A Writer Writes

    The Things She Left Behind

    by Jamy Bond

    January 2002
    MY 2002 BEGINS NOT WITH RESOLUTIONS, but with the division of my dead sister’s things.
         My family makes a pile in the living room: stone-carved statues from Zimbabwe, straw-threaded wallets from Tanzania, tie-dyed Kabbas from Ghana, paint-splattered batiks from Mozambique. Shelby was only 25 when she died, but the pile is so vast, so filled with valuable worldly goods, that it rivals the possessions many of us will acquire in a lifetime. We flip a coin. Heads. I go first. I take a round, stone statue: two female faces pressed together, wide noses and broad, bold foreheads. My mother chooses something. My father. My older sister. And so on. It takes three hours. The minutes extend like the long, brave years she spent in Mozambique. A dream. A destiny. “I want to be a pioneer,” she told me once. And then she was off, traipsing that sun-scorched land like it was all her own.

    Shelby was a Peace Corps Volunteer. She traveled from village to village, teaching young people about safe sex in a country where one in five are HIV positive. She lived at a boarding school in Namaacha, a dirt village on the border with Swaziland. I visited there just two months before her death. I remember a swirl of clay-red dirt kicked into the air by cars and scattering feet, sprayed onto everything white, including the smiles of her students. Her room was small and lightless, with dingy walls covered in a creeping green mold. “Nice,” my mother said as we stood there, our arms clasped, our breath held. Students swarmed around her, their white uniforms neatly pressed, but already stained with rust-colored splashes of dirt. My sister cared nothing about the grit, the smells, the discomfort; she wanted us to see her work, the dusty classrooms where she taught, the posters she designed, the school’s play.

My older sister’s turn: She takes the blue shoulder satchel Shelby carried with her the night she died. Inside we find South African currency, cherry-red lip-gloss, a notebook with a long list of “things to do.”
     My father’s turn: he takes letters and postcards he has sent to her throughout the years, neatly stacked and tied together by a small blue ribbon.
     My mother’s turn: she takes a batik — a waxy cloth stained in pastels. Three female figures carry overflowing water jugs on their heads; they are dark silhouettes against the glow of a yellow moon. It makes me think of Shelby, always in motion, the burden of her convictions carried with such grace, such sturdy movement, such power.
     My turn: I take a marbled box I once gave her. I take her hairbrush, still packed with sugar-scented blond hairs, a silver locket, a leather bound journal, a wooden flower vase, a pair of hair clips. And it makes me sad that we are dividing her things, splitting her down the middle, into quarters, spreading her around: here’s my pile of Shelby, there’s yours. But then I see all the pictures. So many pictures. Image after image of her kind green eyes in a sea of young, black faces. And, suddenly, in death as in life, she is enormous again, spilling over, carving a shape all her own, on the move, as always.

    Her boyfriend tells us that on Christmas Eve she dreamed it would happen. A premonition she almost listened to. But she wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends in Cape Town where she could lounge on a silver beach, and sip cherry wine at vineyards along the coast.
         On the way there, sometime after dark, a tire blows, the driver falls asleep, something happens, and in an instant the car is rolling, turning once, twice, three times, continuing on a path all its own until finally, after eight rolls, it stops, and my baby sister is dead. And it’s not how she might have looked there, broken and bleeding, that I think about most, it’s the dream. Why didn’t she listen? Why didn’t she know to stop? But that’s not who my sister was, I know. I can say with honesty, with envy, with love and regret that she was unstoppable.

I take my favorite picture from the pile: Shelby in the home of a Mozambican family. Mother and father are sitting side-by-side, their baby on its father’s lap, and Shelby stands behind them, leaning in, her arms wide open. On the baby’s shirt is a pink balloon that says, in English, Happy 2000. And I love this photo because it’s so genuine and everyone is smiling a truly happy smile. And when l can bring myself to hold it up and get a glimpse of my sister’s sun-blistered, angelic face, I am overcome with admiration for my little pioneer and the remarkable work she’s done for AIDS education. In a time when our country has all of its energy focused on one enormous, terrorist-inspired tragedy, I think about all the Volunteers out there who were focused on tragedy well before September 11th. The ones already in the trenches, so to speak, helping others, dedicated to the thousands of tragedies around the world that didn’t end when the towers came down.

    In one of the last moments I spent with my sister she told me that she loved Mozambique so much that she might never come home. And I saw in her face then such bravery, such raw emotion, such honest love. And I know now that even in death, even as she slipped from her own dead body and hovered above it, limp on the side of a South African road somewhere that my sister didn’t stop. I see her simply turn away, watch her body become smaller and smaller below, as she transforms herself into wings that cut the air, and fly further and further away.     

 

    SHELBY BOND WAS BORN in Dallas, Texas on February 16, 1976. A natural leader and 1994 graduate of Countryside High School in Clearwater, Florida, she was Homecoming Princess and active on the debate team, cheerleading, in student government and in many other activities.
         Shelby attended Stetson University in Deland, Florida for two years. There she was a political science major, secretary for student government, an Alpha Chi Omega sorority sister and was honored to study at the United Nations in New York as a representative for Stetson University.
         She then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she continued her major in political science and minored in African studies. She did further travel abroad as a student in Ghana, West Africa at the University of Accra. Shelby graduated from University of North Carolina with highest honors and distinctions in 1998.
         Shelby’s dream was to serve in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Being the pioneer that she was, she was among the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to open up an English education program in Mozambique in October 1998. She grew to love the country and its people so much that she extended her service there for a third year to work for Population Services International (PSI) as an AIDs educator at schools throughout Mozambique. Her plans were to return to the United States in April of 2002 to obtain a graduate degree in public health and further her service to others.
         Shelby died on December 28, 2001 in Richland, South Africa. She had recently completed service as a PCV in Maputo, Mozambique.

    Jamy Bond can be contacted at bondjamy@earthlink.net