Ten years ago tomorrow, my sister lived her last day. On a late spring morning taxis accelerated and commuters hurried down the street while she was making her way to work. The earth was tilted toward the sun, approaching its solstice beneath golden rays that take their time in leaving.
It was a Thursday. She took no time at all in leaving. It was a moment that forever changed our lives.
Her name was Elizabeth.
She was 28 years old.
Thornton Wilder said the highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.
I don’t feel all that grateful for having lost my sister. In fact I still feel pretty bad about having to live without her. But I am grateful to have had her for a short lifetime rather than not to have had her at all.
I still have so much to say to you.
You were healthy, happy and passionate about creating good in the world. You were opinionated, generous, and funny. You were a newlywed, loved and loving.
You could get really mad.
Do you remember? Tell me what you remember.
We all live in haunted houses, rooms full of memories, coated with layers of dust and longing. Some ghosts move into our hearts. They unpack their suitcases because they’re going to stay awhile.
We watch them settle in.
We might offer them a drink.
The Western world is wildly predisposed toward the concept of “moving on”, a need-to-cure approach that makes you feel like a failure if you don’t get over it and get on with your life after something terrible happens. It’s a dangerous approach to responding to loss. While time has given me the solace and courage I need to bring my sister’s memory to a place where I don’t feel scared or angry – I can consider an idea she once shared, and smile at a story in which she starred in our family history – I can sense those who are unready to listen to my memories.
I know they feel deeply uncomfortable discussing a dead person. Especially one who isn’t supposed to be dead.
Death is such an uncomfortable thing to talk about in our country, despite it being all around us, all the time. Just the other day a colleague shared with me that her brother drowned. Even more recently a close family friend’s wife passed. Both were far too young to leave us.
Most of the time I return to gratitude, remember my sister, and feel lucky to have had her with me for a while. But not a day goes by that I do not wish things had turned out differently.
The pain has diminished somewhat over the past decade, but that’s partially because I don’t have as much time to think about her anymore.
Since Liz died, I have smiled, laughed, loved. I have escaped. Run. Meditated. Drank. Slept. I have cried until there were no more tears to cry, and then I cried some more. I’ve met my babies for the very first time and witnessed their first smiles. Where there were none when she was alive, our family today includes four grandchildren. So much has happened.
Since Liz died, elders passed, and among them, our grandfather. The fathers and mothers of my friends are leaving us, one by one, as we age.
Since Liz died, our youngest sister and I have been on our own, forging a new relationship of two when there had always been three. It hasn’t always been easy. We grieve differently. We have different memories of her.
Grief is a deeply layered and intimate experience. The complexity of memories and regret assail me unexpectedly. The profound angst of loss, the helplessness of not being able to “do” anything. The senselessness of her death created a hole that was big enough for me to drown in. I’ve been swimming in it ever since.
A single wish echoes timelessly through my mind.
I want my sister back.
She wasn’t entirely mine, not really. A natural connector, she was allied with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences and actively pursued new opportunities to learn and expand her understanding and knowledge of the world.
But she was mine, my heart screams… still, after all this time. And I want her back.
I stamp my foot, toddler-like, frustrated at life.
In those early months after my sister died, I was angry and sad. It didn’t get better for a long, long time. Not one year. Not two. Though today’s mornings dawn lighter, occasionally I move through my day furiously, feeling incapable of joy.
Because I miss her.
You were grumpy in the morning.
You got really mad once when I accidentally used your toothbrush. I laughed. That didn’t help.
You used to call me when you were was alone in your apartment, your husband still at work, and there was a pause at the end of your day. I was 30 and you were 27, and you had a real job after graduating from law school. I, too, was finally in a position with some meaningful responsibility. I commuted one hour each way by Metro, and I silently read all the Harry Potter books along the way. You, on the other hand, ran, walked, or biked to work, and became friends with shop owners and fellow commuters along the route.
We used to talk a lot about running. We ran together in Virginia, New York, North Carolina. Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Louisiana and Michigan. Washington D.C. Maybe other places that I can’t remember anymore. I used to run a lot more back then.
There is a new song I am learning. It is a quieter song, and a gentle push toward something that once was beautiful… not only my sister’s young life, but my own, before.
Because everything was different.
Over the past decade, I’ve remembered her, and how she used to smile. She had such a heartwarming and spectacular smile.
Ten years is a long time to feel and wonder and think about someone you cannot touch, or hear, or see.
My own capacity for resilience was quite weak when she died.
In other words, life was good.
During the past decade, life hasn’t always been good, but when I am grateful, fear disappears. There is less to miss and more to hold close. I am more compassionate and less closed. I am striving toward all those ways in which my sister shone… being kind, open, direct, strong of spirit and body. I am better at some than others. As we begin the next decade without her, I will not deny the sadness that will be a part of my experience moving forward. But I know today that I have space to be and air to breathe in her absence.
Sadness must be holy in its humanity. It emerges unpredictably and feels raw, broken, and mean – even years after a loss.
Healing takes time. Forever, perhaps.
When my boys scratch their knee or bruise an elbow, I always tell them to let it heal.
Let it heal.
Let it heal.
Let it heal.
I miss you. Thank you for being my sister, my heart, my friend.