A friend once asked me, “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” and I could never really give him a straight answer. To most people this is a fairly easy question. Most people say, “The birth of my child,” or they say, ‘”The mountains at sunset,” but not me. I could never find enough words to describe how it feels to look God directly in the eye.
And so I forgot about the question entirely and years and years went by and then one day, out of the blue, I saw it. And that is how it happens. You don’t really ask for God, she just sort of shows up. Except for it wasn’t out of the blue at all. It was more out of the gray, the gray dark skies of a morning in March. That was the month when my brother in law died. The month when everyone stopped what they were doing and came home and when all of the days swallowed themselves in one aching hollow cry.
On this particular day my sister Cassidy was sitting in the red velvet armchair in the downstairs family room watching the E Channel. She wasn’t crying.
There were flowers everywhere. Flowers in the window, flowers on the table, flowers in the closet, flowers coming out of our sleeves, our eyes, our throats. The TV was blaring on and on something about the Kardashians and Cassidy was wearing her gray sweats and it reminded me of that time when she and Jimmy lived in the basement apartment in that building on Capitol Hill. She used to walk around in those gray sweats and Jimmy was kissing her and kissing her all the time and saying things like “Guerra” (white girl) and laughing at all of her jokes. I came over to that apartment once when I was crying. I don’t quite remember what it was I was crying about except that I remember Jimmy held me for a long time and Cassidy stood back and watched, her smile, underlining the living room in a gentle easy glow.
Now I could barely look at her in those gray sweats. I don’t know what it was but every time I saw her wearing them I couldn’t help but feel like she was fragile all over again, a little girl in a woman’s body.
She was staring at the TV, vacant. No one tells you that grief is an awful lot like an acid trip or psychosis or sleep walking. You are disconnected but awake all the same. The worst part is that the world keeps spinning. The sun keeps rising and setting and people keep getting in their cars and driving to work and sitting in cubicles and then driving home. And you want to go out in the middle of the street and scream, “Everyone stop! Can’t you see my brother in law died?” but you don’t. You go about your business, finishing your classes or planning a funeral, all the while knowing that you’ve seen something you weren’t supposed to see, that you know something you weren’t supposed to know, and now you are left dumbfounded in the wake of your own ignorance like a child who has walked in on her parents having sex.
And this was just how it felt when I picked Cassidy up from the airport. When Jimmy died she flew home from New York almost right away. I waited outside the security checkpoint and watched all the passengers exit their planes, greeting their family members, all hugs and balloons, the way families do. I sorted through the faces of strangers, waiting and waiting and waiting for my sister’s to come around the corner. And for a moment I forgot that it wasn’t the holidays and I wasn’t waiting for an aunt or a cousin. It was March and I was waiting for Cassidy. Waiting for Cassidy because Jimmy had died. And then all at once there she was, my mom and dad on either side of her, Jimmy’s parents and sister, closely behind. She stepped through the exit and I pulled her into my arms and held her there like a precious unspoken tragedy, all five of my brothers and sisters surrounding us. The entire airport stopped to watch.
This was the first time I’d seen my sister since hearing the news. I thought that by seeing her somehow my feet would land back on the ground, the gray filter would be lifted and I could see the world as it was, but it didn’t. My feet remained dumb, tangled. The black and white film kept rolling, as if the whole month of March was meant to take place in a silent theatre and perhaps the month of April too, and June and July and August and I didn’t know when it would stop. I felt like there was music playing all the time, like I couldn’t shut off the goddamn elevator music, it was itching my ears and clouding my mind with this numbing white noise.
When I saw Cassidy for the first time, I thought for sure I would cry. I thought for sure I would howl, but I didn’t. There was no voice igniting from my throat, no whimper, no want. I could not gather enough moisture from the dark pools inside myself to form all the tears I ought to cry. It was the pools I worried about, the ones that hold all of our deepest longings. I grew worried that perhaps I had no longing at all. Or maybe life had drug me along far enough that my longings had splashed out and everywhere. All at once, I was left to draw from a well that had been emptied. Even as I saw her, even as she hobbled through the sliding doors effortless and defeated, tears tumbling from her eyes, I could not feel a thing. My face dry as a bone.
Everyone tells me it will come. Everyone tells me I am in shock, that when the dead bolt slides the floods will come in and wash over me, a holy cleansing that will leave me more beautiful than I have ever been. But the dead bolt is still closed, has been closed. For a year now. Locked. Even I do not have the keys.
Months later my mom would tell me that Cassidy drew a lot of strength from my strength, that when she was feeling the most vulnerable she gathered nourishment from my smarting turquoise nails, my unapologetic eyes, a roaring in my voice that I cannot silence. I did not tell them about the well. I did not tell them about this hinged dead lock. There is nothing brave about not feeling.
Sometimes I would watch my sister Amanda and envy her kindness. The way she gave her empathy so effortlessly. You ought to watch Amanda watch Cassidy. It is one of the most moving things you’ll ever see. You would think that Amanda was staring at the Sistine chapel, you would think that Amanda was sifting through the ruins of a decimated city. The way her eyes move, like a beautiful work of art, over Cassidy’s body. Jesus, you should see her face. The way her tears spill, willful and generous. I could watch Amanda watch Cassidy all day. It teaches me, if only, what love looks like, even when I can’t always know what love feels like.
I have never cried for Cassidy like that, but I can tell you that the other day on Capitol hill I watched a fourteen year old boy waddle to the bus stop and when the bus drove away the boy reached his hand out and shouted, “Wait!” and his voice squeaked into a hundred pitiful shards and just like that, I started crying. Not because he missed the bus but because I watched the bus drive away from him and perhaps that is a snap shot of his whole life. He doesn’t look right. He doesn’t sound right. He’s not cool enough. I thought about that boy for weeks.
He reappeared in my mind’s eye over and over again in the most peculiar places, the line at the grocery store, the drive on the way to work. I prayed for him, more than I have ever prayed for Cassidy. I prayed that he had parents who loved him. I prayed that he had a group of friends that he enjoyed. I prayed that he would have sex with someone at least once in his life. I suppose, it’s not that the well is empty, it’s just that my well chooses to spill at the most peculiar times and for the most peculiar reasons.
After picking Cassidy up, I remember taking the escalator down to baggage claim and holding her hand and not knowing what to say. “I like your shoes…” I offered. She could barely smile, “Thanks.” And I felt like such an ass hole. Manners. Manners at a time a like this.
The luggage went around the belt and my dad, Jimmy’s dad, and my little brother gathered the incoming suitcases one by one. There were so many of them, filled with clothes, and pictures and silverware. And Cassidy sat beside me, pulling her large black sunglasses over her face and whispering, “Can you fucking believe this?”
It was only ten months earlier that we had dropped the young couple off at that same airport. “Good luck in Grad school!” We told them. “You guys are doing big things.” And that was the truth. They were. Cassidy smiled at us. Jimmy beside her and fumbling through an itinerary as she pointed at him and rolled her eyes. “This is my life now guys.” She told us. Jimmy looked up, a grin plastered to his face as he reached for the suitcases. “Come on Guerra.” He said. “We love you guys.”
Now in the red velvet arm chair Cassidy was subdued. It was hard to tell what kind of morning she would have. Some mornings she would wake up howling and moaning, others she would be quiet or content. Once she came downstairs dressed to the nines, her blonde hair blooming into a mountain above her head. “The book says,” She explained, “To take care of yourself. Wake up each day and choose an outfit, do your hair, feel good about yourself.” But out of all the mornings there was always one thing that we could count on, every sunrise whether content or sad, or noisy or silent, or dressed or naked, Cassidy would come down the stairs and say, “I hate being awake.”
On this particular morning she was quiet. All of her grief had settled nicely into the bones of her shoulders, the ends of her hair, the corners of her eyes. It was one of those days when she was only existing and even that was almost too much.
We had gone out the night before. Cassidy asked to borrow one of my shirts, the blue one with the open back. “Yeah sure,” I told her. And we went to a bar on Main Street called, “Hannah’s” the one with the cover band and lots of dancing. I remember watching her on the dance floor and thinking it was funny because only one year ago we had danced at this same bar, in front of this same band, and she had borrowed that same blue shirt and won a vibrator because the lead singer heard it was her bachelorette party.
And that’s funny how some things stay. How shirts stay, and bars stay, and bands stay, when everything else has changed.
We didn’t quite make it to the end of the night. Cassidy asked us to step outside for some fresh air and when we did she lead us across the street and began to cry. We all crowded around her, my mom, my sisters, my cousin. “I can’t do it.” She said. My mom lit up a cigarette, “That’s okay honey. You tried. You tried and you did good.”
We drove home listening to Elton John. “What do you guys wanna do next?” I asked. Cassidy was slouched in the passenger’s seat, her cheek pressed up against the safety belt. “Kill ourselves,” She muttered. “Besides that!” I shouted. And the entire car burst into laughter. And we drove home singing Benny and the Jets and Crocodile Rock but we didn’t sing Candle in the Wind.
The next morning we came downstairs one by one, with me being the last, because I almost always sleep late. When I got there Cassidy was watching the E Channel. She liked the E channel because she said it required no thinking what so ever. There was no real story to get attached to, no characters to invest in, no plot, no nothing, only fashion and boys and gossip, the only thing on television that didn’t hurt to watch.
As the E channel droned on my sisters and I settled amongst ourselves, quiet and resigned. My father was outside working on the lawn. We caught the reflection of him moving across the yard as he pulled branches, shoveled dirt, and trimmed bushes. This was our father on any given Sunday. We had memories of him calling us out back and announcing that we were to move this pile of wood chips from the patio to the fence. We’d all bust out in a harmony of wailing, “Daaaddd. We just got home from school!” or “My favorite show is on!” or “I have to do my homework!” And every time he always said the same thing, “Come on guys! There’s six of us. If we all pitch in it will only take ten minutes!”
We had other memories of our dad in that yard too. We used to play dodge ball and we’d run, screaming like a fistful of giggles, from one fence to the other. Once I didn’t make it in time and I panicked in a frenzy, tripping over one of my bedazzled pant legs and gripping the nearest pine tree. “This is base too!” I shouted, “It is dad! It is! It is!” I still remember the way that he laughed, the way he shook his head and said, “No…. no, Brenda.” Even now, it is the same laugh. It is the same voice that cradles my name so easily.
But there was something about that yard. Something about him being in it and on it and moving through it that always made us feel like the world was all as it should be.
On this particular day my dad came into the house for no reason at all. He was wearing those clothes that don’t belong in the house. Those tattered blue jeans and that old, “Celebrate Life” camp T-shirt and dirt and dirt everywhere all over his hands, his forehead, his feet. And I remember he crossed the family room and he crouched down on his knees in front of the armchair. When something holy is about to happen everyone stops to watch. All of us turned from the TV to see what my dad would do next. And he leaned forward and he put his forehead against Cassidy’s forehead and all at once he started crying. And that was it. He just cried and cried, his tears broken and humble and silent. We watched his bowed head, the feeble cracking of his armor. Cassidy began to cry too. And there it was. Just the two of them, forehead to forehead, weeping.
The funny thing is that The Kardashians was playing the whole time, going on and on in the background about shoes and clothes and clubs, but it didn’t matter. God was right there, in the corner of our family room. And we couldn’t bear to take our eyes off him.
I remember Cassidy had her eyes closed. And she was drawing those tears from the deepest pools inside herself. The kind of pools we all harbor but don’t dare draw from. They were spilling down her cheeks, her neck, her collarbone. And then she did something, something that I have never seen a human do in my life. She reached her hands up and put them against my dad’s face but she didn’t hold them there. She didn’t settle on his cheeks bones. She didn’t cup one of his shoulders, or rest her palms against his neck, instead she moved her hands about his face. Tracing his skin with the edge of her fingertips, like an old map. She moved along his cheek bones, his mouth, his eyes, navigating through the tears, she explored his entire face, the both of them silent, both of them, eyes closed.
What I love most is that he let her. He didn’t flinch or pull away or ask her to stop. She felt dad using just her hands and he crouched there crying.
I couldn’t stop looking. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing except that I knew it was more than a wedding day, more than a birth, more than lovers, or father and daughter, or even sex for the first time. It was something else.
They say when you see God you recognize him immediately. Some people see him in church, others in grocery stores, some in bars. My mom saw God for the very first time in the woods behind her parents’ house. As for me, I saw him in the red velvet armchair, in the corner of our family room, on a gray morning in March.
In truth I have been crying all along. In truth I have been missing Jimmy ever since he stepped out of his body over one year ago. It’s just that I have cried for him in misplaced, disfigured ways.
There are some days when I am so broken that I can’t even take a step without feeling the earth give way beneath me, days when I am so lonely that I long for my lover’s mouth like a child rooting for her mother’s soft heavy breast. When my body is so ripe for touch, that the thought of a stranger’s hands overwhelms me.
When you have seen that which you were not meant to see, it takes months or even years to reassemble the pieces. To find those people who can gather you when you cannot always gather yourself
I remember one night Cassidy was sobbing inconsolable in the blue room upstairs. There were three of us on that mattress, my sister Chelsea, me and Cassidy. Chelsea and I doing our best to hold what Cassidy couldn’t as she flailed like a toddler. “Jimmy wake me up!” She kept screaming, “Wake me up, wake me up, wake me up.” The relentless begging of her spine as she arched and curled and screamed. Chelsea clung onto my torso in shaking sobs behind me. I held still for her and stared ahead at Cassidy in strong, sturdy patience. When she was done reeling I reached my hand out in the darkness and placed my fingertips against the small of her back, moving them up and down again in gentle cascading movements. Cassidy’s body settled into whimpers and after a while she finally said, “That feels good.” I said nothing at all. Unwilling to stain the silence with my less than holy words, I moved my hand up and down, scratched her back for hours until she fell asleep.
Sometimes that is all you need, those simple lingering moments, when the emotion has drained and you are left stagnant and defeated. This is the eye of the storm, on some days this is what I most hope for. Those tiny calming moments mean more than a job, more than a high GPA, or a good boyfriend, or a brilliant poem. Some days, being okay is my most prized possession. It is a blessing, even if just for a few moments at a time.
The Buddhist says that the answer is in you and most people will spend the rest of their lives never knowing what that means. I know what it means. My sister Cassidy knows what it means. Those of us who have had the misfortune and the honor and the privilege to dive into the wreck know what it means.
What they don’t tell you about grief is that after words, everything is beautiful. Every single heart beat, every sunrise, every fat cell, every birth, every joke. You can barely look at anything without crying. What they don’t tell you about grief, is that just like that, all at once, your life and everyone in it, is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.