Long Time Gone

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

bella

Aurora

Aurora means dawn.

Daybreak.

An unblemished opportunity to start anew.

I am not a morning person, but I do value the chance for a new beginning, and am especially grateful that I get my chance every single day.

One doesn’t associate tragedy and terror with the dawn, but in an American suburb called Aurora that is exactly what was realized when an individual – who for unknown and impossible to understand reasons – took the lives of twelve people, injured dozens more, and ultimately succeeded in causing thousands of men, women and children severe emotional and physical pain.

The reach of this incident is yet unknown. In the early days after unexpected loss, the days are spent doing and deciding… how and where and when to bury the dead, who to inform, what to include in the obituary, and how to handle the attention received from friends and family. In the Aurora case, families are also being contacted and questioned by strangers, public, media, and law enforcement.

Survivors don’t get to feel much in the rush of so much doing.

They are doing. They are not yet being.

Many people have already written about the young man who entered a movie theatre a few days ago at midnight. The speculation about whether he will be found guilty and sentenced to death in a “death penalty” state like Colorado is just beginning.

I wasn’t going to write about it.

But I find myself compelled to write about the survival that has already begun in many homes and hearts across the nation.

The girlfriend whose 18-year-old boyfriend was killed is a survivor.

The two teenage children of the 51-year-old father who was killed are survivors.

The father of a 32-year-old mother of two young children is a survivor.

The great-aunt of Veronica, age six, is a survivor. The dead child’s mother’s fate remains uncertain.

None of these people asked or expected to become survivors. And I suspect many of them think that they won’t be able to survive it – not the depth of the loss nor the crushing pain and overwhelming emptiness that now marks their lives.

But they will survive it.

And they will need our support.

The media attention will subside after a few weeks, and may dust up a bit if there is a trial. The heartbreaking memorials will eventually be over. Survivors of the attack and their family members will return to work. Their colleagues will be gentle with them. After offering their condolences, they might pretend like everything is back to normal.

I don’t judge them for doing so, but I challenge our collective response to grief. The survivors of the Aurora tragedy are taking baby steps into a world unknown, unexplored and unwanted. In order to do what they need to do, they will discover strength that they had no idea they possessed.

Different coping strategies work for different people.

Let’s also remember that all around the world, people are dying tragically – not just in Aurora. The death toll in Syria, Bulgaria and Mexico comes to mind. It’s horrifying.

For those of us on the outside – friends, strangers, newspaper-readers, taxi drivers, teachers – please don’t judge if the survivors don’t wish to talk. Or if they drink too much. Or if they don’t drink anything. Or if they eat. Or if they return to church. Or sleep too much. Or if they shake with fear and grief and anger for a long, long time.

Please don’t blame them for wishing nothing less than hell upon the person who did this to them.

And please don’t shake your head if they… now or someday down the road on which they are traveling… opt to forgive that same person.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know what is right or reasonable when your loved one is taken away.

Let’s remember to hold the survivors in our hearts tonight, and in the days to come… and you know what? Let’s hold them forever. That’s one thing we, on the outside, can do.

This is my plea.

We can hold them, we can lift up the survivors in their grief, walk beside them, and listen to their stories as they move gingerly forward in the forever  journey that is called healing.

Thank you.


Found the Marbles

For everything there is a season

The first summer without my sister I ran and cried and sweated in our nation’s capital. I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved three thousand miles away. I grew no sunflowers.

The second summer without my sister I logged many miles on the roads, slept very little, trembled with anxiety, and took our new puppy to the dog parks where we could both burn off energy and smile at strangers. He entered my life at a time when I was at a loss for knowing what to do next. He looked like this.

We lived in an apartment across the street from friendly gangsters who paid us no attention. I started to admire other people’s backyard gardens, but I still grew no sunflowers.

The third summer without my sister I lived in a home where we built a deck and my husband cleared a space for a garden. All I planted that season were sunflower seeds. I sat on the deck every night with a glass of wine watching the empty garden space and rocking our new baby.

Before my eyes the seeds took root and the magic that is found in a garden began.

In a large patch of dirt, shoots of green began to grow up, up, up, and much like Jack’s beanstalk, they appeared to reach the clouds.

By summer’s end this was our garden.

The fourth and fifth summers I grew fewer sunflowers but they were no less spectacular. And I still cried almost every night, but sometimes just for a moment when the tears threatened and sparkled and I’d blink them back and inhale sharply to make them disappear.

The sixth summer our sons were three years and one year old, respectively, and I planted dozens of seeds, but only a single sunflower grew that season.

Just one.

Had birds stolen the seeds?

Did my garden get flooded by Portland rains just one too many times?

I sent loving thoughts to the one brave bloom in the earth, but it didn’t last the season. One day I went out to find it crumpled on the ground, its seeds scattered by a squirrel or a crow. It was attacked. I tried to keep the entire incident in perspective (it was just a flower, for goodness sake), but I confess feeling really miserable about the loss of this particular flower.

The seventh summer after my sister died I managed to grow about half a dozen sunflowers in a patchy sort of amateur arrangement.

This year marks the eighth season of light since she left us.

My husband tenderly prepared the space. Together our boys and I planted the seeds, and most took root within a few days. Tiny, vulnerable shots of green began to appear.

The stems broke through the earth.

The fragile stalks grew tougher as they reached for the sun.

Today the light signals the plants to flower and the garden offers transformative healing and gentle hope in the presence of the sun.

This is what our garden looks like today – mid-season. We are on our way to a burst of color from at least thirty sunflowers, miniature, tall and giant.

P.S. We’re also growing a bit more in our humble garden. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a jalapeño. We’ve already eaten all the lettuce.

Found the Marbles

28 years of light

Her name was Liz, I said.

How many times have I told people the name of my sister since she died? The people who never had the opportunity to meet her, I mean.

A handful. A few dozen. I don’t know.

Though ever present in my heart and often on my mind, my sister’s story is one that I have not revealed – except through this blog – to many of the people whom I’ve come to know since her death.

Those who do know her story are those few whom I consider to be close friends.

I am grateful that her story remains alive and well, even if she is gone.

Once upon a time, my sister was born on December 1, 1976 in Washington, D.C. I was not quite three years old.

She died on a Thursday, this day, seven years ago. But the story doesn’t end there.

I’m beginning to see that our deathdays are so much less critical than our birthdays.

What happens between them is what matters.

Let me say it again.

What we choose to do and learn and see and say and how we move and speak and listen between our Birthday and our Last Day is what counts.

My sister Elizabeth lived every single day of her life in a spirit of commitment, compassion, and justice. As a child and a young adult, her days were filled with learning, laughter and love. She was practical, funny, sassy and smart. And she had strong opinions.

Shortly before I married, she spent the night at my apartment and we slept together in my queen size bed.

She tossed and turned, until finally she spoke up in the darkness,

I hate your pillows!

These pillows are the worst!

I hadn’t thought about my pillows before. I punched one of them. It was flat. The other one was lumpy.

She was right! Those were horrible pillows!

We dissolved into silly giggles before falling asleep, Liz muttering, “stupid pillows”, which made us laugh until we cried.

In the morning I’d forgotten all about the pillows.

A few months later, Liz appeared at my parents’ door step. In her arms she carried an enormous box.

A wedding present.

Inside the box were four beautiful, brand new pillows.

Gracias hermana mia.

I miss you.


read to be read at yeahwrite.me

and their voices rang into the night

I had dragged my husband to an Indigo Girls concert. We arrived late, general admission tickets in hand. The place was packed. Making our way through the legion of fans, we scanned the crowd and searched for an open space on the lawn. Suddenly I heard someone calling my name.

Two close friends and their group of six or eight friends were sitting close to the stage on several blankets. They had food and a cooler filled with beer. My husband smiled. Later, he mentioned that he didn’t often have the opportunity to hang out with so many attractive women who love women. He would never admit to actually enjoying their music, but his eyes were appreciative as the women took the stage and their voices rang out, strong and true.

As the music began, the sun began to slip beneath the horizon, creating a vast sunscape of gentle pastels on a perfect skyblue canvas. The air was warm and wonderful, and we were surrounded by happy souls who sang into the night.

The next day the world came crashing down.

I lay stunned in the rubble, beneath invisible rocks forcing me to stretch and lean and move painfully in order to get up.

But I got up.

The journey of grief is deceptive. It takes unknown turns though empty hallways and tricks the traveler as she makes her way through a labyrinth of loss.

PTSD

This is about that time of the year when I typically start freaking out.

I do this internally, unconciously, and regretfully. I should always see it coming, but I confess that I choose to close my eyes.

I sense its approach. I am the deer who freezes when the hunter grows near.

I know it’s coming.

One more year has almost gone by. In this year I have experienced great joy, closeness, laughter, and the chaos that accompanies a family in its learnings and growings.

Both stillness and movement bring me to a place where I feel real and alive and good. Knowing this, I strive to make time for meditation and time for running.

But in this moment, my body reacts even before the mind. The anniversary of her leaving us – leaving me — creeps closer and closer until I am forced to admit that she is gone.

I understand the definition of post-traumatic stress. I really do.

Before my glass is empty, I long for another drink.

I wish I could learn to lean on others more than I do, but I cannot.

read to be read at yeahwrite.me

A my name is Annie

How does a change in physical appearance affect the inner landscape? This post was prompted by Write on Edge.

Observing an unexpected physical change in my grandmother caused something to shift in my young consciousness.

It was a long drive from my hometown to my grandparents’ house. My sisters and I sat buckled in and three deep across the back seat of a boxy station wagon. Luggage was loaded across the tailgate to fill the space behind us. A small cooler filled with sandwiches and snacks was at our feet. We had no DVD player nor an Iphone to entertain us, but we had plenty of notebooks and pens and library books. We played Madlibs and I Spy. We called out the names of states as we searched for license plates from across the nation, and we sped down the highway past farms and weathered, paint-chipped barns and sleepy big-eyed cows that stood silent beneath the sun. We played the alphabet game over and over as we drove from Virginia to Michigan in the summertime.

A my name is Annie and I like to eat apples, B my name is Bobby and I like to eat berries, C my name is Candy and I like to eat cupcakes….

We quizzed our parents about our location; my dad tossed us a map.

Us: Are we there yet?

Them: Not much longer now.

We stretched our legs at grimy highway rest stops where the summer heat blasted our senses till we climbed back into the car. Finally we rolled into the driveway of my grandparents’ house, dusty and tired, but quickly revived as we recognized our faraway cousins and doting aunts and laughing uncles. We were scooped up in hugs and greetings and everyone cheered as the family became more and more present… grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandbabies – there was sure to be a bunch of us arriving on the scene.

I do not remember my paternal grandmother very well, but I do remember her. She was soft and serious and kind… if I met her today, I think I would describe her as industrious. One has to be, if one has eleven children.

She had these beautiful, gentle eyes.

I remember her offering me a piece of warm bread, or perhaps it was a cookie, as she bustled in the kitchen preparing a meal. Then she told me I could play the piano in the living room. Framed photos stood in black and white on the gleaming upright in the elegant room that felt to me more like a parlor than a space to relax. My feet didn’t touch the pedals, but the notes sang out as I pressed each key in turn.

Months later we visited and I observed that she was no longer robust and round. She was thin. Different. I hugged her, and she hugged me back. She looked around the room smiling as our family spilled into the room, filling it with a disorderly and warm-hearted energy created by a big and loving family.

I remmber that she did not stand up from her chair.

Today, I would have described her appearance as frail, but this woman – a mother and grandmother to so many children – no, she could not have been frail, at least not in spirit. Even at a young age, I recognized that there was great meaning behind her physical appearance.  The transformation in her limbs was profound. She was strong and became weak, we were hopeful and yet she was losing a battle against which she had few weapons.

Again, we traveled the vast distance to arrive in time for her funeral.

In the reflection of the rearview window, I saw tears sparkling in my father’s eyes as he drove us down the highway, but they did not fall. I blinked, looked out the window and back again.

Had I imagined them?

Write On Edge: Red-Writing-Hood