It’s been 10 years. How can that be? 10 years of life without you. 10 years of this ache in my heart and stinging sensation in my eyes and nose when people speak of loss. When they experience grief, my heart breaks for them, because I still know the feeling of my heart breaking over you. 10 years of thinking of you in those moments.
10 years of answering “how many siblings do you have” with a different answer every time.
10 years to figure out who I am apart from you. Without your influence or your example.
10 years to figure out how different from you I am.
And 10 years to figure out how similar we are, after all.
10 years of seeing things about “sister love” and feeling that hollow pang, knowing I don’t have a sister anymore.
10 years of trying to establish a “new normal.”
And after 10 years, it’s clear that we have developed new rhythms, but that we still don’t feel whole. We’re still trying to figure out who we are as a family. And that’s a really hard thing to admit. Because it’s admitting that this is not the way things were meant to be, even after all the healing, and coping and growing, and changing and redeveloping.
We have adapted, and while we have found joy again, we have entered back into life again, part of us still knows that there was another way this story could’ve gone. And I am starting to see that that knowledge will never go away completely.
Walking into this, I never knew just how long death takes its toll. Never realized how deeply woven into our stories the threads of grief would be.
Here is the truth that no one says out loud.
I don’t think about you every day anymore. 10 years ago I would’ve been appalled at myself for this being true, for admitting it. I thought about you every day for years. For the whole first year I didn’t want to move on. But my soul began to die, to suffocate from unobserved grief after a year of it. Grieving and finding joy again felt like betraying you at first. I was 15, but I imagine it must feel similar even to adults who walk through that valley.
But at some point I did establish new rhythms of life. I gradually stopped having those moments where I expected to see you somewhere, expected you to be at dinner that night, thought of something to tell you only to remember that you were no longer there to tell.
At some point, I began to be able to tell people that I had a sister, but that you had died, and I began to be able to do it without my throat tightening, without tears falling too easily from my eyes. The statement stopped being a reminder, and started being a fact.
Eventually, people stopped calling me by your name accidentally. That was both a helpful thing yet a sad realization a few years in. It meant that you had been gone long enough that even acquaintances had made the mental shift to know your name should no longer be in their “name bank” for the O’Hanlons.
People stopped comparing me to you altogether by the time I graduated high school. I had already begun to blaze my own trail. And of course by the time that I graduated college, I had surpassed the point in life that you’d lived through, so the mention of your name didn’t even come up.
I thought of you, though. I thought about the picture we took together at my 8th grade graduation. The only graduation of mine you’d get to attend. I hope you’d be proud of me, and happy for me for the happy things of my life, and sad with me for the heart-breaking ones. I trust that that would be the case. You were always really compassionate like that, deep down.
This is what makes me saddest. How much you’ve missed, and how much we’ve missed that would’ve come in your life. So much has changed for us in 10 years, I’m sure life would’ve changed for you, too.
I’ve met a few people in life who remind me a lot of you. They are people that others sometimes have a hard time getting close to, but they feel so familiar to me, because it’s like seeing a glimpse of you. It is comfortable to be near them, just as I was always comfortable around you.
Here’s another painful confession. I don’t remember what your voice sounded like anymore. I wish we had had digital cameras and video cameras back then, but I didn’t yet. I got my first one the Christmas after you died. I haven’t heard your voice in a decade.
I haven’t heard you play piano in just as long.
I know from memory what you looked like still — but the details of your face, or your person, they’re starting to get a little fuzzy. I have static images of you in mind, from the pictures, but I don’t remember how you moved.
There are, of course, lots of pictures of you at mom and dad’s house, but I only have a couple of my own. I have a picture frame collage with 2 in it of you — I have taken it with me everywhere I’ve lived — even in another country.
It is a very weird thing to look at pictures of you from the end, and to know that you are only 20 years old. You are 4 years younger than I am now. Which is so strange because you were always so much older and cooler. How could you be younger than me?
I remember what you smelled like still, vaguely, because I still have one of your shirts. I’ve washed it a bunch of times (because I’ve worn it), but sometimes, on the occasions that I did wear it, I would catch a whiff of you. I stopped wearing it because I was afraid that eventually, after too many washes, the smell would leave. That’s the last piece of your clothing I have. I just can’t get rid of it. I got rid of the rest though — which was much harder than getting rid of clothes should ever be. I blame you, and grief, for me staying out of current style for so long.
Here’s another confession. While I have gone to the cemetery a lot over the past 10 years, I have visited your grave only a dozen or less times. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that your body is there. But I like to visit the cemetery in general, because I feel close to you there — I know that was a place you used to go when you ditched school, or just to get away from things. It is because of that, not because of your grave, that I go.
I always think of you when someone makes a comment about red heads being feisty.
I always think of you when I see one of those pens that you always used. You’re right, they really are the best pens.
I always think of you when I watch Ever After, Sweet Home Alabama (I still have your burned copy), Gattaca, and Finding Forrester (which I watched yesterday, and yes… I cried when he talks about his brother). I watched Monsters University the other day finally (sequel to Monsters Inc.) and I remembered you really liked the original. The sequel is pretty cute, too.
I always think of you when I see something or hear something about the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember all of those afternoons of all three of us watching some combination of that, Sister Sister, The Nanny, and Arthur that added up to an hour of our TV time. I love that we all watched all of those together.
And of course, anywhere that they sell cheap, gas station, soft-serve ice creams makes me think of the times you got Jason and I to pay for yours if you drove us there and back.
Whenever a phone book is delivered to my door step I think of that summer, and the fact that the dress you bought me was not NEAR enough payment for the hours I put in, but I had no idea at the time. I thought you were being so gracious. I wish I could rag on you now about that.
After 10 years without you, the pain has lessened, the heaviness of the sadness has lifted, but the fact is that the loss remains. We’ve lost you and life will never be the same.
And while we have to make peace with that, and we have, we do, and we will… we still miss you. We still love you. And it seems that time will not wash that away. Nor should it, I suppose.
P.S. This picture, this is how I remember you. No wonder I know how to make a splash. I got that from you, I think. (Julie, age 17, after a Mock Trial competition. Those are boxers.)