It is 5:27AM. It is nearly sunrise. I look toward the lush, verdant mountain to the east, so unlike the scorched peaks I am accustomed to seeing in drought-plagued Los Angeles. The hotel staff told me last night I would … Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
I never noticed them before;
I see them everywhere now.
Four times already in Sydney,
Halfway across the world, and they are here.
You are here.
How can that be?
How can you be both everywhere,
One of your songs plays on the radio,
On a taxi ride to Drummoyne.
I barely hear it at first,
But then it becomes the only sound.
You are here, too.
What does it mean?
(Does it mean anything?)
Is it really you that I am hearing?
Now it is my voice instead,
Speaking your name,
Over and over.
Kelly loved lavender roses.
Kelly loved Josh Groban.
Your name pours from my lips,
Like an upended glass of water;
You are everywhere.
You are nowhere.
You are here.
I cried today.
I woke up too early. I called my dad. I went to work. I took conference calls and did a presentation for clients. I went to the grocery store. I skipped yoga. I packed for a ski trip.
And in between, I cried.
A beautiful little boy, I don’t actually know him, is slowly dying. I see his sweet face when I go on Facebook. His picture pops up in my newsfeed, sometimes in the form of people asking for prayers for him, sometimes as a profile pic. I can see his huge eyes, focused on something past the viewfinder of the camera. Focused on something we can’t see, that probably only he can, in spite of his blindness (or possibly because of it). The light that shines on him seems otherworldly.
I don’t know this baby and yet I cried for him today. I cried first for him, and then for everything else. For my mom and my grandfather, facing the anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s passing this week. For the 4 year old girl we dedicated yoga to last week in New Jersey, just diagnosed with brain cancer. For the one I never talk about, the one who would have been 23 this year, the one whose name I don’t say.
Sometimes it’s just too hard.
M was 2 when I met him during my freshman year of high school. He had a host of medical problems; it was apparent in the way he looked, in his development. I don’t know if I ever understood exactly what he was dealing with medically, or if I’m just not remembering now. But I knew it was serious.
The light that radiated off this kid was blinding. He was universally adored by anyone who spent time with him. If he said your name, you melted. You felt like a chosen one. He didn’t look like everyone else, and I think now, of course not. He was too special to look the same. He was the best of all of us.
He was my idol’s son. I can call her that, because I actually worshipped her. She was the one I put on a pedestal, the one whose opinion mattered most. If she asked, the answer was always yes. I believed my every success was due to her. When I was 17, and M was 5, she asked me to babysit for him over the summer. I knew this meant that I was special. The answer, of course, was yes.
We did a trial run or two, making sure I was strong enough to lift him, knew how to feed him and clean his trach after lunch. He was comfortable with me. She made a recording of him asking “Katie coming tomorrow?” the weekend before my first day.
I babysat once, on a Monday. That’s all I can remember, though maybe there were more times. We read books, we taped ourselves laughing, we wrote stories in a journal, we talked about Elmo and how silly Elmo was. He loved Elmo. He loved being silly. I repeated the same jokes over and over again until they were ours, just for us.
The next day he died.
His heart just slowed down and stopped beating in the bathroom that night. When his mother, my idol, called and woke me with the news the following morning, nothing made sense. My mom handed me the cordless phone and I knew, even in my sleepy haze, that something had happened. But not that.
The summer was a blur. The school year started again and it was all the same but everything was different. The ones who loved him were all different.
The distance happened after I left for college. Distance would have been natural anyway, as 1200 miles will do to people. I didn’t realize until after it happened that I had been written out of the end of this story. There would be no tearful reunions, no coffee dates to catch up after a semester away. There would be nothing, just an end; not even acknowledged, just observed.
I tried. I attempted to write myself back in. I begged really. Please don’t cut me out of your life. Please still love me. How could someone I loved as a mentor for 5 years just walk away? How could the person I picked up off the floor and propped up for a year of hell see through me as if I wasn’t even there?
What I didn’t know then was that I had been written out of the beginning of the story too. There could be no happy ending because I didn’t exist in the beginning anymore. I was simply erased from the record books, stripped of the medals earned loving this child and his mother. When I got a blank stare, it’s because she really didn’t see me anymore. I wasn’t there.
I don’t know if I will ever understand why my part was eliminated, why I got killed off like a character leaving the tv show before the end of the season, easily disposed. Maybe she thinks it is my fault. Maybe I do too. For 15 years I have wondered, and no answers ever materialize. I am resigned to this. As my friend would say, “And so it is.”
I stopped grieving back then. How could I grieve a little boy who I loved when it didn’t feel like I was allowed to have loved him anymore?
So I shut down.
I stopped visiting his grave, I stopped acknowledging the anniversary of his death, I stopped reaching out to my idol. I accepted this new story that was written.
I don’t anymore. I can’t write myself back into the end of this story, but I can claim my part in the beginning. It’s time.
Today I cry for Ronan, and pray for his family. I cry for my mom, and my grandfather, and that little girl in NJ.
And I cry for M. I loved you. I’ve never forgotten.
You will always be part of my story.