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If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Story of Love, Murder, and Liberationby Janine Latus
Amy is born a fighter, six weeks early and a wispy five pounds. Her blood is incompatible with Mom's, so the doctors replace it, draining out the old while infusing the new. Her heart stops anyway. So they pump her tiny baby chest and blow air into her tiny baby lungs until she squalls, and then send her home to round out our family of seven.
The year is 1965, and it is my parents' third go-round with babies and death. The first had come in 1960, when I woke my mother before dawn, crying for a bottle. At four months and four days old, I was a blue-eyed Gerber baby, the spitting image of my father. Across the room slept my exact replica, my twin sister, Janette. A few weeks earlier our picture had made the front page of the local paper when a smiling mayoral candidate held us up for the cameras. He later complained about the fuzz our blanket left on his black suit coat.
My mother put her hand on Janette's back to feel her breathing. Then she yelled for Dad, who came running. He blew air into her mouth and pressed on her chest, but it was too late. Janette was dead. An errant air bubble or an electrical glitch stopped her heart. Crib death. Cause unknown.
Mom gave birth to Pat barely a year later. Pat was a month early and on the light side at five and a quarter pounds, but within days the local paper announced that mother and daughter were at home and doing fine. Ten days later, though, Mom was in the kitchen warming up a bottle when blood started pouring down her legs. It soaked through her clothes and puddled on the floor. An ambulance came, siren wailing, and rushed her to the hospital. Doctors elevated the foot of her bed and covered her head with an oxygen tent. Through the muffling of the plastic tent she could hear my father and the doctors and nurses, but she couldn't respond.
She heard, too, the eerie chant of the priest giving her last rites. "God, the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the church may God give you pardon and peace."
Still she bled, until she was drained, until her heart had nothing left to pump, until it stopped.
"I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy."
Long moments passed as doctors scrambled to get it to pump again. Then they rushed her, bed and all, into the operating room. They scraped out the inside of her uterus and gave her half a dozen blood transfusions. When she finally came home, she had to stay in bed for three months, her children pestering for attention.
As an adult I ask my father why he kept getting her pregnant if it was so hard on Mom.
Do you and your husband have sex? he asks.
By the time Amy is a toddler we live in Kalamazoo, in a two-story box of a house on a double lot, the yard framed by a pair of the huge maple trees that give the street its name. There is a screened-in front porch and a fire escape to one of the girls' bedrooms that scares us all, so we push our bunk beds against it to protect against the boogeyman.
Steve is the eldest and most responsible. He cemented his reputation in the family one Easter when he was about seven by saying, "If we don't get organized, we won't have any fun." I worship him, usually from afar, but sometimes on Saturdays my sisters and I leap onto him as he's stretched out on the floor watching sports, secure that he will be careful even then to throw us off onto cushions or soft rugs, avoiding as much as possible the hard edges of tables and bookcases.
There is Jane, brown-eyed and cherubic, who in high school will cling to the balance beam with her toes, refusing to fall off. She succeeds by sheer force of will. It is Jane's hand-me-downs I wear and her bed I climb into during thunderstorms.
Then there is me. I take ballet lessons instead of piano, try out for plays instead of sports. I don't realize until later that I am the classic middle child, doing what I can to get attention. I am not as good as my older siblings and not as cute as the younger, so I strive mostly to be different.
Next is Patty, and then Amy, the baby, lanky and blue-eyed, the only one with mounds of curls, chasing after all of us, forever trying to keep up.
My father is proud of his family in a Catholic, fill-the-pew sort of way. His children sit in descending order, Steve in an ironed shirt and clip-on tie, the girls in poof-sleeved dresses, veils of lace bobby-pinned to our hair. My mother is proud, too. Straight-backed and beautiful, she holds Amy, always the baby. There we sit, our patent leathers swinging and sometimes kicking, as the priest walks down the aisle in his embroidered brocade, swinging his censer, the rich incense stinging our eyes.
Dad sells insurance for Metropolitan Life. Mom, a registered nurse, stays home with us kids, washing and folding, and carrying in bag after bag of groceries. For a while my Uncle Sandy lives in our basement, his bed and tin clothes cabinet separated off by curtains and a rug. On Sunday mornings we thunder down the stairs and jump on him as he tries to sleep off his Saturday night. He is our favorite uncle, mostly because he lives with us, but also because he has a magical way with broken-spoked bikes and skates without keys. He fixes Amy's favorite push toy without her even asking, though taking out the popping balls that make so much noise that his head hurts. When he is at work, up to his knuckles in the grease from someone's car, we jump on his bed and try to peek at the covers of the Playboys he has hidden on the top of his clothes cabinet, always straightening his blankets and pillow afterward, and giggling with guilt.
In the summer we barely clear our dinner dishes before disappearing down the block for our nightly games of Kick the Can and Capture the Flag, the older kids forced by parents to let us little ones play. In the winter we switch to King of the Mountain on the hard-packed snowbanks, or build igloos out of the chunks the snowplows leave on the curb.
The year I am in kindergarten the whole family climbs into the station wagon for the drive to Borgess Hill. It is the steepest and iciest in town, and we pile as many as we can fit onto the sled, me in front, Pat behind me, Jane behind her, and Uncle Sandy in the back. Steve runs behind, pushing, his boots churning on the snow, and then jumps on as we fly, the wind ripping screams from our mouths. Halfway down we tip, and the metal runner of the sled slices over my boot and breaks my ankle. For weeks Steve, four years older, has to drag me to school on the same sled, my cast in a plastic bread bag to keep it from getting wet. One day he stops at the top of a hill and gives the sled a shove, and I hurtle down the sidewalk, lugelike, between the snowbanks.
The year I am seven the snow is so deep that drivers put orange Styrofoam balls on the tips of their car antennas so they can see each other at intersections. We kids dig a tunnel from our house to the neighbors', then burrow back home for hot chocolate, our scarves and mittens dripping in the hall.
At Christmas we line up every year, oldest to youngest, Amy standing on tiptoe and still not reaching high enough to hang her stocking on the hooks that line the mantel. In the summers we pose again, draped on the sign of the year's campground or national park, our beagle Penny out front.
Don't you take the picture, Dad says to Mom. You always cut off everyone's head.
By the time I am twelve we are living in Haslett, Michigan, where I spend the summer bored, experimenting with blue eye shadow and giving myself hickeys in the hollow of my elbow as I practice kissing.
Over Labor Day weekend Mom breaks out in a rash so fierce she has to be rushed to a doctor. Her body is covered in hives. It's hard for her to breathe. Later we find out why. Without telling anyone, she has interviewed for a job in a doctor's office. Dad isn't making much money, the bills are piling up, we kids keep growing and needing clothes and shoes and ever more groceries, and besides, doesn't she deserve validation? Doesn't she deserve respect and a paycheck and recognition for her intelligence and training and skills?
Still, the anticipation of telling Dad has made her so anxious that she gets hives.
So I got the job, Mom says.
Wow, I say.
Cool, Steve says.
We all look to Dad.
Don't forget you still have responsibilities around here, he says.
I babysit for the Johnstons, who live down the street. Easy-to-entertain kids, an early bedtime, color TV, and a selection of snacks. Like a lot of families in the neighborhood, the Johnstons called my house to see if any of the Latus girls could babysit, and my parents told them I'd be happy to. They don't ask me first.
At ten 'til six I say good-bye to my mom and dad, who are in their room dressing for a party at the country club. Tomorrow I'm going to the mall with my girlfriends, where we will dip hot pretzels in mustard while we thumb through Partridge Family posters. I'm saving up for a glow-in-the-dark bead curtain that I saw last week in Spencer Gifts.
Bedtime is at eight, Mrs. Johnston says. They don't need baths, but you do need to help them with their teeth.
More quietly she adds, It's okay if you can't get them down until 8:30, and once they're asleep you can help yourself to anything in the fridge. And there are cookies in the breadbox. I got you some Coke, too.
I love these kids and want some just like them, plump and soft and adoring. They hold tight to my fingers as we walk around the yard looking at bugs and dandelions. We wave as their parents drive off, then go inside, where the kids tackle me and we fall to the floor, wrestling and laughing, playing Hide-and-Seek and Tag.
At eight o'clock I shepherd them into their bedroom and help them into their pajamas, then into the bathroom to brush their teeth.
Please, one more monster game, the younger one asks.
What? I say, rising up to my full five feet one. You want the monster?
And with that I stamp toward them, my hands high, my fingers clawed. They run away, screaming and laughing, and I chase them down the hall and into the living room. We are wrestling again when the door opens and Mr. Johnston walks in.
I am on the floor, flushed and disheveled.
I forgot something, he says, and walks past us to his bedroom.
The kids and I look at each other, and then they leap onto me again, and I flail and pretend to scream as they attack.
Mr. Johnston comes out of the bedroom and looks down at us.
I wonder if the babysitter is ticklish, he says.
He gets down on all fours and the children jump on their daddy's back, squealing, joining in. I scoot to the side to give them space, but an instant later he is on top of me. Pressing his erection against my pelvis, grinding it into me. I can feel his gin breath on my face, in my ear. He moves against me as a man does a woman, except I am just a girl.
For a second I am paralyzed.
He wants me, I think.
I cannot breathe, cannot get free.
I am going to hell.
I push against him with my palms, try to plant my feet flat on the floor so I can get traction to squirm out from under him. It doesn't work.
That's right. That's what the gym teacher said to do if you were attacked. Knee him where it counts, even though she never explained what was there for me to knee. But there's no room. He is bigger and stronger, and I am pinned.
He is grinding into me, making animal sounds in my ear while I pummel his back with my flailing fists. I look for the children. Can they jump on his back and help me? But they are huddled against each other against the couch, their eyes wide, staring.
Then it comes to me, and I do what my father has done to me when he needs to get my attention. I grab the tiny hairs at the back of his neck and yank.
You little bitch, he says. He spits the words onto my face. You little shit.
He rolls off me and rubs the back of his neck, and I scramble to my feet and behind a chair. He glares at me before getting up and slamming out the door.
When the Johnstons return hours later, Mr. Johnston stays in the car. Mrs. Johnston doles out three dollar bills and two quarters for the seven-hour job. I can't even look at her.
I'm fine getting home.
Goodness no, she answers. My husband will take you.
Honestly, I'll be okay, I say. I like to walk.
It's no trouble, Mrs. Johnston says. Besides, your mom would kill me if I let you go alone this late.
I can't figure out what to say, so I walk out to the car, my eyes on my feet as I open the door. The interior light flips on, but I don't look at him. Instead I climb in, close the door, and press myself against it. His hand in the sudden darkness finds my knee, holds it.
We'll never tell anyone what we did, Mr. Johnston says.
I pull my leg away, don't answer, even though he's a grown-up, and sit utterly silent and hard against my door during the drive. I jump out before the car's fully stopped and scurry up the walk, thankful that the front door is unlocked.
My mother will be awake, I know, until each of her children is home and safe. My father will be snoring, his pale chest exposed above the covers. At least I hope so. My mom has told me that when I was little he paced the floor for nights that seemed endless, singing and crooning and patting my back. He changed my diapers, as he reminds me so often and so publicly. He taught me to ride a bike, to swim. Now, though, he disgusts me, still pulling me onto his lap, still squeezing my pimples, still insisting on kissing me on the lips. He tickles me until I cry, and pits the siblings against each other, egging us on to do the same. I dread my birthdays, when he lays me over his knees and paddles me once for every year of age and one more — much harder — to grow on, followed by a pinch to grow an inch. He does it in front of my aunts and uncles and cousins, who laugh nervously. Even his side of the family has stopped the birthday spankings, allowing their pubescent children some degree of dignity. So tonight I lean against the wall as I climb the stairs, hoping he's not awake, wanting only my mommy.
Unfortunately, he's sitting up in bed. My parents have just gotten back from the same party as the Johnstons, and they smell of cigarette smoke and gin. Mom's hair is in its party beehive, her blue eye shadow all the way up to her plucked eyebrows. Dad is bleary-eyed and in a hurry to fall asleep. I sit on the edge of their bed and tell my story, how Mr. Johnston had come home, pinned me down, ground his, his thing into me, and how I had triumphed and gotten away. I wait for their pride and sympathy.
There is a long pause as my mom and I look to my dad.
If you tell anyone what happened, Dad says, you'll be known as a slut.
Mom strokes my hair and doesn't say anything. Neither do I.
It is two decades before I learn that she wrote Mr. Johnston a letter.
Stay away from my daughter, it said. And tell your wife what you've done.
Copyright © by Janine Latus
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