Unless there is another delay, tomorrow (October 28, 2021) will become another milestone: the man who murdered my aunt will be put to death.
The space between her last breath and his was long.
22 years, 11 months, 16 days.
275 months and 16 days.
In other words, a long damn time.
So many of the news reports inundate us with that same face that we saw day after day during the trial. However, my aunt’s face is noticeably absent. So much time has passed that many news stories and social media posts no longer bother to even mention her by name. She has become a footnote in her own murder…referred to merely as “a kitchen worker.”
But she had a name. Gay Lee Carter. She had two children, a handful of siblings, and a raucous sense of humor. She could tell stories that made you shake with silent laughter and streaming tears, she loved the holidays, and she was murdered while at work.
It was Friday the 13th, November 1998. I was at work and got a call from my dad. My aunt, who worked in a prison kitchen, had been “cut.” Probably nothing, he assured me. He recommended that I sit tight, and he and my mom would figure out the details.
“Oh, you know how dramatic your aunt is,” he said wryly, and he recounted the story where she had closed a finger in a car door, examined it, and wondered aloud how many days off work that might be worth.
So I waited. About an hour later, maybe less, the phone rang again. “She’s gone,” he said simply. Gone? What? Where? To a different hospital?
I walked into my boss’s office. He was on the phone. He took one look at me and mouthed, “Go! Go!” and waved me toward the door; he motioned that he would call soon to check on me.
My then-boyfriend/now-husband came to drive me the hour’s drive to the small town where my aunt lived. We had to stop for gas. At first I was so anxious about having to stop for something so trivial, then I realized that there was nothing to rush for…it was over.
We drove quietly and without tears. At times, he would reach over and stroke my hand.
When we got to my uncle–her brother’s–house (which was next door to her own), the whole block was filled with cars. Cars parked on the grass, all along the curb, spilling from the driveways… So much of that day, and the ones that followed, was a blur.
The funeral was several days later, and it was full of strangers. Law enforcement from all over the state, and even several states away, came to honor her. How odd to share such mourning with people whom we had never met before, never spoke with, never knew existed until that moment…and who would, for all practical purposes, no longer exist to us once they walked out the door of the church.
I ordered a copy of the autopsy. For some reason, I was gripped by the need to know exactly what had happened (as if the sterile words on paper could ever encompass those last minutes).
The autopsy came in the mail…so many crisp white pages. A stark line diagram of a generic female stared back at me; her every wound meticulously documented. She was stabbed sixteen times. Her aorta severed.
Her killer locked them both in a storage closet off the prison kitchen and barricaded the door while he made a superficial attempt at suicide.
I read the pages of the report over and over, but the only things that I can still remember about it were: even though she smoked her lungs were perfectly clear and healthy, and she had been wearing purple panties.
For some reason, the purple panties haunted me. Perhaps it was the stereotype of a nagging mother reminding her child to wear clean underwear “in case they got in an accident.” Who the fuck cares what your underwear is like if you are dead?! No. That’s not it… When I actually let myself acknowledge it, I know…
That morning was like any other. She got up, tugged open the top drawer of her dresser, and picked that pair–whether haphazardly or by design–and she had no idea what would soon happen. She had no idea that this was to be her last day on this earth. This idea that bad, terrible, painful, life-altering days start out exactly the same as the boring, mundane days…this is what keeps me up at night.
Because when you are in the middle of it…you don’t see it coming.
And those who remain…they are left to fumble forward, counting days.