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This is about three

When my sister, Hannah, first died, I immediately hated the number two. For 28 years, we had been three. Three siblings. The three kids. The order of three: Sarah, David, Hannah. 29 years, actually, counting the time Hannah was in utero, since it was my brother and I who sat our mother down at the sunlit kitchen table in April 1989 and told her that we had discussed it at length (or whatever length befits a nine and four year old’s conversation), and we wanted another sibling.

My brother and I had been born almost exactly 5 years apart, and we petitioned our mother at the exact time that would allow for the next sibling in another 5-year increment. My mother laughed but was sharp on the party line that she and my father were very happy with just us two, and there would be no more. So, they were surprised, and we were all delighted when our ask was realized a few months later. Almost exactly 10 years after I was born and five years after my brother was born, Hannah was born. Then, we were three.

We were three in annual photography sessions for the black and white portraits which line my parents’ upstairs hallway. These started when my sister was a spritely six-month old and ended when I was in college and she was a preteen — the last year my mother could feasibly cajole us to dress up in the hot summer and go sit for an hour session with a photographer who threw puppets around his studio. We were three when my infant sister would push out her lower lip, about to cry, and my brother would do a silly dance and make funny faces to get Hannah to start giggling again. We were three in the saddle red seats in the back of our grey Volvo: singing, harassing each other, talking to each other, listening to our parents talk, watching the world spin by in green as we drove. We were three, sunkissed and sunburnt, laughing in our room at the beach when we were all careening towards adulthood but still our parents’ children on vacation. We were three as we sat together or stood next to each other as adults for holiday photos, now holding babies, holding puppies, arms linked around each other and chiding our mother for making us take these silly photographs — pictures which now suspend us in moments when Hannah was here, at the last Christmas Hannah was with us, looking luminous but slightly off to the side of the camera.

After Hannah died, when I thought of the number two — so hallowed for pairs, for couples, for doubles — it felt like an unjust number, if a number at all. It felt bastardized, false. Two felt like purgatory, like being suspended in the air, and my brother’s and my two sets of four limbs cabled to the wall. The triad, the troika, the trinity of our siblinghood corrupted and split apart in a sacrilegious act: her unfair, her early, her unrighteous death.

Completion through more than two

What is so sonorous about two? Maybe we crave duality when, as infants, we first see symmetry in our mother’s two eyes and then slowly recognize our two hands and two legs and all the doubles and mirroring of our bodies and the bodies around us. Two upper and lower chambers make up our heart; two hemispheres comprise the bulk of our brain. But, we have one hovering, elusory soul, that fundamental piece of our being that we can’t pin down or find exactly in our bodies. Maybe that’s why — in our search for completion through a dyad — we cleave to the idea of the soulmate, that hallowed and slightly unbelievable, nearly impossible complementary form. Maybe that’s why the idea of two rings out and reverberates through us.

We believe that two is completion. We revisit the Platonic horror story that we are walking around as torn apart halves, searching for our consummation in another person as though enduring a life-orienteering hellscape. That posits we are broken, limping semi-beings who can only be revived in the re-marriage of our missing half. We dive in and through romantic relationships, searching for the sacred fit, along the way collecting depression, loneliness and malaise at the idea we are incomplete, lacking or somehow split apart. What a terrible concept. It makes me think of Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, in which the Pac-Man-like shape searches for the pie wedge to fit it. When it finally matches with the perfect piece, it realizes in coupling it can’t experience life in the same way. Despite being physically complete, it is unhappier, so after all that searching, it splits with its complement and continues off by itself, having realized physical completion does not mean contented self-wholeness. Anyway, we were split, we find, and we resplit. We split for reasons of modern life. We split to focus on developing ourselves. We split when we die. Even if we believe in and find our “soulmate”, it’s unlikely we’ll die at the same moment, and who is to say we don’t cascade through a next life in elusive and random pursuit again of our match?

I know of a couple who took poisons when one of them was very sick and getting close to death, so they could die together. They had found each other 60 years earlier: two quirky, lovely souls whose currents ran counter to the standard beats to which others happily drummed along. But, they did not want to or could not imagine living here without the other. While some commend it, I know this type of ending bothers other people: how could someone choose to end their own life here for and with their dying spouse? We can’t know what moves through the hearts and minds of others exactly, but perhaps it’s because they didn’t want to split. And, in their death, they realized the ability to control two of the things that most pang us in life: death and pain, both of which are intrinsic, inherently slippery and not fully knowable. When you see two people moving in concert in their relationship, when you see people whose devotion to each other supersedes their commitment to their own life, you wonder what it means — even with a loving bench of children, friends and family — to not want to live without your other half.

We call it “the other half”, but maybe others of us are instead split a thousand times again and again, the way my daughter sees Hannah in every caterpillar, cardinal, owl, slug, ant, pill bug — every animal and insect. “Hello, Hannah!”, she says, or, “I saw Hannah today”, or, “There’s Hannah!”, and I always freeze and wonder if there’s a ghost or if she has some frightening Sixth Sense abilities. Maybe instead there are fragments or large chunks of our “missing” souls that are scattered through other lives and other beings. That is our continuity. That is the durability of our life, our spirit, our impact here despite having these finite, terminable bodies.

My best friend lost her mother through a prolonged illness, and I asked her if they had ever talked about what happens after we die. My friend’s mother said if there were some afterlife or beyond, she would send a sign to my friend, her daughter. “What was it, and did she?”, I excitedly asked, but my friend said through all their discussions, they’d never decided on what the sign should be. Her mother died without them choosing the signaling that could have strongly indicated the soul fluttered on into some great beyond. It would have been nice confirmation, but really, the strength of her mother’s buoyant spirit continues carrying her great humor on here still. We talk about her. We read her hysterical — if probably parentally inappropriate — letters to my friend when she was at camp. We call to her as we think of how she would love, dote over and laugh with my friend’s young, towheaded daughters. We think of how she would be sitting out on the deck with a hat that was somehow both floppy and aristocratic, with a glass of wine in hand and a playfulness, wit and amusement in spite of whatever trouble was going on in our lives that shone into all of us like the first strike of brilliant sunlight breaking through an overcast day. But, we still wonder where she is now, how she is now.

From my best friend’s and her mother’s cue, my daughter and I talk about how we will appear after we die to those left behind. She wants to be that “cunning trickster”, the fox. I always thought my familiar was the crow; so now, when my daughter sees crows, she says, “There you are”, as though I can already have pieces of myself — of my spirit — spread further outside the hermetic seal of my body. Or maybe that’s because mothers, parents, friends, children and all of us want to make sure we can continue to speak to the ones we love past our death, even if and when the conversation may feel like a scratchy CB radio in which we hope that our message is making it through to the other side, to wherever those souls are floating, resting or continuing.

The Missing Piece

The idea of a single soulmate doesn’t fit for me. It doesn’t fit because if one doesn’t find a soulmate in this life, that doesn’t preclude a rich and satisfied life. It doesn’t fit because if the soulmate is a mate to the exclusion of others, then I don’t know what to do with platonic soul matches like my feelings for Hannah, for my best friend, for my daughter, for others that I love in a deep and unabiding way. It doesn’t fit because I have been accustomed to odd numbers — to the one of myself, the three of us siblings, the five of our immediate family — and because if there is a single soulmate, then it questions how other people who are not our designated countertype relate to us.

A family friend came to my daughter’s horseback riding lessons, and when she saw and touched the horses in their stalls, she got goosebumps. Fifty years after she first started riding, her body was still animated and jubilant at the sight and touch of these animals. It was a sensation that informed the romance with her husband, now of almost thirty years, and it was astonishing to me that the equine touch was in some ways as powerful and lasting to her as romantic love. I am not precluding the idea that she has found her soulmate in her husband — and I know a bit of the exhaustive journey it took them to find each other — but it must say something that our bodies can read into and communicate with the stillness and beauty of another living being in a similar way that we can with people who feel like our yin or yang fit.

The best way I could describe the loss of Hannah after she died was like I was missing that large, pie-shaped piece of myself. A part of my complete soul had been sliced out of me, and nothing could fill the profound emptiness. Hannah was part of my soul, and when she died, it felt like a large psychic hand had ripped the Hannah-part away. My soul — my heart — didn’t split in half, but it lost an indispensable companion, and — as we do — I only gained the perspective to realize how needed she was when she died. In these ensuing months since she died, I have been relearning how to step in this world with Hannah-who-is-not-here, with the fragrance of Hannah’s memory and with my burgeoning belief in the endurance of her spirit.

Maybe I took Hannah for granted when she was alive, maybe I was selfish, maybe I got used to and was heedless of Hannah’s love, maybe I didn’t understand it. We were deeply loving of each other when she was alive, but Hannah, my beautiful sister, was giving in a way that I couldn’t have understood, that I’m still not sure how to process or where to put — or more sadly, what to do with the absence of that. Maybe I didn’t want to understand it when she was alive. Perhaps I thought if I did, then I was ceding my own blazing independence or making Hannah too precious where she was decidedly fierce. She was my younger sister, but she was protective in a big sister way. She looked out for me. She got mad for me. She railed against people who mistreated me. Where I could not and where I did not understand, she was the bodyguard and shield for my soul.

Almost miraculously to me, so many others feel the same way about Hannah as I do — that she was part of their soul, that she was a guardian. She was the completion for our family, for my mother and my father, for her friends and our family’s friends. Since she died, a number of those who knew her have begun producing art to represent Hannah’s importance to them, as though Hannah must be literally drawn or sung out, as though we call to her and call her back through expressing her manifest beauty in words, in lyrics, in notes, in paintings, in sketches. The words I used to describe Hannah and what Hannah gave to me are the same that others use: her openness, her acceptance, her exuberance, her fiery protective spirit. We welcome and agitate her being into perpetuity by creating in vision, sound and touch. We mold into presence the essence of what was stabilizing about Hannah for us, what we need to be reminded of for ourselves and how we need to be reminded of her. We enable her to be released more universally.

Importantly, with the people who are meaningful in our lives, who challenge and grow our perspectives and who better our time here, it is the quality of our interactions and not the quantity. After Hannah died, I found a family member crying, curled up something like a feral cat into the smallest, furthest corner of the sofa, sobbing because they said they didn’t even have Hannah’s phone number in their phone. But, as I witnessed their interactions over the years, they had always seemed to me so cheerful, spirited and warm together. I know Hannah looked forward to seeing this person because she told my mother she always did, but furthermore, it wasn’t in Hannah’s nature to tabulate the number of times or even the traditional ways that people might assess “friendship” or “care.” She was one of the most present-centered people I know. Her deep accent was on the function of people being together at the same time.

So many of us walk around with mental abacuses, determining what merits pushing and sliding another bead for the progression — or pulling it back for the degradation — of our relationships. And, then it’s a wonder when we sit down face-to-face after so long and find that, “It’s like no time has passed.” True connections seem to operate outside of the linear structure of time. The problem with the mental abacus is that, while fine and expedient for arithmetic, it catalyzes our fears that our relationships are not developed enough. Hannah lived and interacted radically in dimensions that didn’t dilate on number.

How can one person have had such a rebounding effect? I know she is my sister, my only sister. I know I cannot distance myself or ever be truly impartial to Hannah’s importance in the world, which is my interpretation of the world. I cannot be objective about Hannah. At the same time, Hannah’s impact feels unusual, exceptional. Hannah was born to me, to our family. It feels like my brother and I called to her, willed her to be near to us, to come to us. My mother says solemnly and with some wonder that Hannah’s life is bookended by chance. She was unexpected in birth, and her death was unexpected. It feels that Hannah had an unfairly truncated life, and also that — and this is hard to say — the extreme potency of her impact derives in part from the unfairly short time she was here. Her life was like flash, a comet, a fireball, something that comes only once in a great while, shines so bright in the dark night and then melts into the sky. We remember where we were and who we were with when we experienced it and recount to young children how we saw the light of that night. We wait for it to come again.

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