The Love That Remains
There are certain words in other languages that have no direct English translation. “Saudade” is one of those words.Portuguese in origin, it describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or melancholic longing for an absent person or thing that one loves. It encompasses the feelings of missing someone – both the sadness you feel that they’re gone and the happiness you find in their memory, which makes you feel alive again. Loosely translated, “saudade” means “the love that remains”.
The love that remains.
The love that remains for my sister is what has kept me going since April 1st. It’s what gave me the strength to walk down the aisle 17 days after Sarah died, and it’s the reason why I write. “The love that remains” is what gives me the courage every day to share my sister’s heart and soul with the world; it’s what will hopefully save “someone else’s Sarah”.
This past year since her suicide has brought a lot of “firsts”, each one harder than the last. Each milestone has forced me to dig a little deeper and find that extra ounce of strength I need to keep my feet on the ground. Each time, I’ve had to find a way to focus on the light that Sarah brought into this world during her 29 years of life,and not the darkness that’s been threatening to take over my world since her death.
It’s not an easy thing to do. But I have to find a way. Every time.
Growing up, our whole family would spend a couple of weeks each summer in a tiny little town called St. Andrews in New Brunswick, Canada. My grandparents bought some land up there before I was born, and my grandmother spends six months out of the year up there, in her “happy place”.
Sarah loved it there, and all of the memories I have of St. Andrews are of her at her happiest, before her battle with addiction began. She was the little blonde girl running around like a maniac, catching frogs, painting rocks, causing mischief, wreaking havoc and playing practical jokes on the rest of us. All the time. The house was constantly filled with her laughter, mostly at the expense of one of us who had just uncovered a frog she had hidden somewhere around the house. She loved to explore – there were plenty of times where we would frantically scour the property, worried she had run off, only to find her happily playing in the dirt somewhere. Laughing at our fear. She was the precocious one, squirting the rest of us with sea cucumbers at the aquarium and cackling as we squealed.
Our trips to St. Andrews were always an adventure, full of laughter and new memories in the making. And family.
This past October, my husband and I made the trip up there. It had been over 20 years since my last visit, and I was somewhat nervous about how it would feel to be there without Sarah. The “what if’s” started creeping in – what if I hadn’t let my social life get in the way and had kept making those trips with our family, and her? Would I have seen the signs sooner? Would she have never chosen to go down that path of drugs and destruction if we had forged a closer relationship growing up? The “what if’s”, the “would she’s” the “could I have’s”, the “should I have’s” – all started coming at me with a vengeance.
Would the memories of her at her happiest just add to the anger and sadness I already felt because she was gone? Would my grief finally consume me?
And then we arrived in that little fairytale resort town that our grandparents had fallen in love with almost 40 years before, and magically, it felt like no time had passed. Some of the landmarks I knew by heart were still there, some had changed, but that feeling of peace and love and laughter was still right there. I knew that 20 years couldn’t have elapsed without the landscape and landmarks changing, but every worry I had about revisiting such a big part of my childhood without Sarah there by my side immediately slipped away, and all I could do was look up at the sky and smile. Watching my husband explore that world for the first time was a pretty incredible gift. Having him there by my side as so many memories came rushing back to me was exactly what I needed.
One day we hiked to the top of Chamcook Mountain. I sat at the summit looking out over the world and took some time to reflect on the past year. Since her death, save for my wedding day, I hadn’t really felt my sister’s presence around me.Taking in that expanse was like looking out across the span of my whole life and finally being able to find some peace with where I’ve landed in this world. In that moment, sitting on top of that mountain, I felt her all around me, and I knew she was at peace, too. In that moment, I knew. Sometimes we forget to just take a minute and really look around at what is still beautiful in this world.
When I remind myself to stop and do that, that’s where I find her. And her laughter.
I felt like I was able to recover one little piece of my heart at every place we visited. I’d been having a hard time remembering Sarah the way I want to remember her, which is who she was before she was introduced to hell in the form of a needle. That’s who she was in St. Andrews, and I was able to remember her with a smile in my eyes instead of anger and sadness. That is a gift that I could have never unwrapped anywhere else, and I?ll be grateful for that trip for the rest of my life.
As healing as that trip was, the holidays were looming over my head when we returned home. Christmas was Sarah’s favorite time of year and I had no idea how I was going to manage the parties, and decorated trees, and pictures of happy, perfect families hugging each other because they had never known this kind of pain.
The wonder of Christmas was never lost on my sister. No matter what was going on in our lives, we would open stockings at our mom’s house every Christmas morning. I would rip through mine in no time flat while Sarah would take what seemed like hours to painstakingly open each hair tie, each pair of socks, and each random tchotchke and marvel at them like she was six years old and still believed in Santa.
So how in God’s name was I supposed to be happy about the holidays without her there with me? While everyone around me happily discussed their plans, and talked about what gifts they were giving to whom, and decided what they were going to have for Thanksgiving dinner, and shared their excitement about seeing their siblings, I had to remind myself to breathe.
For the first time since my husband and I have been together, we didn’t get a Christmas tree. I could barely get myself together to go to my grandmother’s for Christmas Eve dinner and I left before everyone even sat down at the table.
I felt like I was breaking into a million pieces, and I had no idea how to put myself back together.
I woke up on Christmas morning dreading a day filled with non-stop running from one family’s house to another’s. I told my husband that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be there without her,that I didn’t want to bring everyone down. He told me she wouldn’t want that, and I knew he was right. I just didn’t know where I was going to find the courage and strength to put a smile on my face and go about our day.
And then I thought back to the holidays of the year prior when I drove Sarah home from our grandmother’s house after dinner. Sitting in the warmth of my car, we had one of the most honest conversations we’d ever had – about everything, but mostly about her addiction. She opened up to me about just how much of a struggle it was to stay clean every day, especially when she felt like so many people were doubting her, like they were expecting her to fail. I got to tell her how proud I was of her, and to let her know I would always have her back, and that she was beautiful and hilarious and stronger than she knew. And that even though she was six and a half years younger than me, that part of me had always looked up to her because she always had that quiet confidence and strength about her that I never had. Little did I know all those years that she felt the complete opposite inside. We sat outside our mom’s house and laughed, and cried, and hugged, and were brutally raw about a lot of things we’d never really taken the time to talk about before. I needed her to know that no matter what I would be there for her, and that I was sorry if I’d let her down when I first found out about her addiction. It broke me a little bit to realize how overwhelmed she was when she realized that I wanted to be there to support her with the unconditional love that I should have shown from the beginning. She apologized for all the lying and manipulating and every other bad trait that reared its ugly head as a result of her disease. She said she was sorry for disappointing me. When she stuck her head back in the car to give me one last hug and kiss, she told me she loved me with tears in her smile, and then slammed her chin on the door as she was closing it.
And then she laughed that god damned laugh of hers and walked inside.
At the end of the day, I gain some comfort in knowing that she realized at that moment that I was trying to understand her struggle, and that I loved her. At least I hope she did.
I’ll be forever grateful for her honesty that night, as we bared our souls to each other in the darkness of my old car, and for that sisterly bond I felt again when she stepped out into the night. And that laugh is where I found the love that remained to carry me through my first holidays without her.
I miss her laugh more than anything I’ve ever missed in this world.
Today, February 11th, would have been my sister’s 30th birthday. Instead of celebrating with her, I visited her gravesite. This past week has been indescribably painful; I can’t think of a better way to put it than to say I felt like I was going insane.
Every day I felt the same range of 1,000 emotions all at once that I felt walking in to her funeral. Every day. At work, I went through the motions. Barely. I flew off the handle about stuff I would never have cared about on a normal day. My husband would come home and find me sobbing on the couch one second, laughing the next, and then yelling at him about absolutely nothing five minutes later before apologizing almost immediately. And then I’d start sobbing again.
Like I said. Insane.
And today. Today was hard. Like take-your-breath-away, on the verge of a panic attack, waves of nausea, feeling like you’re a diver who all of a sudden is down too deep, heart-breakingly hard.
But I got through it.
The last time I visited Sarah at the cemetery was a few days after Christmas, when we held a little ceremony in honor of her headstone being installed. The stone itself is beautiful; a friend of mine from high school helped me in designing it and it’s absolutely perfect. And today it brought me strength.
When we were looking at different options for her stone, I decided I wanted it to tell a little bit of her story. Every detail means something; every detail is a little piece of her heart. Stargazer lilies were one of her favorite flowers; it’s in color because my sister didn’t do anything in black and white. Along the upper and lower borders is the quote “something like a bird within her sang” sang a little while and then flew on. Sarah had one of the most beautiful singing voices this world has ever known, and everyone who ever loved her will tell you the same. She was also a voracious reader; we chose an open book because her story isn’t finished yet. My friend suggested incorporating saudade somehow, so we had it engraved as though it were written on the pages of the book.
Standing there today, staring at that simple word, I felt her all around me. I thought back to that day in December when I stood in front of our family and friends, explaining the symbolism behind each design element on her headstone, and sharing this story with them.
On my wedding day, in Sarah’s memory, I wore a handkerchief embroidered with her initials on the inside of my wedding dress. That handkerchief was attached to my gown’s lining using ladybug pins that were made by a good friend of mine and her four year old daughter. When her daughter asked why they were making them, my friend told her that my sister had died in an accident and I wanted something to help me carry her with me on my wedding day. Her daughter hadn’t really talked about it since then, except to ask about the ladybugs a few times.
Until the week before the headstone ceremony. My friend was dropping her daughter off at school, which is located across the street from a cemetery. As they pulled up, her daughter blurted out, “mommy that’s the graveyard”. My friend, a little taken aback, said “yes, it is”. The four year old looked over and said “remember Munchie’s sister was in the accident?” My friend said “yes”, and her daughter, very matter-of-factly, said “well she’s okay now. Tell Munchie she’s okay.” She then hopped out of the car and walked in to school.
After some internal debate, my friend decided to tell me about this exchange because, as she said, “you just never know”.
I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to believe that my sister’s spirit had visited my friend’s daughter. I wanted to believe it so badly that it almost physically hurt. But I had been hoping and praying and wishing for a message from her for so long that I thought maybe I was just reading in to things that weren’t there. I had been looking for signs in everything; I had found myself grasping at straws trying to assure myself that Sarah was somewhere up there, laughing and singing and catching frogs and watching over me and everyone else who loved her.
But then I thought about it. How else would Sarah choose to send a message to me than on the lips of a precocious four year old girl, with hair as blonde as Sarah’s was at that age, who loved magic and playing dress up and stories and had a heart that was far older and wiser than her years? And the timing. The timing was impeccable. A few days later, in front of our family and friends, I was able to tell them that Sarah was okay. Standing at the foot of her brand new, beautiful headstone, I was able to say that she had finally found peace, and that we could all leave there with a little more peace in our hearts, too.
I hadn’t really thought about that story since then, until I found myself standing in front of her gravestone today, staring at the word “saudade” and thinking about all the love that remains in my heart for my sister. Today, on her 30th birthday, and forever.
It’s all I have left to guide me through my days.
And it is enough.
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
I went closer,
and I did not die.
had his hand in this,
as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,
was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
It’s not the weight you carry
but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down. So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?
Have you heard
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?
How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe
also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
to which there is no reply.”