I want to spend all day in the water. It soothes me. I feel pure, young, innocent. I think of you. I ask you to send me messages through the waves, answers. Can you hear me? Send me a wave.
The water is clear, I see straight down to the dust-colored sand. The waves are small, but fun. Between sets I see two little girls swimming past my feet in their own little magical world.
Under the water with you, we are mermaids.
“I am Ariel.”
“No, I’m Ariel, you are Starfin.”
“Who the hell is Starfin?”
We sing to each other in bubbles, can you understand what I said? Little sun-baked girls in little saggy bathing suits.
We lost touch. You called me when you fell in love, when you got pregnant. I visited you in your New Jersey apartment, your boisterous bickering household, your husband and boys who you adored. Now how long has it been? Six years? Seven? I kept an eye on your facebook page. I reached out weakly, you reached out vaguely. I guess I just assumed you were busy, that you were living your new reality, and I mine. I want you to know that I’m finally making my way back to our island. I assumed I would see you there someday, when we’d worked through the sticky layers of life and cycled back to our pure little souls.
I watch swells march towards the Canary Islands, and my mind travels over the sea to St. John. I guess I’ll just have to wait a little longer to sit on a beach with you and laugh and curse (of course) about the irony of life.
Death, so strange. My first real experience, besides pets and grandparents. The process unfolds just like in psychology books. Disbelief first. A day before sadness hits, because you don’t quite understand. I played it cool, light. I acted like I understood. I invented reasons before I knew the reasons. Accident, illness, side effects of living in New Jersey. Side effects of being a hard-core St. John kid.
Yeah, we live hard. We live strong. We live independent. We don’t let the world tell us who to be. That’s how we were raised, it’s in our blood. It’s why anyone finds themselves on that little rugged rock of an island.
Sadness hits finally on a short flight from Barcelona to Grand Canary. Everything that you meant to me, and everything that you being gone means for me. No one knows us so pure as those that grew up beside us. A big piece of me is held in you.
I cry a lot those next days, surprised to miss someone so much who I haven’t seen in so many years. Funny how you become more real to me now as I think of you constantly. I worry I am being dramatic, self-centered. I hover above emotion, wondering if I should dive in. How to feel this without letting it take me over? Repetitive thoughts threaten to become systemic. But neither will I talk myself out of sadness. I know there must be a balance.
Anger nudges the edges of my consciousness, but never takes hold. We never had anger for each other, just love, flawless sister love. And that is a relief. Regret takes hold strong though. I was one of the most important people in your life. I never felt like I let you down until now. But we were each just doing our own thing, right? Doing what we needed to deal with these layers of life. There is always an excuse…excuses save us from despair. Life is perspective and we choose the perspective that brings us the most peace. I think that is OK.
I hear finally that you had struggled with addiction and mental illness for years. What the hell? Why didn’t I know? Did I know? Regret turns to guilt. I could have helped, surely.
I catch a wave and paddle back out, feeling clear as this water. I kick my legs and the lump rises back in my throat. A year ago I looked through photo albums of beaming children on gleaming beaches. You were there. I felt relieved, free. That is who I am, I thought, and I allowed myself to embody my innate innocence. The lump rises to my eyes and pours out into the ocean. I would take you away for a month, float in the water with you, teach you to surf, share my joy. I would remind you of your pure little soul, our past, our beautiful history, give you a place and permission to set down all the shit that’s piled up through the years. If I had just called on your birthday.
“Retrospect is a bitch.” I reach out to friends, to make sure they are OK, make sure they know now that I love them. I think of ways to help everyone in my life who is hurting. But then I remember that knowing what’s best for everyone is actually no good for anyone.
I think I will write you a song, or a poem. I will get a tattoo on my ankle, I will hold a ceremony. For you. Wait, for who? You do not care, you are free, you are flying. All of this is for me.
I finally talk to your mother. She tells me about your anger, your depression, your risky behavior. Drugs and meds and bad company. God I wished I knew. I listen, and all I hear is resilience gone too far. Bad coping skills dragging you down.
I start to accept there may have been little I could do. Guilt fades somewhat. I just hope you knew how much I always loved you. If you can hear me, if you know how much I love you, send me a wave. Just one perfect triangular peak right for me. I wait, but the swells march in equal and linear as before, building at once and closing too fast to catch. I get out of the water.
I’m adjusting to the idea that I’ll never see you again, that you were sad and I didn’t know. I’m relieved to think maybe you took too many meds on accident. That you just slept and slept, taking a break from life’s shit. Strips of paper mache laid one by one over time, covering you in a disguise and a mask that forgot to leave holes for your eyes.
But I am not won by stage tricks. To me, under that sweaty costume there is always you. Smiling your crooked smile, sassing and back-talking, mothering protectively. Hugging me fiercely to your bony body, making me certain that time apart fades nothing between us. I never saw you angry or loaded. I can imagine it, but I still wouldn’t have seen you for anything other than what you really are. My scrawny sarcastic sassy sister. You are the answer to my internet security question:)
So what would you want? Would you want me to write a song that makes everyone bawl? Haha, maybe, just to be bitchy. But seriously, no. Your strong self would want me to write a song to make everyone dance and laugh. And your soft self, which you showed selectively, which I was honored to see, would want me to make sure your boys are OK. Because they will struggle, for sure. They will seek ways to understand, or cope. They will think that anger will help, and it will a bit, because it will feel different than sadness, but it will only wrap them up in the same shit. They will need perspective, tools, and compassion for themselves. And for you. That scrappy girl was just a little mermaid who grew tough because she didn’t know what else to do. Because she didn’t get to surf:)
They will need to know you how I knew you. I didn’t have a chance to remind you, but maybe I can show them. They will need to understand themselves and their emotions. They will need an aunt, perhaps. I hope I can be there in some way, I’m not so good at committing to things…
I contact your husband. I tell him I’m sorry, if he needs anything, blah, blah blah. He writes back some reassurance. I take a minute, then I ask the selfish question (I imply the selfish question). “I hope she knew how much I loved her.” He writes back, “Oh she knew.” Relief. I write back, “Thanks, I needed that…She adored you boys.” She really did.
I wake up today feeling better. I run, pound my feet hard on the sand, until I can hardly breathe. That feels good in a way. I am shaking out the sadness. A coping skill. Just a series of coping skills. I’ve found mine, you found yours. Then I surf. I surf hard. We island babies live hard. You lived hard. The water is clear again, the waves build all at once and send me dropping, pounding, slamming out more emotion. This isn’t like other heartbreaks. There is no rejection, no anger, just missing you. It is pure, bittersweet.
Finally tired, I think of getting out. I paddle up the beach a bit and find myself alone in an unusually empty stretch of water. A bulge appears out to sea, a pointy peak breaks apart from the straight ridges of close-out waves. The peak comes right to me, just for me. I catch it, ride right, turn a couple of times, fall, submerge, emerge, and paddle back out, as another rises to greet me. My own spot pumping. I catch another, another. Still no one has noticed. Out of nowhere, my own waves.
Hillary, I smile. Just like you, show up when you’re ready. I know, you’ve got a lot of people to check up on. It’s OK, I love you too.
A few surfers catch on and move in. The clean wave slowly fades, returning to the monolithic close-out wall.
I look out at the ocean. Thirty-two years old, both of us. That’s pretty damn young. I guess I’ll have to wait…fifty years to see you? Yeah, fifty, I decide. Well, fifty six. I think I’ll live until 88, that’s a perfect number. Was 8 your favorite number too? I think we probably shared it giggling. I ride in and stay some time floating in the crystal shallows, like our little baby selves at Cinnamon Bay.
Fifty six years is not so long, just look how fast seven went. Then we’ll take another run at this whole “life” thing, except next time I won’t let go of your hand.