Your loved one has died. The shock wears off and there are arrangements to be made, people to call. And in between, you ask yourself if it’s real. Grief comes and makes himself comfortable in your life. And you quietly wonder if he’ll ever leave.
But what if there are no arrangements to be made and you never really get to say goodbye? Sometimes there is no closure. That complicates grief. And consequently, feels as if something is still unfinished. How do you move on when your loved one’s grave lies empty? Is it even possible?
I’ve told this story so often it‘s etched into my mind. September 12, 1982. My sister, Peggy, was missing from her Schaumburg home. Her husband said she walked out. We knew otherwise.
We had three very good reasons we never believed that story. Her three little boys. You don’t file for divorce and then take off. Not if you were my sister. She was a devoted mother. Her kids were everything to her.
Don’t get me wrong, she and her husband were married ten years and their marriage was a strong one, for a while. Until it wasn’t.
She reached out
I got a letter from her stating she was getting a divorce. She said I would be shocked and she was right.
I was one of the last people in my family to speak to her.
I picked up the phone to somehow span the 2000 miles between us. I didn’t mind that my husband was in the army, but being away from family was hard. After getting her letter, it felt impossible.
Peggy answered the phone.
“I can’t talk now, he’s harassing me again.”
I could hear him taunting her in the background. I hung up but didn’t put the phone down. Maybe we’d still be connected if I held onto it.
Grabbing my 3-year-old son, we ran down to a neighbor’s house.
I unloaded my concerns and Cindy listened. A short time later I was on my way back home. I was jittery and felt helpless.
Later, the phone rang again.
“Calling the police was easy, I wish I would have done it sooner,” she told me.
She talked for about ten minutes and then hung up so she wouldn’t run up her bill. That was my sister.
I called her back and said, “Now it’s my dime, talk.”
And she did. She recounted one story after another and none of them were good.
“Anne, he waits till the kids are asleep and then he starts in. One time he held a knife to my throat.”
I froze. Tears ran down my face. How do you respond to something like that? I sure didn’t know.
“I called Gus and he came right over,” she said. And I was glad to hear our brother had been there.
“He had a wooden axe handle with him, probably not sure what he would find.”
Since Peggy and Bob were going to be getting a divorce, in the meantime they had decided to try and make things stay as normal as possible. They rotated weekends with the kids. Whoever’s turn it was would be in the house with the kids. The other would be with a friend. On a weekend where Bob was in the home with the kids, he called Peggy at her friend’s and asked “You’re not thinking of coming home now, are you?”
“It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it,” she explained. “I had no choice, I had to go home, the kids were there. And when I noticed a pie on the counter in a pie plate that was not ours, well I lost it.”
“And Bob was in our bed with another woman. Our bed! Anne, I was so upset, I was yelling and I picked up that pie to throw it at him, when he said, “Don’t wreck that, she made it for me.”
Listening to my sister I wondered why she had kept all this to herself. We wrapped up our conversation like we usually did: “I love you,” I said.
“Love you too,” she replied. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
And we hung up.
A couple of days later I got another call. But this time it wasn’t Peggy.
Rita, my sister-in-law, said, “Did you hear? Peggy’s gone. No one knows where. Bob said she just walked out.”
A week or so later a news report was televised. A local news anchorman was at my sister’s house talking to Bob. Her boys were there, but Peggy was not.
My heart hurt.
I wish I could say that our story ended well. That one day Peggy got her divorce and moved on with her life. But that never happened.
More than two decades later, after a full review of the police report and a consultation with a private investigator, the status of my sister’s case was changed from “missing person” to “probable homicide,” and we were able to go to trial.
For ten grueling days, we sat in a courtroom listening to testimonies.
I was escorted to a back room to wait a few minutes for my turn to testify. I decided to pray. And moments later I started quietly singing. Sure, my body may have been sitting at 26th and California in Chicago, but in my mind, I was sitting on God’s lap, singing to him.
And when it was time for me to testify, I walked into that courtroom totally peaceful. I answered their questions, pointed to my brother-in-law when asked, and identified the pictures of my nephews and explained how I got the pictures. The pictures I would hold and look at for hours. The same pictures I handed over to the police, weeks before, watching as they drove off.
Take care of my pictures. It’s all I have left of Peggy.
And now the time was here. Time for the verdict. It wasn’t a jury trial as we had wanted. The judge was to make his decision based on the evidence. Evidence he kept throwing out.
Each time he dismissed a testimony our hearts sank. And now it was really time. The room was as quiet as a morgue.
“I find the defendant … not guilty.”
There were immediate cheers on the other side of the courtroom. Bob’s family members slapped him on the back and they all gave each other high fives.
My brain had trouble processing things right then.
Did he say, “not guilty”?
A policeman showed up at the end of our row to escort our family into the States Attorney’s office. We followed him. There were no words spoken. There was nothing left to be said.
Did he really say “not guilty”?
The same news reporters who had wanted to do a story about our family suddenly had nothing to say to us. When “not guilty,” was said, we became invisible. The pain was unbearable.
My brother Gus nearly collapsed in my brother George’s arms. Gus would be the one who would go to the police department if a body was found, to see if perhaps it was Peggy’s.
A month following the trial we had a memorial service. We all stood at her empty grave. It was over, and yet, it wasn’t.
We went through the motions. A church service, our time at the cemetery. All we lacked was our guest of honor.
Without a body, it never feels like closure.
Don’t get me wrong, we know she’s dead. Even the judge pronounced she was dead and probably as the result of a crime.
We just never got to do what most people get to do. We never laid her to rest.
I’m really fortunate. I know my sister knew God personally. I know one day I will see her again. But until that day, I miss her.
She was my only sister.