Death, Memory, and Other Superpowers
I do not remember Susie, who was my sister and nearly four years old when she died. I was two and our other sister, Ellen, was five. Susie’s life was a mystery. Our home had the uneasy feel of a crime scene wiped clean. There were no photos of her on the mantelpiece, no favorite doll tucked among the toys in the playroom. There was no cedar chest filled with tissue-wrapped rattles, handprint art projects, and bronzed baby shoes. Our parents never spoke of our missing sister. It was as if they were shielding us from an evil spell they might unintentionally invoke. And yet, in their silence was a resounding, powerful secret. As a young child, I imagined that secret was death.
I do remember asking my mother about Susie. What was her favorite color? Game? Dessert? She didn’t answer, or maybe it’s just that the words aren’t as memorable as the way her face crumpled, suddenly appeared older and haggard at the mention of Susie. “Don’t upset your mother,” my father warned. At the time, I thought he was protecting me from what my mother might say or do. In retrospect, I know he was shielding his wife from the pain of her memories.
For years I, too, was silent, relying on my imagination to keep Susie alive.
My big sister, Ellen, possessed a superpower: she remembered Susie. Ellen was ten and I was six when she first came to my room dressed in a hobo-esque collection of old Halloween costumes: pink tutu and matching leotard, black cape, flowered flip-flops, and a sparkly tiara. “I’m the Good Fairy,” she revealed, flitting around me, waving a Styrofoam-and-glitter wand, dark hair floating off her shoulders, threaded with static and magic. As she jumped up onto my twin bed, I wanted so badly to believe that she could fly.
When Ellen became the Good Fairy, I snuggled under the quilt, surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals: my trusty dog, Old Gold, with his soft pink tongue, Snakey the purple boa, a monkey with plump cherry-colored lips, Kitty-cat Carlisle with her glassy gray eyes, and a teddy bear with a pouty plastic face. The Good Fairy sat cross-legged at the end of the bed, a box of Animal Crackers or Froot Loops between us, and granted my wish: she answered questions about our missing sister.
Favorite color? Blue.
Game? Uncle Wiggily.
Did she like to read, ride a bike, play dress-up? Reading and biking, yes. Dress-up not so much.
Did she like me? Yes, of course, Susie loved her pesky baby sister, the Good Fairy assured me.
I wielded my own magic power at night, after my mother tucked me into bed and turned off the light. I would lie awake, lashes whisking against Old Gold’s neck, holding my breath so that I might conjure a whisper of magic in the dark. How could Susie have simply disappeared? What I really worried about was that I could disappear, too, without a moment’s notice. This seemed particularly likely if I fell asleep. I willed myself awake by playing games with the countless pinpricks of light that I saw popping up in the dark, my eyes wide open. Sometimes, these dots took on colors—red, pink, green, blue—like a super-sized Lite-Brite board. A hamburger might whiz by tempting me to take a bite. The outline of a bedtime story character, Snow White or Sam-I-Am, might briefly show up at the foot of my bed. But my missing sister never materialized.
It was easy to cast my mother as the Good Fairy’s evil foil. She could be soft and tender one moment, crying or shouting the next. She was quick to anger; her feelings were easily bruised. My mother’s love was fragile, easily broken, unreliable. It felt unsafe to love her, and I did love her. At the time, I did not recognize the fragility as fear, the rage as grief.
I imagined there was a secret place where my mother stowed away her memories of Susie. A metal box, high on a shelf that could only be opened with a tiny silver key. Maybe in the attic above my room, where I heard vague creaky noises. Much later, after I had children of my own, I would realize that the place where my mother kept her sacred memories, the place where Susie had always remained very much alive, was in my mother’s heavy sigh, in the pat-pat-pat of her hand on my back that never felt quit like a hug, in the distance she kept between herself and her surviving children.
My mother took me to a therapist at least once. He was a benevolent man with the round face and Fuller-Brush-mustache of Captain Kangaroo. I was young enough to think it was great fun getting the full attention of an adult who asked questions and encouraged me to dip into a big glass bowl of Brach’s hard candies. I answered him with my own stories about my sister, but it wasn’t Susie. My stories were about Ellen. I conjured dreams of Ellen saving me from a herd of giraffes so tall I couldn’t see the sky or figure out where I was. Ellen finding me in a scary swamp with alligators who wanted to snap off my fingers and toes. The truth is, I felt protective of both of my big sisters. Ellen’s superpower, the memories she had shared over a box of Froot Loops, were safe with me.
There are several explanations for the micro-stars that I saw before me in the dark and sparked the galaxy of my imagination. One theory is that schools of white blood cells accumulate on the retina and visually sensitive children see them in the dark. It’s possible these mild hallucinations fill the uneasy visual void before one’s eyes flutter shut and consciousness fades into dreams. Some people believe the patterns of light and dark are a metaphysical manifestation of energy. Whatever the truth is, at some point I decided it was weird to see magic dots that no one else saw and I kept the window shade up to let in the light of the moon.
Puberty stirred up the magical thinking of my youth into a churning caldron of rage, sadness, and longing that I did not understand. I was afraid that these feelings might bubble over and carry me away to some dark, cold place where no one could find me. I stuffed down my fear with food; I numbed my anxiety with pot. I yelled. A lot.
“What did you do with Susie’s things?” I demanded of my mother more than once. I needed to tell her I was in pain, but the only way I knew how to be heard was to hurt her. “There must be photos somewhere. A death certificate. Or did you just throw everything away after she died?” I accused her of being selfish. I missed Susie, too.
“Susie was my daughter. These are my memories,” she said. “You can’t possibly miss her. You don’t even remember her.” All true.
Years later, I would come to understand it was my mother who I missed—her love that I craved and grieved losing.
As a child, I depended on my big sister to answer the questions about Susie that I couldn’t ask our parents. It was as if she might actually be able to save our sister’s life, the same way that I fantasized with the therapist that she saved me. Ellen was the only person willing to prove that Susie had ever really existed. It was comforting to be assured that she had, in fact, been alive, not always dead. I clung to Ellen’s stories, like a constellation that might guide me out of the depression that I experienced as a young adult, the sadness that I interpreted as unresolved grief. What shade of blue did she like? Which story did she read to me? I asked to hear the details of Susie’s life, again and again, long after I was too old to pretend that I believed in the Good Fairy and Ellen tired of the role.
When we both became mothers, Ellen in her early thirties and me in my late twenties, we began telling each other stories about our own children. Ellen lived in Chicago, across the country from my home in Seattle, so we talked mostly on the phone. We shared our fears: Ellen’s daughter, Alyssa, was born premature, tiny, and frail. She was afraid to let her baby sleep alone. My younger son, Drew, cried violently in his sleep for the first two years. Night terrors, too young to tell us the things he saw in his dreams. My husband and I would mimic Goofy and Daffy Duck, Cookie Monster, and Elmo trying to awaken our wailing baby. It took all my strength and patience to hold Drew, smooth a hand firmly down his arched back. Sometimes, he burrowed his face into my shoulder, eyes squeezed shut, tiny fists clenched to my chest as if boxing demons.
I remember Drew at age five, obsessed with the coyotes who howled at night in the woods across the street from his bedroom window. Were they mad? Mean? Could they sneak into our house after he fell asleep? I told him stories about a friendly family of coyotes who talk to each other, sometimes howling at night when it’s hard to see where everyone is. We read books about coyotes and wolves, legends about how smart and brave they are. That year, for Chanukah, Drew asked for a stuffed animal, a wolf that slept by his side at night.
The anniversary date of Susie’s death, her yahrzeit as it’s called in Jewish religion, is sometime in January. I’ve asked my father the exact date. He doesn’t remember, maybe the twenty-fourth or the twenty-fifth. Every spring, until last year, I would ask him to remind me when exactly in June Susie’s birthday falls. I refused to mark the calendar, as if it would be ill-advised to write down this valuable information, like the combination to a lock or a bank account number that someone might see. It seemed safer to designate a trustworthy gatekeeper than to rely on my own memory.
I asked my father several times during my teen years if he would take me to the cemetery where Susie was buried, not far from our home in Milwaukee. He refused. He didn’t want to upset my mother. I stopped asking. But in my early thirties, when I had two small children of my own and was struggling with depression, I wanted to try connecting with Susie in a different way than passing on the legacy of my mother’s grief to my sons. “I’d like to acknowledge Susie as part of our family,” I told my father during a visit to Milwaukee. “Will you go with me to the cemetery to put flowers on her grave?” I asked out of earshot of my mother. This was our secret.
Susie’s grave was in a plot with the rest of my father’s relatives. We walked past the headstones of his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and he told me bits and pieces about their lives. We stopped at Susie’s grave and stood in silence as I placed white lilies on the pink quartz headstone. And then, I asked him the question that had hung over our family like a shroud for so many years. “How did she die?”
He looked at me as if I’d inquired about the color of the sky. “Pneumonia. She died of pneumonia.”
“But how did she die?” I persisted. “Why?”
His gaze dropped to the gravestone. “It was my fault,” he said quietly. “I rode in the ambulance with her. I was a doctor, I should have…” He shook his head, maybe to wipe away the memory. The guilt. The shame. “The ambulance was old and slow. By the time we arrived at the hospital it was too late.”
“There’s nothing you could have done,” I said. Had he ever shared this secret with my mother? Did she blame herself, too? As a child, I had blamed her. Someone needed to be responsible, didn’t they? “Dad,” I said, “there’s nothing anyone could have done.”
It wasn’t until my mid-forties, a decade ago, that I stopped judging how my mother handles her grief. I cannot imagine losing one of my two sons. Mom also became gentler with herself. She has always been a doting “Nana” and has worked hard to become more patient, slower to lash out in anger or hurt with Ellen and me, and better at communicating what she needs. She recently confided to me, “We all have a purpose in life. I think mine has been to learn how to become a better mother. I’m still working on it.”
“Me, too, Mom,” I said. “Me, too.”
For the past twenty years, I have spent the second week of February on Sanibel Island, in Florida, where my parents rent a condo for the winter. It’s a magical place where the days are bookended by orange sunrises and purple sunsets. This is where, over the years, my mom and I have had some of our best conversations. Walking along the white beach, the ebbing tide pulling at our toes in the sand, something between us seems to soften, more and more as we both grow older. A few years ago, Mom developed glaucoma. The sun hurts her eyes. And so, we walk in the early morning, not too far, on a shady path. Last year I went to Sanibel a few weeks earlier than usual, the last week of January, even though it’s usually still cool, the sky more gray than blue.
On the morning of January 24, Mom and I walked along the shady path to get a latte and muffin at the market up the road from the beach. I held her arm and walked slowly up the mild incline, noting that her breath came with considerable effort. She asked me about her grandsons, who were both preparing to graduate from college. She told me how much she enjoyed our walk-and-talks. So did I.
“It’s Susie’s yahrzeit today,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “I remember.”
I stopped and looked at her, no accusations or questions. I simply waited to see what might come next. Mom removed her sunglasses and patted my arm. “I don’t remember specifics,” she said. “But I do remember her. I miss her. Still.”
“I like to think that a part of her is still alive, in my relationship with Ellen,” I said. “The bond we have, being sisters, is so strong; maybe it’s even stronger than death.”
We continued walking to the market in silence, her hand remaining on my arm as she leaned against me just a bit.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.