XVII. It’s life’s illusions that I recall
My most potent memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined and then ever after continued to see each day. I can’t shake its presence in the same way I cannot outrun my shadow. It’s an illusion with such vividness it hangs right beneath the surface. It’s never far from my mind. I sat engulfed in this illusion as Todd took the podium to offer his eulogy:
I’d like to tell a story of my own about compassion and friendship. It starts off with a scared navy recruit in boot camp. He is asked to list an emergency contact and name someone for his life insurance policy. He lists the person he trusts most in the world.
I began to relive each of Todd’s words for that part that is not an illusion. Ellen was his emergency contact. I heard her voice when I answered the phone, “I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to say it: Todd tried to kill himself.” Every nerve in my body lit itself on fire. I broke our silence with a prolonged and guttural scream that shook my core. During the sleepless night that followed, I did the only thing I knew how to do. When I put pen to paper, my writing took form in the shape of a letter:
You may not remember this, but right after you began to walk, Mom left me to babysit and when I wasn’t watching (typical!) you fell down the basement stairs and hit your head on the railing. The gash in your head right above your eyebrow (Harry Potter?) was so deep I could see straight to your skull. I still remember how I felt after the doctor stitched you up. I felt that I didn’t do enough and that I wasn’t around enough. I want to be there for you.
Ellen and I immediately set to work. We read all the articles and blogs and peer-reviewed studies on suicide that we could digest before our flight to see Todd. The truth is we didn’t know what to do. Suicide is a foreign concept to me. I’m convinced that if I were lucky enough to make it to 99, I’d still do chemo for one more day. Over the course of a weekend, we tried many tactics in hopes one would resonate. I remember feeling present in our togetherness. I recall the walks on the beach and the way I couldn’t see us through my wind blown hair, but I could hear our laughter. I recollect the natural ease of our sibling bond as we took selfies on St. Augustine’s bridge. But mostly, I remember asking Todd to promise us, if he couldn’t live for himself to live for us. We solidified his agreement with pinky promises and tears that dripped onto our paella dinner. When we finally ran out of tactics, we listened. We submerged ourselves in the grueling details. This is where my illusion creeps in. I wasn’t there, but I can see Todd as if I were.
Todd ended his tribute with, “That was the kind of person Ellen was, willing to drop everything on a moments notice to help you. She saved my life.”
I am proud of Todd for openly sharing her impact on him in the most deeply personal way. The true gravity of that moment was lost on me. Since I walked off a plane from Africa and into the funeral, there was no time to learn more about Ellen other than that she was gone. Matthew, Todd, and Bo conferred and decided that is was right for Matthew to spend time with me after the funeral to talk more in detail. I was more than okay with that approach. After all, I already knew. I searched my brain for answers that cold, restless night before evacuation on Kilimanjaro and landed squarely on accident. I even overheard family answering Grandma’s questions, “It was an accident.” I hate being right.
I was at peace, until I wasn’t. I stood up from my chair in the reception hall, when my second cousin Janet approached to say goodbye. She’s a beautiful ball of energy, whose presence is always felt through her joyous laughter. She gave me a heartfelt hug and looked into my eyes and offered genuine empathy, “I know how you feel. My brother also committed suicide.”
At first, I didn’t react. My brain began to race, tripped, and raced again. I stood frozen as my world began to spin. When she moved away to leave, there was my Bo. I repeated Janet’s words in my head in a desperate attempt to understand. Then her words came into focus as if a lens of a camera was twisted. I asked Bo the unimaginable, “Did my sister kill herself?” The truth was revealed as endless tears began to roll off his cheeks. I don’t remember the wail that left my body as I began to collapse inward into myself. I’m sure it was the same harsh and unrecognizable sound I let escape into the world when Ellen called me on Todd’s ill-fated day. It was the end of everything. My world went dark; the kind of dark that eats up the light. I came to as Bo was carrying me to the emergency exit, but before he could quite get me out the door, we were surrounded. They all were holding me up, the loves of her life.
I decided to spend the next few weeks attempting to return the favor. I visited those same loves to try to hold them up in the same way they held me. But if I’m honest, it was really to find a little piece of her. I started with Matthew. I knew he wasn’t eating. He was surviving off of beef jerky and energy drinks. It’s better than nothing. I immediately knew what Ellen would do. I thought back to the morning where I was adjusting my blue wig in the mirror as she burst through the front door carrying a wicker basket with a sign in a shape of a flower that announced: My first chemo. In the basket was everything I needed to survive. That’s how I found myself at Trader Joe’s emptying their shelves of jerky into a brown cardboard box labeled: Matthew’s survival kit. I didn’t think he’d remember that flower box. I was simultaneously wrong and right. He remembered and I did find a little piece of Ellen in that moment.
Then, Matthew’s niece, Sapphira, asked if I was willing to play dolls. We set up shop on the kitchen table. The first task was to name the dolls. Easy. Rochelle and Chatty Cathy. She exclaimed, “You are Chatty!” as I laid out the elaborate points system our acrobat dolls could earn during their circus show. I studied her Grandma’s face as we swung the dolls from the chandelier. Her eyebrows weren’t arched so it was fair game. Arlo, Matthew and Ellen’s dog, didn’t have the same choice as we commandeered him as the circus elephant and did quadruple flips off his back. After Sapphira went home, I received a text from her mom:
Phee loved playing with you yesterday! She said you’re just like Aunt Ellen. She said she loves hanging out with you because you remind her so much of Ellen. If you’re ok with it she would like you to be Aunt Lisa now!
That’s the moment I became an aunt for the first time. I miss Ellen so much sometimes I can hardly breathe. Then right when I need it, a little piece of her through someone she loves shows up.
I visited Todd last because I didn’t know how to breach the subject of our now broken promise from St. Augustine. I decided there was no right way, so with a swig of mimosa for liquid courage, I ineloquently divulged, “Our promise is broken.” Todd reached across the table and looped his pinky with mine. Am I delusional or have I lived through this present moment before? The thought quickly dissipated as I realized lightening struck me twice, but this time was different. This time there were only two of us in Richmond with our tears dripping onto biscuits instead of paella.
A few weeks of visits turned into months of quietly sitting in the familiar silence that follows the overwhelming outreach after tragedy. I can feel it now as I write this. I know how to sit in the crushing stillness of my own thoughts. I recently mulled over a conversation Bo narrated after hanging up the phone. His friend asked, “Why do you surround yourself by the broken ones?” I’ve never heard myself described in that manner. Broken. A new fear crept in, one of perceptions. Not of myself – I’m forever the girl blurred by motion, the endless traveler, and the believer in curiosity – but of her. I’m desperate for people to see Ellen beyond her end. Do they see her sense of adventure as she announced on a whim, “We’re going on a hike,” and loaded our dogs into the car one crisp, fall morning? Do they see her generosity as she pushed me out of the way to pay for our coffee to ensure our senses were awake enough to enjoy the colors? Do they see the way she lights up when we lose ourselves in conversation about her recent trip to Italy, where she climbed the hills of Cinque Terre with a beer in hand and made Matthew stumble across rocks to capture the perfect shot of her diving into the waters of Vernazza?
My fear is solidified when the questions I can’t answer roll in on an endless, vicious cycle of repeat. The suffering these questions bring me is too terrible to name. Did you see any signs? Was she depressed? Was there a note? If I didn’t know better, I’d take my best shot at dark humor. I’d pretend to whip out a fake note and sarcastically respond with, “Actually yes! It’s right here in my pocket,” and instead of a note, I’d reveal my middle finger.
I’m never asked the questions I can answer. My response to, what was your favorite thing about Ellen, sits on the tip of my tongue. It lives next to my illusions right beneath the surface. I love the way her drive hides under her humility. The way I lose my breath when I undercover her latest accomplishment and how it pushes me to do better, dream bigger, love harder. I remember my shock when I asked her where to look for her in the overcrowded auditorium during her graduation. “Easy, I’m the one carrying my school’s flag,” she shrugged. I couldn’t believe my ears when I learned of her 3.9 GPA at Penn State earning her that honor. She never mentioned it as if it didn’t warrant a second thought. If our roles were swapped, I’d scream it from the rooftop. That’s the moment I realized my younger sister was my role model. My accomplishments were emulations of her own. When she announced she was buying a house, I immediately contacted my landlord, arranged for a private sale, and closed within weeks of hers. When she reserved a puppy with a breeder, I looked up a listing online and made her accompany me to meet a sketchy salesman at a gas station peddling smelly Bernese to suckers. I called her Indiana. Ellen called her Exxon. When I sit in my silence, reflecting on perceptions, I will the universe to see her as I do. Ellen is the epitome of me on steroids, the better version:
The girl blurred by motion, the endless traveler, and the believer in curiosity, but with humility.