And if a double decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten-ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well the pleasure – the privilege is mine.
There is a light that never goes out.
- The Smiths, as sung by Morrissey
As Morrissey sang and danced back and forth on the stage, up ran a sprightly and quick woman, gladiolas in hand, pushing past the beast of a bodyguard. Morrissey grasped the flowers and nodded in appreciation as the woman was scooped up and whisked off stage, fist pumping in the air in excitement. I couldn’t believe my eyes – she was my idol!
My high school and college days were filled with these moments, the little sister to the coolest, most passionate, fearless woman around – Donna Kennealy. To say Donna had an influence on my life is a vast understatement; the music I love, my foodie lifestyle, the books I treasure and my mannerisms and sense of humor were all seeds Donna planted. She remains my best friend, for all of time.
In her essence, Donna was light. She has often been described as Peter Pan, full of childlike wonder for the world. She was eternally optimistic, and she absolutely treasured the smaller moments most people overlook. She lived life with verve and intention, committed to countless causes and ideals. She was a person many aspired to be, whether for the love of her personality or her beauty.
Yet, no matter how close we were, there was always something mysterious and elusive about Donna. Something you couldn’t quite hold onto. Ultimately, none of us could. On November 17th, 2008, she died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 31.
Now, I could stop here – leaving you with the beautiful sentiments about my sister and our relationship, and that sense of longing from a life cut short. All of that would be true – but it wouldn’t paint the whole picture. For to tell the story of my sister is also to let go of hidden truths, ones that are held so close to the vest that they almost disappear from reality. To tell the story of my sister is also to tell the story of addiction and family trauma.
The defining moments around her death give us a glimpse into the painful reality; the week before the car accident that killed her, Donna was in another severe accident where the car was totaled and paramedics were amazed she walked away unscathed. At the time, her blood alcohol level was off the charts. When I spoke with her the next day, she was indignant when I suggested the idea of giving it up. As family, the incident shocked us. Even those closest to her had no idea that she was struggling with addiction. Even with alcoholism rampant in our family – our dad among them –we never thought the girl who was straight edge throughout college would succumb.
In the short gap of time between the two accidents, my mother bought Donna – who had received a DUI from the first accident - another car. It was in that car that she hit a dump truck from behind and died several hours later in the hospital. I will never forget when the surgeon walked into our private waiting room, with my sister’s blood still on his shoes, saying the line nobody ever wants to hear: “I’m sorry, we did everything we could.”
As with all hidden truths, it wasn’t until another person cast a spotlight that I was able to see all of this for what it was. Some years after losing Donna, my sister Chrissy pointed out the obvious – that if our mother had not bought the car, Donna wouldn’t have been driving a vehicle the night of the accident. To say this is to simplify the situation, however, and to place blame on my mother. The true reality is that my mother’s trauma and mental illness was woven so tightly with my sister’s that it became indistinguishable, leading her to die too young.
When it came time to honor my sister and create a piece of jewelry representing this story of life and loss, it wasn’t easy. In fact, I dreamed of such a piece for years before I finally had the courage and sufficient healing to envision and create it. Such is the legacy of trauma. It took over a decade for me to embrace my story in all of its complexities and pain; when you love somebody as deeply as I love Donna, it feels almost like a betrayal to share the truth. What I now know, however, is that stories are for the living, and only through honest and open sharing can you truly heal. The truth and stories matter.
The ring I created in honor of Donna is one that speaks to beauty and pain. One of her favorite bands was The Smiths, and Morrissey her favorite musician. A treasured Smiths’ song of hers and mine is “There is a Light that Never Goes Out,” where Morrissey croons “If a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, the pleasure – the privilege is mine.” Pain is inherent to the human experience and a part of us may die alongside the death of those we love. In the end, however, it is still a privilege to know such a deep love, and there is beauty in that. This lyric and song title encircles the “Donna” ring, a daily reminder that these stories and these treasured loved ones are always with us, they make us who we are, and they are something to hold onto. For in those stories is the key to our freedom.
I’m so sorry, dear.
Thank you for sharing this personal tragedy. Many of us know the grief of losing a loved one. Your story is beautiful. May God bless you and Donna.
All my love,
Thank you for sharing your story.