My sister's red Elantra sped through the quiet Florida back-country. It was about a five-hour journey home from college.
Nobody was expecting her that weekend – my parents were away in India visiting family; I was home alone with a paper that needed writing. High school graduation was a little more than two months away. In other words, there was still enough time for me to screw up any further educational commitments I had made.
Two weeks earlier, I had officially signed a National Letter of Intent (an N.L.I.) -- for the uninitiated, an N.L.I. is a contract wherein the signer pledges to provide a Division I or Division II athletic program with at least one year of service in exchange for scholarship money. In my case, I agreed to play soccer for the same Division II program as my older sister. It would be the first time that we would appear on the same team at the same time, fulfilling a mutual dream that extended back to our childhoods.
I hadn't told her yet. I wanted to tell her in person. Her spring break wasn't terribly far away – I figured that was the perfect opportunity. I couldn't wait to see her reaction.
The paper could wait until the next morning. I shut the lid of my MacBook and curled up on the couch. As I closed my eyes in the stillness of the empty house, I'm almost certain I had a smile on my face.
I'd like to think that my sister was wearing the same smile (people always said that our smiles were nearly identical). There was a shopping bag on the passenger seat. Inside was a brand new sweatshirt, the college's logo on the front, the words “WOMEN'S SOCCER” printed in large-font beneath. My first initial and our last name were stitched into the sleeve. She knew, knew that I had signed a letter of intent, knew that her baby sister would soon be joining her in the exclusive and close-knit society of women's college athletics.
She was driving home to surprise me.
A Hindu proverb states that “a brother is a friend that God gave you. A friend is a brother your heart chose for you.”
My older sister was both.
We were born two years apart – she in Florida, me in India, the product of two immigrants from the state of Gujarat. I would always joke that being born on Indian soil (my mother went into labor during my uncle's wedding) made me the “better Indian”, but the truth is that we were both equally imbued with the culture. Household conversation was almost exclusively in Gujarati, we attended holiday festivals at our local Hindu temple, our top five favorite movies were all Bollywood classics.
Then there was soccer. We both played from the moment that we could walk, played all the way through elementary, middle, and high school. Cheap metal trophies and pee-wee team photos lined the shelves of our home, seated next to small elephant statues and Hindu relics. Our closets were miniature warehouses of jerseys, shorts, and cleats that we had long since outgrown.
While I'd like to say that my skill-sets were just different from my sister's, I have to admit that she was the better player. She was the dream of any offensive-minded coach. She could cut on a dime, her footwork and ball control was unparalleled. She had remarkable acceleration and agility packaged with a profoundly dedicated work ethic and stellar grade point average. It came as no surprise that she was recruited by a number of Division I schools – every single day, a slew of the brightly colored envelopes with school logos arrived in the mail, pleading with her to come and play for them. She surprised everybody, settling on a small Division II school a few hours away from home. She wanted a more intimate college experience than what she felt a massive state university could offer.
I was there when she told her high school coach. Frankly, the man was (and still is) a self-absorbed prick. He berated her for her “ignorance”, for “making a fool of him.” The words still echo in my head.
“I didn't put all that god-damn time and effort into you for you to throw everything away on some piddly-ass second-rate college!”
He wasn't there when she signed her letter of intent. He wasn't at her memorial service. He wasn't welcome anyway.
The driver of the Ford pickup truck was drunk, completely soused to the gills, his blood alcohol content two-and-a-half times the Florida state limit. He drove with the carelessness that only the bottle can bestow.
My sister could see the distant lights of the suburbs. She was giddy at the prospect of seeing my face when she walked through the front door, presented me with the gift she had custom-made. I'm certain that she was already envisioning us running wind sprints to exhaustion, practicing offensive formations, scoring goals off of assists from each other – Patel to Patel.
I'll never know what she saw as she approached that sharp bend in the road. It's estimated that the driver of the pickup was traveling at around sixty to seventy miles per hour when he crossed over the double yellow lines. Maybe she tried to jerk the wheel in the glare of the headlights in an attempt to avoid catastrophe. Maybe there was no time to do anything. Either way, the two vehicles collided head-on.
A Florida state trooper was the first to happen upon the scene. He radioed it in, requested the immediate attention of paramedics, but he could already tell that the twisted masses of metal and rubber were not conducive to survival.
The trooper first went to check on the driver of the pickup. Fortune smiled upon him that night. A broken pelvis, a few broken vertebrae, a fractured skull and concussion, they were all serious but survivable.
My sister's condition was far more grave. In addition to a slew of other massive injuries, the impact caused her chest to slam into the steering column, displacing her heart and tearing her aorta. As a pre-med student, she would have been able to tell you its name: TAD – traumatic aortic disruption. She would have been able to tell you that survivability is typically no higher than ten percent, that she was the underdog in a losing battle.
The trooper gently clutched her hand, reassuring her that help was on the way. I would later learn that he was a new father, his daughter only a couple of months old. Now, he was helplessly watching someone else's daughter slip away.
The friend that both God and my heart had given me succumbed to her injuries just after the ambulance arrived.
I can't tell you how many hours I spent on the soccer field after my sister's death. It was the same field on which she and I had grown up, the one behind the old youth camp. Even after her memorial service, I went to the pitch and practiced free kicks. Rep after rep after rep, kick after kick, all the while wearing the same clothes I wore to the service.
There was an anger about these reps, an intensity that I had never previously experienced. I would practice until the blisters made it painful to walk the next day. I would swear loudly when I missed, punt the ball halfway across the field when it refused to find the back of the net. It was not uncommon for me to drive myself to the point where I was vomiting from exhaustion.
And yet, there was something therapeutic about it all. The ball offered me a level of control. I could place it on a straight shot top-shelf or curve it around an imaginary wall of defenders. Ironically, one of the new skills I taught myself was Cristiano Ronaldo's “knuckleball”, a ball that does not spin, causing it to dance unpredictably as it approaches the net. My sister had always wanted to learn that one.
When the early days of collegiate soccer preseason arrived, I found a level of comfort in my new team. They were nothing but warm and accommodating to me. It was much a favor to me as it was to my sister. Coach expressed that the team felt as though they had lost a family member. She was, after all, their sister, too.
It was all too appropriate that it rained on the day of our first official game of the college soccer season. The droplets of water hid tears streaming down worn and broken faces.
We started ten girls at kickoff (one short of standard). There was a gap in the formation where my sister would have started if she had been there. We played a woman down until the first stoppage.
In the closing minutes of the match, I entered as a sub on a corner kick for our side. As I took what would have been my sister's spot closest the opposing goalkeeper, I felt a gloved hand wrap around my waist in a half hug from behind. The goalie leaned into my ear, her voice tinged with a sweet Savannah accent:
“We're all prayin' for you, darlin'.”
At the present, there are just two items in my college apartment that are directly tied to my sister: the sweatshirt she had bought for me just before she died and a framed image of us playing soccer in Surat (one of the largest cities in Gujarat).
The sweatshirt sits in the back of my closet. I've never worn it.
The picture hangs above my bed, the first thing I see every morning when I wake up.
In gold-leaf letters near the bottom are two words:
I love you, bahena.