Every day an anniversary

Much has been written about the “anniversary effect” and its relationship to grief and trauma survival. As much as death is a certainty, in a death phobic culture it’s reasonable to see how it could be considered traumatic. I see this regularly, even when the very elderly die. We are not prepared emotionally because we don’t even like to use the word death. We say the person “passed away.” Intellectually, we tell ourselves that we accept the inevitability of death, but that’s where we stop. It’s not our fault – we are, to a great degree, the products of our prevailing culture – but we must wrest with this emotional death phobia, I believe, if we are to grieve well, or even at all.

As January 5th approached this year, I started mentally preparing myself for the anniversary effect. Even with forethought, starting right before Christmas, I was hit hard. I was unprepared for the degree to which this fourth anniversary of her death would affect me emotionally. Her “deathday.” We don’t use that expression. Even I don’t. We say the “anniversary of her death.” So why not deathday, like birthday?

Now that it’s March, I can see some of the reasons this year was particularly difficult: I delayed my annual trip to be with the family on her deathday, it’s been a colder, snowier winter this year, I had a really miserable upper respiratory virus, 2017 brought substantial and stressful changes to my life, etc. These considerations have helped me weather the anniversary effect, and so has this thought: every day is an anniversary.

Quite literally, very few days in a year go by without some important recollection, seasonal memory, tradition, or commemoration of our lives together. More frequently, it’s the small, yet significant reminiscences that populate my every day life. Things like gifts she gave me, recipes, songs from our youth, art and poetry mutually loved, TV shows from decades past, cards and email correspondence, videos, photographs, clothing, and ephemera from half a century of living this amazing life in each others’ orbits.

At least once a week, or so, I say something like this to my husband, Eric:  “Today was the day Kissie and I went to…” or “Six years ago this month, we all got together for…” or “Every time I hear that music, I remember how she loved…” He listens, and usually remarks how ever-present our shared experiences remain, be they commonplace or extraordinary.  It’s no surprise, then, that our interwoven lives and the cultural and familial backdrop of the last fifty years, make it virtually impossible not to stop and recall – even if it’s just in the midst of a hectic afternoon –  some aspect of our pivotal relationship every single day.

Every day, an anniversary.

Oh Wistful Season

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Here we are again at your signature time of year, Kissie. The fourth autumn since your death. Your favored season for all its customs, merriments, and breathtaking transitions, and of course, the soulful wonder of it all.

That last October brought so many unexpected gifts — a rare, laugh-filled overnight with brother Joe, a chance to try my hand at homemade Runzas to tempt your waning appetite, and though I didn’t know it then, the last time I would find myself alone with you in your beautiful desert home. Just us, whiling away those three precious, glittering days in Arizona.  We were so contemplative and nostalgic, wistful and compassionate in our remembering. We talked about Midwestern autumns, Halloweens of yore, the people we’d become — somehow, our greatest accomplishment.

Eric reminds me that I miss you year-round, and regularly reference seasonal markers and cultural touchstones spanning fifty years. All true, but fall is different. Family and friends alike can’t help but recall how you came alive when the night air cooled, and your annual jaunts to Omaha to gallivant the boulevards, kicking up mounds of maple leaves with little Peony by your side.  Oh, how I miss your pure, unencumbered exuberance.

Thank you Nana, Mom, and Dad for encouraging us as children to embrace this season’s pageantry, mystery, and connection — with each other and our beloved relatives gone before us. Thank you, Kissie, for showing me how to do it with panache.

Time, and time again

The passage of time, the marking of it, has never been stranger than since you died. Dates, seasons and their associated import and memory, seem to be tattooed just under my skin – out of sight, but exerting themselves effortlessly into consciousness (or semi-consciousness) at the appointed time. Anniversaries of all sorts – doctor appointments, hospital stays, trips we took, last times we did this or that – especially that last year, are sentinels of significance that I appreciate and long for, even if they’re painful. When I look at the actual calendar and my record of events for confirmation, I think, “ah yes, no wonder I feel this way.”

As I mentally and emotionally move through the chronology of 2013, the turning over and remembering of its defining moments, I’m negotiating, as I must, the present-moment. It seems to me a kind of slipstream time, the present. A time oddly hidden from itself. More like a shadowed or cocooned time. Time that is pulled somehow, largely invisible, and without a sense of perceptible movement, but definitely evolving. A waiting, suspended kind of time the clock-driven world is impatient with, and sometimes I feel like I’m a step behind (or ahead) even while all appears to be moving at the expected and customary pace.

Because time has felt so surreal since your death, it helps me to think about the ancient Greek understanding of time. They defined time as either chronos – sequential, chronological time – or kairos – “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action.” In short, kairos being a more conditional or subjective understanding of time, and chronos more objective and measurable.  These past three years, this slipstream of time, feels more indeterminate and evolving, more kairos than chronos, even though intellectually I understand it is both. I feel less anxious when I consider the time I’m experiencing now as kairos time. It has a liminality I try to embrace, and it feels especially crucial. Most of all, you seem to exist here. We exist here.

Future Shock

2016 is kicking my emotional ass – and that’s a massive understatement. A realistic summation of it simply fails me.

It’s nearly 29 months since you died, Kissie. January 5th was two years. It has been unlike any two years of my previous 53, and I have by turns crawled, trudged, sleep-walked, and literally slept, my way through it. I’ve also wept, laughed, raged, hugged, and tried to love my way through it, but my experience of time has irrevocably changed. From the outside it must seem I’m just aimlessly adrift. Acquaintances and friends inquire about my interests and pursuits, which appear to be abandoned. I am not what I once was.

One of the ongoing difficulties is trying to find (or create) the right language to convey what’s happened, and how I’m adjusting (or not). I’m really not adjusting, though I must be adapting to some extent. I keep going – that’s what I do. When I open my eyes, I try to remember to give thanks for another day, and for the ability itself to weep for you.

I sometimes call this time and space I now occupy “future shock,” which is to say it feels neither here, nor there. It’s an in-between, disorienting, ambiguous-feeling time. And something I don’t recall experiencing before, though maybe I was not as conscious of it as I am now. Is it because I’m grieving deliberately? It’s future shock because I’m here two plus years later in a future I never imagined or wanted. It’s a liminal place because it feels transitory and unmoored, but not aimless, to me. It feels necessary.

We just celebrated your birthday for the third time since your death, Kissie.  It’s the happiest day of my life, especially the ones we shared in person. Looking at every single birthday card I ever gave you, each a tiny paper monument to our love, that liminal sweet-sadness wells up, and an old, bones deep longing I’ve always felt whenever we’ve been apart.

Autumn, Particularly

It’s hard to believe I could miss her more than I do, every. single. day. Then fall comes. It’s autumn, particularly, that embodies her brilliance, her joie de vivre, her way of bursting into a room and charging the energy with color and light.

Kissie embraced and celebrated each season’s idiosyncrasies, but none captivated her, or crystallized her sense of wonder and awe, like fall. She reveled in the midwestern pleasures: the crisp air, a crackling fire, apples and pumpkins, Halloween, and of course, the trees. She’d unabashedly jump into a pile of maple leaves and toss them like confetti.

These are the liminal days when I long for her with a heightened intensity – memories swirl and I can almost hear her voice in the quiet morning air. Maybe that’s why she loved this time so much – these transitory, fluid days do feel like a threshold, a beginning as much as an end. There is a penetrating sense of her presence, and countless reminders of the life and people she loved so much. I miss her more.

Of May

When I returned to work after my sister’s death in early January 2014, I couldn’t face the oversized year-at-a-glance calendar awaiting its annual mounting on my office wall. I’d found the dry-erase, overview style useful for the year-long planning I’m involved in, but the thought of putting it up just then, and seeing an entire year laid out before me without her in it, was just too overwhelming. It still is.

The first year of marking each first – the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, seasons – has only just passed. Sixteen months is so very little time after fifty-one years.  And all at once it was May again. I knew it was coming, of course, the glorious May that is Kissie’s birth month. The one, I think, that captures her essence most eloquently – boisterous, vibrant, radiant, and quicksilver – everything rushing to life – just like her. The whirling dervish, as I jokingly call her.

If I thought last May – and her first birthday since her death – was difficult (I did), I really could not gauge just how, and at which junctures, this one would trigger a deluge of acute sorrow. Yes, I anticipated it (a haphazard way of trying to prepare oneself emotionally), but that didn’t really equip me, so to speak, because this year is different. I am different. Last May was an incomprehensible ache. This year, my sadness feels like a kind of relentless sobriety, periodically (and often unexpectedly) punctuated with the wild unreality that has characterized so much of the last sixteen months.

As May spins shining into June, I am grateful. There have been unanticipated gifts, steadfast companions, and great beauty amid my grief and mourning. Each week, month, and season, has its own particular fierceness, its own distinct significance; and memory, its own calibration of what should be faithfully retold, honored, and held up to the light.