‘Writers tell’: The Devastating Contrasts in Life, Death, and West Virginia

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As her son Keats is born in West Virginia, a state of stark contrast between the beauty of the natural surroundings and the desecration of some of the land in never-ending hunt for oil, Christa Parravani considers his arrival and the death of her twin sister Cara, who died of a heroin overdose in the aftermath of a horrifying, brutal rape. In this haunting and beautiful essay at Guernica, she writes of the fragility of life and the state’s complicity in violence toward women and in pillaging the earth for its natural resources.

I pushed my son out in the late morning, into my husband’s hands. Keats was born limp and purple and quiet. I pulled him atop my chest, cord and all, rubbing him into his voice. We both cried out; him from the shock of life; me from the shock of that life colliding with something close to death. My husband passed our son to a mountain midwife and officially into Appalachia. Keats was born face up. The midwife had needed to twist his body to get him out of me; his collarbone broke from that turn. I wouldn’t know this until weeks later.

I’ve learned that when people from the coasts think of West Virginia at all, they think about banjo music, and Trump country, and sad miners and blown-apart mountains. What I observed as I settled in didn’t exactly match those stereotypes. There are progressive activists, and live-off-the-land farmers, and a vibrant community of artists. There are people living high off old money from coal, and people living even higher off new money from fracking. It’s a place with a long history of taking. The people and the earth carry that pain.

In the last days of Cara’s life, she and I weren’t speaking. I’d thrown her out of my Massachusetts home after I caught her shooting heroin in my bathroom. On the day she died, seven days after I’d told her to leave, Cara was living back at home with our mother. I woke that morning with a feeling of terrible remorse. I had the keen worry that I had abandoned my sister; I’d left her thinking I didn’t want her in my life. All I ever wanted was for the sober her to come back to me.

I dialed Cara’s number right after breakfast. She didn’t answer. I kept calling. I called more than thirty times. She never answered; she was already gone, her head tipped forward, her face purple and still with blood. The sun shone through a window behind her; in death, her body was warm with light. When I heard the news, it was sundown. I screamed so hard that the force of my voice, and the tension of my body, tore the straps of the dress I was wearing.

Twelve years later, I birthed my son on my sister’s death day.

What remains: Keats was born into a world that hurts women—through physical violence and politicized restrictions, through scorn and blame and silence. I can take my experience of that fact and let it break me like it broke my sister, or I can release it with faith that someone hears.

Writers tell.

Read the essay