Friday, January 30, 2009


I am surrounded by the vestiges of a lost world. Some days I feel like my life is an archaeological dig site, gridded out in little squares with twine and wood posts, complete with mounds of dirt at the edges of numerous, precise holes. This is the basket Amy gave me for Christmas 2004, teeming with all things wine and cheese. There sits the plush kitty cat she bought for Liv the day she decided to finally join us all on this brutal odyssey. On my refrigerator is the magnet she bought me on one of the many visits to her favorite city, Chicago. Pictures in an album: Little me turning my dirty face up to the most pretty, smartest, awesome big sister in the whole world. Bright, beaming, beautiful Amy full of love, joy, mischief, her smile like a beacon on dark waters. She epitomized celestial navigation, guiding me home, towards the safest place, a place where I am loved. Handmade Christmas cards adorned with stamps of snowflakes, cutely made with her living hands. This is a thing her hand touched. This is how I breathe. I can't let go. Baby clothes, too small for Liv to wear anymore, are stuffed in my closet. These are the things she picked out with her living heart. How can I part with the artifacts of her love? How could I ever let them go? This is what is left of that ancient culture. This is all I have left.

Tina brought me a note Amy wrote her 15 years ago. Her post script: Gwen is going to be a big country music star. Ask her. "What was that about?" Tina asks. "I don't know." It's a memory lost forever in that mind turned to ash in the earth. That was so typical of Amy. She thought for sure I would be something, that I was going places. In her mind, I was the best singer, the best writer, the best comedian. It was good to know there existed a magical place where I was superior at everything. Amy set up my MySpace page. "Write a blog," she said. She subscribed to this proposed blog before I even published a single word. "Write a blog, please Gwenny. You'll be so good at it."

Do you understand what I lost? Do you even know what was buried in the ground with her ashes? That magical place where I was superior at everything. Gone with her. My sister believed in me. She fucking believed in the value of me, the idea of a better Gwen, even when I was trapped in that cycle of insanity: eating disorder, bad relationships, a pile of sobs on my bedroom floor. Amy saw in me something royal, something golden. She was proud of me. I latched onto that pride. I was a parasite, sucking out the praise, tell me just one more time that I am amazing. Oh, I knew it wasn't true. I knew her viewpoint was biased and skewed by her absolute, unconditional love of me. I needed to hear it anyway. Don't we all need that cheerleader? Don't we all need that person in our lives that laughs at every joke emanating from our mouths, that gently pushes us towards better things, that makes us crab cakes and pours us a glass of wine when we just don't think we can do the job of being ourselves even one more day?

Amy was my soft place to fall. And fall I did, soundly and often. I remember the scent of the quilt on her bed, a mixture of Shalamar and baby powder. I remember lying there drowsy and puffy after my wisdom teeth were pulled. "Just relax, Gwenny. I'll take care of you." Nurturing Amy. Domestic Amy. I can still hear the rhythm of her footfalls, cleaning, cleaning, always cleaning. Her biggest dream was a Martha Stewart home, making crafts with all the kids she would surely have one day, her Pottery Barn table all set for the 5 course dinner warming on the coils. Simple dreams. Sometimes the simplest dreams are the hardest dreams to realize. For Amy they were impossible. The chemotherapy rendered her womb useless. She was forced to grieve the babies her arms would never hold;To grieve her sweet scented, long wished-for children that would never be born. The man she loved would not, or could not, give her the happy home of safety she wanted. Simple life. Simple dreams. Denied.

She did buy that Pottery Barn table. It's a beautiful object that drips of delectable dinners and rowdy evenings of board games. It barely fit in the tiny dining room of her 1 bedroom apartment. It was the only part of her dream she could actually have. Her lovely, wooden table overwhelming a room. Her invasive, terrible cancer overwhelming a body. Her simple, precious dreams underwhelming a life. Here is Amy's beautiful table, sitting in the ample dining room of my Aunt's house. Selected by her living dreams. Here are the votive holders, red and gold, that sat on Amy's armoire. Candles within, lit with her shaky, living fingers.

How did she contain her rage? I'll tell you what, if that were me, deprived of everything I ever wanted in this life and burdened with the weight of the knowledge that I would soon be deprived of my life, that anger would have killed me long before the cancer ever did. I would have been consumed with the injustice of it all. One time I tried to get it out of her. I wanted her to scream at the top of her lungs, "FUCK YOU, UNIVERSE!" But instead I got, "Sometimes I get mad about the cancer. But what can I do? I try to enjoy every moment, love my family, love my friends, spread joy, eat good food, watch good TV. I used to say, 'Why me?' Now I say, 'Why not me?' If someone has to get cancer, I'd rather it be me. I'd rather suffer through it than some little girl or boy." And later, when I found out I had the BRCA2 gene also, she said, "Maybe that's the reason I got cancer so young. So that you could know. So that you could save yourself from an early death. Maybe now you can accomplish great things." And there you have it. Me and my make believe greatness. Here is the depth of her love. Delivered like a prophecy from her living mouth.

I am afraid. I am just Gwen. Greatness does not abound. There is nothing about me that is remotely close to that person she claimed to see. Who did she see? I can't ask her anymore. She is of the earth. And here I sit in my living earth - artifacts of a lost world strewn about my home. Artifacts of a world, B.G. (Before Grief). Everytime I watch a TV show she told me to watch (Rescue Me, Damages), everytime I play a mixed CD she made for me with her living hands, everytime I wear the sleek, black coat she bought me for Christmas 2006, I have to fight the urge to lose my mind. I teeter on the edge of insanity, I stand on a cliff's edge in a spot the size of a pinhead. Jumping would be so easy and yet something pulls me back. This is the opposite of gravity at work. Nothing will let me fall. I stay alive. I strive for that rich reward of getting through the day. I am delicate with my chisel, unfurling each memory, holding each one tenderly in the palm of my mind like a fragile fossil that could break on a whisper.

I am not great. Maybe now that Amy is up in her heaven, she finally knows that. I wonder if it made her sad, to know what a failure and poor excuse for a person I really am. Do you think death brings clarity the way that near-death often does? Can she see the worse parts of my heart clear as crystal? Or do angels only know from love and innocence?

I cried today. I picked up an artifact and I cried and cried big, sloppy, terrible tears. Sometimes this powerful sadness can act upon me like blunt force trauma to the skull. This is the aftermath of grief. When we finally surface after the eternal months beneath that heavy blanket of pain, we can only stand up for so long. We run, we stumble, we fall, we rise, we run in place, we run some more, we stumble, we fall again, we rise again and again and again. But when we run, propelled by the energy of sick, sick loss, we run for our fucking lives. We run believing that there is, there must be, a distant, unseen destination where it doesn't matter that our souls have been amputated, where it doesn't matter that our soft worlds have been ripped out from beneath our unsteady stances. We run towards the beacon of light...a picture of a whisper of the memory of a smile. Maybe I'll never reach my destination. But fuck it all, I'm going to keep trying. This is how I breathe. I can't let go. This is the gift Amy gave me with her bare, living hands.


  1. Wow that was amazing! Made me cry. You need to write a book!!! It will be a best seller and they will turn it into a movie. I'll help you if you want. Amy is gone but you do still have cheerleaders!

  2. Thank you. That was hard to write, but long in coming. I've felt for a long time that I had to write something about Amy but I was so afraid to mess it up. I didn't want to dishonor her memory by writing a terrible blog about her, you know? I'm glad you liked it. A book? You ARE a cheerleader - and just like Amy telling me I'm great when I am at best mediocre. Love you!

  3. I'm really sorry for your loss. I know this must have been really difficult to write. I've never really experienced grief before but I know it's imminent and I'm bracing myself.

    When I'm going through a rough time it's helpful to find bloggers that have dealt with something similar. I don't know if you have ever read mountainlover. She also lost her sister you can read a couple of her posts where she writes about her loss in her list of favorite posts.

  4. one more thing, i think she would love the post.

  5. Thanks Bluestreak, for the comment and for the link to another amazing writer. My husband is going to kill me for never taking my face out of this laptop. I have so much reading to do! I'm sorry to hear that you will soon be facing a loss. In some ways, the time leading up to the loss can be harder. Waiting for the axe to fall, not knowing how we will cope, what it will really feel like. I'm not saying grief isn't hard. But at least you know what you're dealing with. I mean, the enemy we know is better than the enemy we don't. If you ever need to vent or talk, feel free to email me.

  6. I'm so very sorry. Your sister sounds like an amazing woman.

    And that last's right where I am. Last September I lost the love of my life and my kids lost their dad to lung cancer. He was just 44.

    Reading your words helps me not feel so alone.

  7. Thanks Gwen. I didn't mean to say that I was about to lose someone, I just meant that I know it's around the corner because it's inevitable that we all have to deal with death unless we die before having to deal with it. I know it's coming (unless I die first), and it freaks me out and I get the feeling when I read stuff like this that you can't fully brace yourself for it, or know how painful it will be until it actually happens.

  8. I highly doubt Amy could or would ever be disappointed in you. You know now how I measure the worth of a life, the success. The fact that you can make me laugh and/or cry with just your words..... I don't even have a word for it, but it would be a good one.


  9. Amy believed in you because you are talented. She wanted the best for you and for you to live your best life. Stories are your happiness and through them people can hear about her... and she is alive when you tell them. Even for a moment I get a warm feeling and live in the memory with her again.

    So thank you and write more blogs Gwenny.

  10. That was beautiful, lucid, so moving. Powerful and spilling over with love and grief. What a wonderful sister you are. I'm so very sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog and being a voice of reason and interest. It is much appreciated.

  11. This was very moving.

    I'm still holding onto empty bottles of a hair product my sister gave me (she was a hair stylist). My mom and sister got everything else, or it's boxed up.

    I still haven't gone through it. I'm finally pulled together and I'm afraid of losing it again.

  12. Mountain Lover - Isn't amazing how these objects become so important after a loss like we've suffered? I have never been able to read my sister's journals, etc. that she left behind. My other sister did and I thought to myself, "I could never be that brave". I think grief is something that is always with us, we just learn how to hide it better as the years go by.

  13. Gwen this was beautiful, so touching and true. Your sister sounds like an amazing soul. I was in tears, so heartfelt and truthful. Your so gifted, keep writing it is medicine for your mind and soul and all those who read it.

    Heather McGuire