When my sister was born, I’d been led to believe that I would be the recipient of a brand-spanking-new, ready-to-play-on-demand girlfriend.
I was almost three years old.
She came home with my parents at Christmas time. They tell me I looked her over, and she tucked into herself, teensy, wrinkly and perfect.
She can’t play!
I walked away, unimpressed.
What kind of a playmate can a newborn be?
I do not remember this scene, of course, but according to credible sources that’s what happened when Elizabeth Kasulis Padilla joined me in my great big three-year-old world.
I do not remember another moment being unimpressed with my baby sister.
Three days from now she will have been gone for eight years. More than a year after the accident, I wrote,
I either want to live here: that is, here in time and space and being, creating and contributing to love, health, and happiness within my family and myself. Or I want to live there: where she is. But I do not want to linger anymore in this peripheral life that has forced my every thought into such a dark and empty space.
I lingered in that dark space for a long, long time. It’s just recently that I’ve been more fully present in my life, in a good way. Those of you who haven’t experienced immediate loss of a loved one may puzzle why, why it takes so damn long to get over it. The thing is you just don’t get over it, you get through it, tumbling beneath its weight, pushing against its intensity, cringing from its cruelty. You find yourself living a new human experience, one that you didn’t expect nor ask for. You make yourself and your world anew because the old one is a long time gone.
Wondering what the angels are up to today and every day, I imagine my sister as the quintessential angel organizing force. She could lead a union of good will, and everpresent and inclusive prayer, and initiate the transformation among us from a place of sorrow into unsorrow, and then support the work of we survivors as we march heavily toward joy.
A born leader and organizer, my sister was persistent, sensitive and smart. Above all she was a hard worker.
The work of healing is real, but more subtle for the bereaved than I’d expected. When I watched footage of the final survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings leaving the hospital, I was tearful and yet mindful that she was able to take physical action to heal. One of her legs was amputated above the knee and the other is severely injured. As insensitive as this may sound, I am a little envious of the survivors. I hurt for them, but wish my sister had been able to heal, too.
Despite what the DSM says, bereavement isn’t depression, not exactly. It’s more like coming to truth. It might be a coming to Jesus moment, except I don’t believe anyone can save me but me. It’s coming to heartbreak and getting up in the morning and painfully realizing that a measure of joy of your own life has been stolen not only from you but from everyone who knows you. And among them in my case was included the person who promised nine months before her death to love me ‘for better or for worse’.
And then ‘for worse’ happens and that really sucked.
It’s so real, believe me, it’s the realest, darkest, angriest, most terrible thing you can know and know and know it’s real.
It’s real and she’s dead and the next day she’s still dead.
The grieving process feels mean sometimes. It’s that bitter old man who tells everyone who will listen that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Then you wake up again and a piece of your bleeding heart is still beating, but threatening to destroy you so all you want to do is sleep and self-medicate and forget. So you do so, for a long time, and work a little in between the space where the sun rises and slips away, another day done and done.
It’s been a long time since she’s been gone.
For so long I couldn’t give up grieving, because leaving the grief felt like leaving her.
I know I’ve felt sorry for myself. Others have lost children. I haven’t. Others have lost their partners or parents. I haven’t.
Others have been touched by absolute horrors, so much more appalling and more terrible than my own, here in my own community and my country. Across borders and oceans and through lines of people waiting to show passport and greet bored and suspicious people who work in customs.
In the year 2004 I was stopped twice in Miami because the FBI was looking for a woman whose name matched my own. They wouldn’t tell me anything other than she had a scar on her stomach.
I wasn’t her. She wasn’t me.
Finally they let me go. I pissed the border control guy off by switching to English after several minutes of being very nice and cooperative in Spanish. Upon my release, I inquired as to how I could prevent this situation from happening again.
Get married, he said. Change your name.
I was married. Seriously?
During the year after my sister’s death, I wrote this:
Do I have regrets? Yes, absolutely. I feel cheated, brokenhearted, devastated to have lost my sister. People who tell you otherwise are lying. My regrets, however, are not for the past. They are for the future. I took for granted that my sister would be, at the very farthest, a phone call away from me, until we were very old, withered from the sun and rain and adventure of many decades. I looked forward to holidays and birthdays and regular days of no particular significance, other than it was a day and we were there. I wanted to be an aunt to her children, and of course, expected Liz to be Aunt Liz to mine. Yes, I have regrets.
But still. I’m here for something.
I still rise in the mornings.
There’s a lot of wonder in our wonderful world, after all. Maybe even more than before.
I’m thinking of those whom my sister greets in her space within the universe, small children from Sandy Hook, old people who are ready to go and middle-aged people like me. Certainly people who never intended to meet her there, like the eight-year-old Boston spectator, the children who died when a tornado in Oklahoma showed no mercy, and the friends of my parents who have lost their lives since hers was taken.
Given her enthusiasm for life and people and care packages, I know she is capable of providing the most perfect welcome for anyone who crosses her path.
Especially the children, I think.
That said, I avoid looking at the bestsellers at the airport that scream Heaven is for Real… stories from those who emerge from death to tell the tale. I’m not sure if they frighten or offend me because I think they’re simply a fraud or because miraculously they might be true… and in that case why didn’t my sister get to write her own bestseller?
Clearly my handle on what happens next and after and forward is vague. But I do believe in the spirit of my sister. I am filled with gratitude, and yes, joy, at having known her for 28 years. And for knowing her still.
Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
~ Henry David Thoreau