I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be
– Iris Dement
I’ve been reluctant to put pen to paper recently. I guess because writing means I need to check in and ask myself how it’s going. In the past weeks, the answer has often been, “Not well. Still hurting.” So, I have put the task of writing off and simply tried to put one foot in front of the other.
About two months ago, my sister died of a rare type of cancer. Next to my parents (who have both died), this sister was the “constant” in my life. As my friend, Grace, recently said of her sister, “She was my memory.” My sister had been through all of my childhood stuff – some of it fun, some of it painful – with me. Like war buddies, we each knew the other’s formative trials and tribulations (most of them, at least). (I have two other sisters, who are a little bit older than she. They are equally wonderful, but they were nearly grown by my childhood and didn’t share our house for long.) She also was the person with whom I shared some quirky, childish traits. Whenever I was excited that a new children’s story was being released on film – like the newest Harry Potter – I knew my sister would be equally, if not more excited. We each put on Harry Potter Halloween parties over the years and had more fun than the children.
The past few weeks, I have been sort of perking up and getting on with life, and then my birthday came along. I can’t tell you how many bereaved friends have told me over the years how difficult first holidays are without their loved ones. I hadn’t really thought about birthdays. But it took me by surprise and hit me all over again. No sister to call and tease me, to wish me a happy birthday. I’m terrible at remembering birthdays (except maybe my kids’ and husband’s) – she only forgot my birthday once in 58 years – the year her husband had a stroke.
As we went through this long process of her cancer and its treatment, somewhere way in the back of my mind, I felt, “I’m familiar with grief, I’ll be okay.” I knew we could walk through this as a family and that we would all go on after my sister was gone – though I couldn’t imagine life without her. She is/was a person of such deep faith that I knew, she knew, that she would ultimately be fine (though she was pretty bewildered and pissed off about the timing of this thing). A belief in some kind of eternal existence was comforting and knowing that she was no longer suffering gave us a moment of relief when we lost her. But when we got over the initial relief and felt the actual parting and loss, I remembered then that one cannot “skip over” grief. You don’t ever get completely experienced and familiar with it. The feeling of loss was full, deep, overwhelming.
If one skips over it, grief is going to be there lurking in the background, underneath everything we do. It is that proverbial deep valley that that we each have to walk through if we want to know sunlight again. Whew! I’m still walking that road. I come up to little green hilltops and think I’ve moved onto the next chapter and then the road (as on my birthday) takes a steep plunge. I’m committed to allowing myself the space and time to see the full journey of grief through.
Philosophically and spiritually, my sister and I were on different pages, but as I said, we each had a sense of an eternal “self” that continues on. So, I talk to my sister now. When my dad died, I “saw” him in crowds and dreamed of him for many years. With my mom, I have felt her strong presence in sublime moments in nature – sunsets especially, at which she often cried. With my sister, now, I have the growing sense of her sort of “working on my spiritual team.” Her energy supporting me, her spirit swirling around here and there, making sure I’m okay and even nudging me onward. I’ve had only one dream of her. She was in the next room and I could hear her voice. It was very comforting.
In conversations with scientific and pragmatic friends over the years, I’ve been challenged, occasionally, for having that ongoing sense of presence and being. As I was explaining to a very scientific friend last week, some of us “know” things through data, method, and intellectual understanding. Some of us “know” things intuitively, through our senses, feelings, and experience. I know that it is too “woo woo” and doesn’t fit for some and I’m not expecting anyone to agree with me. Yes, it is possible that it is all imagined. No, I can’t give you any proof. But I’m okay with that.
The fun thing is that my sister was like me in this regard, times ten. She was totally okay with the magic, the reality of the unseen sparkle of the Universe. We are and were both child-like in this regard. And if it is good enough for my big sister, it is good enough for me.
So I’ll keep talking to her, sipping our favorite tea, planting fairy gardens, wearing the bracelets she made me and my butterfly t-shirt. I’ll plant the eucalyptus seeds that my daughter gave me to remind me of her neighborhood, and read her favorite poem (that my other daughter read at her memorial service) every Christmas. And perhaps I’ll toast her with a glass of butterbeer and get out my best robe and wand every Halloween and we can see what we can conjure up together.
(Photos by Judy Burns 2012)