My sister passed away nine years ago today. Every year it’s a sad anniversary to mark, probably made worse by its proximity to Easter. I don’t tend to talk about her very much because in some ways it still feels quite raw. I always figured it was the sort of wound that would heal. I mean, there are dogs who learn to get by on two legs. Learning to live sibling-less struck me as rather the same kind of thing. Part of me is gone, but somehow I’ll find the means to compensate until the emotional limping becomes second nature. Until I just don’t notice it anymore.
Almost a decade has passed, and I don’t think the grieving process has run its course the way I thought it would. Instead of handicapped, I feel bifurcated, as though I’ve lived two lives. In one of them I had a sister, and in this one I don’t, and trying to bring those two versions of me together is painful. It feels as if the times I remember with Laura are someone else’s memories. I’m anesthetized to the sadness because in a sense she feels like a fictional character I read about in a book a very long time ago. But every once in a while, and certainly on this day, the numbness wears off, the memories become mine again, and it just hurts.
Laura and I were fairly close in age–2 1/2 years apart–but our personalities were extremely different. She was energetic, athletic despite her asthma, and above all she loved people. She was the lone extrovert on a small island of introverts, and I think that was probably very tough on her. We spent most of our childhood together, just the two of us. I remember encouraging her to accomplish gymnastic feats of greatness. I taught her to do a back walk-over, despite the fact that I had never managed to do one myself. We found creative ways of launching her through the air. We played “Don’t Touch Hard Ground” and generally ran about like headless chickens. She was always game for anything.
Laura also loved to sing. That was probably the one thing we had in common, except it came more naturally to her. Mom discovered her talent for it one day after they had seen a church musical wherein a little girl sang “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” “I can do that,” Laura proclaimed when the play was over, and when she launched into the song, dang if she couldn’t sing! The same thing happened with dance when Laura was in middle school. She was at a high school audition because they needed younger kids in the play, and when the dance try-outs began Mom was stunned to see that her younger daughter could dance (because heaven knows her older daughter couldn’t). From that point on, singing and dancing were Laura’s passions, and performing was one of her favorite things.
When I remember my sister, I remember her in neon. She never liked to blend in and would perform surgery on all of her clothes–cutting them up, puffy painting them, sewing two halves of different pants together (I never really understood her aesthetic). She wore neck ties as belts and combination locks as…accoutrements? She was creative in just about every aspect of her life. Her makeup might have made her look like a chola, but it was impeccably done. I recall her spending hours in front of the mirror to get her hair in some braided configuration done to her satisfaction. Laura was amazing at crafts, and her wrapped presents were works of art. She may not have been much of a writer, but her handwriting was amazing, and she never could draw very well, but the word-art she created on the back of her hand when she was bored was stunning.
These are the things I think of when I think of my sister. She cared about people–too much, I always thought. Unlike me, she forgave easily, and she went out of her way to make her friends feel loved, making cards and desserts for them for no reason at all. She was generous with her time and her stuff (except with me. She never did like it when I “borrowed” without permission). She didn’t much like to read, but she practically had the Harry Potter books memorized. She liked punk rock and hated it when I listened to talk radio while driving her home. She also liked punk-styled boys with the piercings and the tattoos and the shaggy, dyed hair and…yeah, I didn’t get that at all. I’ve been an octogenarian for a long time now.
Laura and I loved each other, but I think in many ways we were so different that we couldn’t be very close. That’s probably my biggest regret. There were sides of herself that she never showed me, probably because she thought I wouldn’t understand. To be honest, she was most likely right about that. I’ve never been known for being un-judgy. Laura always sort of baffled me. But I like to think that we had really come to appreciate each other after seventeen years of wearing one another down. We were about as opposite at two people could be (I’d type her an ESFX for the Myer-Briggs peeps out there–that reminds me how much she loved those marshmallow Peeps, which…ugh!–to my INTP) but we made it work pretty well most of the time.
My last living memory of her was on Sunday morning. I was set to sing at a friend’s church and had gotten up early. Laura was to leave for her spring break service project that afternoon, and it struck me as I was getting into my car that I wouldn’t be able to see her off. Mom was watching me leave, and since I was already late, she urged me to go, assuring me she’d let Laura know I said goodbye. I don’t know what it was, but something made me get out of my car, enter the house, run up the stairs and wake Laura up (always a perilous proposition.) “Hey, Laura, I just wanted to tell you goodbye before your trip. Have a great time. I love you.” Laura looked up at me blearily and then a big smile broke over her face. “You do love me!” she exulted before hugging me. And then I went downstairs and drove off. Two days later we got the call that Laura had unwittingly ingested peanut butter and died as a result of her allergy.
To this day I’m so thankful that I got to say goodbye to her. It was a more permanent goodbye then I had thought at the time, but I don’t know how it could have been more fitting even had I some sort of prescient idea of what was to come. I’m thankful that she was a ham and that I have tapes upon tapes of her performances to watch if I ever get the courage to view them. I’m thankful that I’m not alone in missing her, that there are people she poured her life into who remember and love her as well. Some of her friends even had her name tattooed on them, and I know just how much she would be touched by that.
I have regrets too, of course. I wish in many ways that I had been a better sister to her. I wish I had taken the time to understand her instead of teasing her so often. I wish I saw something of her when I look in the mirror and that I was more like her. I may have been older, but she was more protective, more practical, more loving, and overall just a more inspired human being. Poor grieving or not, I know my life will always feel like there’s a huge, gaping hole where she ought to be. At least, for the nonce, Juju reminds me much more of her aunt than she does of me. Every time I see Juliet ham it up for the camera, or try her hand at drumming, or voyage courageously into parts unknown, or even when she just really enjoys a french fry (Laura’s favorite food), I know I’ll be thinking of Laura. And come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what my sister would have wanted.