I can't say that Death and I hold hands, stare into one another's eyes, and whisper sweet nothings. Nor can I say that I am so obsessed with his existence that I steal his diary and read it just to find mentions of my name. Instead, we are simply acquaintances -- being sometimes on friendlier terms than others. I have grown used to Death hanging out on the fringes of my friend circle along with his annoyingly pushy cousin Sickness (no boundaries, that one!). Still, in spite of the many times that he and I have had occasion to hang out in hospitals, restaurants, basements, and swimming pools, the truth is, the guy is no barrel of laughs. Over the last couple of years, though, the bastard has simply gone too far. It was one thing when Sickness, Death and I hung out on the regular. I mean, I have grown used to the idea of my own demise. And, while I am not rushing off to hand myself over to him, I'm not afraid of him either. At least, not for myself. Nevertheless, over the last few years, particularly this one, Death has taken way too many people that I love, and Grief just won't let go of my big toe.
We all know that love makes you vulnerable. From the second that your child takes its first breath or from the moment that "like" blooms into schnieke scheisse and you're in love, you know that something in you will always be held hostage. Those are the big feels for the big relationships. But what I've struggled with this year and the year before that and the year before that is how easy it is to lose people before you've lost them, and how impossible it is to recover any of that time once they're gone.
My step-sister died this summer and, despite having our lives yoked together for more than 40 years, we were not close. There was no real reason for the distance between us outside of an irrelevant origin story and inertia. I loved her and love her still after her passing, but my love for her was a pale, sickly sproutling that needed more tending to grow into what it was meant to be. We spoke infrequently. I am bad at talking to people and rarely notice time passing. It makes people feel forgotten since, most of the time, I neglect to tell them how much they live in my heart and head. Every once in a while I would reach out to her. Check up. Check in. But her life was more figurative to me that something real.
She had cancer, my sister. For years. I kept tabs on her through other family members, but I never called her directly. Not once did I ever cuddle her children, my niece and nephew, nor did I ever tell them that I was proud of the adults they were becoming. This is not self-flagellation. Certainly, I could say the same for the amount of effort she put into being a part of my life. But, this post is not about tit for tat. This post is about the emptiness that comes from understanding that you missed out on something good.
I was at my birth sister's house when my step-sister died. I had driven almost 1800 miles to see my nephews and to pick up my son. I had 4 other sisters (3 now) with prefixes like "step" and "foster" and "other," and while the act of applying a largely meaningless prefix should not have meant stipulating a condition, it did. I did my normal visit, keeping things simple, not reaching out to my heart shadows, and just as it was time for me to drive back home, she died. It seemed sudden, even though I knew she had been well acquainted with Sickness and Death. No matter how much I could tell myself that, logically, the loss of her, of having her on the periphery of my life, was not that great, it was a lie. It was a lie because, you see, I always believed that we would have time. Somewhere in my heart of hearts, I believed that we would go out to dinner together, share stories about our kids, talk about church, compare notes on remaining hope-filled in the face of despair. We would put aside outdated misconceptions and greet each other in the here and now. But I missed it. That opportunity. I missed her. I miss her still.
So, there I was at her funeral listening to people I never met talk about a sister I had barely known. I knew about the child, but the woman she had been, goodness gracious, the woman was spectacular. She was brave, and strong, and faith filled, and hopeful. She was an amazing mother not just to her children, but to everyone who needed someone loving and kind in their lives. She inspired passionate devotion in her friends, all of whom would have sold some part of themselves if it meant taking away a part of her pain. And yet, she never complained or asked for anyone other than herself to be responsible for lightening her burden. I listened and, like a voyeur peeping an unfinished masterpiece, I selfishly grieved.
It's been months now, and I still don't know how to frame this loss that both is and is not mine to feel.