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.

Liz2004

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.

bella

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

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Still.

As I begin this post I apologize to my parents and any one else who will be deeply affected, impacted, offended or otherwise.

It’s just that…shit.

Sometimes it hits me hard, the truth that I have a sister whom I loved and who loved me probably more than I loved her (impossible to know) and then I lost her and she is gone and so is the person-sister who I discovered as a young adult was an incredible person and one whom I’d won the lottery by having her born into my life.

We were never enemies.

We were sisters and sister-friends. Not quite three years apart, I don’t remember never having a sibling with whom I shared a room for at least the first five + years of my life.

Childhood, check. Adolescence, check. Early adulthood (adulthood?!), check… ongoing.. or maybe I’m in Serious. Adulthood. Now.

I loved my twenties, although entering them, I had some problems. My late college experience was rough, and I was incredibly relieved when I graduated and could enter a new phase of life surrounded by (mostly) people who did not know me. Post-college, I immediately landed a job, an apartment and a boyfriend. Life was good.

A few years later, the boyfriend relationship disintegrated and I joined the Peace Corps, where I met some of the best friends of my life, and among them, my husband. I cannot capture those two years in words today. Many of the men and women I met I do not see regularly because we returned to homes all across the map. Regardless, they each hold an incredibly special place in my heart.

I was 31 years old and a newlywed when my sister was killed by a truck while riding her bike to work. The accident took place on a day that was completely ordinary, busy and pleasant. While checking e-mail in a comfortable office in an affluent suburb outside our Nation’s Capitol, my father called. My coffee grew cold…and I disappeared from the world where once upon a time everything was ok.

I’m not sure what triggered this tonight. I miss her. I often think of my sister. And yet.

I am deeply sad that she is gone tonight. I feel extremely frustrated that I can’t pick up my mobile or text her or email her about a run that I am planning to do or a situation for which I would welcome her guidance.

It sucks.

Eight years plus and counting.

I know — I know — it’s been a long time. Lots of reason to get over it.

But I miss her. I love her.

Still.

bella

The first day of December

Today was a good day. Holy cow rain! I fell asleep last night listening to the skies open up and wishing for a zinc roof. Driving rain on a zinc roof makes a beautiful white noise that I would love to make my bedtime music for all time.

The boys slept till 8 am. Swim lessons. Park. Plenty of hang out at home time while the other adult in the house played with friends (MLS championship match). Upon his return, I headed out to run on a race track surrounded by lights and sparkle and colorful drums and nutcrackers and Christmas wreaths and friendly holiday animals.

It rained the entire time. It was fantastic.

Less than one hour and six miles later, I tucked my wet, chilled self into the car to drive wearily and happily home where three men, ages young and less young, greeted and rushed me into the bedtime routine. Good thing the peace a run leaves behind tends to linger, because the homecoming was stressful. The boys were mostly great all day, but evidently fought the entire time I was gone. They continued to bicker and pester one another until both my husband and I had had it. It is so unbelievably annoying and unnerving to have to be a referee all day long. I wonder how other parents manage to talk to each other, because we can not have a conversation without being interrupted by one or both children… say… every three seconds. Seriously.

I’m so glad they’re asleep right now.

On this day a year ago, I wrote this love letter to my middle sister.

A few days later, I wrote this letter to my youngest sister.

Tonight, I am still writing to my sisters. A year and a half of blogging plus a lifetime of journaling have made me tell people that if you read my blog, please don’t hold anything you read against me.

I now understand why some writers elect to use pseudonyms.

Today is my middle sister’s birthday. She would have been 36 years old.

If you don’t know what happened, then you might want to read this post.

She is, instead, forever 28.

I sit, and I light the Guadelupana, and I think, and I remember. I breathe in and out. Again and again and again.

I miss her.

This song speaks the words of my heart, even though I didn’t write them.

Waiting on an Angel.

Liz, I remember you today on your birthday, and hold you close during the holiday season, and attempt to treat these days as critical and unique because we won’t ever get them back, and appreciate that we are overflowing in holly and bells and dreidels and reindeer and cookies and trying to make those curly strips of ribbon with a scissors and wishing for snow days and making a list and checking it twice and threatening small children that Santa’s really watching now. Miss you.

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. ~ Kahlil Gibran

Liz2004

For everything there is a season

The first summer without my sister I ran and cried and sweated in our nation’s capital. I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved three thousand miles away. I grew no sunflowers.

The second summer without my sister I logged many miles on the roads, slept very little, trembled with anxiety, and took our new puppy to the dog parks where we could both burn off energy and smile at strangers. He entered my life at a time when I was at a loss for knowing what to do next. He looked like this.

We lived in an apartment across the street from friendly gangsters who paid us no attention. I started to admire other people’s backyard gardens, but I still grew no sunflowers.

The third summer without my sister I lived in a home where we built a deck and my husband cleared a space for a garden. All I planted that season were sunflower seeds. I sat on the deck every night with a glass of wine watching the empty garden space and rocking our new baby.

Before my eyes the seeds took root and the magic that is found in a garden began.

In a large patch of dirt, shoots of green began to grow up, up, up, and much like Jack’s beanstalk, they appeared to reach the clouds.

By summer’s end this was our garden.

The fourth and fifth summers I grew fewer sunflowers but they were no less spectacular. And I still cried almost every night, but sometimes just for a moment when the tears threatened and sparkled and I’d blink them back and inhale sharply to make them disappear.

The sixth summer our sons were three years and one year old, respectively, and I planted dozens of seeds, but only a single sunflower grew that season.

Just one.

Had birds stolen the seeds?

Did my garden get flooded by Portland rains just one too many times?

I sent loving thoughts to the one brave bloom in the earth, but it didn’t last the season. One day I went out to find it crumpled on the ground, its seeds scattered by a squirrel or a crow. It was attacked. I tried to keep the entire incident in perspective (it was just a flower, for goodness sake), but I confess feeling really miserable about the loss of this particular flower.

The seventh summer after my sister died I managed to grow about half a dozen sunflowers in a patchy sort of amateur arrangement.

This year marks the eighth season of light since she left us.

My husband tenderly prepared the space. Together our boys and I planted the seeds, and most took root within a few days. Tiny, vulnerable shots of green began to appear.

The stems broke through the earth.

The fragile stalks grew tougher as they reached for the sun.

Today the light signals the plants to flower and the garden offers transformative healing and gentle hope in the presence of the sun.

This is what our garden looks like today – mid-season. We are on our way to a burst of color from at least thirty sunflowers, miniature, tall and giant.

P.S. We’re also growing a bit more in our humble garden. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a jalapeño. We’ve already eaten all the lettuce.

Found the Marbles

28 years of light

Her name was Liz, I said.

How many times have I told people the name of my sister since she died? The people who never had the opportunity to meet her, I mean.

A handful. A few dozen. I don’t know.

Though ever present in my heart and often on my mind, my sister’s story is one that I have not revealed – except through this blog – to many of the people whom I’ve come to know since her death.

Those who do know her story are those few whom I consider to be close friends.

I am grateful that her story remains alive and well, even if she is gone.

Once upon a time, my sister was born on December 1, 1976 in Washington, D.C. I was not quite three years old.

She died on a Thursday, this day, seven years ago. But the story doesn’t end there.

I’m beginning to see that our deathdays are so much less critical than our birthdays.

What happens between them is what matters.

Let me say it again.

What we choose to do and learn and see and say and how we move and speak and listen between our Birthday and our Last Day is what counts.

My sister Elizabeth lived every single day of her life in a spirit of commitment, compassion, and justice. As a child and a young adult, her days were filled with learning, laughter and love. She was practical, funny, sassy and smart. And she had strong opinions.

Shortly before I married, she spent the night at my apartment and we slept together in my queen size bed.

She tossed and turned, until finally she spoke up in the darkness,

I hate your pillows!

These pillows are the worst!

I hadn’t thought about my pillows before. I punched one of them. It was flat. The other one was lumpy.

She was right! Those were horrible pillows!

We dissolved into silly giggles before falling asleep, Liz muttering, “stupid pillows”, which made us laugh until we cried.

In the morning I’d forgotten all about the pillows.

A few months later, Liz appeared at my parents’ door step. In her arms she carried an enormous box.

A wedding present.

Inside the box were four beautiful, brand new pillows.

Gracias hermana mia.

I miss you.


read to be read at yeahwrite.me

Welcome little one… now go to sleep!

The other day my son asked me why I wanted babies. New readers, my kids are ages 4 and 2. It was a particularly challenging morning and for the life of me, I couldn’t think of one good reason why I had wanted babies!

Just what is this mothering thing all about?

Of course we all know that babies are beautiful. The softness of their skin, the sweetness of their toes. The soulfullness of their eyes when they open for the very first time.

But babies are hard.

Babies can suck you up and spit you out.

A seven pound being brings with him (or her) so much drama to the family.

Over the past two days, I’ve had the sheer delight of meeting and holding my four-day-old nephew. He wasn’t given a name right away, and when I asked my oldest for a recommendation, he immediately suggested that we call him Lightening Bolt.

It turns out that Lightening Bolt is an excellent choice of names, because while this tiny creature doesn’t exactly resemble a burst of electricity, he has the power of one. He is a tiny spark, a brand new soul, and a living, breathing presence that stole my heart the moment I met him. Let’s call him LB for short.

What a gift!

And yet they are responsible for what can only be described as sheer and perfect exhaustion.

As I observe the fatigue and love in my sister’s eyes, I remember. My youngest is two years old and I just barely recall the days when he was as tiny as LB. But I do remember the sleepless nights (and nights, and nights, as I occasionally still experience them) and the soreness that new mothers work through during those first days and weeks.

Mothering is navigating long days of diapering and feeding and not sleeping and bathing and soothing and rocking and whispering and not sleeping and caregiving and praying and nursing and listening to the hummingbird heartbeat of an angel come to life.

Did I mention not sleeping?

Mothering is all this and so much more.

Congratulations, my sister and brother-in-law. And welcome, Lightening Bolt.