June 18th, 2017 marked five years since my sister died. August 3rd, 2017 marked five years since I moved abroad. I had no idea what I was doing, I was mourning the loss of my sister, and I was heading to a continent I had never been to so I could live in a country I knew very little about and start my very first year of teaching. To say there were questions, to say I was confused, to say I was overwhelmed, is a massive understatement.
Five years on from such a great loss and such a great change, and it seems unimaginable and terrifying to leave when I did- I have no idea just how it formed and affected me as I was grieving and simultaneously leaving everyone and everything I knew. I remember thinking that there was no way I could leave for Albania a little over a month after her funeral. But I did, because in the end I knew that there would be no right answer either way, and that leaving or staying, she was already gone. I knew for certain she wouldn't have wanted me to stay for her, when she wasn't there.
So I carried her with me across the ocean and grieved my way through that trip and the next year in Albania. I wrote about her, over and over, and wrote to her, and cried for her, and spent untold hours just sitting and thinking about who she was and how much I missed her. In some ways, in eerie and spiritual ways, she was my closest companion even as I grieved that she was gone. Away from home and family, when I turned to memories and tears and sinking feelings of loss, she was also, even in the form of a memory, the one who comforted me, who understood the loss of that family bond. It was, in this way, that I grieved my way with her, about her, and into a place I came to again and again, that I carried her, and carry her now, always.
I wrote the following passage about my sister a year after her death. Re-reading it on the fifth year since she passed I don't feel quite this way anymore. It's all still true, and I still feel it this viscerally at times and in some ways, but the feeling of carrying the absence has become less of a noticeable and painful burden. I think it's because I have gotten to used to the weight and space it occupies in me. This is where grief ends up in you, in the bodily record of loss. It doesn't get any easier to lose a sister. It never becomes ok. You simply learn to work with that reality. If that means you can go stretches of time without pain or sadness because you have grown accustomed to bearing the absence, it also means that sometimes you will be walking through a grocery store and hear the song played at her funeral and suddenly there are tears running down your face. It comes and goes, and when it comes you are more prepared than the time before. No amount of years will ever undo the wish for more time, but at least now, when I reflect on the time we did have together, the memories can bring me the joy of remembrance for what we had, instead of the pain of the loss of what we can never have now. I think Heather would be happy to know that five years since her death and four years since I wrote these words, I don't feel so carved and cut these days. Her name and face are her own again in my memories.
For My Sister
June 18th was the day the summer carved and cut from me, shredding and scattering and leaving the hollow. The sun baked the edges and burned away still more. I poured out of my face and fell out of my throat and rotted in my own belly. Every waking began with the slivered edge of a remembrance of what was, followed fast by the rushing wailing of the remembrance of what was now. I was breaking and broken and crucially crumbling, wasting away in the tender part that knit us together, the part that was carved, the place that was cut, the pieces that were shredded and scattered, the hollow that remained, waiting, growing. I crumpled around the absence and slid inside. I wept my way around the borders of this emptiness; I crawled in the dark of it, finding it ever expanding under my searching palms, my dirty knees, my bowed and broken head. In this way I mapped the shape of the place my sister occupied in the person I was. I often forgot where I was and thought I would find her there, even though there was the place of where she was not. So I heaved and sobbed through a wretched and winding way, and in these crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels I discovered what the hollow held. There in the dark, wet cold, I did not find a straightforward grief, or frank loss, or blunt pain. It was nothing so simple or neat, not so clean or sane. Inside, instead, I found a living thing. I found an unwanted and strange creature, humming and fluttering along under my ribs. It has a name I love and a face I miss, but it is not her.
It’s a beating and breathing mass of all that she was, and all I was with her, and all we were together. It murmurs what was left unsaid, and remembers what should never have been said. It shimmers with memories beautiful, and shudders under memories terrible. It teems with joys, with guilt, with questions; it dreams in misty ifs and cries in sharp barks of why, why, why? It is frenetic and dangerous, full of teeth and grasping claws that mark me over and over again; it is smooth, docile curves where I can rest my head and hear the beating heart of what it meant to be and to have a sister. In the hollow, beneath my ribs, sometimes it’s so small I can breathe around it. Sometimes I forget it is there and glance down to find its eyes on me, and then I have to discover it all over again through the infinite shock of knowing. Sometimes it’s wild and screaming and threatens to overtake me; sometimes it does, and then I’m in the hollow, in unfamiliar places I have yet to map, crawling again on searching palms and dirty knees, lost. Sometimes, when it has been exceptionally tame and I am feeling especially brave, I make myself reach in and carefully cradle it in my hands. I make myself feel the shape of it, and softly stroke the finality of what it means to have such a creature inside of me. I feel the awful weight of it in my palms, the warm, weeping reality cupped there, the insistence of the necessity of carrying it with me until I, too, am an unwanted and strange creature beating and breathing in the hollow under someone’s ribs. Rare are these brave times, because they leave me exhausted- far more so than those first lost days of crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels. At the bottom of everything, of course, such distinctions are pointless: whether cupped in my hand or curled in the hollow, I can never, and I will never, be apart from it in any way that truly relieves me. The geography of the body doesn’t allow for such distance. Our proximity is complete and final.
Most of the time, I can be neat and clean and sane, and allow it to live as I know it must live, to dream and scratch and breathe and beat and shimmer and shudder, to hum and flutter along somewhere under my ribs. Most of the time I can set my shoulders and move through the world even as it moves inside of me. Most of the time. Still, in slipping moments I sometimes give in to the need to stand on the slivered edge of remembrance of what was. I shake my head at what is now. I try to fill in the space where I was carved and cut, but it pours out of me. I try to gather the shredded and scattered, but it is forever lost. In this ritual I try to deny what is now, even as I know I cannot forget the crawling travels of the hollow, or ignore the unwanted and strange creature under my ribs.
Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it hummed and fluttered anonymously.
Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it did not take the name I love and wear the face I miss.