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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sally Jo, Questions Without Answers...

It fit my mood, an overcast morning forecasted to deteriorate into heavy rain with flash flooding. Bobbie and I ease into Greenwood Cemetery and park near the office. I crack my window and gaze at endless rows of headstones and monuments. They rise from a struggling lawn, caught in the seasonal purgatory between winter and summer—life and death. The veil of thieving clouds hijacks color, contrast, an shadow, lending a dismal pall to a long overdue occasion. 

Noting darkening skies to the west, I lament the no-deal Lucile on an overpriced umbrella I briefly fondled in Fountain Hill's Safeway, which, of course, virtually assures a soaking downpour. Thus, Bobbie and I play tug-of-war with wadded up rain jackets buried in backpacks. They are wrinkled beyond belief, and a tad fetid from innumerable sweaty outings. 

I dutifully limp into the office and tell a kindly middle-age lady that I was here to visit my sister's gravesite. I show her previously acquired coordinates: 

Section 45
Block 56
Lot 1
Space 6   

Just as she calls a golf cart diver to guide us to the grave, I interject that I'm waiting for my brother and sister-in-law to arrive. 
Let me know when they're here, she says, somewhat perturbed. 

I return to the car, not really knowing what to expect from doing this. Some sort of closure? Relief? Answers? I feel anxiety rising and a knot forming in my chest. I feared it could be a tearful event, and I'm not very good at shutting down the "waterworks" once they get started.   

A few minutes later my brother, Dan, and sister-in-law, Elaine pull in beside us. They are in Phoenix to visit Elaine's brother, Vern, to attend a couple of fancy functions with him and his wife, Connie. However unlikely, my brother's rather spontaneous trip causes our paths to intersect in Phoenix at the same time Bobbie and I are making our way homeward from Tucson. I'm somewhat dubious when Dan suggests we should use this as an opportunity to implement the plan that has been under discussion for a few years: to find where Sally Jo is buried, and pay our respects. 

To this end, I had previously spent considerable effort online, researching obituaries in both The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette newspapers. I could find no record of neither the date nor the manner of Sally Jo's death, nor where she was buried. Her death had been ruled a suicide.

 57 years has elapsed since Sally Jo's death, thus neither Dan nor I could remember for sure where she was laid to rest. Dan, however, did recall the approximate location (southwestern Phoenix). I used Google Maps to narrow it down to Greenwood Cemetery. A phone call confirmed Sally Jo was indeed buried there.   

As we stood around the gravestone, Elaine mentioned the date of birth and death. 
She was only 22 years old.
I thought she was older. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Oh my God. 22 years old...

That would have made me 13 years old, an adolescent teen, fully unprepared for a lesson in death...especially your beloved sister, by suicide, and so untimely. 

I remember my Dad, standing in our living room crying out and cursing God. Mom grieved the loss of Sally Jo for years and years, feeling that God had let our family down, particularly after all the dedicated work they did for Him...being missionaries, giving large sums of money in the form of tithe and helping the down-and-out. 

Dad and Mom, standing if front of a church they built on the (then) Pima Indian Reservation

Mom had a big heart and great love for Reservation children
The days and weeks after Sally Jo's death became blur for me. I struggled to stay strong as cracks formed in the foundation of our family and the religion upon which Dad and Mom had dedicated their lives. 

All through our rush to the hospital, the doctors bloody gown and the verdict that they couldn't save Sally Jo...that she died on the ER table, the conversation with a Sheriff about what they found, Mom wailing with grief, Dad cursing God, the interminable three day wake, repeated viewings of Sally Jo's body...I never shed a tear. It felt like I was the only glue left, that somehow It was up to me to hold our devastated family together. I feared what might happen to "us" in the wake of this terrible tragedy.

A few weeks after burial we went back to see the bronze memorial that had been placed. It is my memory that this part of the cemetery only allowed flat grave markers.

We stood around Sally Jo's grave, wondering why she chose to shoot herself in the abdomen instead of someplace more instant and lethal...final. Did she really mean to kill herself, or was it a cry for help gone terribly wrong?

We talked about the suicide note, which I never was allowed to see. Dan and Elaine thought that perhaps there was more to the "story," than "suicide."  In hindsight, it seemed like a rushed resolution for authorities to make when, in reality, it might have been something else. I remember that something had happened at Sally Jo's job...that the wife of the owner accused her of having a relationship with her husband... something that was denied in the suicide note as I later recalled from eavesdropping on private conversations between Mom and Dad.  

For certain, there was turmoil in Sally Jo's brief young life. She was rebellious...began to hang with a crowd that didn't sit well with her puritanical "spare the rod, spoil the child" parents. I wondered out loud if Mom and Dad's heads were buried so deep in their religion that they couldn't see what was happening right in front of them...the warning signs? I recall some of those tensions spilling over into our living room and outside patio...verbal exchanges that increased in frequency and intensity as Sally Jo drifted farther and farther from the religious precepts she was raised to adhere to. 

What torment caused her to get divorced and disappear for almost a year, leaving behind a beautiful 9 month old baby boy, Craig? Did guilt from that play a roll in her depression and suicide?

We talked about what kind of life she might have lived, what she would be like if she was still alive today, gathering with us at family reunions? Would she have had more children? What would she look like? 

In the end, I would really like to know what role her strict religious upbringing (where almost everything was a damnable sin) might have played in her unhappiness, and the drastic decision to take her own life?

It was my anxious fear that this day would unleash a flash flood of all the tears I've never shed over Sally Jo's untimely death. But it didn't happen. Questions with no answers. It left me as hollow as ever regarding my sister...the sister that took me on horseback rides and campouts on South Mountain, the one I curled up in bed with to watch old movies, tolerating her cigarette smoke for the attention she gave a pesky little brother 8 years her junior.     

Hollow. Empty. Now sheltering in place. When I reflect on our ailing world, one where most of the population lives in squaller, suffers poverty, disease, and now must add to that burden a highly contagious rogue virus, well, I don't know what to make of a theistic world. I'm beginning to think that if indeed there is a God, He's far more vindictive than merciful.

Less than a year before she was gone...


  1. Mark. Such a heart rending story for a gray day here as well. The guy with the white beard never did much for me either, angry and vindictive. And I was raised as you and your sister were raised. Even the gentleness of Jesus never wooed me. I made it through those early hard years. I am so sorry your sister did not. No answers ever, but sharing your story allowed me to open floodgates of tears for so many things that are happening to all of us.

  2. This is a beautiful piece of writing. It's so heartfelt and heartbreaking. I feel your pain.

  3. Mark, words escape me. Just feelings of empathy. I lost my older sister as well. She was 25. You never get over it. The memories soften and a few of the happy ones take on such meaning! You just never know. Take good care, -Maureen

    1. Very true, no one gets over it. My ex brother-in-law hung himself about 15 yrs ago and I still ask myself lots of questions about it, wonderful career, beautiful mansion, lovely family and son, much to look forward to in his very nearing retirement . . . brought up Catholic, nuns as teachers which he'd recall with anger, rumors he was not at ease with coming out as gay or bi . . . hiding a secret life in guilt . . . everyone who knew him loved him, no one would care about his sexuality, both his parents were dead and gone! Sometimes we're our own worse enemy being so hard on ourselves. Very sad. Your last photo is fitting for your post too. Rest in peace Sally Jo.

  4. Cracking all the way open. Thank you for sharing something sensitive and provocative. "Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why" ..... Vonnnegut

  5. I’m so sad for what you experienced as the little brother of a beloved sister who departed this world too early, leaving no explanation for you ... or at least none that you ever got to hear. I lost my father to suicide as well. He left us in 1966 at the age of 36, leaving behind eight children between the ages of 16 (me) and six months (my sister) ... and six brothers in between. Who knows what the mindset is when pain supersedes all other reasoning. The loss of your sister is a story without an ending, a painful one from which you’ve obviously never recovered. Just know that there are many of us out here with similar stories. But does that help? Not really. But I hope that knowing others can sympathize and do care does.

  6. Touching tribute to your sister that many can use for reflection.

  7. Thanks for writing that Mark. You captured something about family life for many of us I think. Chris

  8. Thanks for sharing the rest of Sally Jo's story. So sad that her life was cut short and you will never really know why.

  9. Peace be with you.

  10. Thanks for sharing this story. It must be so difficult, especially given how young you were.


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