Today is my sister’s birthday.
Or maybe I’m saying that wrong, as she died in 1990.
Maybe I should write, “Today was my sister’s birthday.”
Or, “Today would have been my sister’s birthday, her fifty-eighth.”
My struggle to use the correct tense reflects the latest way that grief taunts me. Grief complicates everything. And though its character changes over time, grief delights in finding fresh ways to prod the pain my sister’s death brought into my life.
Sarah’s birthday is my grief’s favorite prod. Each year it jostles my shoulder, as if March 8th’s sole task is to remind me not of my sister’s birth, but of her death. And though the sting of her death has lessened over time, I am always amazed by grief’s persistence.
This year, grief arrived to remind me how complex memory can be.
As I ate a piece of pizza, I remembered how great it was when my sister would bring an unclaimed pizza home from the Pizza Hut where she worked, and I would eat it cold when I woke up in the morning. Memories sometimes surprise like that, bounding across my mind to recall the simple joys I long to remember.
But memories also bear pain.
And I would give anything to forget some of what my mind will not release.
What is it within me that will not allow me to let those painful memories fade? And why are the better moments so blurry?
Beneath those questions lies my real puzzle: Why does it have to be so complicated?
I’ve always wondered that about my relationship with my sister. There are things I am desperate to remember, stories that I tell to my children.
But there are also damning moments, moments that point at me with bony fingers, that hurl snippets of conversations or scenes of withdrawal, moments that leave me defenseless against the truth they name, that my relationship with my sister was strained. And her death suspended time in that broken place. And that’s why I long to remember only some of what our time together was like.
But the painful memories will not leave me.
And trying to forget them only increases their intensity.
So to honor my sister’s birthday this year, I plan to hold onto our relationship in all its messiness. I will lift up the joyful memories with thanksgiving. And I will offer the ones drenched in pain or guilt with the hope that grace will one day do its work to redeem.