North State Voices: When it comes, everything changes

By Joanna O’

Posted: 01/24/2013 12:03:31 AM PST

Sometimes it comes in a phone call. Sometimes it comes with a knock at the door. Sometimes a doctor delivers it. Sometimes it assaults us. But inevitably, in all of our lives, it comes.

The first time it really came to me in a big way, it came in a phone call.

“Hi Chris,” my mom said as she answered the call from my brother-in-law, excusing herself from the booth at the Carl’s Jr. I watched her through the window with advertisements obstructing my view, but I could see enough to see the color drain from her face and to know, this was it.

That was the first call that changed everything. From that point at about 1 p.m. Saturday until 8:07 the following morning, everything was a timeless blur — an unending car ride, pacing the halls of the hospital, friends and family coming in with hugs and good-intentioned yet false promises. And finally the beep beep beep of the heart monitor went flat, and my older sister was gone. Instead of her fiery, passionate self, a bloated, lifeless body remained.

And nothing’s ever been the same.

Pain, suffering, sickness, death, divorce, disaster. In novels, we call it conflict. In life, though, I don’t know what to call it, because it’s less a literary tactic and more a sinking feeling, a vomiting urge, an overwhelming thought that, “This changes everything.”

Some people are lucky enough to go through much of their adult lives without it ever coming. Others are so familiar with this “conflict” in their lives that they become experts at expecting the unexpected, always guarding themselves.

As I’ve lived in a few different places since graduating high school here in Oroville, and as I’ve met people from all over the world, from my very unscientific assessment, it seems as though Oroville has more than its fair share of conflict in the lives of its residents. I don’t know if it’s because of our socio-economic standing. Or because it’s a small enough town that we just happen to hear about everyone’s bad news. Or maybe it’s just an unexplainable phenomenon that hovers over our town like a dark cloud. But in any case, it seems like “It” is the one thing Orovillians know best.

I’ve been told that in some of the slums of India, babies aren’t given names until they’ve lived to be at least a year old, simply because the likelihood of infant death is so high and it’s emotionally easier to not get attached to an unnamed child.

After my sister’s death, it seemed like people I knew were dropping like flies. I seemed to adopt a similar mentality to those of the mothers in Indian slums — don’t let yourself get too close, and it won’t hurt as much when the bad news comes.

But that’s not true. It still comes, and it still hurts. It can still change everything. I think Oroville has come to learn this, too.

What I love about our town is that when it comes, even though it seems to come so often here, we are still a community. It just takes one look at Table Mountain and noticing that the Oroville “O” is a different letter to know that our town has lost someone new and that we grieve together. Like Italians hang their laundry out of their windows for all to see, we hang our pain on mountain sides, off overpasses, in roadside crosses and colored ribbons on trees.

We may be experts in receiving bad news that breaks us, but at least we’re broken together.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an Oroville resident and columnist for North State Voices, which appears each month on