Note: I wrote this two months ago, but it just didn't seem like the right time to share it until now.
It’s been three weeks since the night I learned of my sister’s death through a text message. No one meant for it to happen that way, but that’s how it did.
“Lia’s gone,” it reads. “[Her roommate] came home and found her passed away on her bed. I’m so sorry.”
Gone, I think? She skipped town without telling anyone, then, I think. Not the first time. But ‘passed away’? What a odd choice of expression to use to talk about her leaving town.
Lia’s gone. Passed away. So sorry. My brain bandies these strange phrases about, hearing the terrible news but not receiving it. I’m so sorry. Why should he be ‘so sorry’ about her skipping town? I mean, it’s definitely not good, sure. Sorry, perhaps, but so sorry? So sorry. Passed away. Lia’s gone.
And then it hits. And I start shaking and crying and Steven runs in from where he’s rewiring the living room and he’s laced with ancient cobwebs and dusted with more ancient insulation from crawling through the attic and I scream “Lia’s dead, my sister’s dead.” And he doesn’t understand and I still don’t understand and the nightmare just keeps doing its ghastly unfurling from there.
She was always so private, so secretive, so protective of her world and her possessions. I worked for two months to borrow her Calvin Klein logo shirt when I was in the fifth grade. For two months, I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled, and was met with stonily persistent refusal until one day, some random, merciful whim utterly unrelated to my weeks of begging struck her and for one glorious school day, the shirt was mine. That was Lia: an impenetrable fortress from which fleeting moments of tenderness and acts of generosity emerged with no discernible pattern, all the more priceless and worthy of wonderment for their rarity. And though sometimes she came out, you were never really allowed in.
So now, here we are, left with fragments and pieces of that demolished fortress that I fool myself into thinking will bring peace if I can only piece them together. But they’re like one of those maddening grid puzzles. Move one square and another and you’re forced to move another even farther away from its apparent, logical position in the scheme of things in order to put that one there but then you can’t get the other back to its place without more movement and it never ends. And I’m standing like an obsessive, red-eyed detective in front of a corkboard feathered with this plumage of notes and clues and personalities and it’s an impossible labyrinth but I convince myself I’m on the precipice of discovery. But discovery of what? And for what purpose?
Maybe to know her at last. To finally know her, this person with whom I shared baths and snow days and endless My Little Pony vignettes. The one whom I trusted so much that when she told me there were prizes inside of buckeyes, I spent hours one afternoon trying to bust one open with a rock. The one to whom I submitted without question when she said it was time for a haircut and mom wouldn’t mind. The one with whom I decided to run away one afternoon when mom was being ‘mean’, with whom I tied handkerchiefs weighted with an hour’s supply of snacks to the end of sticks and set off, making it all the way to the bend in our gravel drive before our resolve dissolved and we trudged back.
But she was also the one I tiptoed around later, when the school calls and the real running away and then finally the arrests started, the police visits in the middle of the night. She was the one I avoided those months when she was homebound with a band around her ankle that intermittently pulsated with a red light, and she paced between her bedroom and what we still called our ‘playroom’, talking on the phone to friends I didn’t know or watching The Simpsons or Cops on the playroom TV, no matter how many times my parents asked her to turn it off. She was like a livid, volatile ganglion of pain and anger in those days, and honestly she scared me. All her life, she cut through pretense and deceit like a knife, and back then the knife was often unkind, though almost always truthful. So I avoided her, the prisoner in our home.
But that was a decade and a half ago. Time and two precious baby boys had changed her. A new era was dawning, I believed, in the months before she died. We are going to finally get close, I told myself. We’re going to be sisters like sisters are supposed to be. That was the narrative I was constructing, the one I was believing in, with the nights of volleyball and the jokey texts and especially that precious night in July when on the way home from volleyball she broke down and opened up to me in a way she hadn’t in years. Maybe ever. We even talked about God, a subject that had elicited nothing but apathy from her before. And she told me she loved me and I told her I loved her, too, and we hugged. So what if she was a little tipsy? I was exultant. My sister loved me. And I felt buoyant and hopeful after that night. Things were changing. We were changing. But now she’s gone, and we’re left with the pieces and fragments she’s not here to defend or explain.
This was never the way it was supposed to be and never the way I wanted it. And she would be horrified that her life is now laid out like a tableau for perusal. And me desperately trying to right things, to undo things, to resolve my guilt at not trying harder to be close to her, is helping nothing. I had to lodge my foot in my mouth after I fired off a nasty note to someone I believed had wronged her, only to be proven otherwise. “Stop digging up dirt,” my dad beseeched me. I balked and started to cry and nearly screamed “I’m not trying to dig up dirt, I’m trying to make things right, can’t you see that?!” and unceremoniously hung up on him.
It is real – this burning, this desperate wish to make things right, to untangle the knotted story, to enact a justice that isn’t mine to seek. To reconcile the paradoxes of who she was. Distant, undemonstrative – but she had every school picture of mine through my senior year in high school in a folder in her room. Stoic, reticent – yet with a mysterious tenderness that drove Arrow to cling to Lia like an adorable barnacle every time she was around her.
But I can’t make it right, and my efforts come to nothing and seem to do more damage in their profitless pursuit and I have to apologize to my dad for doing things like angrily hanging up on him when he’s dealing with the loss of his child.
I walked through the first week feeling at once detached – like I was enveloped by some kind of insulation that muffled the sensory world – and dreadfully awake, senses heightened. I lay awake in the middle of the night, staring but not seeing the walls, the ceiling. And now I can tell I’m entering the long haul, the valley trudge, of grief. And it’s hard to see beyond the gray tundra. It’s hard to see where resurrection could possibly bloom. And I’m still finding it hard to pray. But I wait, because there’s really no other option.
Early in the morning, hours after I found out she died, I was hurriedly packing and preparing to leave for Kansas City, and in a trance I ran to feed the chickens and went to lunge up on the porch to get their grain and missed and shredded the skin on the lower part of my shin. It’s still healing, and I’ve been thinking about that Leonard Cohen song “True Love Leaves No Traces” and how completely inane its titular claim is. True love leaves all kinds of traces; the truer the love, the more and deeper the traces, the wounds, the scars. But pain leaves traces, too. Pain like spending most of the first two years of your life in an orphanage. Pain like knowing your biological mother gave you up but never really knowing why, or whether she cared now or thought of you or was looking for you at all.
“Unwanted babies should never be born. People should just get abortions,” she flatly spat out once before a volleyball game this past winter. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but her declaration was bitter and definitive, and I think I can guess why.
Probably the most comforting thing that has been spoken over me since her death – something which, when spoken, made me weep tears of joy and sorrow and relief all running together in one symphonic deluge – was that God is meeting her in the place of her original wounding. He is meeting her there in the orphanage, undoing the bonds that were broken or never formed, weaving the synaptic connections that tell a child you’re safe, you’re loved, you’re cared for. She knows now she is not alone; she doesn’t have to claw and fight for survival and maintain hypervigilance over her emotions and heart. His perfect love is filling the voids where human love failed, making her heart a spacious place, a heart that can finally receive and receive fully the love for which and by which it was made. He is good. And he made and makes a way for us. But it still feels a little shallow when I say that, a little contrived; like I’m forcefully gluing down a neat little bow on what’s messy and unhealed. But I think of David and one of my favorite of his psalms, Psalm 13. I used to wonder if he went back and tacked on the final two verse months after he wrote the original few because it just sounded bad to leave them standing alone.
“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? 3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. 5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. 6 I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me.”
But now I think he was just speaking truth to himself even when and where he didn’t feel it. And so will I. God is good. He made and makes and is making a way. And resurrection will spring up in the wastelands, even though I can’t see it yet.