We’re travelling next week to dedicate a tree in your memory. It’s a beautiful Acacia, growing lushly on the banks of a still pond, deep inside Fairchild Tropical Garden.
I’ve wanted to write this for some time, and with this visit so close, the moment seems right.
You died on June 25, 2010, at 48. You went out under deplorable circumstances, quietly and neglected. I still wonder … were you conscious? Were you in pain?
The last time we were together was at your beach wedding ceremony nine months earlier. You stood gaunt and rather uncertainly on the sand. Your calls to me the previous spring had increased, marked by anxiety and admitted loneliness. You often cried, only to apologize for doing so. Looking back, I think you knew something was wrong — that you were indeed quite ill. You resisted my offers to visit, and it was only after you died that I understood why.
You were the youngest of six, and while not unheard of, it’s inexplicable that you passed away first. Born just months after our move to Atlanta, you came into the world with that soft chestnut hair and those striking emerald green eyes that complimented your tan skin. The physical contrast to your siblings’ fair skin, pale blue eyes and varying shades of blonde hair called up jokes about whether the wrong baby had been brought home. It seemed your physical differences and lively temperament set you apart — though I have often wondered if your beauty was one source of the abuses you suffered over the years.
My own grieving process was interrupted three weeks later by Mike’s open-heart surgery. Others’ attention went directly to him, with hardly a mention of your passing. While to some degree that’s understandable, their silence left me bewildered and angry.
As an expert in the field of weepery, I’ve dropped many tears over you during the last three years. I mourn what might have been. You’d gone away, but returned like a prodigal daughter. The years of separation had given way to hope. You seemed relieved to be back in the fold. Yet it was clear that your battle was ongoing.
I’ve been thinking back on our life together, and the memories that have been stirred by this pending trip. Here’s a timeline of my favorites.
My earliest memory of you is watching you awaken, crying, and deftly climbing out of your crib. You couldn’t have been more than 18 months old.
When I was 5 and you were 3, you enthusiastically took me up on my offer to trim your hair. The job was managed with a pair of safety scissors as you sat cooperatively-still on a stool. Later that evening you cheerfully fingered me in response to Dad’s query about your new coif. From there I transitioned to cutting our doll’s hair in what was, thankfully, a short-lived foray into the world of hair styling.
Sometime that same year, you padded out the kitchen door, in the total buff, to announce to Mom, during her chat with a next door neighbor, that you had nothing to wear.
You provided continuous visual entertainment at night, after prayers had been recited and lights were out. I watched you in awe from the safety of my bed, as you gripped the door frame with one hand, leaning out into the hallway as far as you could without falling, to determine if the coast was clear for a trek down the hall. This was a risky venture since our bedroom was right across the hall from Mom and Dad’s room. You were successful about 80% of the time. You had figured out how to lean out far enough to see but not be seen, drop to a belly crawl, and then climb back up for a final sprint to the kitchen. When caught by Mom’s bellow of , “Get back in bed this instant!” you somehow managed a wide-eyed, grinning mid-air turn, touching down on one foot and springing all the way to your bed. Your successes inspired admiration, your failed attempts fits of hilarity.
One day during your kindergarten year, after mastering the requisite shoe-tying skill, you trotted from house to house, knocking on neighbors’ doors, inviting them to observe for themselves this new-found ability. Mom somehow got wind of this and derailed your plans about half-way through your itinerary.
You willingly accepted minor roles in fantasy games with my friends. None of them had younger siblings, and I grudgingly allowed your participation, as you had taken to following me everywhere. I didn’t appreciate your cooperation with our unwieldy plot lines and the sedentary scenes to which you were relegated. You soon developed your own cohort of friends anyway, leaving me in so much social dust. I deserved it.
We used to jump into each other’s bed to rub backs when we couldn’t sleep. I selfishly took the first heat, forcing you to stay awake and rub my back as I drifted off to dreamland. You didn’t put up with that very long, though, either.
Around the age of 7, you allowed friendship to trump competitive sports during your heat in the 50-yard breast stroke at a summer swim meet. You enthusiastically called out to your team mate, Margie, as you took a breath between strokes and she sliced through the water a few lengths ahead of you. This event was the hallmark of the evening for all in attendance.
That same evening, after the meet, Joe draped a towel around your head, which you clutched under your chin. The crowd ambled down the dark street toward their cars, and you shuffled along with Joe at your side. I walked behind you as they guy on the motorcycle cut through the crowd, cruising straight down the center, knocking you down and driving right over you. You cried as Dad picked you up; you were unhurt, but shaken. The motorcyclist leaned his bike over as far as he could while Mom shrieked and popped him repeatedly with my wet towel. Later that night, after you had fallen asleep, I spotted Dad holding Mom as she wept, obviously still very upset. This rare act of comfort was startling in the glimpse it provided of their buried connection.
As you grew, so did your natural artistic talent and your gift for drawing others to you so easily. People took delight in your company, your laugh and your sense of humor. You developed many friends and a legion of art fans. You were given the nickname Lizard, which you loved, and soon became the symbol with which you signed all your work.
In our dancing and singing you perfected your talent for comedy and mimicry as well, doing unrivaled imitations of Cher and Tina Turner, and even moving your mouth in perfect sync with the siren of a passing ambulance. So delightfully naughty were you.
I’ll continue to work through your death, though it probably won’t every truly be resolved. It’s poppycock to say that it could be. Loss is managed.
The Acacia tree, soon to have a plaque bearing your name, will keep your memory alive. I’m so grateful for the time we did have together, for all that you taught me, and that we found each other again. Thanks for the years of joy and chaos and love.
I miss you.