Fire and Wanda: She set herself on fire…


Somehow, Wanda managed to set herself on fire while she was driving her car, then drove the car into an oncoming truck. That’s what Berve told me, anyway.

It was never any secret that Wanda wasn’t happy with her life. Anyone who knew Wanda very well at all knew that. But I never would have thought…

“She did it, babe,” is what Berve said when I called to ask her what had happened. Berve, a nurse, was a close mutual friend who had worked with us both in the burn unit at the University of Chicago Hospital Burn Center. During her shift, in addition to her duties as nurse, she also filled in as just about everyone’s second mother. Wanda took that adoption more seriously than most of us, and Berve accepted the role generously. She knew it was what Wanda needed.

So when I found out that Wanda had died, Berve was the only one I thought of to call. Only since I hadn’t spoken to her in 10 years, tracking her down wasn’t easy.

“She did it, babe.”

When I asked Berve what she meant by that, feeling my stomach starting to cramp up like a charley horse, she took a long pause before letting me know that Wanda had taken her own life. That was bad enough, but when she described how it had happened I felt like I couldn’t breathe. For some reason my mind flashed back to that night she told me to bring her a pack of cigarettes after work. I remembered giving her youngest daughter a piggyback ride across the living room floor as Wanda chuckled, her almond eyes like a cat’s. Another night I sat with her in the kitchen until nearly 3 in the morning, laughing and joking, as she cooked chitterlings on the stove. That smell made certain that this was the first and last time I would ever endure that again, even for her.

After leaving Chicago some years prior, Wanda and I had kept in touch loosely. Usually I would call her or she would call me about once or twice a year. The last time I had called her – or tried to call her – I was living in Florida. That’s when her daughter answered the phone. She didn’t remember me, which wasn’t surprising since she had only been a  child when I was living in Chicago. But apparently I sounded trustworthy enough that she decided to let me know that her mother had died. Car accident, she said. She didn’t know me well enough to tell me the real reason, and I don’t blame her. But how was she supposed to make it now? I wondered. Never had a father, her mother now dead, and she barely old enough to navigate Chicago as a teenager, let alone as an adult. I guess there was someone, or at least I hope there was. That was the last time I talked to her.

Fire and Wanda. The two should never have met.


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