What’s the word for when you remember something you didn’t realize you had forgotten? You know, like those lists of beautiful words for obscure feelings that actually have names, or sensations that don’t have an English translation?
Whatever the word is, the feeling has hit me relentlessly over the past week. I’ll open a box with baited breath, not sure if I’ll find something that makes me laugh or makes me cry, and I’ll be met with something I can’t believe I forgot.
First, it’s a picture frame. We had complementary photos from a Daddy-Daughter Dance that Dad took us to in, like, 1999. It’s instantly recognizable when I open the box; I am sure of the picture before I even pull it out.
Hers was portrait-style, with a hot pink border. Mine was landscape-style, with daisies over a light purple background. Dad’s eyes are half shut in both pictures, and we have matching hairstyles and beautiful dresses. I faintly remember the event, as much as one can remember an event that took place when they were four-years-old. Of course I still have my picture, but I can’t remember if the frame shattered when I threw it at a wall, or if it simply dropped off the top of my dresser when I was rummaging around. Both are equally plausible. Either way, my picture from the dance is in a new black frame, on top of a new dresser, in my new apartment. I loved that we had these matching pictures, and I see mine every time I leave my room. Maybe I’ve seen it so often I don’t process it anymore, but I can’t believe I never thought to miss her picture and her frame, her version of this memory.
Next, I rummage through the top layers of newspaper clippings and old yearbooks and pull out her backpack. It’s pretty beat up, but it’s unmistakable.
How many times had I seen it rushing out of the house in the mornings, because she was late for the bus? How many times had I lugged it off my computer chair because she dropped it there instead of behind the door, where we were supposed to put our school bags? How many times had I marveled at the weight of it, certain that the only thing heavier was her brain? Seeing it again reminds me that it is colossally unfair that a Traumatic Brain Injury betrayed her and her brilliant mind in the end.
I think about this as I sort through massive piles of homework and old notes, the intellectual quality comparable to some of my best work in college. I wish she had gotten to finish high school. Who knows where her formal education would have led? I can’t believe I never thought about her backpack.
Then it’s her red pouch from Encounter (her favorite summer camp) from the year she worked with United Cerebral Palsy. I can’t remember if that was her first year, when she was allowed to attend early as a rising 8th grader when usually you have to be in high school, or her second year, where the pictures of her riding the Metro with some of her favorite people come from. Those are some of my favorite pictures of her. I can’t remember if she went for a third year. It was one of her favorite weeks of the year, though, so I’m not surprised it’s one of the many contents of these boxes. I am surprised I didn’t think to miss it. I went to the camp for the first time a few summers later and they announced that the Sister and Mom of the Encounter Girl That Died Last Year were there during the Welcome Talk. I didn’t keep my red pouch.
I don’t know what I’m looking for in these boxes… these boxes, her life entirely reduced to cardboard storage in the rafters of our garage. I guess it’d be nice to find a guidebook on How to Keep Doing Life Without Her, but I’d settle for finding a little note she wrote me. Some kind of sentiment that proved she loved me. Some kind of artifact that makes her real again, if only for a moment. Instead, all I’m finding is proof of perfect handwriting, and all of the things that I can’t believe I forgot.
My brother packed up her bedroom a few years after she died, and the boxes have been stored in the garage ever since. I’ve heard of some families who keep bedrooms perfectly preserved, but we never did. The day of the accident, I stripped her bed and washed her sheets and picked up her laundry so that my grandparents had a clean place to stay when they arrived from Ohio later that night. In less than a day, it looked wildly different than how she left it that afternoon, and she never came home to restore the organized chaos.
There wasn’t a big or emotional reason for why we packed her things up when we did. My brothers had been sharing a room, but if we converted her bedroom they could each have their own. The older of the two couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 when he transferred everything that was left of her into boxes leftover from our last move, marked with nothing but the four letters of her name.
If she could open them tomorrow, it’d be like not a day had passed. Her jewelry, notes passed between friends, newspaper clippings, and old CDs… a sweet sixteen, perfectly preserved.
The boxes have remained undisturbed ever since, partially because they’re stored so high up that it’s not worth the physical or emotional effort of getting them down. In the last couple of months though, my parents have started talking about cleaning out the garage in an effort to start preparing the house for the next move. Dad can’t stay in one place for too long, and it is nothing short of a miracle that we’ve lived in this house for thirteen years. I guess I’m more like him than I care to admit; I can’t put roots down, either. They’re always on the verge of moving, though, so even if I don’t entirely believe that this time is for real, I’ve decided to finally pull down and sort through her boxes lest they not make it into the rafters of their next home.
And so I dragged a rickety, paint-covered ladder to the center of the garage and climbed precariously to the top. I’m not sure if the sense of dread was because I would soon be digging into her things, coming face to face with pieces of her for the first time in almost ten years, and potentially unleashing some great wave of emotion in myself, or because the ladder was on its last legs, literally, and I didn’t realize until I was balanced on the top that the chance of its collapse was very real.
I only made it down with a few boxes, and I’ve been going through them slowly but surely over the last couple days. There are so many beautiful things inside, like the things I remember instantly without realizing I’d forgotten about them. There are also so many mundane things inside, things I want to pour over because I didn’t know they existed. There’s this collection of notes on major law cases, and I remember the days she’d stay up late studying for mock trial as I stay up late now to read through the meticulously-written spiral journal.
I almost feel like I’m committing some great transgression as I leaf through these pages because I still foolishly half-expect her to walk through the door and yell at me to stop snooping. I did find a love letter tucked between pages of an old yearbook. No one’s ever written me one, and she got way too many, so I don’t feel badly about reading it.
As various stacks grow around me, I fall into a sorting rhythm. Books in one pile, photographs in another, CDs or movies in a box, school supplies in yet another. I know there are some things that we can still use, like the books or school supplies. I put everything sentimental, everything that I have to think about, in a separate box to deal with later. Does sorting through her things 11 years after she died make it easier or harder to throw away math homework from 2006?
If I had gone through this stuff 10 years ago, I probably would have tossed it without a second thought. Now, I am still going to toss it, but I hang on a little bit longer than I should on my way to the “discard” pile. It is proof that she existed. Her hands ran over this paper, her fingers held the pen that solved the math problems (albeit, solved them in ink when she knew better than to use a pen for math), and there’s a silly little part of me that thinks she is not completely gone if I still have something as meaningless as her math homework.
I also feel a little silly to find that I’m sad. I never thought to miss the picture frames and the backpacks and the books and movies and jewelry, because I know those things clearly pale in comparison to what I do miss constantly, all of the time, every day. It’s settled into me like an ache in my soul; it doesn’t consume me anymore but it’s always going to be a part of me. I don’t think about what color her backpack was on a Saturday morning as I’m driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, with the windows rolled down and the music turned up, but I do look at my passenger seat and think about how nice it’d be if she was sitting there. I don’t think about the fuzzy pink picture frame after a hard day at work, but “fave sis” still pops up as a suggested contact when I go to compose a text message to someone with a similar name, and I do think about how nice it’d be to text her instead of a friend.
I’m about halfway through the second box when I realize I may have underestimated the intensity of the emotional aspect of this experience, especially considering that I have survived the last 11 years only by immediately shutting down any overwhelming emotional experience. I’m mildly surprised by this discovery. At the first sign of too much anything - too much love, too much joy, too much truth, too much potential for pain if it goes badly, I tend to run as fast as humanly and emotionally possible in the exact opposite direction. I can talk about her death, recite the facts and broken bones, the crosswalk laws in Maryland and how they’ve changed over the years, but I cannot talk about her life. I cannot even say her name without feeling like a million tiny swords are slicing my heart into a million tiny pieces, so I just… don’t say it.
Yes, I know this is an incredibly healthy coping skill. I am full of nothing but good mental and emotional choices. My therapist disagrees, but she’s usually wrong.
By the time I finish the third box, I realize I want to save what should be kept but also tuck it away again, whatever it ends up being. It would be nice to have a box of happy things, things I can share if I ever have my own family some day, so they can know her, too. I don’t want to live in the depths of these boxes, anyway. The things I miss the most were never in the boxes to begin with.
Anyways, for all of my self-deprecating jokes (and trust me, the material is ENDLESS), I really do know I’m in a solid, healthy place and going through these boxes was probably good for me. Of course it was going to be sad, it’s never not going to be a little bit sad. I know in a grand way that her existence is not tied to the piles of belongings that gather dust in our garage. I know spiritually that Jesus calls us to throw away our material possessions and attachments because our true treasure is in Heaven. I know logically that she will not have ceased to exist or be remembered if these boxes were to be thrown away, or lost in our next move, or donated or burned. But I still have to figure out what to hold onto in both the literal sense as I sort through her stuff and the emotional sense as I sort through… grief? trauma? death? life? Everything? And I’m probably going to be sorting through that long after these boxes are unpacked, because someone’s gotta keep these therapists in business.
I’ll go back for another couple of boxes next weekend, and the weekend after that if both the ladder and my heart are still holding up. It feels nice that there are still things to learn about her, and it feels sad that these things are frozen in time. I think the enduring great lesson of my life is how deeply beauty coexists with pain, and as always, I see how beautifully He weaves great joy into great sorrow. I’m also certain that I will find some of my clothes in the boxes, and I can’t wait to have the last word about her shameless thievery of my belongings. After all this time, I think it will be really nice to be mad at her for stealing my clothes again.
this is amazing beautiful incredible everything and make me cry
thank you for writing and thank you for sharing
we will talk tomorrow >:-)
(cuz i have to go to bed cuz it’s way past my bed time!!!)
love u 2!
and i am lucky to be your friend :-)
NO MORE EMOTIONS FROM ME TONIGHT I HAVE HIT MY LIMIT
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