Best Books of 2015

MY FAVORITE 15 BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 2015

I waited until the very last day of the year to put this list together. Mostly because I wanted to read until the very last day, but also because I wasn’t sure I would be able to choose a limited number of favorites from all of the many, many books that moved me in 2015.

I read an article earlier this year about people who were unable to read while grieving, and just the idea of this was nearly another loss. Words, language, stories, ideas were saviors to me in this most difficult year. I don’t let myself consider how much more difficult it would have been without them.

I wanted to acknowledge a few of the books that had the most profound impact on me this year, beginning with the two that resonated the most. (The other 13 are listed in alphabetical order within genre.) This list only includes books published in 2015, because I could not otherwise narrow down to any reasonable number all of my favorites of the past twelve months. Thank you to everyone who recommended these books to me this year. I have cherished them all.

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FAVORITE MEMOIR:

The Light Of The World—Elizabeth Alexander

“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”

From its above opening to the very last line, I was spellbound by this memoir from poet Elizabeth Alexander (also chosen by Michelle Obama as her favorite book this year). Alexander’s husband, artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, is dead from the beginning, but is so alive in these pages, its as though we can hear his heart beating even though it was the stopping of that heart that inspired this book. After a year of reading extensively about loss, this memoir is the one I want to tuck under my arm and bring with me everywhere.

“A brave and beautiful book about love and loss—the deep pain that comes with such a loss, and the redemptive realization that such pain is a small price to pay for such a love.” –Jeannette Walls

 

FAVORITE NOVEL:

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara

Oh, this heartbreaking book. As soon as I finished reading it (and wiping my tear-stained face), I wanted to develop amnesia so I could immediately begin re-reading it, and experience it again for the first time. I relished every one of its 720 pages, and mourned them when they were over. An epic story of friendship and despair, of the tragedies and miracles of humanity, I add this magnificent book to the list of books that will stay with me forever.

“Yanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” –The New Yorker

 

NONFICTION:

Between The World And Me—Ta Nehisi Coates

A letter to Coates’s teenage son, this examination of race, history and humanity is as powerful as it is illuminating.

“The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.” –Toni Morrison

The Folded Clock: A Diary—Heidi Julavits

“As a writer, I have mistaken how to use words. I write too much. I write like some people talk to fill silence. When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I’m trying to build a word ladder up to my brain.”

Offering insight into a writer’s brain, Julavits’s diary becomes a craft book for anyone who ponders how to translate thoughts to words, and experiences to stories.

H Is For Hawk—Helen Macdonald

“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

Written after the sudden death of her father (and read by me just a month after the sudden death of my father), Macdonald copes with the loss by raising and training a goshawk. I knew nothing of falconry, and very little of this type of grief, before reading this raw, beautiful portrayal of both, and wished to stand alongside Macdonald, calling her goshawk home.

“One part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” –The Economist

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary—Sarah Manguso

“And then I think I don’t need to write anything down ever again. Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.

*

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

 Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”

After twenty-five years of diary-keeping, Manguso recounts an almost compulsive desire to capture time within the 800,000 words she has recorded, which turns upside down with the conception of her child. I highlighted lines on nearly every page of this slim book of fragmented narrative, which left its mark on me long after the short time it took to read it.

After This—Claire Bidwell Smith

An exploration of the afterlife, Bidwell Smith meets with rabbis, shamans, mediums and psychics in order to better answer the question: when life is over, where do we go. She uses gorgeous prose to share her own experiences with loss, and to open our eyes to the many possibilities of what might await us when we die.

“With wisdom and grace, Claire Bidwell Smith navigates the mysteries of grief to show us that there is great meaning and even magic to be found in the unknown.” –Maria Shriver

M Train—Patti Smith

“We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

This was my introduction to Patti Smith, this meditation on the world through her artist’s eye, and now I want to read every word she has written, see every photograph she has shot, hear every word she has sung.

 

Ordinary Light—Tracy K. Smith

Another memoir written by poet, this lyrical memoir leads us through Smith’s childhood in California in the 70s and 80s, with her mother’s life and death weaved eloquently throughout every experience.

“A lyrical, evocative, and poignant memoir: a poem in stunning prose, a book in which Smith holds the child she was in her adult hands, examining the things that bridge the two—memory, parents, siblings, time, and, of course, her extraordinary eye. The result is something quite beautiful.” -Abraham Verghese

 

FICTION:

In The Country—Mia Alvar

I first heard Alvar read from this beautiful short story collection a few months before its debut, and I not-so-patiently waited for it to finally arrive in my mailbox, devouring it in two days. Each story was so real, so vivid, that I had to remind myself that this was a collection of fiction.

“Alvar’s diamond prose sparkles brightly and cuts deeply. Each marvelous story shows us a facet of the Philippines at a distance—through the eyes of expats in Bahrain and Saudi, immigrants abroad and returning, and casual visitors—but what they illuminate most clearly is the distance between home and heart, and how our ties to the past can be simultaneously tenuous and tenacious.” -Celeste Ng

The Manual For Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin

A posthumous collection of the best of Lucia Berlin’s stories, a writer I was not familiar with before this book and now can’t forget, it’s her voice that is remarkably unique, and drives these stories.

“[The stories] are set in places Berlin knows best: Chile, Mexico, the Southwest and California, and they have the casual, straightforward, immediately intimate style that distinguishes her work…[They] are told in an easy conversational voice and they go from start to finish with a swift and often lyrical economy…Berlin’s stories capture and communicate these moments of grave and cast a lovely, lazy light that lasts. She is one of our finest writers and it is a pleasure to see her represented at the height of her powers.” –San Francisco Chronicle

The Clasp—Sloane Crosley

I savored the writing so much in this book that I read the first fifty pages slowly, most sentences more than once, captivated by Crosley’s wry and deliberate language. Then I got swept up in the characters and the plot and forgot about everything else entirely until the end of the novel, where I reminded myself to slow down, and to chew on Crosley’s words again, attempting to make them last as long as they possibly could.

“I took so much pleasure in every sentence of The Clasp, fell so completely under the spell of its narrative tone—equal parts bite and tenderness, a dash of rue—and became so caught up in the charmingly dented protagonists and their off-kilter caper that the book’s emotional power, building steadily and quietly, caught me off guard, and left me with a lump in my throat.” -Michael Chabon

The Turner House—Angela Flournoy

My last read book of 2015, Flournoy’s debut novel stands out mostly because of its both familiar and unique characters, and their complex and complicated relationships with each other. Detroit becomes a fascinating and tragic additional character in this story, and the family’s relationship with the city and with their home is central to their motivations and actions.

“This book is so beautifully written, so perfectly observed and heard—it’s about aging and parenthood and above all that misunderstood lifelong union, siblinghood—but it’s also pure pleasure to read: funny, heartbreaking, with the sort of characters you’ll miss like family when you finish.” –Elizabeth McCracken

Fates And Furies—Lauren Groff

What can I write that hasn’t already been written about Fates and Furies? Everyone from my mom to President Obama loved this book. Masterful, unique, and so wonderfully written, it lives up to every rave review and award.

“Fates and Furies is a dazzling novel, its people and its prose wondrously alive from page one. At once intimate and sweeping, this is the story of a marriage as parallel myths—flaring with passion and betrayal, with redemption and retribution, with the sort of heartbreaking, head-slapping secrets that make you want to see out someone else who’s read it.” -Jess Walter

The Book Of Aron—Jim Shepard

“My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking. I broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors’ animals loose from pens. My mother said my father shouldn’t beat such a small boy, but my father said that one misfortune was never enough for me, and my uncle told her that my kind of craziness was like stealing from the rest of the family.”

Shepard’s novel, about a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto in the early 1940s, hooked me from the first sentence, and held onto me long after I finished reading this masterpiece. This book moved to the top of all Holocaust reading for me, and being able to hear Shepard, a master writer and reader, read selections from it on multiple occasions in 2015 seared it into my heart and memory forever.

What Is Left

My mom asks which tie I like best as we stand over the open drawer. She asks me variations of the question all day: when do you think we should have the service? What verse should we use for the prayer cards? Which casket do you prefer, the bronze or the silver stainless steel? I’m afraid to offer my opinion, lest someone use it to make a decision.

My aunt found my grandfather this morning, on his back in bed, still warm, robe on, hands clasped over his waist, almost like a prayer, almost like a gesture of ok, take me now. I was sitting at my mom’s table, drinking tea, when her sister called to tell us. We had gone to see him for dinner the night before.

My eyes pass over the maroon paisley, the navy stripes and land on a red tie whose pattern is made by texture, small raised and depressed squares. It’s familiar. Did I give him this tie? Did I give it to my dad or stepfather and it got passed along to him when they were done with it, much like the cotton sweaters and old Polo shirts did?

I wanted to write a eulogy for the service. I had, in moments of morbid prescience, taken notes for one after some of our weekly phone calls, the calls we’d had regularly since I moved to California. The calls I would make on my way to work, as I sat in traffic on the 10, or on a Sunday, as I drove up the PCH for lunch in Malibu. The conversations where I got to know my grandfather as a person and not just my Grandpa.

The signs were there at his last dinner, if I had looked at them. He had difficulty eating, taking slow, disinterested bites of mashed potatoes, of his single slice of turkey garnished with cranberry sauce that came from a rectangular package like the jelly containers you see in a diner. He didn’t want dessert. He kissed me goodbye, told me he loved me, and patted my arm when I said I would see him next month, a placating gesture offered to an oblivious child.
I would have picked the red tie, but my aunts choose the more traditional maroon print. They put it together with the suit found hanging in his closet, which he’d had tailored recently to fit his shrunken body, skin hanging loosely from his bones. It’s a funeral suit. He has left numerous copies of his death directives in various places throughout the house. There are so many logistics of dying.

In our last phone conversation, his voice was more upbeat than it had been for months, maybe since before my sister died nearly a year earlier. I heard the smile as he told me that hospice would be starting soon, that Meals On Wheels was already delivering lunch and dinner every weekday. I put him on speakerphone as he described what he’d eaten that day and texted a friend who is a grief counselor to ask if there was another kind of hospice that didn’t mean the end. She wrote back while he was still talking about pot roast: no. 

I burst into shaking sobs as we stand around his bedroom discussing his burial outfit, much like I did in that phone conversation when he told me he was ready, that he’d had a good life, that he had accepted it. Five hours after he is gone, surrounded by what is left behind from his good life, I still have not.

 

***

 

The next door neighbor’s cat, who had left white hair all over my grandfather’s lap the night before, paces on the front stoop, insistently meowing when no one will let her in. She looks ragged, fur matted and clumped in uneven patches, as though she has been in some suburban street fight. We are late for the funeral home, holding the maroon tie and tailored suit, and leave the cat sitting on the top step, staring at the closed door.

I remember so few details from those phone calls. Just: the softening of his tone over the years, impatience giving way to tolerance. Also: the encouragement and support when I quit my job, telling me I would be successful no matter what I did. And: the mmm that eventually changed to I love you too, that finally became I love you, initiated by him, at the end of every phone conversation.

The day after we visit the funeral home, planning visitation in New Jersey and a burial in Pennsylvania for the following week, after I have written my third obituary in a year, I drive by myself to Connecticut for the writing workshop that has brought me back to the East Coast. Much like I went to one in Italy a few weeks after my dad died, and like I traveled to Australia a few weeks after my sister died. I worry that there is something inherently wrong with me that I can keep moving after they no longer can.

The sun beats down on us at the cemetery in Pennsylvania, feeling almost as hot as it did in July, when we brought my sister’s ashes up to my grandfather’s family mausoleum. The caretakers swept the dirt and spiders from the marble room before we arrived. The smooth box holding Kelly’s remains sits on the windowsill beneath stained glass, exactly where we left it. I drape purple and pink flowers from today’s arrangements on top of her, careful not to cover the plaque that bears her name. I slip one of the prayer cards from my grandfather’s service through the seam of the box without opening the lid. My mom adjusts the ceramic purple butterfly I brought back from Guatemala that is hanging from a framed picture of her on that sill. It slides through her fingers and shatters against the marble floor.

All of the notes I emailed to myself, the makings of his eulogy, have disappeared. I search my entire computer by key words: Grandpa grandfather Joe 94 95 96, all of the ages I might have referred to him as in these emails. There is no record of anything ever having been written after our phone calls. There is no record of the stories he has told me. There is no record of anything.

 

***

 

I wonder how you prepare yourself to die. What kind of fortitude it requires. How long it takes to accept it, whether you ever really do. I wonder if you can simply lie down with your hands clasped over your waist and think, I’m ready now, and that’s it. I wonder what it feels like when you know you are leaving people behind, people you know are not ready to be left.

On one of those calls last year while I drove up the PCH, he asked me what I assumed was the beginning of a silly riddle. If you take all of the things I have done in my life, and subtract the things I can no longer do, what is left? I waited for the punchline, another of the ridiculous jokes he told that I would roll my eyes at. When I didn’t guess, he repeated himself, so I humored him. I don’t know, what?

Just me.

I think about all of the labels my grandfather could have used to describe himself that no longer applied when he posed that question to me on the phone: son, brother, husband, musician, president, carpenter, fixer of everything. I think about all he had lost. I think about the labels that remained until the end: father, grandfather, great-grandfather. I think about how he told me they were the most important labels. I think about how they still weren’t enough to save him, how nothing was enough to save him, nor my dad, nor my sister and I wonder how we can all just go on, knowing that we can never save anyone, knowing that we, that I, eventually have to accept their loss, and keep moving. Just me.

 

***

 

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Joseph Francis Pancheri 5.24.19-10.30.15

***

 

 

A Letter To Mom On This Very Different Mother’s Day

Dear Mom,

This morning I woke up between the same creamy sheets, in the same yellow-green room that I have woken up in on this date nearly every year for the past decade. The plaid chair in the corner, covered in my clothes, the rattan shade with light peeking through, the brown-spotted white Pound Puppy on the bed; it’s all exactly the same.

Except, of course, that nothing is the same.

It’s Mother’s Day, and I struggle this year to wish you a happy one. The word happy gets stuck in my throat. It’s yet another celebration, another first that we now must endure.

I can’t forget that where there were two, there is now only one.

We weren’t all together last year. The year before, there were tense words exchanged and an epic storming off moment. The year before that, we made it through an entire trip into the city and a Broadway show without anyone crying. It was rare for us to be apart on this day; even rarer that we all escaped it unscathed by the silly squabbles you have when you don’t realize you won’t always have the next year as a do-over.

I want to go back and undo the quarrels. I want to shake that two-years-ago self and yell at her, just let this one go! I want to explain to us all that we need to be more careful with each other.

I want even more to go forward and somehow have Kelly be here with you now.

I try desperately to fill the space in your heart left behind in her absence. I imagine it has raw exposed edges, so I attempt to get inside without touching them, like a real life game of Operation. But no matter how much I expand, no matter how much I contort myself, the shape of me is not right for these holes. There will always be gaps that I cannot fill.

I will never be your second child.

I will never be the one who called you Baby Mommy.

I will never be Zoey’s mom.

I will never be the one who saved people.

I will never be the Kelly-shaped missing piece of your heart.

It fractures my own cracked heart a little more, not being able to heal you of this pain. Not being able to un-break you.

I can’t bring her back, and I can’t be Kelly, and I don’t know if it will ever be enough for either of us. But I can remember her, and I can help you remember.

I can remind you of how she used to shrug and say, I know, instead of I don’t know, a wad of grape gum always present in her toddler mouth. I can remind you of the little dimple in her left cheek, and the way the bottom of her fine blond hair curled up when she was two. I can remind you that she used to kiss her finger and touch the visor of her car when she went through a yellow light, and that she got excited when she noticed it was 11:11. I can remind you how she could administer a flu shot without any pain, and a finish strep test before you could even gag. I can remind you that people called her an angel.

I can remind you of what and who she loved: butterflies, singing, purple, her job, The Yankees, elephants, Josh Groban, babies, old people, Zoey, and, most of all, her Baby Mommy.

Last week, I was running errands when I noticed the Mother’s Day cards on display. I stopped to choose one for you, but was chosen by one instead. A card with a drawing of a serene-looking elephant, butterflies floating out of its trunk. A card that reduced me to tears in the middle of the West Hollywood Target. If Kelly could have designed a card for you, I imagine it would look like this. Its accents and envelope are my favorite seafoam green.

I don’t know if I believe in signs. I don’t know what I believe anymore. But this card feels like it could be from both of us, and I realize that what I can do for you is always acknowledge her, and you.

To remember our Belly, and to celebrate, today and every day, the mother who made us a family.

I remember her. I remember us.

I love you on this Mother’s Day, and on all days.

Katie

Mother's Day 2013

Mother’s Day 2012

On Moments of Happiness and Hope

I drove home from Manhattan today, after a whirlwind day of visiting friends and familiar haunts in the city I once called home but in which I never truly felt at home. I sped west in my stepfather’s old Highlander along Route 78 in the bright sunshine, singing along to Ellie Goulding and Maroon 5 (as their songs are apparently the only ones currently in rotation on the radio). As I put more distance between myself and the city, the trees became denser and I breathed more deeply. Right around exit 41, everything in me paused, and I turned down the music. It was a moment when I needed to identify what I was feeling, because the sensation was so odd that it interrupted all other thoughts.

I felt happy.

And happiness was the singular emotion that existed in that moment.

Throughout most of this trip to New Jersey, I have been overwhelmed: by grief, by loss, by anger, by sadness, by dread, by unease, by shame. There were so many firsts without my sister and my dad in the course of a week that completely depleted—and often defeated—me. 

The first Easter

The first birthday (Kelly’s)

The first National Siblings Day (also my first knowledge that this day existed)

The other first birthday (my dad’s)

The dread before each occasion was almost as painful as the arrival of the actual date. My grandmother’s birthday, nestled in the middle of this crazy week, somehow felt like a relief, if only because it was not so terribly awful anymore after thirteen years.

I planned last week to drive my mom to the city yesterday, and to spend time with friends and stay overnight there. When yesterday arrived, I felt completely unprepared for anything past get out of bed, brush teeth. All of the steps beyond that were foreign, and I worried were beyond my capabilities.

How do you go back out into the world when it feels like your skin is on inside out?

I didn’t really figure that out, but I did get myself dressed and where I had committed to being. And it was hard, but nice. I was able to see places I once loved, but was also grateful to have left behind. I was able to see friends I feel safe with, and talk about my dad and Kelly without breaking down or shutting down. I was able to feel like an actual person again for the day. I never could have anticipated that simply interacting with the world would feel like an accomplishment, but such is life in this new “normal”.

I also never anticipated that feeling happy, with the absence of guilt or regret or any other accompaniment would be so alien a sensation.

There have been some wonderful moments on the inside of the sorrow of the past five months. Watching rays of sun bisect a room on a farm in Virginia; glimpsing the magical light bouncing off the water in Positano; sipping tea with koalas in Australia; the simple grace shared by friends every day; hearing and reading words of loss and comfort and love and grief from gifted writers; writing something true. And yet, also present in those special moments: guilt, and fear.

What if I’m not sad enough?

What if I deserve the sadness?

What if someone else dies? 

What if this is how it will always be?

Just last week, I drove that stretch of highway in sobs, because it is the same route that my dad always drove to bring me home from the airport, and how could I be driving on that road without him? The loss of him on that drive was as acute as it was the night he died.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about the drive today. Except that within it existed a moment of such ease, such peace and such happiness that it became remarkable.

Because it allowed for hope; the hope that more of these moments might someday occur, when I least expect them and when I need them most.

*Thank you to Mom, Julie and Aidan (and the Rowlets!) for leading me to this moment today. Thank you to every person who has reached out to me at any time in the last five months. I will never forget the gestures of love and kindness that have been extended to me. 

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

My Dad: A Eulogy

Kevin J Devine 4.7.49-2.23.15

Kevin J Devine
4.7.49-2.23.15

 

A year and a half ago, my dad came to Los Angeles for work, and for a short visit. His visits never felt long enough, and if I got him for two nights (as I did on this particular August trip), I considered myself lucky.

My pre-teen self would have likely cringed at the thought of spending more time with Dad. He was always embarrassing my sister and me by doing things like actually talking to our friends, asking us questions about our lives, or picking us up at middle school dances—while wearing his weekend uniform of running tights—minus the shorts that were typically worn on top. He would feign ignorance at our horror, and laugh. He let it roll off his back and become one of the stories we told later that made us all smile.

I don’t know when the shift happened, but somewhere along the way it became a sort of bragging right: having a dad other people, and I, wanted to be around. And because I had him for two evenings on this summer trip, I was willing to share him for a night. My friends invited us to meet them at an outdoor park in Marina del Rey for a symphonic concert and picnic. We went, with wine and homemade kale chips and chocolate. My dad sat down next to me on the plaid blanket, batted his long, dark eyelashes and charmed everyone within minutes.

I asked him to try the kale chips; he gave me that squinty side-eyed, head-cocked look that he always gave me when I suggested something he was skeptical about. It was a look I had expected to receive when I broke the news that I was moving across the country, when I explained that I was quitting my job to travel, or when I told him that I wanted to write a book. But what materialized then instead was a hug, the kind that wrapped all the way around and enveloped me, and words I didn’t know I needed to hear: “Honey, I will always be proud of you.” I knew how deeply he meant it, how much he really wanted me to listen, when he put his hands on my shoulders and began with honey.

That night he bravely tasted a kale chip, which he washed down immediately with wine. “Not for him” was the verdict, as he reached for the cheese and crackers, and the dark chocolate chips. I couldn’t blame him, really. I inherited his sweet tooth along with his stubbornness, and his love for The Yankees and The Giants.

We watched the sun sink lower in the sky above the marina. The strings and the woodwind instruments accompanied the sailboats as they passed before us, backlit by fading golden rays of light. My picture of the sunset that night was captioned, “can it be summer forever?” I wish I had written what was even truer: “can this moment last just a little longer?”

I realized soon after, that the sunset, the symphony and I, had all lost my dad’s attention. He was captivated, enamored by a huge, fluffy ball of fur seated just behind him. The dog whisperer, I thought that night. He spent the majority of the next hour swapping puppy stories with the owners, and cuddling this giant dog. When he said goodbye to them in the parking lot later, it was with reluctance and covered in dog hair. He bonded quickly about dogs, about watches, about anything really. He so easily connected with other people, he could have led a master class in it, were it something that could be taught. My friends would text me later: “Your dad is so sweet! We love him.”

I try to encompass all the things he was, or even all of the things he was to me in limited space. I think about all of the skills he taught me: how to buy a watch, how to lease a car, how to talk to clients, how to stay calm in a small plane, how to navigate a roundabout from the left side of the road in Ireland. I endeavor to permanently imprint on my heart all of the lessons he revealed to me: how to be kind, how to forgive, how to make people smile, how to be more patient, how to love without holding back. I attempt to remember every detail: the cowlicks in his thick hair, the way he refused to wear socks with his boat shoes, the feel of his strong hand around mine, the closed smile he used for photos, and the real, eye-crinkling smile he shared in person, the smell of his skin, the precise shade of those beautiful blue eyes.

But the loss has muddled my thoughts, and blurred my memories.

Instead, my mind keeps returning to that August night in Marina del Rey: a blazing sun setting behind white sails, Sauvignon Blanc and Monterey Jack for dinner, Gershwin and sheepdogs to follow us into our dreams. And my heart remembers this one perfect night with the first man I ever loved, the one who kissed bruises and wiped away tears, the one who was always there to greet me with a hug, and give a ride home from Newark Airport, the one who made sure I knew how much he loved me every day of my life.

This loss feels like it is just mine, but of course it is shared in part by everyone who knew him, and even those who didn’t. When I left the hospital that final time, in grief’s haze, the waxing moon hung lower in the sky than I have ever seen it. To my swollen eyes, it looked heavy, like it was sinking, weighted down with our sorrow.

Or like someone in the sky figured out how to fly the moon at half-mast, to honor my dad.

 

Our first photo together

Our first photo together

I love my daddy

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December 2014

Our last lunch at Bolu; December 2014

 

Our last photo together

Our last photo together; my birthday in January

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten:

The way my Grandmother smelled

I remember the way my sister smelled, of menthol cigarettes and cheap, overpowering body spray that lingered in a room long after she left, and permeated the DNA of her green Camry.

I remember the way the cat smelled, like spilled tears and comfort and my mother’s house. I pick up the new cat who is not so new anymore, and bury my face in his soft fur. I want to force that smell on him, but he won’t cooperate; he barely tolerates me. He accepted Kelly’s scent when she held him—of course, he was her cat—but he won’t accept Hobbes’ no matter how much I wish it.

If I can remember how the cat smelled, shouldn’t I remember Grandma’s smell?

The taste of mustard

Or mayonnaise. Or pickles. Or all of the other things that I’m sure I hate, so much that I cringe or shudder when they are mentioned. 

What my recorded voice sounded like

The video of my senior recital was taped over, or lost, years ago. There is no footage from my college performances. The cassette tapes from high school concerts are useless—who has anything that plays a cassette tape? I kept a Walkman for years, just in case I wanted to listen to one of those archaic tapes, but eventually, it too went the way of the rest of our obsolete 80s electronics.

Kelly’s recordings were done on CDs, so we could easily transfer them to our laptops and phones, and play them at her memorial service or in our cars. It’s her voice that I hear now when I remember songs we both sang.

The books I have read

Including those I studied and referenced on my AP English test, the ones catalogued on the “Best 100 Books of All Time” lists (did I actually read 1984, or do I just think I did?) and almost every book I read on my iPad.

The first time I saw a sun set over the ocean

Maybe it was on our first family trip to California when I was fifteen. Did I notice it there, when Kelly and I walked by ourselves down to a wharf theatre to see You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, in a rare moment of camaraderie due to the freedom of being without our parents for the evening in an unfamiliar city?

Or maybe it was when we went to Bermuda the following year. There is a picture of us on a golf course at our resort, the two of us, with windblown hair and terrible 90s clothing. The sunset is behind us. Did we ever turn around to see it?

Maybe it was even later still, on our last trip together as a family, to Captiva Island. I have the fewest memories of this trip, beyond the sand whipping around on the beach in a weeklong windstorm, and the long, solitary drive across Alligator Alley from Miami. It feels that much more tragic since we would have no subsequent trips. I would travel again with my mom, with Kelly, with my dad, but never again as that original foursome.

When I had my first kiss

I think I used to lie about it, and now I can’t remember what is the lie and what is the truth. The same with when I lost my virginity, a night whose details I remember down to the perfume I wore (Estee Lauder Pleasures, which I hated but he gifted me) and the CD in my stereo (Toni Braxton, Secrets) but whose date I cannot confirm with any certainty. The lies I told other people became the lies I told myself.

What it felt like to hug my Nana

I was ten the last time I saw her, in a wheelchair at my uncle’s wedding. There must have been a fragile maneuvering around the medical equipment, gestures involving patting and kind words. We saw her less than we saw our other grandmother, whose embrace and fragile body and soft skin I can remember like she squeezed me just this morning, rather than over a dozen years ago. My dad’s mother was tall, and sturdy, before the cancer. I wonder if I would have grown taller than she was, had she lived longer. I wonder if I would have wrapped my own strong arms around her, if I would have been the sturdier one. I wonder if I will someday be the formerly tall, formerly sturdy woman in a wheelchair at my son’s wedding, who dies later that night having seen all of her children wed?

How to play the flute

How to play the piano (mostly). How to sing a harmonic minor scale. How to transcribe a melody. And likely every single thing I learned in my 4th semester of music theory.

What my grandfather’s poached eggs taste like

I know that they were the best we ever tasted. I know Kelly still wanted him to make one for her when she visited him last year. I know that I hate to order them in restaurants, certain they will never be as good as his (the way I know linguini with clam sauce cooked by anyone else will never match my mother’s). But I cannot conjure up the taste, only the recollection of the perfect amount of runniness in the yolk, the perfect firmness of the whites. I know that I will never again ask my grandfather to make one for me, because that was her thing.

My natural hair color

 

Why I hated the first day of school videos

My mom took them every year until we moved to Basking Ridge when I was in fifth grade. We started on our front stoop—Kelly, me, Michelle and Aimee from next door, sometimes some of the other neighbors—and walked down the long, rocky driveway and across the street to the bus stop. I was the only one who refused to play along when my mom asked us what we had in our lunchboxes that day, or if we were excited about the first day of school. I was the only one with the scowl, or walking too fast for the camera to follow. Kelly was just happy to be included, even though most years she would be left behind with my mom, at home, after the big kids got on that bus.

Where I left my first pair of earrings

The gold hearts with the diamond sparkle. The ones I’d been hanging onto since I got my ears pierced nearly thirty years ago. The ones I thought my future daughter might one day wear.

My last words to my sister

I know my last words via email: “Have a good Thanksgiving with Dad.”

I know my last words via voicemail, before she left for Arizona that August: “I love you, bye.” I’m not even sure I meant them at the time. I was angry, and only left the voicemail because my mom asked me to call her. I mean them now, but I don’t know if that matters.

I don’t remember the end of our last phone conversation. I don’t remember our last in- person conversation. I’m not even sure I remember the last time I saw her, some time in early 2013. Can that really be possible? Can I really not remember the last time I saw my sister?

Everything else I couldn’t bother to remember; everything else that I have forgotten.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa) on the 13th anniversary of her passing.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa); yesterday was the 13th anniversary of her passing.

Our last Christmas; my last clear memory of us together.

Our last Christmas at home in 2012; my last clear memory of us together.

The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

Hamilton Island

On a beach in Hamilton Island, I try to write my way out of it.
But I don’t know any suitable words,
Only woefully inadequate ones that mean nothing: sunscreen, seagull, oyster.
Grief’s vocabulary fails me.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the thoughts come out fragmented, disjointed,
Blowing around and reshuffling themselves in the ocean breeze.
The sentences refuse to assemble.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the unrelenting sunlight blinds me,
Leaving behind only opaque black dots in my vision.
They refuse to be blinked away.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the silky, burning sand caves in around me,
Lodging in my hair while slipping quickly through my fingers.
The scorching powder eludes a foothold.

I try to write my way out of it.
But sudden raindrops plop down on my paper,
Bleeding blue ink into circles, and trickling tiny pearls of water southward.
They slow dance down the page with my tears.

I try to write my way out of it.
But a crashing wave from a passing Jet Ski knocks me over,
Stealing my breath and acquainting me with the jagged rocks below.
Their edges scrape my palms and slash my notebook.

I try to write my way out of it.
But the undertow is too strong,
Dragging me out to sea by the ankles; the now brackish water has a firm grip.
My pen is replaced by seaweed, slimy strands that wrap around my fingers.

I try to write my way out of it.
But they tell me there is no out;
There’s only through.
And through is unthinkable.

 

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island