This is the first time I have sat down to write anything in more months than I can remember. And it’s a letter to you, who will never get to read it. I read last year’s letter a little while ago and thought “Oh, yes. All of that. All the time.” All of these letters that you will never read. But at least it got me writing, and that is a gift from you. Thank you.
For reasons I don’t understand, this seventh anniversary feels harder than usual. It’s possible that, like memories of the pain of labor, memories of the pain of these anniversaries fade after they pass, and that the way I feel today is really no different from the way I’ve felt on this day for each of the last several years. But at this moment, it feels different. It feels heavier and harder. For the first time in a while, I’ve been feeling that old elephant stepping on my chest (hasn’t it grown tired?) and that gnawing sensation in my belly that hunger won’t satisfy—physical manifestations of a deep longing for you that will never be sated.
Although I’ve long understood and accepted as fact that the stages of grief are not linear, I somehow find myself no less surprised when one of them rears up and smacks me in the face long after the last time I encountered it. Talking of you and your death comes so naturally to me now. Even making the quick decision not to talk about you in certain situations comes very naturally, even though it’s never without some twinge of feeling as though I have wronged you. You have been a part of me since I first learned you existed, and now, seven years after it happened, the fact of your death feels such a part of me that I hardly ever question it anymore. I think in literal terms now about what the words “integration” or “acceptance” mean as they relate to grieving a death.
But yesterday, I was driving down the highway in a light rain, my windshield wipers making intermittent swipes across the glass, when suddenly, something appeared out of nowhere and fluttered straight into the windshield. And just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. It looked like a flower petal—small, delicate, white, seeming to float even as it collided with the glass. It was so strange, especially given that it was raining, and for an instant I thought, wildly, “Is that you?” And not in the way that I think of so many things that symbolically represent you—turtles, herons, dandelions, stars—but in the way of “Can it be? Could you have come back to me?” It was utterly nonsensical, and yet I thought it just the same.
And then, an instant later, I remembered your ashes. They are sitting wrapped inside a plastic bag, tied with a twisty tie, tucked under some natural cotton inside a lidded ceramic jar that sits a foot from my bedside, just on the other side of my lamp. If they are here, then you cannot be. If your ashes are in that jar, then you cannot be a feather-light white petal on my windshield on a rainy day driving down I-40.
It has been a long, long time since I have had that sensation that perhaps you might still return to us. That feeling that you couldn’t actually have died, that you are still here somewhere waiting for me to realize it with a surprised “Is that you?”
It is not you. You feel as gone as ever, white petals notwithstanding.
As your younger siblings get older and older, I notice your absence ever more. So many families with three children surround me. Our family feels so wrong, so incomplete, next to them. Our family feels younger than it should, without its eight-and-a-half-year-old anchor. Reminding myself that we do have three children, that in fact, our oldest would be turning nine this year, only compounds the sense of wrongness instead of alleviating it.
Our anchor. Your younger siblings play together so well—they love and despise each other pretty much in equal measure, but I find myself thinking so often lately about what our days would be like if you were in them. I project onto both Jackson and Ada a sense of loss of an older sister, a leader and role model, a comforter- and protector- and co-conspirator-in-chief. A kid needs their big sister, don’t they? I guess I’m grateful that they don’t seem to experience your absence in this way, at least not yet. But part of me hopes that someday they will. Although I’d never wish pain upon either of them, and although I mostly want them to feel your presence, if someday they experience your absence and feel a sense of loss, maybe that’s how I will know I have done all of this right.
Seven years, my girl. I don’t know what else to say except the same refrains that echo beneath every breath, every day. I love you. I miss you. I wish you were here. We will blow bubbles today, along with many others across the world, and I’ll watch them float away, hoping they find their way to someone who needed to see them.
Is that you?