Is Eight Years Too Long To Still Be Grieving?
I’m busy living my life, despite walking around with a sinkhole inside me.
M y best friend is getting married. It is beautiful and happy in every way. I stand in the hallway holding my bouquet, ready to walk down the aisle and support her when the music starts playing. An instrumental version of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
There you are. The wedding in front of me fades away and I am back at your funeral, eight years ago. The memory crashes into me and I am helpless to stop it. You had always wanted to walk down the aisle at your wedding to “All You Need Is Love,” but when you died at 38, you hadn’t gotten married yet. So while eight of your strongest female friends accompanied your coffin out of the synagogue, we played the song for you. It wasn’t the walk down the aisle that you’d dreamed of, but it was the best we could do for you. You were my big sister. You are my big sister.
I try to clear the image from my head, to replace it with what is happening in front of me, but all I can see is your coffin. All I can think is how unfair it is that my friend, only 28 years old, is getting to experience what you had always wanted — a walk down the aisle to this wonderful song. I realize that I am physically shaking my head back and forth to end the accidental time travel I am experiencing, but fortunately people are too distracted to notice. It’s my turn to walk, and like magic, I return to the present.
I am lying in bed with my husband, falling asleep. I’m absentmindedly stroking his hair as he drifts off. I run my thumb along his eyebrow, applying a little pressure, in a motion that feels familiar to my muscles, though my brain is nearly asleep.
I am awake, in your hospital room. You were in a coma. I was 19 and scared. Our parents and other sister seemed to know what to do, at least from my perspective. They looked like their skin fit them. I was awkward, a child pretending to be an adult. The only thing I could think to do was to rub your eyebrows. When I was younger, you’d ask me to do that all the time, and since you were 18 years older than me, I jumped at the chance to please you. I was so little compared to you, I never felt I was able to help or support you. Despite being my sister, you were the parent and I was the child; these were our roles. But I could always rub your eyebrows. You said it made you feel calm. So as you lay there dying, I rubbed your eyebrows again. “I’m helping,” I thought. “This is how I can be here for you.” You died anyway.
The feeling of you being gone is, as it always is, too big for my body.
My cheeks are damp. I know it, but I don’t want to wake my husband up. (I have a husband, and you never got to meet him. How surreal.) I feel embarrassed. It has been eight years. It isn’t your birthday or the anniversary of your death. What am I doing crying in bed? But the memory of the hospital has slammed into me and knocked the wind out of me, and try as I might, I can’t catch my breath. My husband wakes up. Without enough breath to explain to him what is happening, I cry. My cries get louder, even as I run out of tears. The feeling of you being gone is, as it always is, too big for my body. I feel that if I could just find a way to let it out, open a door for it, it would feel less crushing. Less like it was breaking all my bones as it tried to get out. I tear at my skin and hair, trying to get them off my body so the grief can get free. I don’t think about the scratch marks on my face that will remain tomorrow, making me look even more unstable than I feel. I just need to do something to catch my breath.
Is eight years too long to still be grieving? Is eight years past the point where clawing at yourself is acceptable? I go to monthly dinners with other friends who’ve experienced loss and no one has mentioned trying to tear their skin off. But then again, I haven’t mentioned it either.
I’m busy living my life, despite walking around with a sinkhole inside me. I look at the people on the street and wonder how many of them have sinkholes inside them, too. Places within yourself that you steer clear of, because you know that if you get too close, there’s a good chance you’ll fall in. The ground beneath you will start to slip and you’ll shake your head ferociously and try to back up. Sometimes it works, and you can continue with your day, taking extra precautions and roundabout routes to avoid the collapsing ground. But sometimes it doesn’t and you slip and slip and before you know it, you’re inside the hole. Up to your waist in the grief that you’ve been keeping at bay for nearly a decade.
Crossword puzzles are a direct path to the sinkhole, which is unfortunate, because I love crossword puzzles. But we did them together, and while you died, I read clues aloud to you by your bed. You didn’t answer, because you were in a coma, but I still tried to impress you by getting the longest clues and guessing the theme of the puzzle. Crossword puzzles slam into me in a way that I’m not equipped to handle, so I don’t do them anymore.
Tampons. Tampons are hard too, which is especially inconvenient. You sat on the other side of the bathroom door when I was 12 and totally baffled by the plastic applicator. You talked me through their mechanics and made me feel proud that I was becoming a woman. Without having given birth to me, you were the most wonderful mother. In part because it is too painful to use tampons in the shadow of this memory, I now have an IUD that prevents me from ever getting my period.
You taught me how to swallow pills, how to go down escalators, to make sure that my fingernails were always clean, and how to beat Dad at Boggle. You introduced me to the only brand of makeup remover that I’ve ever used. You taught me to love my body.
I can’t avoid all of these things, but every one crushes me like a pile of bricks. I go back to your bedside the night before they took you off life support, when I begged you to make me strong like you. Is this strength, or weakness? Is surrounding your memory with bright yellow caution tape and detour routes cruel, or necessary?
Next week, I’m having my IUD removed. So I can try to get pregnant. Will I be the kind of mother that you were to me? Will I make you proud?