Grief in open waters

The VIEW from here



I’m sitting by an open window, watching how the morning light filters in, feeling the brisk accent in the wind. Autumn is beautiful, but it’s a sandbagger. Sometimes I’m suspicious of the fact that it shines such a lovely light on dying things.

I’m wearing a deep pink oversized sweatshirt, passed down to me by my baby sister Mary who has been gone now for almost a year. I just recently received it, but it still smells like her – fresh and clean – and I think of the way she would provide commentary about how she accomplished everyday chores like laundry. Or the way she would explain how she cut vegetables (“I do all my prep work in the morning, Leena.”) Or how she would make fish tacos, complete with a remoulade sauce, which I never did quite understand, but that made her feel very gourmet.

These little things are like glitter in my mind, capturing my attention at surprising times. Truth is, I would have liked to play with her about the things she did, to joke with her about her ongoing commentary in a big sister way. (“Jeepers, Mar-Mar, would you freaking calm down about the remoulade sauce?”) But it was not a time to poke fun at the things she did because the cancer was ever-present in the room with us. Everything felt important to her. And it was. I tried not to disappoint.

This time of year, if she felt up to it, we would go to her favorite farm market together to gather up pumpkins, apples, and baked goods. She’d be getting ready for Halloween, a holiday she loved although I never understood her fascination. She once had a life-sized Grim Reaper that she kept in her basement in the off season, which would not only scare the crap out of me whenever I’d visit, but I found disturbing given the circumstances. When I asked her about it, she shrugged it off, said she loved it all.

These days, surrounded by the glitter in the air that is memory, I sometimes think about grief. When I’m able to sit with it, I realize that, at least for me, it’s not like a wave that threatens to overtake me. Rather, it’s like a life-raft I can hold onto, something I can cling to alone in the wide-open waters, no land in sight. Even so, I can be safe with it, because with grief there are memories to play and replay, thoughts and actions to turn over in my mind and wonder about. The “she said, and then I said, and then she said.” I can live it all again, time travel if you will. And in that way, grief is a gift.

I can hear her laugh again, her voice. I can see her pretty hands, the way her pinkies would bend upwards as she talked. I can remember the last time I saw her, how strong she was as she said goodbye – so clear-eyed it seemed impossible that she was leaving – when she broke just for a moment and said, “I just can’t believe I’m going to disappear.”

I assured her then, best as I could, that would not be the case. And I live her now. Weaving her into my every day. Wearing the sweatshirt that was hers out in the world that she loved. Appreciating farm markets and trees ablaze with color and the fact that autumn is not just about dying but about the promise of rest and rebirth.

October 18 is both her birthday and the day she died. I will celebrate her with two of her favorite things: fish tacos and red wine. I’ll talk to her awhile and toast the woman who loved life and made it her own. As the colors turn and the clock ticks on, I’ll promise not to forget.

She had the most beautiful hands.

Eileen Button teaches at Mott Community College and serves patrons at the Genesee District Library. She can be reached at