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Mother made the discovery one evening in Sylvia’s bedroom. Earlier, Sylvia had complained of a stomachache and had not been at dinner. After dinner, Mother went up to Sylvia’s room and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, Mother, expecting Sylvia to be asleep, entered the room, nearly fainted from shock from what she saw, and stumbled out of Sylvia’s bedroom and down the stairs to tell us all of this breathlessly, after crying out:
We weren’t sure what she meant, exactly. Sylvia certainly could not be dead – she was not sick, and we had all seen her only an hour ago. Maybe Mother wasn’t feeling well. But Father and I went upstairs to check on Sylvia, just in case something serious had in fact happened, while my younger sister Ava stayed behind to comfort Mother, who was now sobbing and unable to speak coherently.
My stomach twisted into knots of fear as I ascended the stairs two steps at a time. Had Sylvia been in a freak accident? Had a murderer climbed up a ladder into her room? But why would anyone want to kill her? Our family was not rich or important. I had no idea what had happened – or if anything had happened at all.
Father and I turned the corner at the top of the stairs. The door to Sylvia’s bedroom stood ajar, and I could see her feet dangling above the floor. I knew what had happened. I screamed as loudly as I could and ran back down the stairs to join Mother and Ava.
“Margaret, what did you see?” Ava asked nervously.
“Sylvia is dead! She hanged herself!”
“No…” Ava’s face turned white.
Mother, who had recovered a bit by now, put one arm around Ava and the other around me. In a few moments
, Father came downstairs again, looking shaken. He sat down beside us on the couch and covered his face with his hands. I don’t know how long we all sat there, wondering how this could have happened, and why, and if anything could have been done to stop it, and who was to blame for it. And I thought that maybe we deserved to be punished by this terrible thing because the trouble had been right under our noses all this time, and none of us had bothered to notice or care. It was only now that I considered the possibility that Sylvia had been acting strangely recently, but I had not done anything about it because I had always thought that my big sister didn’t need my help. But I was wrong, we were all wrong, and now Sylvia was dead, and she could not forgive us, no matter how sorry we were, how much we loathed ourselves: we had to confront the permanence of death and the permanence of regret.
The spring rains came early that year, but they could not wash away old sorrows. My brother Jacob surprised us with a visit a week after Sylvia’s death. He had a few days off from school and took a train home. He arrived on a wet, dreary day and seemed to sense immediately that something was wrong.
“It’s so quiet here,” he said. “Where’s Sylvia?”
It was Mother who told him, slowly, quietly.
When she was finished, he remained silent for a moment and then asked angrily, “Why didn’t anyone tell me before?” None of us answered him. He stared at us wordlessly and then left the house, slamming the door behind him. Through the window I watched him disappear into the grayness, leaving us in the silence interrupted only by the sound of the rain drumming heavily on the roof.