Love and Death In Charlottesville

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Photographs of Old Cville by Paul Whitehead

True Stories by Jamie Dyer

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Sister

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There's no justice but there are many justice systems in Hell.

Shelagh, my little sister, was born a year and a half after I was but she was an older soul than me. I was the oldest and she loved me with the devotion that only a younger sister can have for her older brother. She was always tough. When I was six and one of my teeth was getting ready to fall out, our mom wanted to pull the tooth. She said it might fall out in my sleep and I might choke. This prospect scared my sister so much that within two or three seconds of our mother's pronouncement of possible doom, Shelagh hauled off and punched me in the mouth, knocking my tooth out. She didn't even think about it. That's love. To my last breath, I'll always see her determined 4-year old face as she smashed me in the kisser.

We landed in Charlottesville as teenagers from points north in the late 70's after our mother remarried and moved to Buckingham County. Growing up, family life had been kind of rough. We came from a violent, abusive home and we felt bound as co-survivors of some cataclysm. We were all left with scars seen and unseen.

Shelagh's demons were meaner than mine and dragged her down into some dark places with unkind people. It pained me to watch my smart, beautiful, funny sister throw herself into the meat grinder. Her life was an almost non-stop crisis replete with frequent run-ins with the law both as offender and the outraged. This was no surprise as she tended to run with criminals. She and I would drift apart and fall back together and communication was spotty overall. We kept up but not daily, weekly or even monthly sometimes. But we always picked up where we left off. She was the funniest human I've ever known and the only person that could make me roll on the floor laughing.

Have you ever met a really good carpenter that lives in a not-so-nice house because they're too busy doing other peoples' work to attend to their own home? My sister's wisdom was a tool she couldn't apply to her own life but many came to her seeking it for their lives.

She was also her own law when events warranted. Once her underaged daughter was receiving the attentions of a boy far too old for her. My sister warned him once. He didn't listen and continued his attentions. She showed up at his work (the now gone Pizza Hut on Route 29) with a baseball bat. He saw her coming, ran into the back and locked himself in the office. She broke the door down and then broke his arm with the bat. She went outside, threw the bat down, lit a smoke and waited for the cops.

She really didn't give a shit. She was her own kind of crazy badass.

I confess to once, and only once, having pointed her in someone's direction who required my sister's enraged attention as a warning to keep away from me and mine. She showed up with her baseball bat and professed great violence proclaiming, "My brother forgives people. I don't." Luckily, no one was hurt but the message was sent. It was a long time ago and everything's now cool with everyone involved who is still alive.

My sis also had MPD - Multiple Personality Disorder, now called DID - Dissociative Identity Disorder. She had some blank spots in her life because of it. She was in and out of the old Blue Ridge Hospital and a couple of psych wards in the area over the years. Once, she landed on 5 East at UVa. It was here that her final unravelling began.

My mother called me one morning in 2001 to tell me that my sister reported being raped on 5 East at UVa. My sister was crazy but she wasn't a liar. If she said it, it was true. I went to the hospital to see what was up. I explained at the information desk that my sister had been raped in the hospital and I wanted to see her now. They misunderstood what I said and claimed that visiting hours were over. I screamed at the top of my voice, "MY SISTER WAS RAPED IN THIS HOSPITAL AND I WANT TO SEE HER NOW!" It echoed throughout the shiny new hospital. The security guard just stared at me and kept his distance. About then, a geek in a tie showed up. He was wearing a staff tag that said "Administrator" or some such. He asked me to come into a room and talk to him.

He was an oily fellow. He explained through a fake smile that they'd spoken to my sister and she'd like me to come back during visiting hours. His lie was so bad that even he couldn't believe it. I asked him if he'd like me to call the newspapers. His eyes got narrow and his true nature came out. "Go ahead", he said, "this conversation is over."

Since they wouldn't let me see Shelagh, I went ahead and called an editor at a local paper. Not long after that call, UVa faxed a press release to the local papers spinning their damage control. Thus began an ugly chapter in my sister's life as well as UVa's history.

At least two orderlies had been raping female psych patients though the "official" record lists only one. There were numerous rapes but they were "down counted" to mitigate PR damage. Administrators falsified records and lied to investigators. You won't hear about this from UVa. The only person that went to jail was one rapist orderly even though he appeared to have some co-conspirators working as orderlies and administrators after the fact. The aftermath was more than a few women dead by suicide and many damaged souls, more damage than UVa was willing to report.

I told everyone in town what happened. As a result of me and my big mouth and outside agencies, UVa ended up having hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal money held up until they got their act together and stopped allowing their psych ward to be a rape room. Needless to say, my sister and I weren't too popular within some circles.

My poor, beautiful, funny sister. As a much younger woman, she accused Bimbo Pugh of raping her and she was dragged through the mud during the trial. She wasn't too interested in going down that path again. She wasn't too stable when she entered 5 East in the first place and her experience there crushed something in her completely. She disappeared on us, falling back into the world of substance abuse and abusive men. She overdosed on Methadone and died in May 2003 in Fluvanna County. She was 40 years old. My thoughts turned to taking the law into my own hands but I resisted the impulse. You're welcome, UVa.

My brother Joe called me to tell me of my sister's death and to tell me that her body was en route to UVa hospital. I went to the hospital with a my partner and we managed to work our way to the loading dock of the morgue at the old hospital to wait for her body. While we waited, another administrative geek in a tie showed up and told us to leave or he'd call the cops. He knew who I was and he knew who my sister was and he and his ilk didn't like us much. I was standing by the dock's phone and told him to go ahead and call the cops as I'd wait for my sister's body. He picked the phone up and I saw the future scene of me being arrested while my sister's body was arriving. As apropos as that would have been for Shelagh and the moment, it's not what I wanted. While the geek was dialing, I pointed my finger at him, put all my rage and grief into my fingertip and said to him in the steadiest voice I had, "You're a trifling, beancounting toad." He recoiled and his dialing paused for a second. He knew I wasn't wrong. I hope he's found an honest job by now.

We walked out of the back of the old hospital onto Jefferson Park Ave and two cop cars were booking it into the hospital with lights and sirens going. We kept going and Shelagh got her last police visit.

The funeral and the days before and after it are memories I'd rather just skip.

Half a decade or so later, I got a call from a friend telling me that a local movie shoot needed extras. I'd been in a few flicks and I needed the jack. I had no idea who was making the movie but I met the bus and the other extras the next morning and we drove to the location. Oddly enough, the movie location was setup 20 feet from my sister's grave in Riverview Cemetery in Cville. My friend Aaron was directing the movie and my friend Boyd (Boyd and I used to work together in the kitchen at the Garrett, now the site of Boylan Heights) was backing the movie. I went up to Aaron and said I needed to show him something. As busy as he was the first day of shooting, he followed me the 20 feet and I pointed out that we were setup near Shelagh's grave. Even Aaron's well-known kindness had no words for the moment. There was nothing to say but I thought he should know.

Later, Aaron asked me to play a larger role in the movie, called "Faces in the Mirror". My sister always wanted to be in the movies so I think she set that one up even though the closest she got is that giant heckall Jesus statue near her grave that's in a scene.

Shelagh showed up here and there in my life over the years. I haven't felt her presence for some time so I hope she's found peace and moved on. The blessing she gave to me is that our final words to each other were "I love you" as we always ended our conversations.

I'll keep saying it to those I love because in this place, you just never know.

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