“What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow.
What are brief? today and tomorrow.
What are frail? spring blossoms and youth.
What are deep? the ocean and truth.”
“I am learning to live close to the lives of my friends without ever seeing them. No miles of any measurement can separate your soul from mine.” ~
Where are you? You ask me, the morning of October 19.
It’s a Friday. I’ve just arrived at the beach, just taken a moment to settle my heart, my head. I’m watching the waves, I’m watching the pebbles, I’m watching the hidden patterns of nature. The fog is heavy, it’s drizzling. My mind is both frantic and blank. You are dying.
Where are you? Reads the text. I’m right here, I’m at the beach, but you are home and hurting. You are in pain and you need me there. I am on my way. I’m driving as fast as I can. My eyes keep filling with tears, and a guttural yell arises from somewhere deep inside me. It’s deeper than the earth itself, rising up, shouting into the cold rain: I am here and you are there. I can’t drive fast enough.
Where are you? You ask me. I’m here. I am lying in bed with you, trying not to show you how panicked I feel. We are holding hands. You are saying to me, “We’ve learned so much from each other.” I am saying to you, “What do you need to let go?” And I am saying to myself, “Please don’t go, please don’t leave me.”
Where are you? But you know where I am—you sent me for an acupuncture session. You are comfortable now, not in pain, or so they tell me, and I am crying, crying, crying.
“Your sister is funny” says the acupuncturist, “She wanted to make sure you didn’t pay.”
That’s Erin, I think, but then also, How could she have called you? When I left her she was feeling woozy and disoriented. I’m feeling woozy and disoriented. I’m calling Adrienne, “Can you stay with Erin another half hour? I just want to stop and get something to eat—I haven’t had even a moment to just sit, to just eat something, to have a drink.”
“Yes,” says Adrienne, “of course.”
It’s five minutes to six. I’m at the bank, running errands for Shanikai.
It’s 6:25. I’m sitting at the bar. I’m eating Brussels sprouts with pesto and drinking an old-fashioned. But I’m uncomfortable. The bar man is second guessing whether there is cilantro in the pesto. Why doesn’t he believe me? I would know. You would believe me—you know I can’t stand cilantro. I have to get out of here. I push the plate away and ask for the bill.
I’m driving back to your house. A deer jumps in front of me—I start and swerve. That would be just what I needed. Not today. I won’t hit a deer in the headlights today.
I’m walking through the door. It’s 6:40. Shanikai is watching TV; I tell him I have his Tapatio Doritos, that we will go shortly to pick up his friend for a sleepover, and that I’m going to check on you.
Your room is dark and quiet and you are sitting in your rocking chair—but Adrienne rushes to me. “I think she’s gone,” she says.
This is the moment.
“She died at 6:36,” says Adrienne. Three is your number and six is mine. This gives me some comfort. You love that kind of thing.
It has happened and there is no going back. Where are you? Where are you? I’m crying, I’m kneeling in front of you, I’m saying, “No, no, no.” I’m telling Shanikai. I’m calling people, I don’t even remember who.
Where are you? You ask me. I’m here, I’m with you. I am rubbing your body with oil like you told me to. Anointing your blessed body like you told me to. Am I doing this right? I am lying in bed with you—I can’t let you go. It’s true what they say, you do look peaceful, you do look beautiful. It’s true what they say, I can’t quite believe this is really real. Do they say that?
It’s late. Or it seems late. It’s dark and the room is filled with candles, and people—your closest friends. I put on the music you told me to. People are arriving, coming into your room. You are there, peaceful, beautiful. I feel woozy, disoriented. We’ve learned so much from each other—am I doing this right?
Everyone leaves. Well, almost everyone. Hawk tells me I should get some sleep, but I don’t want to leave you. He tells me he will stay all night. He tells me this is his ministry. I can feel your loving approval. I can feel you talking to me about Hawk. About this kindness. Go to sleep, little sister. I leave Hawk sitting in your rocking chair. I leave you, peaceful, beautiful, gone, in your bed.
Did I sleep? I get up to get a drink of water. I see Hawk in the earliest of dawn, hood up, still sitting by your bed. The image is mystical. I am going somewhere, I don’t know where. I go back to sleep.
Where are you? Where is everyone? I’m walking around your house trying to figure out what is happening. Hawk is gone. Everyone is gone. I walk into your room. You are sleeping. Quiet, relaxed. You are not in pain. I take a bath in your huge tub, and you are in the other room. I remember, you are not actually sleeping. This is real.
This is as real as it gets, you said to me two years ago as we watched the full moon together, me from your house and you from your hospital bed. Even from the ninth floor of the hospital, you connected with the moon, with the mountain, with the trees and the rain. Even from there, you told me that we are going to be okay.
I’m walking around your house. Did Rob call me or did I call him? Somehow, like an angel, he appears. You told me that I would be okay. I don’t know when I put on Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” but it is playing over and over and over. Rob laughs. He turns it off. He arranges the furniture to receive people, gives me water, vacuums the rug.
I know you are smiling at all of this. That I am playing this song over and over, that someone is laughing, that someone is steering me. I’m lost. You always said that one bright light in this cancer nightmare was the amount of love you saw pouring from people, the unselfconscious love, the knowing that life is not eternal, that now is the moment for love, for kindness, for letting go. I have learned so much from you.
“I am just waiting for my brother to get here.” I’m saying that to everyone who shows up. They want to know what to do, what to do with your body, what to do with the house, how to arrange it, who to call, what to do next. I can’t make any more decisions. Have I even made any? I’m lost. “I’m just waiting for my brother to get here,” because I know he will come.
You are smiling in agreement. You know Thomas will get here. Somehow, he will get here and help me. He will get to you, he will hold your hand, he will sing and play to you, and he will make the decisions that need to be made now.
I’m lying in Shanikai’s bed. People are in the other room. Rob is sitting with me. Tom texts me to say he is on the ferry.
My brother is here. Our brother, your brother, your friend, your love. He’s here. I run out to him in bare feet, it’s cold and dreary. I can’t stop saying, “What if you didn’t get here” and he just keeps saying, “I’m here, I’m here.” He swoops me into his car and we drive. He buys me water, electrolytes, beer.
Where are you? We’re in the woods. I am lying down on the forest floor, sobbing. Tom is sitting on a log looking over me. “You look just like her,” he says. I don’t, really. But in this moment, I want to. We are listening to you, for you, feeling you. Where are you, Erin? Where are you?
The view from the forest floor is all trees and branches and ravens and sky. I want to sink into the earth, into the fresh dirt, into the cedar branches and mulch. You are here, I know you are, and I want to feel your presence. Everyone keeps telling me how present you are in the house, in the room, there in your bed in your cozy gray robe. But all I can feel is your profound absence.
It’s one week later. I’m at the ashram in Texas. We always said one day you would go there with me. I ask the family to light a candle, wherever they are, at 6:36 pacific time. I sit under the full blood red moon and light my candle. Two foxes show up and stand right in front of me, just watching. I want to take a photo, I want to hold on to this forever, I want this to be you. After a few moments, they begin to yip, then they trot away. I know you are with me. And I know you are not. And I don’t quite know what to do with that.
I’m watching “Will and Grace.” Every episode that is available to me on the plane. I don’t know why this became my show, you never liked it. But it’s on the plane, and I am watching one episode after another. Laugh tracks. Or maybe it’s filmed live. It’s distracting me and time is passing.
I’m on another plane. I don’t know how long it has been now, since we put your body in the ground with our own hands.
Long enough that I am not counting every day.
Short enough that every day seems like forever. Short enough that I want to wear a sign around my neck that says, “Please be gentle with me.” Short enough that I am unhinged—I am yelling at the lady sitting two seats away from me on the plane. She has pissed me off by being rude and not minding her own business. I am confronting her, I am swearing at her, I am yelling at her. It’s not me, I’m not like this. But this rage, this rage.
This has been the most surprising aspect of this grief journey. I am angry. I am so, so angry—just waiting for someone to say something to me so I can exorcise this intense anger that is eating away at me from the inside. This woman becomes my target. But I don’t feel any better now. In fact, I feel worse. Shameful. I’m sorry. Am I doing this right?
Where are you? It’s December, I’m swimming in the ocean. I’m floating on my back listening to the whales singing, talking, playing, planning. My heart fills, I want to share this with someone. Anyone.
I look up out of the water to see if anyone is around. It’s my student walking toward me. Her name is Erin. I call out to her, “Erin, Erin! Come listen to the whales.” She jumps in the water fully dressed and shares this precious moment with me. I am feeling your presence. I am feeling your absence. I am feeling you in these songs, and they become my go-to lullaby. I download several recordings of humpback whale songs and I listen to them every night when I can’t sleep, or when I wake up in the middle of the night, weeping and anxious.
You loved whales—remember that time in Dominica? Whales and rum punch. Oh, you had that same anger too, sometimes. We’ve learned so much from each other.
It’s February, I’m in India. I am on a “hashtag” healing journey, and I am chanting the Hanuman Chalisa everywhere I go in India. You loved the Chalisa, even though you had no idea what it means. You could feel that it was about devotion, about friendship, about loyalty and love. About healing. You would ask me to chant it to you in the hospital and you would tap along your body, saying it was giving you energy. You asked me to chant it to you after you died, and I did. I sat on your bed, with you, with Thomas, and chanted just before they came to take your body away. Did you feel that? Did you feel my devotion, my friendship, my loyalty and love?
It’s my last morning in India and I am in Varanasi where the eternal fires burn the dead. I get up early early to chant to the sunrise. You were always an early riser. I never was. But I get up early on this morning and I say to Sasha, “I have hit rock bottom. I have to make the choice to get up, to go on.” You are the one who told me that the Ganges has to be deeply sacred because so many people have imbued it with sacredness over such a long time.
I leave the hotel and as I am walking down the ghats, the wide steps that lead to the Ganges, I slip and fall in fresh manure. I am literally covered in sh*t. I guess, now I really have hit rock bottom. I get up. I face the sun. And I chant.
I’m home. I’m sick. I’m checking out. I feel two-dimensional, flat. I swim and I swim and I swim. Hours in the ocean, where I can yell and cry and feel my tininess.
I’m drunk. Again. Alone, or not. I don’t care if I cry. I don’t care. But I have to. You would not want this. I’m your little sister. You would comfort me, and lift me up. I text Michael, “I don’t know how to live without Erin.” He responds, “Hang in there, Molly.”
I’m lying on my studio floor. This song or that song comes on and I cry again. You are everywhere now, or that’s what they say. But my body wants to feel yours, I want to hear your voice, I don’t want this text from you to be my last. Where are you? The view from here is all sun rays and dust speckles, palm branches and ceiling fans. I could watch them spin for hours.
Systems theory: when one thing changes in a system, the entire system has to shift to accommodate the change. If not, the change will never integrate. I have taught this for years. Something has changed in the system. Something is broken in the system. The family system has to somehow shift, somehow establish a new equilibrium, but it’s not changing fast enough, or maybe it has changed too fast. I am disintegrating. I’m lonely. I’m angry. I swim. I chant. I put one foot in front of the other.
It’s May. Where are you? I am at Mom and Dad’s new apartment. It is the first time I have seen them together since you died. I am feeling a “reactivation,” as if seeing them now reminds me that this is all really real, in a brand new way. I take a walk through the woods behind where they live and up into a new development in the process of being built.
There are lots of deer wandering around; we pay each other very little attention. And then—a fox. A single fox, staring at me, quietly, still, in the late afternoon light. I stare back, I want to feel it, I want to absorb its presence. Is it you? Are you with me now? I know you would say yes. That you always have been and always will be. Keep searching, seeing, being, listening in the natural world. You are there, you are telling me.
Where are you, you are asking me. Where are you in this “hashtag” healing journey? Because, you say, I don’t want to rush you, but I want to make sure you are moving forward. I told you about energy. I told you about animal spirits, about whales and foxes, and about how Ram Dass could be everywhere, that he could be outside of his body even while he was living, about the spirit of the Ganges, about how we don’t exist just in our physical bodies.
I know this. I know this, and yet I’m learning it again from you. We have learned so much from each other. You are telling me to share my story, you are telling me that my gift is in sharing what it is to be fully human, what it is to be cracked open, what it is to love, and what it is to lose. You are telling me to take all of this and share it. You are telling me to live more fully. You are telling me that love is the most important thing in the world. You are telling me that you love me—that you always have and you always will.
Where are you? I’m asking you too. I want to feel your presence, and not simply as a function of your profound absence. Where are you, Erin?
And you whisper to me. I am in the wind, in the owls and the foxes. I am in the ocean you swim in, and in the ocean of your heart. I am in the letters and gifts that I gave to you that you have now, tucked away in a treasure box. I am in the tiny treasure boxes you made for me, in the notes to me you are finding now that you wrote to me from college. You are the little sister because I am the big sister—I am with you in that dance. You whisper, I am in the smell of the oils you wear and the incense you burn. I am in your chants and in every footfall of your walking meditations. I am with you on this healing journey, I am with you as you shift and change and accommodate this new dimension, as you navigate this new reality without my physical presence. You know that I am with you.
This journey will continue, and you will heal, you say to me. I know that too. But I miss you.
Where are you, you ask?
I am right here.
I’m breathing, I’m healing, I’m putting one foot in front of the other. Just this moment. Just this moment. I’m still learning so much from you. I am right here. Just this moment. Just this moment.