How well I remember the call that woke me out of a deep, restless, and dream-filled sleep. In those disturbing nocturnal visions, you were already slipping away. Sinking into a destiny that would soon define us all.
I could not have known then that your death was a lesson in impermanence, a mere tracing of the manifold losses that would soon follow; that for the next 13 years we would watch mummy sink into her own nightmare of shock therapy, antidepressants and psychiatric hospitals; that daddy would lurch off the deep end, soaked up in booze and the self-hatred that would mask itself as antipathy of everything within his hardened field of vision, that the solace he sought in blame, recriminations and justifications would ultimately shatter the paradigm by which he defined his life; that we would lose Sarah to a prolonged adolescent spring, a rebellion funneled through rage, until she disappeared into herself, finally rejecting me too, because I reminded her of them. I could not have known either that without you as the rudder in my life I would lose myself, collapsing into a lethargy and despair so austere that I would eventually cease to feel at all, existing only to think, shuddering and shrinking into the long darkness of the night, crying only when I was certain no one could see or hear me. Always the stoic, terrified of tears, of breaking open, of weakness. The shame of it. They had taught me well.
It is often said that when people face death they see their own lives flash before their eyes, but I never saw those fractured shards of my own mortality, even when I stared down death at 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, sick and hopeless and vomiting and wanting to die. No, I only felt peace and a willingness to surrender to the Long Sleep. But when you lay comatose in the ICU, it was your life—your precious, too-short, truncated life, a life you had claimed yourself—that flashed before me in a myriad of colors. Your face when you graduated Magna Cum Laude from Bowdoin, shaking the dean’s hand; as a child when you whispered in my ear at the dinner table, “I say to beats, BEAT IT,” united in solidarity against our mutually detested purple vegetable, or at Pineknot in the silly sun hat, cocking the croquet mallet jauntily back behind your head, ready to pound it down into the soft earth like a hammer.
My adoration and idol worship only caused more pain for you, only added to the suffocating burden you already endured. My singular desire while you lived was to lie on a chaise lounge, comfortable and sequestered in the protection of your shadow, watching and gaining strength from you as you nobly accomplished great feats. The adoration of a sister for her brother.
You didn’t ask to be anyone’s hero, to be the sole star radiating brilliantly in a lonely sky. We wanted you to be something for us rather than for yourself. An unfair request, yet you dedicated your life to answer it, allowed it to claim you even as it stole your glitter and dragged you down into its unfathomable depths. You strove to be something for them, a servant to wait upon their frustrated dreams, until those dreams pulled you under, deep into the tide of their unquenchable thirst.
Why should I hate them? Sometimes I think you did it because you hated them, couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. They met at Harvard, expected nothing less from you. Before that it was Oxford, Bowdoin and Smith, and afterwards Yale. I won’t blame them, won’t be the one to cast the first stone. It was expected for me to fail, but not you. They were the product of their generation, and we of ours.
Ah, the British Isles. As Rudyard Kipling wrote so famously, “There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” It saved me. I retreated into it for the next five years, seeking refuge in endless cups of tea and British civility. The distance. Safe in my ancestral home. But even that couldn’t save me. I fell apart anyway, collapsed from exhaustion, spent and ruined, and presently, my light went out, and stayed extinguished for the next 20 years. There was nothing left.
What if someone had told me that it would take my own family to become untethered from the unbearable agony of your absence, and would I have believed them if they had? Could I have believed that I would need to give birth to my own son before I could grasp the endless depths of her grief—a sadness that would envelop her so completely that she would abandon her two surviving children, until she found her way back to us many years later?
I know now that you are still here, embedded deeply in my heart, the best part of me. At times I am delighted to realize how much I remind myself of you, either in a turn of phrase or sprinkling of ironic humor. I can see your red hair, hazel eyes and freckled white face mirrored back in my own reflection. I long for those few friends, far away, who understand and cherish that humor, and I adore them, fiercely and wholly, for in loving me, they love you too. And those are the times I like myself best. It is when I am aware that the undiminished part of you lives on in me.
I had lost my way, but I had not lost my voice, or the sound of their voices either—those angels circling overhead with their sonorous song of life, levitating high above the heavens in a place where our dreams lie sacred and suspended, where the past, present and future meld together as one. Their voices growing ever sweeter, ever nearer. This time calling my name, calling me Home.