I lost my sister a year ago in November.
The anniversary of Beth’s death was November 5th. I thought I’d write about it then, because I was at least theoretically aware of the difficulties that anniversaries of deaths can bring. But actually, on the anniversary itself, I felt comparatively wonderful. I had emailed with my parents. My mom responded saying that she’d been reflecting on what a miracle we had found in the midst of such a horror, in that so many of our friends and relatives supported us in the best way that they could.
And then she related that she’d been out shopping for a gift for someone, and that she’d seen some holiday things that she actually wanted to buy, though it had been several years since she’d felt like decorating or celebrating. And so she bought these holiday things. “And I just know that Beth would approve,” she’d joked, as a conclusion.
She’s right. Socks with ghosts on them, yard flags with Easter eggs, nonstick quickbread pans in any sort of celebratory shape: no one liked stockpiling holiday crap more than my sister. My mom’s email was warm and it made me feel hopeful, and like other people were hopeful, and that there was stuff to laugh about again.
And then, just a few days later, I was grinding pepper in my kitchen, delicious Costa Rican black peppercorns that our dear friends had just brought back for us, and suddenly the little black balls were rolling all over the kitchen floor. Oh no! My friends gave us those special pepper balls! Conserve them! I figured that the top had come unscrewed and went to tighten it up, but then I realized that the hard plastic resin that the grinder is made of had devolved, and a chunk had fallen out of the bottom.
My pepper grinder.
In my brain, I know that things are not important: people are. But what if I’ve lost the person who gave me the thing, and that my continued relationship with that person is enhanced by the thing? A huge part the way that my sister expressed herself was through the careful selection and distribution of gifts. Do you know how much I loved my pepper grinder? It was the most perfect one, selected and distributed by Beth one Christmas. Suddenly, I felt like the pepper grinder myself, chunks falling away from me.
For the next several days, I kept it turned over, so that the remaining pepper wouldn’t fall out, on the 2 x 2 square feet of counter that is mine to cook on. This is a hotly contested space that I fight tenaciously with my husband over if he dares leave anything on it. Something taking up room on the counter turns me into a fox with sharp angry teeth. So when he asked — Hey, is this broken? Yes. Can I throw it away? Uh, no, not yet.
Finally I got all of the information off of it that I could, and then put it into the trash quickly and with my eyes averted. It was like gulping down a big calcium pill while trying to focus on something else so as not to gag. It was like looking away while getting my blood drawn. It’s ridiculous but it was like saying goodbye to my sister all over again.
Enter Christmas. I love the lead up to Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right, snow sparkling off of your nose and shopping and cocoa, but it’s also somehow one of the most fraught and saddest, because anything that requires you to take stock of whether you are as happy as you feel like you are supposed to be also sort of stinks by design.
I’d love to know what Beth really thought of it: I love it only the tiniest fraction as much as she did, and maybe she had difficulty with aspects of it, too. Now, I wonder, why aren’t we shopping for our mom or dad and squabbling over who is going to drive and what will be on the radio and stopping for some crazy hot chocolate or coffee drink? Why aren’t we in her damn minivan with our KIDS, who love each other the way cousins should, and packing them in and packing them out and keeping them up later than they should be up and feeding them too-salty food at Boston Chicken after we shop? If you get to do this with your sister, I am just going to say it: there is a part of me that is furious with you.
The last time I was actually out Christmas shopping with my sister, we were in a bookstore. She was moving very slowly with a walker and could barely speak, and she took forever and ever at the counter, and she demanded that my husband and I also take her to Land’s End, and wow, was she difficult and tenacious and bound and effing determined to get all of the shopping that she could in, in. She knew it was the last time. It’s not like it wasn’t awful; it was really pretty awful. Things are easier, in a way, now that she is gone. And I am moving forward; I really am:
I heard an Olivia Newton John song on the radio this week and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really did. How can I describe this: when something is from childhood, it’s like a mural of memory, and the presence of my sister in this memory is so huge that she’s like, an integral color. Like blue. There is blue in the memory mural backdrop of the song, but there is also green, and purple, and white, and every part of it seems to contain blue, be it bold or subtle, in one way or another. And this is such a gift, to be blessed with her in everything, but it is also such a struggle. But the other day, Olivia Newton John was not making me cry. I was just happy remembering being little, and at a great enough remove that I could take the blue in the background in stride. I parked and sat there until it ended, stunned that what I felt was unadulterated enjoyment, without the need for cleansing tears.
After her death, people told me that before long, I would remember the healthy Beth instead of the sick one. I think that last week was an example of that happening. There are visions of her I will never forget, and I feel that I should never forget—why should I get to forget these grim situations if she actually had to endure them, and her 8-year-old boy had to see them—but I am also having moments of remembering and appreciating the stubborn, pretty, chronically late, fiercely protective sister as a backdrop to my life instead of the terribly ill, furiously angry, unable-to-support-the-weight-of-her-own-head one. Of course, they are the same person, but to be able to have the first without the second, sometimes, is a big relief.
I have not yet bought one Christmas present, and when I realized that it was the 12th, I began to panic. Today, after a dr’s appointment in Manhattan, I had a half an hour before I needed to leave to pick up my son at preschool and I stopped in at Williams Sonoma. But to shop? Probably not.
Here is my relationship with Williams Sonoma: After I graduated from college and before I moved to Texas, I needed a bunch of cash, so I worked days at a university, and evenings at Williams Sonoma. (They needed extra help for the Christmas season.) Before and after my brief stint there, all of the Phillipses have always had a soft spot for this warm, glowy, well-organized, too-expensive store with its $11 waffle mixes and little jars of lemon curd and Christmas soundtrack and tiny cups of coffee with real half & half. Today when I had an extra bit of time, and I was actually alone, I realized that I was going in there to grieve, or to celebrate, or to do the combo that I so excel at. Linens from Provence, and crockery for $69, and heavy cast iron pans, and memories of an aesthetic admired but never in real life achieved. I got myself a miniature cup of coffee and I noted the waffle mix I would never buy for myself and I would have judged her for buying for me and I went into the corner and cried and I got another tiny cup of coffee and I browsed the pepper grinders.
In this way I had about a half an hour with my sister, and then I left.