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By Kelly Bryant
On Halloween night 1991, my 17-year-old sister Misty was shot and killed by a neighbor at a Halloween party in an apartment house in Clarksville, TN.
I was 15 years old and freshman in high school at the time it happened. Trauma has a crazy effect on your sense of time and when I look back on it, it seems like a montage of terrible memories.
My first memory of that night was my parents gathered around the passenger’s side of her friend’s car. They told her to be careful, call the next morning and have a safe trip.
As a family, we watched her drive away before we walked back into the house. At 3 am, I woke up to my mom violently shaking me saying, “Wake up, wake up!! Misty has been killed!!” I jumped out of bed and ran across the hall to her room, thinking I would find her sitting there wondering what all the fuss was about.
Before I could get there, I saw 3 police officers standing in our front doorway. By the look on their faces, I knew that it was true. My dad was on the phone with the Clarksville sheriff as my mom and I sat in the kitchen staring at him waiting for some reaction. He simply looked at us, made a gun with his fingers, pointed it to his head and pulled the imaginary trigger.
That night, my family huddled around the TV watching the local news to get a glimpse of the scene. We were greeting to footage of the gurney carrying the white sheet covered body of my big sister down the stairs. The reporter said her name out loud and her picture flashed across the screen.
My whole family gasped as we finally got a picture of the man who had suddenly changed our lives forever. Walking down the hall in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, he was terrifying. He looked like Jesus Christ with the same long hair, beard and weepy eyes. Only there was evil behind his that could not be denied.
Reporters called daily and countless friends stopped by but I remember very little of all this. The fog stayed with me for years after.
The rest of my high-school experience revolved around this incident. I became a parent to my parents as they were paralyzed by their grief. My whole family turned to drinking to heal the pain and I spent school nights helping my mom through throwing up or out on the streets looking for my brother after he took the car during a binge. By the time my parents discovered he was gone, they were too drunk to drive and it was left to me to find him.
Whenever I was introduced to someone new, it was only a matter of steps when I walked away before I could see them huddling speaking in low voices. “Her sister was murdered.”
Countless adults called me Misty. My comings and goings went unnoticed by my parents. It is not spoken about often, but siblings of children who die spend the rest of their lives fighting for their parents' attention when, understandably, all their time and grief is given to the victim child.
The trial for her murder was in August of 1993 right before my junior year in high school. Class registration, an event normally attended by teens and their parents, was solo for me since the trial had started the day before.
I sat in the hallway of the school, blank check in hand, dazed at what was going on. I looked at the other students going about their business and wondering to myself if they had any idea I had driven an hour to Nashville because my parents were sitting in a courtroom at my sister’s murder trial. The man who shot her was convicted and sent to prison, only to commit suicide in 1997 after hanging himself with his bed sheet.
Twenty-one years later, my life has moved on but not my family's. Our family died when she did.
We don’t celebrate holidays; mom had a stroke in 1998 that left her disabled and unable to speak. Dad retired to take care of her full time. I had a son in 2000 but he rarely has contact with my parents. They love him to the best of their ability but they have a hard time getting attached to anyone.
Every time I see them I am reminded some way by them of the sister that is gone. On her birthday every year, I get a phone call to remind me, but then a month later on my birthday, the phone is silent. Most of the time spent with my 50-year-old brother is trying to understand why this happened to her while we survived.
I have moved through all the stages of grief numerous times and will do so for the rest of my life. My grief is for so much more than my sister. It is for my innocence, my family, and my guilt for moving on without her.
I had to come to terms with the fact that the last moments of my beloved sister’s life were filled with absolute terror.
She will never know me as an adult. To her, I am that same bookish, quiet 15-year-old who was just learning to drive.
For 21 years, I have carried to burden of being the child who lived. Simple questions such as, “How many siblings do you have?” makes my heart ache. Do I mention her? I am not afraid to talk about her but I find that people have a difficult time with the story. Some who grew up here in Nashville remember it. Those who did not live here at the time are horrified by it.
As her sister, I see it as my job to remember her as the pretty, funny, kooky, carefree teenager she was instead of another victim of a violent shooting.
Our incident was before the days of Internet news and CNN. Every time I see yet another random shooting, my heart breaks for these families who are bombarded by people all over the world in their time of grief. When I look up my sister’s case, only a few court documents and a small copy of a newspaper article exist.
There are times when I beg friends and family to share any pictures to film of her. I constantly crave a new memory of her to erase the trauma that has tattooed itself in my mind.
A few months ago, my parents and I realized that there is not a single picture of me, my brother, my sister and parents in existence and there never will be. My dad said at the time it never occurred to them. “We always thought that another chance would come.”
In 1991, my sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2013, my family is still reeling and I pray every night for her to visit me in my dreams. Sometimes she does and I hold on tight to her until the next morning. By the time I get in the shower, she is gone again.