Hanging in a corner of Sara Padilla's apartment in Washington, DC is a blue and orange biking jersey, emblazoned with a large "V" from the University of Virginia in the center.
The jersey belonged to her younger sister, Elizabeth Padilla, an avid bicyclist, and serves not only as a reminder to live life to the fullest and enjoy a bike ride now and then, but also to be careful in a world where a bicyclist can sometimes become a target for bigger vehicles.
Elizabeth Padilla, 28, was an athletic, vibrant person who passed up a job at a prominent law firm in California to use her talents to help people who could not afford legal services in New York City and used her athletic ability to partner with a blind man in a marathon. Her death in New York City in June, where she was hit by a truck , has left a hole in her family's heart that will never be filled.
"She was a star," Sara said of her sister. "She could be very serious when it came to her work, but she knew how to have a good time."
Becky Padilla, the youngest of the three sisters, remembers Liz as "the least superficial person ever. She was the same person with everyone she knew or met, very genuine and approachable."
Sitting on a green love seat in Sara's apartment, the girls look through Sara's wedding album, searching for photos of the trio, laughing at family memories and stories long forgotten. It's moments like this, they said, that make it hard to believe Elizabeth is gone.
"We played a lot of sports together," Becky said, marveling at her older sister's seemingly endless energy. "She taught me to play field hockey and basketball. I remember playing a field hockey game one fall and Liz came home in the middle of it. We were right in the middle of the game and I ran over to the side of the field to hug her and the referee kept blowing his whistle," she laughed.
Becky and Liz also shared birthday parties when they were both home from college during Thanksgiving break, she said.
Holidays were a big family affair at the Padilla home in McLean, where parents David and Kathy still live, they said.
The three Padilla sisters grew up very close, spending each Christmas morning in the same bed, cuddling and giggling until Sara was married a few years ago.
EVEN AFTER LEAVING for separate colleges, the sisters were in constant contact, emaling, calling on the phone, taking trips to visit each other in New York, Georgia or at the University of Virginia.
Liz had a love adventure that led her to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and spend a year of high school studying in Costa Rica, Becky said.
"She was just fearless, there wasn't anything she wouldn't try," Sara said.
In the month since her death, the Padilla family has been surrounded and comforted by hundreds of friends and family members, they said, helping to ease the pain of such a sudden and senseless loss.
"Liz's friends have been wonderful," Sara said. "It's been really neat to hear from them, how much they loved her."
During a memorial service held June 13 at the Missionhurst Church in Arlington, 400 family members and friends from Virginia, Ohio and New York gathered to remember Liz, and for days there were between 80 and 100 people at the home of David and Kathy Padilla, their parents, in McLean.
"When everyone finally left it was so quiet," Sara said. "There was just a tremendous outpouring from all these people who knew Liz."
The girl who was voted Most Athletic in her McLean High School class of 1995 always had a passion for helping others, her sisters said.
"Liz and her husband [New York lawyer Telemachus Kasulis] had been talking about joining the Peace Corp together," Becky said. "She was so selfless."
Prior to her death, Liz Padilla had been working as the pro bono coordinator with the Brooklyn Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyers Project after spending two years with The Family Center, an organization that helped HIV/AIDS positive parents secure long-term care for their children.
"We had our work in common and we were always talking about that," Sara said, currently a program officer for Family Health International in Arlington. "One of her first jobs out of college was with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. My dad's side of the family is from Mexico, and she was really happy that she got to use her Spanish-speaking ability to help people."
WHEN LIZ AND TIM got engaged, Liz decided to use the money as a donation to MALDF instead of a ring, Becky said.
Their brother-in-law is still very much a part of their family, the sisters said. "He's doing OK. He was the last one to speak at her memorial and it was so beautiful," Sara said.
"They had such a happy marriage," Becky added. "When she met Tim, she just knew she'd found her match. They were a great fit together. He was very laid back and she was kind of high intensity, so they complemented each other well."
There has been an outpouring of support from the bicycling community of New York City, which has seen a number of cyclist deaths in the past few months.
"It's a whole subculture up there," Sara said. "Liz was a skilled cyclist, she biked every day. What happened to her is just senseless."
Sara's husband Andrew is an avid cyclist as well, something she's more concerned about now than before.
"I'm nervous about him riding to work now, but it's the same kind of concern that I have when anyone goes out," Sara said.
"You always think it's going to be someone else's family but it can be anyone," Becky added.
The only consolation of her death, they said, is that she died doing something she loved.
"Liz was a rarity. She knew that it was important to put people first and keep things in perspective. She knew that some things just aren't important and she didn't worry about them," Becky said. "The life she lived was very genuine."
The void left by her death is one Liz's family feels daily.
"There's no way to comfort my parents," Sara said. "It's on a whole different level. They're doing the best they can."
"We're not the kind of family that shuts down to deal with this," Becky said. "We know we have to function. But we know that Liz was the person she was because of our parents, they instilled in her this tremendous sense of giving."
Among one of the many people who considered Liz Padilla their best friend is Jeanne Mark, a fellow McLean High School graduate who became close with Liz after leaving high school.
"She was the only person that I maintained that friendship with. She was like a sister to me," Mark said. "She would send me little cards and care packages in college to let me know she was thinking of me... Liz was very nurturing like that."
When Liz flew to Georgia to visit Mark one Valentine's Day, her husband had a box of Godiva chocolates at Mark's house as a surprise.
"Liz opened the box and gave me half right away so I'd have a Valentine too," she said. "She gave so much so easily. It was just what she did. All she ever wanted to do was take care of people."
The last time the friends talked, Liz had told Mark how happy she was to be able to ride her bike to work again.
"She was training for a race when she died," Mark said. "When I heard about her accident, that was one of the first things I thought about."
Her friend's death still hasn't become quite real, Mark said. "Talking about her now, it feels like I'm just playing a role. She was the one friend who was more like a sister... she was supposed to be the godmother to my children."
A memorial event will be held in New York City in the fall as a fund-raiser for one of the many charities Liz Padilla worked for, her sisters said, but no further information is currently available.