There is always, ALWAYS, something (and more likely a lot of things) to be grateful for. And those somethings are what make your life bright, even when it feels impossibly dark. Today, on Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for all the people who have been those lights for me. It hasn't been an easy year to smile and laugh, but at the end of every single day, I am grateful. For my parents and sister who are strong for me even though they are broken, my sweet boys whose innocence reminds me of the beauty of this world, and my husband who is always there, keeping me together. For the most wonderful in-laws I could ask for, an abundance of aunts, uncles, and cousins that I love, grandparents that I cherish, and so many loving and supportive friends from across the globe. And, finally, even in her absence, I am grateful for my sister Stephanie. There will never be a day that I don't think of her, and, whether those thoughts bring a smile or tears, I know I am lucky to have her in my heart.
“I didn’t even wish her happy new year”. I can’t tell you how many times in the days, weeks, months following Steph’s death I choked on these words on their way out because they were too big, too full of regret. I figured it had been two weeks since I talked to my sister in some form… a text, facebook message, a phone call. Anything that, more than the words themselves, said I’d thought of her. That something reminded me of her, that I missed her. Two weeks was a long time for us to go without any communication, even given the five-hour time difference and her busy work schedule and my busy new baby plus toddler schedule. And when I learned she was gone, those two weeks became a source of such guilt. I hadn’t had the chance to say I thought of her, to show I loved her, just one more time.
But the guilt didn’t stop there…
I left for college before Steph was in high school. While I was gone, she grew up. Each time I came home I marveled at my baby sister’s transformation from goofy, adorable tween to goofy, beautiful young lady. From a little sister wanting to emulate everything about her older sisters to a little sister forging her own way. Without any pressure from her family to be anyone other than herself, she became her own person. And her person just so happened to be very different than mine. There I was, a live-by-the-rules, follow directions, dress in all neutrals kind of girl. And there she was, free-spirited, wild, with not a single piece of plain, neutral colored clothing in her wardrobe. She wore more jewelry at single moment than I had worn my whole life. And I worried more in a day than she did in all of hers. It’s inevitable that we’d be different. That we’d have different interests, strengths, weaknesses. But that’s the beauty of sisters… love transcends these differences. It didn’t matter that we were in different stages of our lives, she in her carefree early twenties and me in the latter part of that decade. Me with two babies and she still a baby herself. I know that we loved each other, and I believe that she knew it too. But love hasn’t been enough to ward off regret or shield me from guilt.
Reflecting on these last few years, I see what could probably be considered a typical relationship between sisters. We had different priorities, different schedules. We played a lot of phone tag. But when we did catch up, there was no denying we were sisters. In giving advice, I didn’t always tell her what she wanted to hear, but I supported her nevertheless. There were lots of laughs, but also moments of contention. I was grateful to have someone to tell me to lighten up and I took the responsibility of telling her to buckle down. It all felt so normal. I embraced the good, and dismissed the bad as unavoidable rough patches in sisterly growth. Then, after she died, my perspective changed. Normalcy suddenly wasn’t good enough. The bad overshadowed the good and every imperfect interaction was magnified.
I was pained by the possibility of missed memories on account of the role I’d taken in our relationship. I had accepted and understood that I may not have been her top choice in company, and so I resigned myself to the sidelines. I was there if she needed me, but didn’t force her to share with me the side of herself she reserved for her friends. I suppose I was waiting for her to outgrow the insecurity that inevitably accompanies young adulthood, and was often only shown to her family. I wanted it to happen naturally, as it should, but knew she might need guidance along the way. And I knew that getting to fully experience her fun, bubbly personality would be the reward for my patience. I always looked forward to the day our age gap would be less significant, that she wouldn’t need me to love her so responsibly and I could love her more freely instead. I couldn’t have known that that day would never come, but it tortures me just the same.
Each instant of tough love I’ve given her brings me to tears… Were my concerns genuinely attributed to my love for her as I’d formerly reasoned or had I not been accepting enough? Was my concern received with love or dismissed as judgmental?
My reserve in our friendship puts a knot in my stomach… Had she appreciated the space to grow without my hovering or had she wanted me more present? Had she understood it was out of love or did she feel it was without it?
Selfishly I consider my own burdens in the wake of her loss… Was my being on the sidelines really of my own accord or had she put me there because I was too hard on her? In trying to protect her, did I drive her away? In my looking forward to our growing even closer together through the years, did I overlook and under-appreciate what we had in the present? Why didn’t I call her every time I thought of her? Even one more conversation to hold onto now would have been well worth the nine unanswered ones it would have taken to reach her.
So many questions, guilt residing in nearly every perceivable answer.
The thing about guilt is that it’s grounded in hypocrisy. You can say to someone else in your very position “you can’t feel guilty about that”. And you’ll mean it. You will believe with every ounce of your being that there is no place for harboring guilt. Yet, you’re ears will be deaf to you’re very own words, grounded in steadfast belief though they may be. In this way, guilt is a powerful and dangerous thing. It can devour you from the inside out and there isn’t an easy way to stop it. I’m not sure there is a way to stop it at all.
But there may be a way to overcome it…
A couple of weeks ago, as I was missing my sister, I scrolled through her Instagram. That’s when I fell upon one of her signature selfies, this one taken on New Years Eve. Below it was a little comment “Happy New Year Steph”. And it was from me.
I had wished her a “Happy New Year” after all. It’s something so small, but it’s strangely comforting. Something I had done broken through the clouds of things I hadn’t. With one little comment, she might have remembered that I love her. If but for an instant, she knew I cared. I’m not sure I will ever stop considering the things that I didn’t do or should have done differently. But maybe if I let myself breathe during these tiny reliefs, I can get through this.
Somehow, four weeks have gone by. The only proof that time is not standing still is that Tyler has put on two pounds and looks more like an infant than the newborn he was at the start of the New Year. Without my babies’ growth as a benchmark for the passage of time, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between today and yesterday.
We are all making it through each day. We are sleeping, breathing, eating, smiling. We are even dappling in living a bit. But that’s when it hits. The sudden reminder that Stephanie is gone. And it hurts in a way I can’t describe. It’s like a sledgehammer. Hard, fast, heavy, leaving my head pounding and body crippled by the blow. Like a wave. Crashing over me, knocking me off my feet, throwing me around under the water until I can’t tell which way is up. But a sledgehammer leaves a bruise, while this is an invisible blow from the inside. And a wave can be seen growing on the water, while this comes on without a tidal warning…
Death by its very nature marks an end. It finishes life. Forever. I can tell myself this a million times and yet the finality of it is still unfathomable. In this life as I know it, I will never see my littlest sister again. I will never have the chance to hug her, my nose tickled by her curly colorful hair. I will never step on the back deck to see her practicing new hoop tricks in her underwear. I will never say something to bring on her trademark laugh. That deep chortle that, except for its’ authenticity, was completely unsuited to her petite adorable self.
I can’t believe, if I called her, she wouldn’t answer. Not because she’d lost her phone, again. Not because she missed the call, per usual. But because she’s not there. And never will be in the way she was a month ago.
I don’t know when I’ll come to understand this concept of “never”. I’m not sure that I ever want to. For now, I’ll keep looking for life in the midst of missing Steph. The waves will come. The sledgehammer will strike. But I’ll try not to be consumed by the never-ness of it all. I’ll try to align my living with her memory, instead of living around it.
There are no words to describe how you’re feeling after this kind of loss because all the words you know had different meanings before. “How are you doing?” is a simple question, but suddenly there aren’t enough adjectives for a simple answer. So I settle for “good”. Good, as in “good….relatively”.
The love and support we’ve received these past two and a half weeks is absolutely incredible. It is what has kept us together. People from all over the map and all across the timeline of our lives… cards, phone calls, drop-ins, emails, facebook messages…. Some people offer beautiful words, others make delicious casseroles. Some give the most comforting hugs, others share their extraordinary ability to make people laugh even in the toughest times. And more people than we can count have come forward to offer an ear for listening and a shoulder to cry on. The number of lives my sister has touched is a testament to her wonderful character and to my family’s warmth and love.
While there is no denying that Stephanie’s accident has affected an enormous number of people, the world somehow feels larger than ever now. For as many people that knew and loved my sister, there are millions more that didn’t. Though this grief is so big, the truth of the matter is, we are so small. And the world is moving on without us. Time may have stopped for this large army of friends and family, but the sun is still rising and setting. People are still shopping for birthday gifts at the mall and picking out produce at the grocery store. Waiting at red lights and paying their electric bills. Watching American Idol, arguing over politics. Life is going on. At some point, we will have to step back in. That’s where I am now… dipping my toes into the life I knew before January 5th.
A recurring theme to the wisdom that friends have shared about loss is that of a “new normal”. Things will never be the same, but we will grow accustomed to the change. The pain will lessen, but the scar will remain. We will learn to live with this void.
I understand that we’ll slowly reintegrate ourselves into the lives we knew before. I realize that we will learn to cope with having Steph solely in our memories. I believe in a new normal and I believe I can be happy within it. But I can’t help but wonder if life will always feel relative to the one we lived before January 5th. If “good” will always be “good, relatively”.
Our "goodbye" to our sister from her Celebration of Life spoken one week ago today:
Since January 5th, we’ve been thinking about our baby sister. Her bubbly, hilariously-uncensored, personality. Her empathy and extraordinary drive to make other people feel special. Her beautiful smile, and contagious laugh. So many wonderful thoughts, but none that could be put into words that seemed suited for saying goodbye.
When we were looking through some of her things, a yellow post-it note fell out of one of her sketchbooks. On it, she'd written a quote by Pablo Picasso " The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away". Judging by outpouring of support from all the people whose lives she touched, it's clear that her gift was love.
Growing up, we girls were so fortunate to be surrounded by so much of that gift. Our immediate family, our extended family, our friends that are like family… Love was the most important aspect to our lives. In our house specifically, “I Hate you” was worse than any curse word. In moments of childish tantrums, that phrase was grounds for time out. Our father had a zero tolerance policy for this. “You’re sisters, you love each other, you always will” he would say. We are so grateful for this now. He never let us go to bed mad at each other and he never let us say goodbye without saying “I love you”.
And that’s all we can really think to say now. We love you, Stephanie. This goodbye is so different than the ones we’ve said before, but what matters is that we love you. And we always will.
To be completely honest, this time last night I was tortured by the idea of our horror story spreading throughout social media. It was so surreal, so devastating that what I was feeling seemed too personal for Facebook. No status or wallpost could rightly capture the beauty that was my baby sister or actually describe the impact of her being gone. I dreaded the moment the news would seep onto my page. I knew once it happened, it would spread exponentially. There was no taking it back.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so concerned about stopping time in that moment before everyone knew. What did it matter when the moment that really mattered, the one that changed everything, had already passed?
I would not wish the past 24 hours or what inevitably follows from here on anyone. This is the beginning of what will likely be one of the hardest times of my life. But I will say this: Social media ended up bringing me, not the torture I’d anticipated, but a small dose of comfort. In a time where I am much too far away from the people who I need and who need me most, it brought me a bit closer. Pictures slowly started appearing as people’s profiles. People from everywhere that know me personally and others I’ve never met started sharing stories. More people than I could ever hope to thank individually offered their sympathies.
None of this keeps me from breaking down with each flicker of a Stephanie-memory and each phone call with my parents or middle sister. But it does remind me that I’m not alone. Even though it might feel like I am from a geographical standpoint, I’m not. And, until everything is sorted and I can get to my family, I will be grateful for that. Thank you from the very bottom of my broken heart for thinking of me and my family. And, most importantly, for thinking of Stephanie.