I’m sitting here listening to Jose Gonzalez and drinking a beer and trying to remember the last time I heard my sister laugh.
Life has been one challenge after another for Amy. There have not been a lot of laughs in recent years.
She battled health and emotional issues for 20 years, and after a brief bout with pneumonia and septicemia, Amy Suzanne Wishnie died today at the age of 36, surrounded by her family.
She was born on April 24, 1975 in San Francisco, Calif., to Judith Abel and Dennis Wishnie, three years after my older sister, Lauren. She wore pigtails. She danced to Singing in the Rain. My father, Mitch – Amy’s stepfather – can’t stop talking about her freckles and her eyes, her huge eyes. He says he can remember the first time he saw her, those massive eyes staring up, looking like a Walter Keane painting.
She was a vibrant little girl, a ham. She and Lauren put on shows after dinner for the family. And she was smart. Man, was she smart. Impossible to beat in Scrabble. When I finally did, I thought I’d toppled Stalin.
Twenty years ago – it will be exactly 20 years in five days – she was involved in a car accident with two of her high school friends, returning from a Junior Statesmen of America conference. There was a car parked in the fast lane of the 101 freeway near Menlo Park. The driver saw it too late, veered to the right and was clipped. The car rolled across the freeway, crashing on its hood. Amy was in the backseat. The two girls in the front seat walked away mostly unscathed. They needed the Jaws of Life to take Amy out of the car, and more than 30 minutes. Amy was left paralyzed, her T-1 vertebra crushed.
She was 16.
After 39 hours of surgery, they tried to put her back together again. They did their best. But she could not walk. No sensation below the waist. Shackled to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. They made sure she learned how to move in her wheelchair, how to go forward and how to stop. They taught her how to drive a car with only hand controls. They taught her how to become self-sufficient without the use of her legs.
Only you could not harness Amy, you could not hold down that stubborn will. Her physical therapists tried to convey to her that to dream of walking was like dreaming of flying, forever out of reach. That did not register. The chief of staff at her rehab center tried to make it clear, as some doctors do, “I have been doing this for over 30 years. You’re going to have to accept the fact that you have a one-in-a-million chance of ever walking.”
“She looked up from her wheelchair,” my father, Mitch, her stepfather, recalled, “And said, ‘One-in-a-million is a statistic. I won’t believe that statistic. I’ll get into Stanford and I’ll walk again.”
Easy to tell which one was more realistic. She was a 4.6-GPA student at the prestigious Lick-Wilmerding School in San Francisco. She was headed to Stanford.
And she would walk again.
With the aid of one crutch and leg braces, she was up and out of her chair. She never looked so alive as she did when she would walk down the street, knowing she had the strength to do what 99 percent of us could not. One day she told my father that she was glad she was the one who got in an accident, and not Lauren, because she knew she had the strength to handle it.
And she did, for as long as she could. The recent years have been a struggle, a gradual – and sometimes rapid – physical and mental deterioration that ultimately overwhelmed her. She accomplished some remarkable feats – transferring to and graduating from UC Berkeley, living on her own, working on San Francisco mayor, and eventual Lt. Governor of California, Gavin Newsom’s speech-writing team – but her body just could not handle it, and at times, neither could her spirit. Our relationship was fractured for a long time, but I had only recently told my mother that I wanted to reconnect.
Instead, I’m sitting here, trying to think of the last time I heard her laugh. I’m picturing her running on the beach, in those pigtails. The waves splashing at her legs, the hot sand tingling her feet. I’m picturing her through my father’s eyes, as he does, twirling around with her big sister Lauren, holding umbrellas and dancing and singing along to Singing in the Rain. I’m picturing her laying in my mother’s arms, my mom stroking her hair and calming her to sleep.
For 20 years, that’s what my mom did best. Through emergency after emergency, catastrophe after catastrophe, my mom was there for Amy, in ways simply incomprehensible to me. I imagine it is easy for a parent to pour heart and soul into a child when their hopes and dreams for them are real, tangible things. The sound of my mom’s voice when I call her to tell her about a big story or a cool radio interview, the pure pride that just oozes out of her, that’s one thing. The sound of my mom talking about my niece and nephew – her absolute joys – it just radiates, so utterly proud of my sister and what she’s created.
A long time ago, my mom came to the realization that such accomplishments just weren’t in the cards for Amy. She did some remarkable things, but the fight just became too hard. One complication after another, one setback after the next. For my mom to maintain that love, to always be there to stroke her hair and soothe her, is quite simply the strongest act I’ve ever seen someone accomplish.
I’m a sportswriter. I see acts of strength almost on a daily basis, of will and of want and of overcoming obstacles. That’s nothing. Nothing. Listen to a mother calm down a grown woman in constant pain, and do so day after day, and then you’ll know strength.
It was – and remains – a love that cannot be captured in words. For the most part, I make it easy on my mom. I may call for a few bucks every (often) so (often) often, but that’s about it. Amy’s recent years were filled with a lot of heartache, but my mom persevered because of that love.
Ultimately, the most loving act my mother could do was let Amy go.
It was not easy. Our late-night phone calls the last few nights have felt like someone taking a hacksaw to my soul, just hearing the pain in my mom’s voice. She knew it was coming. It would’ve been cruel to hold on too long.
My mom, Lauren and Amy’s father, Dennis, made their peace on a Saturday afternoon. Thirty minutes after being taken off life support, at roughly 5:13 p.m. on March 3, at the age of 36, Amy Suzanne Wishnie passed away.
My mom remained remarkably strong through it all, comforted by one last thing.
The last thing that my mom heard from my sister Amy, on the phone Sunday night, summed up the 20-year struggle.
“Mommy, your voice is so comforting. Can you stay on just a little longer…”
I hope you’re not in pain any more, Amy.
I love you.