Because she was my sister.
I sit alongside my mother in the funeral parlor two days after Lia’s death, this new terrible upside-down world springing into hideous bas-relief while I numbly watch the parlor director’s mouth move in the vernacular of death formalities.
He writes his notes on a legal pad in elegant cursive with a fancy fountain pen which he holds to his mouth thoughtfully while my mother talks. My mom has endured decades of training in Keeping It Together from growing up in a dysfunctional family and she and only she speaks while I sit there with a wadded tissue in my lap and sip coffee out of a styrofoam cup and stare at the floor. She makes arrangements, she declines upsales. She chats amiably about the design job my dad did for the funeral parlor many years earlier.
Just as he invites us to view his urn showroom – although I’m sure he called it something more diplomatic – he and my mother begin to rise and I’m suddenly snapped to life again.
“Aren’t we going to get to see her? Isn’t she here?” I ask, my voice trembling. The funeral director pauses, lifted halfway out of his chair. He pauses and the corners of his mouth turn down.
“We, uh, we don’t generally recommend viewings,” he says, and my mother overrides me, her head already shaking and her words following fast on his: “No, no, we don’t want to do that.”
But I can’t let go. “But has someone seen her?” I ask, barely concealing my mania. Because it haunts me, it terrifies me, the irrational paranoia skittering across my mind: how do we know it’s her? Just because an Asian female was found laying on her bed, well, it could be anyone. She talked sometimes about running away, about changing her identity. Maybe this was all some kind of monstrous ruse.
The funeral director hesitates, perhaps sensing my jittery edge. “Yes, my assistant Brian saw the body when he went to pick it up from the morgue.” He says this while rising from the seat again and turning toward the showroom and in a minute we’re whisked away to the gallery of urns, most of them hideously ornate. My mother listens politely to his sales pitch regarding jewelry with compartments for ashes then chooses the most simple container. As we leave and walk to the parking lot I trail behind her, still wondering: but how do we know it’s her?
Three months later, I speak to a different and far more sympathetic police officer regarding Lia and I effuse theories about who may have done what or known what or ignored what or been involved in what, theories that toe the border of paranoia, most of which he gently tempers with truth. At first I am angry: angry at his even-handedness, his kind voice, his reason. I hear the pause, the beat before his answers to some of my questions and finally he asks, almost tenderly: “How much do you want to know?”
Everything. Nothing. I don’t know anymore. Because by now I’ve asked enough questions to know none of the answers have given me peace.
He answers calmly. “Sometimes bad things happen and we want a reason and someone to blame,” he says. “And there just isn’t.” And I’m silent, shivering under our porch, watching heavy drops of rain pearl and gather and fall from the awning. I hang up soon thereafter, not defeated but surrendered.
Yes, I wanted a reason. I wanted someone to blame. And there is Satan, yes, the thief and liar and murderer, prancing gleefully behind the gales of ruin, celebrating his pyrrhic victories, puppeteering the principalities and powers who would yield to him. But in seen reality, in felt reality, conclusive blame eludes.
I was so eager to absolve my sister of everything even as I oscillated dizzily between bottomless compassion at her pain and strident anger at her choices. I saw a heart scarred by traumatic separation in infancy that reverberated throughout the rest of life, an unbreachable deficit in loving and receiving love. But I also saw abject recklessness and self-destruction. And I realized I could never hold it all, in her or in me or in anyone, could never unweave the threads woven through the labyrinthine tapestry of a human life, could never reconcile things done in secret with things done in the light, could never zoom out enough to see with lucidity how free will and trauma-informed desperation interplay.
I could not hold it, cannot hold it, but God can.
“My sister wasn’t a bad person,” I had pleaded with the cop, apropos of nothing he had said, straining to humanize her in his eyes, paint a picture of the vital, living, breathing person with whom I’d shared so much in 34 years. I needed him to know so badly. I needed it. My sister was not a body. She was not a sterile statistic. She was not “an overdose”.
She was Lia. She was the one with whom I’d created endless My Little Pony vignettes, the one whom I’d trusted so much that I acquiesced unquestioningly when she said it was time for a haircut and mom wouldn’t mind and once I spent an entire afternoon attempting to break open buckeyes with a rock when she told me they had prizes inside.
Later she was the one I’d tiptoed around as typical teenage rebellion metastasized into running away and violence and arrests and jail time. She seemed like a volatile ganglion of pain and anger then, nearly irreconcilable with the sister I’d known. On house arrest she spent her hours watching re-runs of Cops and The Simpsons, sometimes standing and hefting my mother’s leaded dumbbells above her head in the emerald green crushed velvet pajamas she always wore, the electronic house arrest band around her ankle pulsing red.
Then she was my sister, the stranger.
But that was many years before. And lately, there had been such hope. Glimmers of intimacy on the horizon. We are finally going to be close, I had thought. We are going to be like sisters should be, I thought.
The morning after she died, as I shuffled around like an automaton in the pale light trying to get ready to go to Kansas City, I leapt onto the porch to get chicken feed after opening the coop and my foot missed and my shin shredded against the wood. A month or two later, the wound had mended itself to a ruddy brown, preparing to leave a purpled indented scar. And in his gloriously and paradoxically wise way, God brought to my mind Leonard Cohen, he who scored my constantly catastrophizing self-absorption as a teenager ever since my hippest aunt had tucked into a Sam Goody while we were at a shopping mall and rushed out giddily with a CD featuring a dark-eyed, morose-looking man on the cover boldly staring out at me. She handed it to me conspiratorially, as though I were being entrusted with a great treasure. “Listen to track 7 the first time you break up with a boy,” she said breathlessly. Fortunately I never went anywhere at that time without my trusty Discman, and I soon discovered Leonard was the poet for me.
But now I thought of one of his song titles, “True Love Leaves No Traces,” and I almost angrily thought how it must surely be his stupidest song.
Love leaves all kind of traces – good, bad, messy, complicated, contradictory, joyful, painful. I would even go so far as to say that love that leaves no traces isn’t love at all.
Once we were flying some place on Christmas vacation, probably somewhere tropical to see our aunt and uncle, Aunt Terre in all her bronzed, heavily hairsprayed glitzy glory, constantly sucking down Virginia Slims, and Uncle Ken with his thick Australian accent. Later Ken died of pancreatic cancer and Terre shot herself after what was perhaps the longest sober period of her life since teenagehood: three months. But back then they seemed impossibly glamorous to me, and Ken managed those kinds of all-inclusive resorts where plastic wristbands allowed me to glut myself on virgin frozen limeades and where I blushingly averted my eyes from Europeans who took extreme liberties with public nudity.
Lia was 15, I think, and had started distancing herself from all of us if not plunged yet into outright defiance. She and I hadn’t spoken a word to each other the entire flight but suddenly she laid her head on my shoulder and napped for a solid fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes during which I froze, listening to her breath with awed reverence, afraid to move and possibly spook her from this totally anomalous demonstration of affection. But more than affection: trust. It was a gift of wildly improbable grace, like a wild bird had landed on my shoulder.
That was Lia: an impenetrable fortress from which fleeting and precious moments of tenderness and acts of generosity emerged with no discernible pattern, all the more priceless and worthy of wonderment for their rarity. But though she sometimes came out, it seemed you were never truly allowed in. I wonder now. Formally, psychiatrically, it’s sometimes called “reactive attachment disorder”.
This wasn’t fair, this life, I lamented. Even as I emphatically repeated to the police officer, wanting to prove it to him – “she was a good person, she just made mistakes” - I wondered: did I know her, really?
I did. I must have. So many summer afternoons in the pool, sun shimmering off the chlorinated water that parched our hair and reddened our eyes, Lia “surfing” on the thick white float, me striving to do something, anything, equally impressive.
The day she finally allowed me to borrow her Calvin Klein logo shirt, which I wore proudly to school, certain its imputed coolness would cause me to ascend rapidly within the fickle caste system of middle school.
That time a few years ago I told her she reminded me of Kate Moss and she looked away but smiled a little and I knew she was pleased.
And after they were both dead – she and my dad – and my mom and I watched an old video of my gymnastics recital. As I tucked and rolled with minimal competence in my ruffled leotard with the sparkling rainbow unicorn among the padded obstacles, Lia could be heard in the background: “That’s my sister!” she exclaimed repeatedly, her excitement guileless, pure.
So I choose to say yes, I knew her. And I loved her. Because she was Lia. Because she was my sister. And because love leaves all kinds of traces.
A few days after she died Steven and I sat in our pastor’s office, hungry for truth and hungry for Something Good, some good news in this swirling hell into which we’d been hurled. I could barely speak the Sunday-school question on my heart, the question that taunted and haunted me and whispered malevolently from the peripheries of my mind: where was she now? Because there is nothing like the death of someone you love, especially someone for whom abandonment was formational and heart-wounds blazed like Gehenna to once and for all disabuse you of your pretense of knowing who’s in and who’s out and even which way is up.
She wanted to believe. Said she would if she could, if she could see him and smell him and hear him, this God of whom people spoke. And I believe she looked for him, for transcendence, for relief, for some sweet blessed drop of mercy in this burning world, the one that seemed by all appearances godforsaken from where she stood, just as from where she looked out from the bars of an orphanage crib 35 years ago.
Oh, Lord, God, have mercy on her, I begged. She wasn’t a bad person, I found myself pleading, as I did to the police officer, as though God was some detached and disinterested third party and not the One who knitted her in the womb.
“I’m not worried about that at all,” our pastor said, with so much authority, with so much confidence and a confidence which toed the line of exuberant gladness that my tears came hot and fast and I wept as he spoke the most life-giving thing anyone had yet said since she died: “I believe that God is undoing everything from the start. He’s with her at the beginning, in that orphanage, unwinding and unraveling all the pain and abandonment and fear.”
And I hold that image close, hold it near when doubt menaces and the dark end of her life here threatens to swallow the light whole and belch the hope-drained miasma of hell. And I like to picture her giggling, a baby giggle, that noise like no other noise and one in which God delights, a sound flooded with more poignancy and joy than the babbling of brooks and the chittering of dolphins and the patter of rain on hard parched ground combined, a sound which echoes in a guileless tongue the angels swooping above Isaiah and calling “Holy, Holy, Holy is the lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
She is laughing and not crying, and above her the seraphim swoop and glide and call amidst the tangled threads of her life, threads that God is undoing and weaving back to Himself in untraceable patterns. And she knows and is fully known.