American Grief in Four Stages
We knew my sister was really different, after all, the day she got murdered. They found her body in a newspaper-recycling bin behind some grimy nightclub that had a reputation for playing Serbian folk music set to techno. Turbo folk, they called it. Someone had cleft off her left breast and pulled out her left front tooth, which had been chipped anyhow when she fell off her bike when we were kids. My parents, of course, were devastated, staring continually at reruns of ‘The Love Boat,’ with my mother occasionally turning to us and saying, “She was seven-teen!” before turning back to the TV. We no longer went places, not even to Sunday buffet dinners at the local all-you-can even though we’d always done that. So I told them, after she’d been gone a month or so, I turned down the TV and I said, Look, she’s always been different and now, she’s dead, while we live. Who knows? I said, maybe this is just her way of being different again.
Saying this may or may not have helped, all I know is that the next Sunday my mother went to the church down the road, the one with a naked wooden cross, next to the parking lot where my sister had gone over her handlebars and that maybe still contained, somewhere in its gritty black gravel, a tiny chip of her tooth. All these years later, ground to almost nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
I kept thinking maybe it’s not a big deal. That she’s gone, really. She wasn’t really like us, always trying to change us, cooking us protein diet meals so that my parents might trim down, suggesting we go to a video-installation at the new art museum, refusing to go the Waterpark on the grounds that she was suddenly too old for that crap, as if we hadn’t been doing that every summer of our lives, and as if she hadn’t loved it for the last ten years of banana slides and wave pools. As if she really suddenly couldn’t stand the cherry red taste of Tiger’s Blood: her favorite snow cone spurned just like the rest of us, just like M’s creamy casseroles and P’s sawing of two-by-fours, the continual dividing of lengths, the short-short pieces and the very long ones piled all together, the parts for something that would never be built, had not even been imagined, was only an accidental sculpture in the backyard, growing and growing, a new heap of wood now in the front. Jesus, she screamed one night, Either build something or stop, stop, stop. As if she didn’t love the sound of it, as if we didn’t grow up hearing that rhythmic grating and know that our father was home from work. The grinding and splitting and knocking of the wood, the best bad habit ever. The thing that kept him from the dormant evils of some other past. As if it wasn’t kind of funny when he threatened to saw off our arms that one time when he caught us playing naked together in the closet, and we learned. As if he ever really did it, instead of just hanging our bodies, arms hooked over the saw horse, us kneeling, the sun squinting to see us, the hacksaw impressing us each only a little on our touching arms, him complaining that it wasn’t the same. That it was the sound he loved: The Sound of Wood, he screamed as he threw the saw down, not you, not your sound. And we ran up the street to the dead end and down into the dry canal ditch and licked our cuts, and as if that was really all that bad, as if it wasn’t a great, character-building moment for all times. A story to tell our own kids someday so they’d know that we, too, had been children. That we, too, had had fathers.
If she hadn’t stopped being her, this whole dismembering murder would be sad, devastating, a terrible loss, but wasn’t she already just a shell of herself? I mean, why was she at that nightclub anyway? The place had a neon sign that said ANCE; the pink “D” burned out. It was gross and when I walked by a month after she was gone, it smelled like stale French fries and wet swimsuits. I mean if she hadn’t decided she hated us and that this place with giant, foreign bouncers who hadn’t seen a thing was better than watching TV with us, that really anything was better than watching TV with us, then it might be different now.
It’s not our fault, you see? It’s hers.
It took us a long time to forget my sister. First of all there was her stuff.
A. Her Stuff: Clothes, cut-offs, old t-shirts, lace pajamas, silk and cotton undies, running shorts, tattered swimsuits, balls of running socks, ribbed tank tops, jean skirts, fuzzy sweaters, flannel boxer shorts, her old Pep club uniform—all this could go in big black trash bags. The dresses stayed hung in the closet, my mother unwilling to crumple them. She closed the door; I opened it. I suggested we get rid of some of the ones my mother had always thought too slutty and still she shook her head and remembered to me the middle school stomps and Winter balls of years past, and the Junior Prom whose blue satin was still so practically new that I might wear it someday. I told her that was creepy but she closed the door again on the empty dresses and I closed my mouth but knew I would have to come by night for them.
The bags piled up by the door, ready to go to Goodwill. My mother, standing in front of the shiny heap, became afraid that someone we knew would buy them there, and that she would see my sister’s clothes on other bodies with other names or even worse, on strangers. So my father and I drove them to the dump in the old white truck. My father put in his Willie Nelson cassette like he always did for going to the dump, but unlike most trips when the truck came back just as full with my father’s found treasures—pieces of corrugated metal in decent shape or rotting file cabinets—the scratched bed stayed empty. He stared at it once we unloaded, then he slammed the bed door shut. The sound rattled and the seagulls cried. There was no talk on the way home, no, Can you believe someone would throw this stuff away? I mean, a perfectly good stove, just sitting there. There was not even any Willie Nelson, no On the Road Again, or us singing along with exaggerated twangs, just radio static with now and then a faint voice coming in, stuttered enthusiasm for traffic, weather, hourly contests.
B. Then there were her remains. Of course, we’d properly cremated and buried the majority of these but still there were stray parts of her, bodily detritus that kept turning up all over the house. Her hair, red and long, coiled in the drain or stuck to a couch cushion, a whole clot of it swarming my mother’s hairbrush. Her fingernails, clipped sloppily and hastily just before she died, left in a pile of tiny moon phases on the bathroom counter. There were, we knew, all sorts of shed skin cells, dandruff dust of hers that we couldn’t even see, and so couldn’t fully rid ourselves of. A breast, a tooth at large (A murderer too, I knew). Her baby teeth in a little silk box, her ponytail braided and chopped from her first haircut. I even found her pubic hair, red course kinks on the under edge of the toilet seat.
Her smell, too, lingered, a combination of cigarettes, strawberry Bubblicious and Chanel No. 5. And some other smell she’d always had, an earthy warm curry of a waft.
There was also the sound of her absence, her nonfootsteps, her nonlaugh, her nonvoice.
Which brings us to C. the Persistent Belief in Her Continued Existence: The mail still came for her, her subscription to Cosmo arrived faithfully. A bill from the clinic for birth control no one knew she was on. A notice that it was time for her to renew her car registration. An advertisement for a sale at a department store. Once in a while a call from the detective saying he wanted to go over a few more details, saying he didn’t have any new leads, saying he couldn’t figure it.
My mother still bought Carnation Instant Breakfast on the same biweekly basis and the chocolate malt boxes piled up. No one else drank that chalky crap. I even tried, in an effort to reduce the accumulation, and could not do it without hearing my sister clanking the bottom of the glass with a spoon to loose the stuck powder.
We still expected her to arrive, to return, we still thought of ideas for Christmas gifts like an automatic fingernail dryer; and I still became annoyed with her when I awoke suddenly in the night, sure that it was her late and drunken entrance that had disturbed me. For a full year we, when absent-minded, would set the table for four.
It took great concentration to remember the absoluteness of her vanishing and yet that was still not the most difficult part of her death.
D. The most arduous step in the effort to forget her was undeniably the myriad of memories, both individual and collective, that inevitably included her. Of course there were the photographs in which her ember hair and lunar face and giant gross toothy smile kept popping up. The dreaded Glamour Touch portrait of her from the mall, smiling with her lips closed for once, head tilted, air-brushed in a gold-colored frame by which my mother kept one single, plastic, red rose. Yet we could lay those photos face down, burn them if at any point they became too much, but nothing could be done about that time when she was a kid and I was a baby and we were at the store and she toddled off and my mother found her topless, eating a bag of Cheetos, the electric orange powder all over her face and fingers and tiny pale torso so that she looked toxic. Nothing could be done about the time she gave me a 900 number to dial and told me it was a direct line to Santa but it turned out to be a Phone Sex line. She dialed for me and then went into my parents’ bedroom to get on the line and listen, and nothing could be done about her stifled giggles as it rang, the way she guided me to go ahead and press one, accept the charges. But then when Santa revealed he that he did in fact have a big package for me and I squealed with delight, she yelled, She’s a kid you Creep and told me to hang up. Nothing could be done about the time she made my father promise to buy her As-Seen-On-TV Sea Monkeys at the drugstore and when he forgot she refused to come out from under the bed until he told her the truth about Sea Monkeys, that they were really brine shrimp and for heaven sakes she deserved a real pet, like a corn snake.
Even memories we considered our very own, the ones we starred in like my 13th birthday party at the Water Park, were suddenly invaded by her, the way she had been there, the way she took all day to get up the courage to go off the Acapulco Cliff Dive and then when she finally did her swimsuit top fell off, giving my friend Chad a boner, and she laughed and cried and said that it was the best thing she had ever done and made up a song about the Acapulco Cliff Dive to the tune of ‘heard it through the grape vine,’ that she sang for a week straight. Nothing could be done about remembering the way she’d croak those stupid off-rhythm lyrics while we were doing the dishes or her total victory when she caught me humming the tune one night while brushing my teeth (Ha! She cried, It’s a hit, I wrote a hit!), and nothing could be done about wondering if she’d still be alive if she’d been willing to go with us to the drive-in to see the Hannah Montana movie for my fifteenth birthday.
You see they were constant, these intrusions of her memory, but I knew if we could forget her, if we really could forget her, then not only would she not be alive, she would not be dead. And if she wasn’t dead, then we would be happy again. But it was not easy. In fact we had to launch an intensive Future-Talk campaign, initiated by me, where at the dinner table we would only talk about tomorrow, and what we were going to do: Trips we might take, the three of us (all places my sister would have disdained, like Disneyland and Six Flags); online junk-selling businesses my parents could start one day, after the meal; Places nearby I might go to college; Quilts my mother might stitch; Men I might date whom my father might like; Triumphant family moments to come. We concentrated hard on the food at hand and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into a timespace that had not yet arrived, but that was full of griefless light.
These were the trials of those months yawning into the rest of my high school career, and yet eventually we did succeed, we did, in forgetting her. My father turned her old room into an office, I quit finding hair, and I remembered solely the spacious only-childness that was now so familiar it might always have been but for a nagging thought, like something I forgot to do, a faint name, an outline of some other head shape in the car window, a face that mine looked more and more like.
But this did not happen before the event.
The Event. Mouth-drying, throat-swelling, the most difficult type of thing to speak of. It was like this. One day I saw her. She was coming out of an IHOP diner in a pink summer dress that looked god awful with her red hair. (My first reaction, in fact, was to balk: my mother always told her to avoid pink, and now she appeared for the first time in months in it.) She was real thin and had a tube in her nose and she looked alone but was walking just behind some family with two small blond kids. Towheads. She was taller than all of them but slouching, carrying a purse that was meant to look like a stuffed animal, a tabby cat, and on the side slung in a strap was a hammer with flowers, daisies, painted on the wooden handle. The sun was glass hot and the light was coming down and then back up in blinding strokes; I squinted hard against it as she turned the other way so that from across the parking lot, shielding my eyes, I broke our family rule and said her name aloud. It almost deafened me. But she didn’t even hear it, so I said it again this time louder but it came out softer, possibly because of the ringing in my ears from the first utterance. So I yelled it and found myself hoarse, my throat dry and tight, voice suddenly empty. I bent over, hands on knees and smelled my sweat, the syrup from the IHOP, the bacon, and a sick sweet fat became the space between her and me and when I looked up she was gone.
I stumbled to the old Volkswagen red bug, once-hers-now-mine, and I got in and shut the windows and even though it was the kind of day when you couldn’t leave a dog or a baby in the car for more than two minutes I stayed in there for a long time and no one broke the window to save me.
And in there I slipped. I did know, really know, for the first time—with wet-faced convulsions in reference to all those years together, my god all that accumulated proximity of her-near-me and all that siblinial, road-tripian language of which I was the last remaining speaker—I did know that by seeing her just then at an IHOP in whited-out sunlight, dressed in unflattering tones and deaf to me, that I would never see her again. And not only that, I knew too that there would be always be some remainder. Her death was divisible by nothing, and I was a leftover and I was left behind, and I was alone at a diner, and elsewhere too in places where my sister might have come with me if she were not dead, but instead she was not alive and this was a finality that made me ache clearly and loudly and freakishly in, of all places, my left breast.