Essay by Andrea Scarpino
“Do you know the next person who’s going to die?” Zoe asked. She was seven. We were sitting in a restaurant waiting for our dinner and she had been playing a game on my friend’s phone.
“Who?” I replied.
“Gracie.” Her big sister. Seventeen years old. She had been in and out of hospitals all summer with suicidal thoughts, cutting, alcohol abuse, drugs. I turned in my seat.
“Oh no, Zoe, Gracie’s going to a really good school now that will help her get better.” I tried for words a seven-year-old would understand—words that made more sense than residential treatment center, intense family-centered therapy, medication. I tried, “not a hospital.” I tried “she’ll be taking classes with other girls.”
Zoe shrugged, went back to playing her game.
Less than two months later, her mother called me on the phone. “Gracie’s been in an accident,” she said.
“Is she okay?”
“No. I don’t know.”
Days later, Gracie died.
I’m not a person prone to believe in things like prophecy, that Zoe knew something the rest of us didn’t. Gracie didn’t die of drug overdose or suicide. She was on a treatment center sponsored fieldtrip. The driver of the SUV in which she was a passenger lost control. The SUV rolled over twice. One girl was killed instantly, died while still buckled in her seat. Gracie was thrown through a window, suffered incredible brain damage. No one could have predicted this. Still, the fact remains: in Zoe’s world, Gracie was the next to die.
Maybe someone else would give explanatory power to God, intuition, the unconscious mind. Maybe in another time, we’d point to the underworld, to witchcraft, the infighting of gods. Here’s what I think: Zoe’s grandmother had died of cancer the year before, was in and out of hospitals just like Gracie had been. Zoe visited both of them—different hospitals, of course, different situations. But similar enough for Zoe to associate hospital visits with dying, with death. Here’s what I think: coincidence.
Here’s what I think: no one would want to give Zoe the power to foretell her sister’s death. It was a random accident. But randomness isn’t an idea we tolerate; we want reasons, we want tragedy to make sense. And of course, reasons exist, a trail that can be traced—at least spottily—from Gracie’s birth to her death. Reasons for her experimentation with alcohol and drugs (learning disabilities, self-medicating, depression), reasons for her cutting. Reasons her life felt unmanageable that summer. Reasons the first hospitals didn’t help. Reasons her parents chose the treatment center they did. Reasons the SUV turned over the way it did.
But that trail doesn’t provide comfort. It’s just a list. Here’s what I think: there is no comfort to be found. Not really. Random tragedy just exists. In the world of cliché, Gracie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When nothing else makes sense, doesn’t that provide just as much explanation? Wrong car, wrong seat in the car.
In a month, it will be the one-year anniversary—what a terrible word—of Gracie’s death. When I saw Zoe this Labor Day weekend, she mentioned that she had thought Gracie was going to die long before she did. “I was expecting it for a year,” she said.
I’m not sure I believe that exactly, but I do believe Zoe was tuned in to Gracie’s struggles that last year of her life, even if not consciously. I do believe she’s also searching for some explanation, for some comfort through explanation. Maybe for Zoe, remembering as prediction her fear about Gracie’s struggles helps put some order onto randomness. Maybe if Zoe expected Gracie to die, then her death doesn’t seem so terrifying.
Here is what I believe: Gracie died in a random tragedy that no one could have predicted. Here is what I believe: in a world of chaos, there is no comfort to be had in that randomness, in that fact. There is no comfort in explanation. The SUV rolled over. Gracie was thrown. And in the broken shards of that accident, the rest of us still stand. Trying to gather the pieces.
Andrea Scarpino is a poet and essayist and a frequent contributor to POTB. You can visit her at"