Fifteen years ago today my sister died. Most people don’t know about her — Amy. I don’t talk about her much, because talking about death makes people uncomfortable, especially when the loss was so traumatic for those left behind. I was 14, she was 16. It feels like it happened a lifetime ago and that it just happened yesterday, all at once.
Since then I’ve dealt with varying levels of anxiety, especially when meeting a new person. Once you discuss school, work, and other interests, “do you have any siblings?” is inevitably asked. What am I supposed say? Being honest yields awkward tension because of our collective cultural incapability to discuss loss. Lying to them leaves me full of guilt and inner conflict. But often, I would lie, temporarily erasing part of who I was, and deal with the consequences later to suppress an uncontrollable eruption of emotions. It’s much easier for me now, but when I was in my teens it was so hard.
* * *
The most paralyzing aspects of losing someone are the milestones you start to track. It’s weird, but you can’t control thinking these thoughts. Has it really been 5 years? Has it already been a decade? They force me to confront that I have managed to continue living my life, without her. What’s significant about today, is that time has reached a cusp for me. Fifteen isn’t just another anthropocentrically symbolic number. For the first time in my life, on the anniversary of her death, I’ve now lived longer without her than I have with her. What’s always been true is that most of my life had her in it. That will never be true again.
With Amy, those milestones are more than just years passed. They are the endless list of experiences I’ve had or goals I’ve reached that she never had the chance to do. Like simply turning 17 or finishing high school — things she should have done before me. Each step of my life was something to appreciate, as well as a reminder of what she never had.
In the earlier years, I still felt close to her. But we change so much as we age that I would barely recognize my 14-year-old self. And it makes me wonder, who would Amy be right now? I have no idea. She’s frozen at 16, and the older I get, the more I feel like a stranger to her. It fills me with a sort of remorse, as if I’ve done something wrong, as if I’ve forgotten.
* * *
People describe loss as “getting easier with time, but never going away”. It’s mostly true, it does get easier to deal with, but you start experiencing the loss in new ways. You’ll reach a point like I did today, a realization that overwhelms you. And you feel the full weight of what you’ve lost. These moments are transient, but you know they’ll return. They always do.
What I wish someone had told me 15 years ago is that loss is not a singular event. Losing someone is not something that merely happens one day and is then left as a page in the story of your past. Rather, it gets written and rewritten in every chapter to come. Sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly. It comes and goes and always returns. The true loss for me wasn’t in that moment, but in the future moments that Amy and I will never share. This is a process that lasts for the rest of your life. It strengthens you at times, and weakens you at others. With practice, you can use those memories to empower yourself instead of slumping in despair.
Every year takes me further away from her. And one day, I’ll be reflecting on 30 years without her. Will I even remember what she was like? How she laughed? How she smiled?
* * *
But I’ll never forget the impact she had on me.
I remember one summer evening I was out skating with some friends in the street in front of our house. We had boxes and rails strewn across the street. Southern Indiana suburbia turned into a skate park. Amy and I were supposed to go to my dad’s that night and we were late. (Probably because I was out skating.) Amy came driving down the street, fast and aggressive. She stopped just short of hitting me, tires screeching. The passenger window rolled down. She yelled, “We’re late! Get in the fucking car!” I remember that so clearly. It still makes me smile. What I can’t remember is what I said back, but it was probably something like “Fuck off.” I pretended to ignore her, but eventually got in the car, and off we went. It was summer and we were free.
Everything was simpler then. I didn’t have a cell phone, a wallet, or keys — all the things I’m now incapable of leaving home without. All I had was my board when I hopped into the passenger seat. Amy taught me how to not give a fuck, to question everything and think critically. Her DNA still flows through my veins. Most importantly, she accepted me and showed me how to accept others. It was summer and we were free.
The car was my dad’s old Honda. It had a tape deck, and this was when cassette tape adapters were hot. We hooked that up to our portable CD player to play music. We had CDs upon CDs, all burned copies from friends. The old school P2P file sharing. The first time I heard Alkaline Trio was when she played them on the car stereo. She introduced me to hardcore and punk, the greatest gift I ever received. It was summer and we were free.
Amy apologized for yelling at me, and I said it was fine. I knew I probably deserved it. She put in a burned copy of Dead To Fall’s “Everything I touch Falls to Pieces”, an early 2000’s hardcore band from Chicago. That band was the shit back then. And that album was so good. I was mostly into punk at the time — bands like Rancid, NOFX, Anti-Flag. It was the first time I remember hearing music like that. Hardcore. It changed everything for me. She turned up the volume and we jammed, breakdown after heavy-as-fuck breakdown. It was summer and we were free.
We didn’t say much during that drive, but resolved to merely enjoy each other’s company. We rolled all the windows down. Manual crank, of course. We had a typical Midwest summer evening. Humid as hell, but a nice breeze in the car. I remember feeling so cool. My skateboard between my legs in the passenger seat, the only possession I had. Riding with my big sister — her short hair, black painted nails, ‘fuck sexism’ pin, and Misfits t-shirt. Blasting hardcore as loud as we could. We didn’t need to say anything. We understood each other through the music. It was summer and we were free.
That ride was a brief, inconsequential moment in the grand view of our lives. The breeze was flowing through our hair and filling in the small gaps of silence between songs. We still had hours of sunlight left to enjoy, after which we would watch the nightly drama of lighting bugs dancing across the yard. We didn’t know it at the time, but she would die in that car a few months later. That’s how our last summer together ended. And I would visit the intersection to pick up the shards of glass from her broken car windows laying scattered on the side of the road, as if that’s all I had left.
But it was still summer and we could be free.