Ten

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Before.

Because everything was different.

Before.

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.

liz in puerto rico

As my long-time readers are well aware, my sister’s death in the year 2005 paralyzed me in many ways. I was deeply sad, but I was also angry. I was angry that clocks kept ticking, and I resented people who kept being normal. They kept shopping for groceries, planning parties, and going to work. They kept on saying good morning and wearing life is good T-shirts. They kept running, practicing yoga and smiling. They kept getting on planes and working and drinking and sleeping and eating. They did all sorts of things which I, in fact, used to do, too.

How dare they?

It was stunningly difficult to move forward, or on, or through it all, so I didn’t for a awhile. It’s been eight years, and I still find myself deeply grieving her, but I keep shopping for groceries, planning parties, and going to work. I keep doing all sorts of stuff.

I wrote those words about a week ago, but I didn’t hit publish.

I’m not sure why loss was on my mind so much last week. It seems like a lot of people are dying unexpectedly, or earlier than they were intended to. When my sister died I crashed into a grief process that didn’t allow me to check back into life for a long time. Many people reached out bravely and warmly to comfort our family, but all I could think was they don’t understand. They don’t know. They can’t know. Others stumbled over their words, intending to offer condolences but instead made a mess of things. Sometimes the best intended words made me just laugh. The belief that my sister was now in a better place seemed (and seems) to me the most preposterous idea of all… you’d be surprised how often I heard those words, despite the truth that she was 28 years old and more alive than most of us.

You know what they say about good intentions. Well, it turns out that intent is often irrelevant. It flies in the face of truth. This is why people say they didn’t “mean” it when they use a vulgar expression or a shameful term… they don’t “intend” to hurt someone or enrage an entire community. But it happens, all too often.

The unreal thing about grief is that most of us do get through it, pretending to be normal while tending to both those who acknowledge our loss as well as those who ignore it. Practical tasks like eating and bathing may save us from drowning in the “sinking sand” of loss, as my youngest calls quicksand, and if we are lucky we are lifted up both by grace and by a profound strength that we never envisioned having or needing.

Death brings to mind the randomness of humanity, because I don’t think every thing happens for a reason. Depending on the circumstances into which we were born, we may eat, bathe, work, move, rest, want or learn – or do none of these things in a healthy way. Emotionally, too, life’s a bit of a crap shoot. Many of us hail from strong and supportive families, but many of us are also born into a dysfunctional mess, a recipe made up of mixed up relatives + complex life stuff. Add in hormones and aids I like to call mood-makers, and you’re bound to have issues.

[Sidenote: mood-makers may include but are not limited to the following: alcohol, running, sugar, caffeine, drugs, music, silence. I like to practice all of them, some more moderately so than others. What are your mood-makers?]

Last week I read about a woman who died unexpectedly at age 39, leaving behind three young children, her husband and countless friends.

Three days ago I was 39.

Now I am 40.

Rather than dreading another birthday, I am absolutely ready to take on another decade. My 30s were tough. And beautiful. And horrible. I was newly married when my sister was killed. My life, upended, changed for the worse. I didn’t know me anymore. I didn’t know my family – our dynamic of five changed abruptly to four, and we weren’t ready. I cried constantly, shook with fear, and doubted my place in the world.

Running helped. As much as I could get myself out the door, I used to go out for five and six and seven miles, meandering through the neighborhood and occasionally on a trail. If I hadn’t gone outside, I might never have left my room, that first year after my sister died.

[Sidenote: we adopted an energetic eight-week-old Lab puppy three months after her death. He was practically a service dog. Puppies don’t wait for you to feel better before they get a walk. Eight years later, he is a more mellow version of his puppy self and he brings me this incredible joy – his sweet big eyes are full of love and compassion. I highly recommend puppies as a remedy to sadness.]

To celebrate turning 40, I signed up to run 13.1 miles with a close friend. I hadn’t trained adequately, but the race was flat and scenic. Incredibly, it didn’t start raining until ten minutes after I’d finished. Around mile 10 my body was pretty much done, and my phantom broken toe was burning (stupid faux injury that I can’t seem to get rid of), but I kept going. The final mile hurt, and so I lifted my thoughts to those spirits who could help: my sister, my grandfather, my friend Dominguin. I asked them to be my angel wings.

I ran for my sister, silently, because she is gone and yet not gone.

I also ran for the woman who is lying in a hospital bed right now fighting for her life after being hit by an SUV while riding her bike.  She is a family friend, runner and cyclist. She is broken, but she is healing.

I ran for me.

Within us we all have this enormous power to heal.

Slowly and painfully the final mile ticked by, and it was over. I could stop running. A kind volunteer handed me this medal.

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Angel wings.

I started to cry.

So life goes on. I am 40, and I am ready for another full (and fulfilling) decade, or at least just enjoy today, and I feel good about that. I’ve got much to look forward to, plus an incredible family, a wonderful new job, amazing friends and a home in a beautiful part of the world. I went home after the run to party with my boys. 

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I don’t know exactly where my path will lead over the next ten years (or even tomorrow), but I sure plan to be on the trail.

In gratitude.

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it’s my party, i can cry if i want to

Do sharks cry?

I haven’t been writing as often as I had intended to this month, and I blame all the good stuff there is out there to read. Books, essays, blog posts, newspapers. There are so many compelling words that other people write that fill me up and bring me to tears. The tears always surprise me, because after my sister died I cried daily for about five years straight and then completely stopped. The tears dried up and I could suddenly think, speak, act, breathe, and work normally in the presence of her absence.

I still felt wretched much of the time, but figured I was permanently all cried out.

Today I think the “feeling” part of my brain just needed a major rest.

I’ve also come to the understanding that grief is supposed to hurt. It’s not a gentle pat on your shoulder or a hug or a promise that things will get better one day. The pain means that grief is doing its thing, and the magic of the grieving journey is that one day you’re not crying every single night and then you actually laugh. You laugh at something someone said, or something on the radio, or even at yourself. And then you startle, because you haven’t laughed in so long that it feels uncomfortable and itchy and wrong. But then something happens, like when my mom mentioned making a donation to my sister’s scholarship fund before the end of the calendar year in order to write it off for taxes, and I thought, that is so… so…. practical.

I could just hear my sister making some smart remark about her being gone and we’re worrying about taxes? Liz was so darn practical when it came to money that I pictured her smiling at my mom while checking her bank account.

Then I remembered her hopping off a city bus in Manhattan because she spied a discount department store where she ended up buying her bridesmaid dress for my wedding for $14.99.

Anytime someone complimented her on the dress, she was all smiles as she announced that it cost fifteen dollars!

And I laughed.

Last weekend we took the boys to see Frozen, and since that day we’ve watched Elsa sing “Let It Go” a half dozen times on YouTube. If you haven’t yet seen it, the story is that this gorgeous (of course) princess is born with the power to transform everything she touches into ice. It’s a creative version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, a fairy tale published in 1845. And every single time we’ve watched Elsa sing I’ve had to bite my lip and take a deep breath in order not to cry. I’m not sure if it’s the music or the message that makes me feel, but either way it brings me to tears. 

Then it’s over and I’m fine and my youngest is fussing for one more time.  I have no inclination to sink back into the land of tears (this is a post that I wrote one year ago. It’s fascinating that what I was feeling last year is so close to what I’m feeling this year, and yet different – more on that later). It’s much more entertaining to take notes on my kids then to focus on what’s going on within me, not when what’s going on within me this week mostly equals extreme soreness due to fun boot camp and lower back distress and physical therapy and desire for real pain drugs that remain sadly unprescribed

Booooooring. 

During last night’s dinner gratitudes our eldest said he was thankful “for today, the whole day, yesterday, and tomorrow.” 

Just as I was absorbing his sweet message, he managed to turn gratitudes into a detailed explanation of the Gila Monster. I had asked him to take a bigger bite of the nutritious soup I had prepared instead of just eating bread. He took a small sip, then informed me that the Gila Monster swallows eggs and small prey whole without teeth. Additionally, the Gila monster dislikes the heat, though he lives in the dessert. Who knew?

It’s amazing to me how much a six-year-old can absorb from a video, book or a lesson. He retains scientific trivia like it’s a competitive sport. His demeanor during dinner resembled a very small professor of entomology. Or maybe it’s herpetology. Perhaps one day… both.

On the other hand, he can exasperate his younger brother to no end simply by ignoring his tricks. Instead of falling apart in a full-on tantrum, however, our youngest instead called out these words after dinner:

Annie always says we include our friends! And he’s not including me! Annie says we gotta include everybody!!!!!

His teacher, Annie, taught him that we must, or should, include all of our friends in our play. Big brother (B.B.) was content playing alone, and younger brother (Y.B.) desperately wanted to engage him. What to do?

In this situation I generally let Y.B. know that B.B. is playing alone right now and needs some space. But Y.B. had used his words so beautifully that I took his side, and insisted that they attempt to play nicely together.

Nothing went really wrong with this scenario, and yet nothing was overwhelmingly right, either. I am trying to step back as referee in order to let them resolve their own problems. It’s not easy to stay in the background.

Later, I posed a question to B.B.

Do sharks cry?

He shook his head. A definite no.

Why not?

Because they are the most powerful creatures in the sea and cannot be hurt.

What about if a mama shark lost her baby shark?

Well, baby sharks and grown up sharks have special rememberies. They just know how to get back. 

I have special rememberies, too, I think.

What about other animals? Do they cry?

No.

What about dogs?

Um, well, they make like (whimper, whimper) sounds when they are sad. 

Then we were interrupted by L.B. when a bunch of Legos came crashing out of a box, and chaos resumed in our pretty Christmas lit home. And I laughed.

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Unexpected gifts

Flooded with love, missing, and the power of sibling relationships. Knowing just how powerful they are is priceless, inspiring, threatening, heartbreaking.

Yesterday I crashed momentarily under a wave of big emotion that arrived on the shores of my humanity unexpectedly and it’s just too much and suddenly I was drowning without water. My head spun and parted and collapsed angrily and heavily into two opposing sides. They yelled at each other for a while.

Team One: Don’t you want to remember? vs Team Two: Can’t you just shut it down and keep on GOING?

I’m working on consolidating the Teams to bring about collaboration and good dialog. This sounds rather vague, but know that I am taking steps to make it true. I am working toward helping Memory and Sadness co-exist with Truth and Today in a positive and beautiful way.

Today has been another thing altogether. Today was completely different from Yesterday.

Walking my son to school on a foggy morning was quiet and lovely. Mid-day I relaxed as I listened to the voice of a friend on the other end of the phone, and a few hours later I  received an unexpected gift from this friend that will allow me to spend three (THREE!) nights away from my family with women without whom life would be much less entertaining, compassionate, interesting and appealing.

I am filled with the power of friendship love for the women in my life who are held in my heart from beginning to forever. Together we share our experiences – some common, others not -of  family, work, food and fitness, parents and parenting, and those troublesome and tricky issues that sound a lot like sex, money and politics.

Sometimes we just drink margaritas. Or drink just one more half full glass of wine. And we talk about nothing, and everything.

Yesterday I collapsed inward while shaking with the memory of sister love because notes of brother love sunk into my soul and inspired me to write the words I scribbled above, trying to capture what it means when someone for whom you cared deeply and yet took for granted despite madly loving her and she is taken away.

Today I regrouped, spoke to a clinical neuropsychologist about an emerging personal research opportunity, and worked on an interesting assignment on behalf of a talented colleague. The hours passed rapidly and well.

At four o’clock daycare called to let me know my littlest guy had a fever of 101 and I switched gears again. I will sleep tonight at the mercy of children’s ibuprofen and space heaters after just the right mix of good night stories and hugs. With my husband away at a nice business hotel and I in my cap yoga pants, we will all settle down for a long winter’s nap.

And as we begin again, tomorrow, I wonder if both unexpected soul-bearing sadness and joyful surprises may present a trend this season.

Either way, I expect uncertainty. I attempt to embrace the unknown. I welcome the reality that is my experience, knowing that it always brings the thinking and the wondering and the healing and the writing.

The candles in my living room cast a gentle light, creating sweet shadows that linger as twilight sinks into darkness and children fall asleep.