(Drum roll, please)
Back of the Book
Before my older sister Francesca died, I worked at the bakery and wrote songs, but now I write lists. Lists like ten reasons why it's my fault Francesca's dead, or five reasons why I should try and win Howie back, or one reason why I need to stop lying to everyone, including myself.
Wish I Could Have Said Goodbye is an extraordinary novel about one family's struggle to make sense of their world after losing a family member to addiction. Through sixteen-year-old Carmella's eyes, we witness the courage and strength it takes to overcome the consequences of grief, guilt and co-dependency. With conviction and determination, Carmella shows us what can happen when we're open to love, feel the pain of our loss, and find the courage to accept the truth of our lives.
I hug Francesca’s purse tight against my chest and rest my head against the corner of my closet. This is me since my big sister died four weeks ago. Francesca was six years older than me, and at twenty-three she became one of those people you read about in the tabloids, only she wasn’t an actor in Hollywood. She was my big sister who accidentally overdosed at her own party and now she’s not here to help me get over the fact I let her down, or to give me one reason why I should keep on living since my universe exploded and turned to dust.
I close my eyes and make a list, the kind Francesca and I would make when the lights were out and we were supposed to be sleeping.
Why I should live the rest of my life in my closet
1. I don’t have to talk to anyone.
2. I don’t have to listen to Mom and Dad fight.
3. I don’t have to face the rest of my life without my big sister.
Francesca and I had a pact to keep the lists just between us and we swore each other to secrecy before we made our first one. When Francesca went to college and was home for a break or a visit, we didn’t make many lists. And then when she graduated, the lists stopped. I forgot about the lists until I found one in her purse the night she died. It was her Monday to do list.
“Carmella?” My mother taps on the door. “Could you—?”
I slide the closet door open and squint up at my mother.
“We need you to come out. Your father’s got his coat on. He’s waiting.”
“I’m not going.”
“Carmella, don’t do this.” She pushes up the sleeves of her burnt orange pullover and folds her arms in front of her. “We need you.”
I want to tell Mom I can’t reduce my big sister’s life to twelve boxes and stuff them underneath the steps of my parents’ basement. But I won’t say what I’m thinking. I don’t want to make things worse for her and Dad.
My mother’s eyes are a million miles away. They’ve been like that ever since we got the news. “I know this is hard, Carmella, but Father Carlucci says packing up her things and moving her out of the apartment will help us start to heal.”
“What if I don’t want to move her things out of there? I want everything to stay the same.”
“Please, I don’t have the energy to fight.” Mom’s hair is tucked behind her ears, all messy, and her make up is rubbed off of her puffy eyes.
“Fine.” I set Francesca’s purse down on top of my red Converse shoes and drag myself towards the steps.
When I get into the kitchen, Mom hands me my coat.
My father’s pacing in front of the sink, crunching on corn chips. The veins in the side of his head pop out while he chews.
Mom grabs her purse from the scratched up kitchen table they always keep talking about replacing, but never do. “The owners from Lincoln Distributors sent flowers to the office Friday. How did they find out?” she asks.
My father stops in front of the door and rubs his forehead with his left hand. “I don’t know. Obviously, someone at the office told them. We never should have let the truth get past the family.”
“What are you talking about?” Mom squeezes the strap of her black leather purse tight.
“Yesterday, Mary at Davenport Motor Works asked what happened to Francesca. I told her she died of a fatal arrhythmia. From here on in, if anyone asks, that’s the story. And when you go back to school, you tell everyone the same thing.” He points to me.
“But most of them know what happened.” I zip my jacket.
“Not all of them. Tell Anna and your other friends to keep quiet too.”
Dad doesn’t know I haven’t spoken to anyone but Anna in the last year. My only friends lately were Francesca and Donny. Mom and Dad don’t know much about me at all now. When Francesca started having problems in middle school, it's like I disappeared.
“You lied? You told a customer our daughter died from a fatal heart condition?” Mom swipes her hair behind her ear.
“Gina, our daughter died at a party where kids were doing drugs. People see that as a reflection on us. Since my father passed away and I took over the business two years ago, I’ve been working my ass off. I don’t want anything to jeopardize our reputation and I don’t want all my hard work to go to hell.”
My mother’s eyes glass over, her face drops like all her muscles turned into water and poured out. “Joe, this is our daughter. How can you talk like this? People will understand. It was an accident.”
“This type of shit only happens to kids who are on drugs. Francesca was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all. If she didn’t move in with that asshole Donny, she’d be alive right now.” My father stabs his finger in the air.
“I don’t believe this. So when I talk to people at work, I’m supposed to lie about how my daughter died?” My mother’s eyes glass over.
“Say it was a heart thing and you don’t want to talk about it. People won’t push. And that goes for you too.” My dad plucks his keys out of his coat pocket. “Let’s go.”
The three of us head up the creaky steps to Donny and Francesca’s third floor apartment. We had to walk two blocks struggling to hold onto the flattened boxes and packing tape. Parking on city streets is always a pain, especially on Saturdays when everyone is home from work. Most people work Monday through Friday in this neighborhood, except for Francesca and Donny.
Donny works weekends at the bar down the street. That’s how they got this apartment. A year ago, Donny met a guy who was transferred to China for a four-year assignment and needed to rent out his top floor condo in a cool brownstone building. Francesca was so excited; she thought they got lucky. The place was only a few blocks from the famous Second City Theatre in Chicago. Francesca thought she was going to move in here and get her life back on track.
Francesca worked at different restaurants for a while, but last summer she didn’t work at all. Around middle of August, she stopped returning my calls. When she finally called me back it was the first week in September to ask me to go to an AA meeting with her. It was a week before she died and the last time I ever heard her voice.
Dad sets his stack of boxes down and knocks. Mom starts to cry. She pulls a tissue out of her purse. She hands one to me, but I’m not gonna cry. I’m gonna be strong for Mom and Dad because that’s what families do for each other.
Donny opens the door and we get a whiff of rotten food like moldy cheese. We haven’t seen him since the funeral.
“Hi,” Donny says. He combs his messy dishwater blond hair with his fingers, like he just woke up. His green T-shirt is all wrinkled.
“C’mon in.” He steps back and holds out his hand. “Hey, sis.” He smiles.
“Hi.” I almost walk towards the kitchen, but I stop myself. Francesca loved to cook. I kept her company in the kitchen while she made stuff. They were always broke, so she cooked a lot of pasta.
Everywhere I look I see Francesca. Like her favorite fake painting of a sunrise on the beach she bought from a guy on the street for ten bucks when she first moved in with Donny. Francesca and I dreamed of living near the ocean, where the air is always warm and people are more relaxed. She was sure the painting meant good luck for her. I run my finger along the tacky gold frame.
“We were supposed to be awesome career women, get married, have kids and live next door to each other, two blocks from the beach,” I whisper. “That was our plan.”
I remember thinking how much I liked Donny and was so happy for Francesca. We were both sure her life was going to finally get better.
Donny leads us into the bedroom.
He points to the closet. “I boxed up her shoes, just the hanging stuff needs to be done.”
I think I might puke. I push past my parents, who are stiff like statues. I run straight to the bathroom where Francesca and I hung out when we wanted to talk in secret. I close and lock the door, taking my usual seat on the side of the tub, staring at the toilet where Francesca parked her foot as she blew cigarette smoke out the tiny frosted paned window. I rock back and forth and howl into my sleeve.
I bend down and run my fingers across the tiny tiles on the floor. I imagine her lying here, taking her last breaths, all alone. I grab my chest. I wish she hadn’t died in here alone. I wish I could have been with her, to hold her hand or to hug her. I wish I could have said goodbye.
“Carmella.” My mother knocks on the door. “Are you okay?”
I stand up and turn the cold water on full blast. “I’m fine,” my voice cracks. I clear my throat. “I’ll be right out.”
I open the door, and I hear Dad shout. “How can you live with yourself? This is all your fault.”
“Don’t go blaming me. All I did was try and love her,” Donny stomps out of the apartment, the door slamming behind him.
I walk into the bedroom. My father is mumbling over the high-pitched scream of the packing tape as he seals the top of a box.
Mom sniffles as she takes Francesca’s clothes off the hangers, folds them and puts them carefully in the box on the floor next to her.
Dad stands in the middle of the room, staring at the dresser, the tape dispenser dangling from his right hand.
“Where’s Donny?” I ask.
Mom turns towards me. “He left. He shouldn’t be here.” She folds Francesca’s blue and white plaid shirt.
“Wait,” I say. “Can I have that one?”
Mom clutches the shirt. “This old thing? Why would you want this?”
Mom clutches the shirt. “This old thing? Why would you want this?”
“Because. It was her favorite.”
Mom passes me the shirt. “Okay.” She shakes her head.
Holding it up to my nose, I smell Francesca and for a tiny fraction of a second, I get her back.
I put the shirt down next to my purse on the bed. “What should I do?”
Dad hands me a small box. “Donny says there’s a few things out there.”
I take the box from him and walk into the kitchen, pretending she’ll be standing at the sink, excited to see me as usual, throwing her arms around me in one of her over-the-top hugs.
I turn my head. There’s a small magnet on the side of the fridge in the shape of an old potbelly stove with red letters that say “Francesca’s Kitchen” across the belly. Donny bought it for her and she loved the stupid thing. I shove the magnet into my pocket.
I stretch my red and white tiny-flowered comforter over my crossed legs and try not to look over at Francesca’s empty bed, still made up with the matching bedspread. My guitar sits in the stand and stares at me like an abandoned dog. I haven’t been able to go near it since we got the call. Francesca talked my parents into giving me the guitar for my eighth grade graduation, a gift from all three of them. It’s the same style of acoustic guitar John Lennon had. She knew I’d go ballistic over it. I used a black Sharpie marker to copy his famous character sketch, just like the one he had on the guitar he used during the Bed-In for Peace. My parents had a fit when they saw the drawing. They thought I’d ruined the guitar.
I tried to explain how much I admired John Lennon, how I want to be an artist who changes the world like he did. In the middle of my explanation, the phone rang. The office called with an emergency. We were supposed to finish talking later, but never did.
I was playing “Imagine” when my mother stormed through the door screaming that Francesca was dead. Then she fainted.
I glance over at Francesca’s empty bed and turn out the light. Staring at the moon outside my window, missing Francesca so bad I want to curl up and die, I wonder how Donny’s surviving.
I close my eyes. A replay of the day flashes through my head. I start to drift into the still black waters of the night.
Then I smell cigarette smoke.
I see Francesca in her bathroom, standing with her foot on the toilet, blowing smoke out the window, making fun of all our goofy distant relatives that were at her wake and funeral.
I’m sitting on the side of the tub, laughing.
Francesca smiles at me, taking a long drag from her cigarette. Then she tells me she’s okay.
My eyes fly open.
I sit up.
My heart jumps into my throat. I grab for the lamp and miss. My water glass falls onto the carpet. I reach for the lamp again and turn it on. I stare at the end of my bed. No Francesca. I fly out of bed. I blink, rub my sweaty forehead and look around the room. My legs shake as I crawl back into bed.
The cigarette smoke chokes me.
I scream but nothing comes out.