– Louise Gluck, excerpt from Persephone, the Wanderer
The thing about spring is it always comes quick and unexpected. It rolls in thick and heavy like northwestern fog. All of a sudden it is everywhere. Two weeks ago it was winter and bleak. It will still rain off and on for the next few months, but this time the despair won’t be as bottomless. I have seen the sun, and when I tilt my head at a certain angle I can still taste it on my tongue.
My sister dies in early April, and I am thrown into the belly of a raging sorrow. It is the tepid start of spring. This is what I remember from those early days: the police officers at the front door; my sister’s backpack at the bottom of the stairs; the terrifying length of each day; the absurdity of the cherry blossoms in our front yard. There is a cold I cannot warm myself against. I am furious at the earth’s betrayal, the continuation of its rotation around the sun. I am powerless against the onslaught of time. I grow desperate at my inability to make it stop.
I begin to sleep in my sister’s bed. Death leaves so much in its wake. What do I do with her favorite pair of jeans, her new winter coat? There are dresses in our closet she still hasn’t worn. I leave them there. I leave everything as it is. She will be home soon. One day I will pick up the phone and she will laugh nervously and apologize for all that she has put us through. “I’m at the bus stop,” she will say. “Can you pick me up?” I will be furious, but I will go because I am her big sister, and on the drive home she will tell me what life was like on the other side. I will tell her that everything is still right where she left it. “I haven’t even cut my hair,” I will tell her. “I was afraid you would not recognize me!”
She never calls. I wonder if I ever even had a sister, or if I made her up in a fit of wild desperation. I am bewildered. She is where I cannot reach her. She is where I cannot call her name.
In late summer, my mother and I fly to Egypt under the pretense of visiting family. Neither of us acknowledges the truth—that our home, this entire city, has become a shrine. We bare our souls at the altar of my sister’s ghost. We grieve devoutly. I spend most of my time in bed. On the plane to Cairo, midway over the Atlantic, I realize that, had I stayed at home another day waiting for my sister to return, I would have killed myself.
All of Egypt is red dust and the smell of sweat. All of Egypt is the west pressing against the spine of the old world. My aunt has a baby named after me, and I hold her when she wakes up from her naps and cry into her hair. In Egypt we learn many things. The best shawarma in the country is sold along the cornice. The city still pulses with revolutionary fervor, we visit Tahrir and pay tribute to the martyrs. Traffic, regardless of the time of day, will be a trudging, sloughing mess.
We are startled to discover my sister has followed us here. I see her around every street corner, in every mirror I look into. This is perhaps the most important lesson my mother and I learn this summer—once you die in one city you are dead in every part of the world.
My mother takes me to see a therapist. You’re depressed, she declares, to no one’s surprise. Depression—I hold the word in my mouth like something I’ve stumbled upon unexpectedly and don’t know what to do with.
I wake up each morning hungry for the taste of my own blood. I limp slowly into the new year. dragging the horrors of the last one behind me.
How did I get here? Which of us is where we imagined we would be?
I grieve for the sister I have lost, for the woman I was, the woman I buried with her last spring, for my mother who sings lullabies at the foot of my sister’s grave.
The world erupts in flame. I grieve for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown, for Eric Garner, for Tamir Rice, for Renisha McBride, for their mothers and all the people that loved them, for Ferguson, for Baltimore, for the next American city that will offer itself in sacrifice, for Fatima whose sister has cancer, for Lina who hangs herself from a tree.
There is suffering everywhere, and we are all implicated.
On the one-year anniversary of my sister’s death, I get phone calls and messages from friends and family members who ask how I am doing on this “difficult day.” My sorrow has made me bitter. Every day is a difficult day I want to yell. A litany of difficult days.
On April 7th my sister has been dead for 365 days, but the day before she had been dead for 364. Death has not taught me any profound lessons, except perhaps that there are worse things than death. Isn’t that tragic? You live, and sometimes that is the hardest thing of all.
The sun shines for a record number of consecutive days, but I have no sister to share in its warmth. I cry because now the spring has been ruined for me. There is blood on the leaves. The whole world reeks of dying things.
Grief is a child, dumb and full of an infant’s greed. I hold it to my breast and let it suck the milk from my bones. I raise it: let it grow fat and strong, let it crawl into bed with me at night, let it sit on my chest and empty the air from my lungs.
I sit in the sun and feel an ache in my belly where I hold my grief. My therapist says this is why I have such a hard time remembering to eat—my stomach is full of brown-limbed ghosts. It is funny in the way sad things are funny. Look at me! I want to tell ayeeyo, who hounds me for grandchildren — look at me, a mother after all!
I think about the plants my neighbor gave me to grow in the week after my sister’s death, the green, leafy plants I left to wither on the front porch. I had only ever wanted a garden of my own, flowers lifted towards the sun, a small seed of hope.
I think about the sunflower seeds a friend in Canada sent me in the mail when she heard about my sister’s accident. She told me to plant them in honor of my sister, and I did, but I could not bear to let them grow.
I go out into the garden, and I finally realize that my sister has been dead for a year. This is how the universe keeps time. The garden is wrought with weeds. The dirt is dry and cracked. I stick my thumb into the ground, and am surprised to find that beneath the topsoil the dirt is soft and moist. I feel a flicker of something I cannot name inside of me when I see what remains of my grandmother’s tomatoes. I start to cry like I have lost a child. Take care of it, she had told me, before leaving for Somalia, and I couldn’t even do that. I rip the plant out of the ground and throw it across the yard.
I roll up my sleeves and begin to loosen weeds from the ground. I get slivers in my palms and dirt under my nails. It is hot and I am sweating and crying. I blow my nose on my shirt. The dirt is cool and damp. I want to grow tomatoes again, for my grandmother, for my sister, for myself. I till the soil until it is all a rich and heavy brown. I feel the two of us, this garden and myself, making our way back from the edge of something dark, from the brink of our undoing.
There is dirt in my hair and on my face. The sun is sharp against my back. I plant broccoli and parsley and onions and sage. I plant until my knees bruise from kneeling. I plant an altar. I am devout. I pray to the God of seedlings and dead girls. The air swirls. I think of all I’ve lost and found this year.