Many years ago in my childhood I gave a picture I had drawn to a family friend. He held it upside down and praised it. I started to tell him it was upside down, but my protests were quieted by one of my parents. I can’t remember quite when, but eventually I learned that my parents’ friend was partially blind, and he couldn’t tell which side of my picture was facing up. He also could not see color.
Now that I have my own children drawing me pictures, I understand the challenge of interpreting their “art” although I’m not visually impaired. I’ve been thinking about the role of color in our lives, yet three days ago I purchased another black sweater. I couldn’t resist. I cannot stop buying black clothing.
T-shirts. Yoga pants. Socks. Sweaters. Cocktail dresses (though the last time I actually wore a cocktail dress was when?). I love the color black.
The color of grief is crimson. Wood chips glow dark and red in the fire while crimson grief tears you up from the inside out. It scalds, then festers. If you knew my sister well then you’ll remember her love of red candies. I cannot see a bag of Swedish fish without thinking of her energetic approach to work and play. This red is different. It is bright, rewarding, full of life. It’s a woman who says look at me. It’s a red bow swinging in a girl’s ponytail. It’s a tempting red dress on New Year’s Eve.
Even after all this time, the pain of her absence is palpable. I long for her, though not at every moment as I did years ago. After she was torn away from us, the sharpness of loss dulled, and its acute impossibility faded somewhat, but there are times when my heart doesn’t feel like beating without her own.
I was recently reminded of a time when she convinced me I could do something that I believed impossible. A few weeks before she died she asked me to swim with her in the Hudson River. She was registered for a biathlon in which she would ride her bike and swim a significant distance. I resisted because I hadn’t been in a pool for a few years (and I’d never been swimming in open water).
She pushed back.
“You can do it. You can swim. Don’t be ridiculous.”
She was persistent. Looking back, my sister often helped me believe in myself. Personally and professionally, she was a champion for those who were less fortunate and more challenged than many of us. I think perhaps she was meant to be the big sister.
Ultimately I didn’t sign up for the event; my official excuse was a business trip to Guatemala.
But I never got on the plane.
And she never jumped in that river.
The unthinkable did, in fact, happen, and in an instant, she was gone.
For years I resisted healing. I wanted to feel that red flame of grief burn, and I wanted to carry the heavy weight of loss that is central to our humanity all by myself. I would not put it down. Every single morning I woke up to her absence, and engaged in a monotony of days in which I realized her being gone was still true, and little else mattered.
The color of grief creeps chameleon-like from crimson to dark, midnight blue. It is deep and salty and unspeakable.
I once gave my sister a large box of cereal for her birthday. It was tucked in a colorful tote bag made entirely of recycled juice boxes that I’d bought on U Street in Washington D.C. She tossed the bag brightly over her shoulder, placed the cereal in her kitchen, and smiled. Her smile was a gift. It was so real and so right and so happy.
While sorting her personal things after she died, I picked up the juicebox tote bag, and today it alternates between shopping tote and diaper bag. I am close to never buying another diaper, I can feel it. Now if only my almost-three-year-old would get on board.
Diapering as distraction from grief. I’ll take it.
The color of grief transforms from deep blue to grey. A heavy cloud of mourning cast a nearly colorless film over me that slowed movement. It takes our planet 365 days to circle the sun. I could no longer manage the journey alone.
The story of all that is no longer possible without her was killing me.
A new story emerged in its place. It was less compassionate at the beginning. It lingered in the colors of loss and sorrow. It was dark. It was real.
But one morning the skies began to clear.
The color of grief resembles a rainbow. It shimmers; a chrysalis hangs from where once there was nothing. What will emerge? A hint of spring wells from deep within me, inviting the possible back into living. I dream of my sister when she was young.
Unlike the skies, the color of grief muddies, thick, and becomes a whirlpool of color that is unknowable except by the one caught within the spiraling waters. I was drowning until I reached the surface. I still sputter and swallow too much water from time to time.
Because how can you sleep at night knowing someone else who you love may be taken away? And how can you sleep at night knowing someone for whom you had so much love is never coming back? And how can you do anything at all except fake it through your days and cry endlessly at night?
And almost let it all be for nothing?
The sisters of grief are anxiety and fear.
With help, I began to slog through the mire. I grumbled. I slept too much. I couldn’t sleep at all. I breathed. I remembered the red candies and the laughter and the love. I had babies. I took a meditation class. I read books and more books and even more books. My family embraced me, held me, loved me. I loved them back.
I swam in a river. Twice.
I invite the healing to continue today.
The color of grief is imbued with the light of the sun.