell of aftershave.
“I’m sorry to ruin the mood. I have bad news. Are you awake?”
I looked at my Fitbit: 5:30 a.m. Was I awake? I am not totally “there” first thing in the morning. I still had an hour left before I had to get up for work. Caleb knew to ask me if I was awake enough to retain the news he was about to tell me. I thought for a split second about telling him I was not, to keep the bad news away.
“I think so?” I replied, feeling confused and hesitant.
He put his hand on my hand. I longed for him to move closer. I yearned for tangerine citrus and —
“Annalisa is dead.”
My heart stopped for a moment as I registered the news, completely cutting off my train of thought. I hoped this was a mistake, or some kind of early morning nightmare between my snooze button alarms. Those dreams are always the worst, the most vivid.
“What? What do you mean?” I sat up straighter, my words slurring.
“My parents texted at 2 am and asked me to call. I called them as soon as I got up. They found her dead in the woods by the house.”
A chill went through my body. What happened to her?
He continued, “She was found face down. There was a gash on her face and scraped up hands and knees. They couldn’t revive her,” his voice shook ever so slightly. “I have to leave for work. I need you to tell Amanda.”
Dread filled my body as I imagined breaking the news to his younger sister, who stayed with us for the night as she was passing through to her mother’s house. Her mother, my beloved mother-in-law, who was having major surgery to remove breast cancer in less than 36 hours. My heart choked as I imagined her grief over her sweet niece. Would she be able to go through with the surgery? She couldn’t afford not to.
As Caleb prepared for work, I got up and tried to register what was happening. My mind started racing with possibilities of why and how a beautiful 15 or 16 year old girl could suddenly be found dead. I felt nauseated with the possibilities.
I texted Meagan, one of my best friends and coworkers, knowing she would not be awake for another hour because she was in a different time zone, but deeply needing to tell someone I loved what was happening. I knew Meagan would cover for me at work if I was gone.
“I feel sick. Caleb’s younger cousin was found dead in the woods in MS. Please don’t share with anyone yet, but I needed to tell someone. She was a beautiful young girl and they don’t yet know what happened.”
I hugged my husband close before he left. He kissed me gently on the top of the head and apologized for having to leave. I could tell the news had not yet registered in his heart. He was pushing it away so he could concentrate on his day at the hospital, on his patients. I wished I could push it away too.
As soon as he left, I crawled back into bed and started crying. I thought of Annalisa’s mother and father and four remaining siblings. I cried harder as I imagined their grief and shock.
Lord, comfort Linda and Paolo, I prayed, thinking of Anni’s parents. Let her not be a victim of violence.
I ignored my alarms, but woke up in time for work, knowing I needed to tell Amanda. She was in the shower, so with shaking hands I poured my coffee. I could hear sniffles coming from the bathroom. Amanda must have seen the text her parents sent and called her dad. I felt relieved on one hand, that I didn’t have to form or confront the reality of the words. It is a terrible thing, to have to tell a family member a loved one has died. I felt guilty for not telling her myself.
Amanda came out of the bathroom, choked out, “Did you hear about Annalisa?” and started sobbing. I clumsily put down my coffee and rushed to hold her in my arms.
“Yes, Caleb told me this morning. I’m so so sorry,” I whispered. What else could I say? She sobbed with grief and gripped me tighter, and I wished I could cry. I didn’t know why I wasn’t crying. My brow furrowed and I just held her, feeling like I needed to be strong for her sake. It made me feel heartless.
“Do you know what happened to her?” Amanda asked me.
“Well, no — sort of. Caleb said she was found dead in the woods by her house.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. There are no woods by her house.”
I suddenly felt very confused. That is what he said, right? Did my brain at 5:30 am misunderstand? I recounted the few details I had to her and decided we should call Caleb to ask if he had any more details.
There was a ding — Meagan texted me back with shock and condolences. I realized it was after 7 am, and I was late for work. I shot a quick email to my boss and supervisor to tell them there was a tragedy in the family, and I needed to help my husband’s sister. I realized the way I worded it might make it sound like my mother-in-law had passed from breast cancer, because they knew she was going into surgery. I texted Meagan to ask her to explain to them. I couldn’t face it yet.
I asked Caleb to call us when he could. His deep voice came through on speaker phone, sounding oddly formal and stiff. He apologized for not having a chance to see his sister. She arrived late the evening when he was catching a few precious hours of sleep and he left the house before she woke up. Such is the life of a medical professional.
“Did you talk to Dad?” Caleb inquired.
“No, I called Mom. She couldn’t talk, she was too upset. She just told me Annalisa was dead.”
“We don’t know much yet, but we do know that she was found by a tree or rose bush that her family planted in memoriam of someone else’s life. Does that sound familiar?”
“Yes, she prays out there at the edge of the driveway.”
She was praying when she died? I thought.
“It doesn’t seem like it was a trauma. We don’t know for certain yet, but it looks like she collapsed face forward.”
When Caleb explained everything, I took him off speaker phone and asked him how he was doing.
“I am okay, just trying to get through it.” He clearly hadn’t told his hospital colleagues yet.
“Baby, you have to tell someone,” I implored. I knew he had to face it. I paused, searching carefully for my next words. “What could cause a healthy girl to die like that? Do you think someone hurt her?”
Waves of nausea hit me again as I imagined someone killing her in a hit and run, or worse.
“It’s possible, but it’s more likely there was an internal issue that caused her to collapse.” He listed a slew of medical reasons that could cause someone to collapse and die without immediate attention. We were intellectualizing to avoid the pain, but we both knew speculation would not help.
The remainder of the morning seemed slow and weighted. I saw Amanda off, praying she would make it safely to her mother’s house.
“Are you coming home?” she asked me.
“Home?” I asked, stupidly.
“To my mom’s house. To be there for everyone.”
“Yes, yes. We will come as soon as we can. I have to talk to Caleb.” I cursed my inability to be lucid in the early morning.
Caleb and I had already planned on going out to his folks’ house to see how his mom was doing post-surgery. But now with Annalisa’s death, his mom’s surgery might be delayed depending on the funeral. I stressed over the logistics of getting to his family’s house, of figuring out how to keep our lives going while our family’s lives were falling apart.
I got on my computer to officially start my work day. My boss had responded and told me it was okay, he understood. He was praying for our family.
I told a few key people in the office what was going on. I knew the news would trickle. I had already sent around a company email asking people to pray for my mother-in-law’s surgery the day before. It seemed too much to also send an email about Annalisa. I didn’t want to receive outpourings of sympathy, or to bombard others with bad news. I had to stay strong. I didn’t think I could stay strong if too many people knew.
I called my mom and cried as I told her what was happening. “Oh God, that is so horrible,” she choked out. “I feel so terrible for Linda.” She told me to call her if I needed her.
Eventually I video chatted our office manager, who I lovingly call our office mom. I cried as I explained to her what was happening to our family, and she cried and prayed with me. She told me that I could take the time I needed to be with my family, they would support me and she knew I would make the work up. I felt overwhelmed with relief and gratefulness.
A few hours later, Caleb came home.
“I couldn’t concentrate. My Chief Resident was asking me questions about the patient and I couldn’t answer and I took him aside and told him what was happening. He told me I needed to go home for the day,” he explained flatly. “I told him it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted.”
Medical students always fear the repercussions of appearing weak or asking for time off. It does not reflect well on their work ethic, so Caleb’s insistence on staying and working through this tragedy was normal. I was grateful his Chief Resident was so understanding.
I prayed silently: Lord, I thank you for the compassion of our employers. Help me to find the good in today and not succumb to despair.
I resumed my day with my best distracted effort, talking about Anni to my close coworkers and sending her picture to them, as if sharing this news would somehow help me cope.
“She is…was…so beautiful,” I’d chat, knowing full well that this was weirdly morbid, and not caring, because I needed someone to understand.
At one point I became overtaken with fear that she had died alone and afraid and slowly. What could be worse than dying alone, less than 100 feet from your house, knowing your whole family was inside? I started to sob, until I heard this clear as day, in my heart:
She didn’t die alone, she died in my arms.
I immediately stopped panicking. Was this Jesus? Was this my psyche trying to ward off a panic attack?
I didn’t know, but I decided to accept it. I started to feel oddly peaceful. I figured this was a stage of grief, to accept blindly whatever made me feel best in a situation of tragedy.
What if God just took her? What if there is no reasonable explanation?
God has a plan, He always has a plan.
This is Part 1 of a continuing series, Remembering Annalisa. Annalisa Laudadio was my husband’s cousin. She was 15 years old when she died suddenly on April 20, 2016. This short story collection is my way of working through the shock and grief of losing a loved one.