Photo: Randolph H. Riley

Hearing voices in maturing grief

It has been closer to 5 months since my sister, Hannah, died. We are nearly halfway through the critical first year of bereavement — at least I’ve been told that, ‘The first year is the hardest.’ Intellectually, though no one monitors my grieving progress (except me), maybe it’s the right time for pivoting to return to the rest of the world of the living in a fuller capacity. On one hand, I must figure out how to readjust and reincorporate because this is the reality of the rest of my life.

Where before I was counting days and weeks since Hannah’s death, I’m rounding up time now, as parents typically do after their infant becomes a toddler. When you ask a new parent how old their baby is, they inevitably tell you in day, then week or month increments. That always sounds so fastidious. Then the baby settles in to sleep and feeding schedule, crawls and walks, and parents notch their child’s existence in intervals almost the same as for their own adult life: in half-years and years.

Hannah’s death is like her birth turned inside out. In this almost half-year since she died, we have now marked a series of firsts: Hannah’s birthday, without her here; our first birthdays without Hannah; Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; Easter (made only theoretically easier because she was typically working that weekend and didn’t often come down to our aunt and uncle’s house); holidays; and mid-spring and the beginning of summer, her favorite seasons. We’ll mark on through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year and then mark again when it has been a year since she died. It is both impossible to imagine and so nearly imminent. Even as I don’t consciously realize it, Hannah’s death is starting to grow longer and older in my mind, to ferment.

I realize parts of her are fading for me. Her touch grows more distant, her voice and what she would have said sometimes harder to conjure. Unless someone has a terminal illness — and even then — we don’t take as much care to comprehensively record natural voices and videos. The days after Hannah abruptly died, I trawled through my phone’s voice memos, texts, videos and photos to find — maybe to trap — the her that I knew and remembered. I first found a voice recording of Hannah, my mother and father, my daughter, her father and me in the car. It was Easter four years ago, and we were driving to my aunt and uncle’s. We were harmonizing “Old MacDonald” and “Down by the Bay” to keep my baby daughter from crying. In between the singing, we jousted for whose turn it was for the next line, and we laughed and snickered. Our little comments formed the rhythm of our banter. It’s 6 minutes and 42 seconds long, and it ends with Hannah’s narration that the baby has pushed the nipple of her bottle in, cascading milk all over her Easter dress. It is such an almost ordinary moment, but I remember deciding to record it because it also felt like an important moment. Of course, it has become ever more so, but not for reasons I could have divined at the time.

I thought that I would look back to our younger selves, our family nearly all together (my brother and sister-in-law in another car), after the baby had grown into a toddler, child and finally an adult. When I grew up, my grandparents always sang together in the car on our frequent drives to Massachusetts or New Hampshire, but even back then, families rarely sang together anymore. In the Easter recording, we are a family singing together, which seems so anachronistic, from such a simpler epoch. I also thought I was preserving a pretty, funny little moment when we were all happy and silly. I thought I was capturing our synthesized voices when we were suddenly like kids again, even though we were in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I heard a radio host say about The Beach Boys that they are wonderful because there is something so appealing about siblings harmonizing, our tonally similar voices and familiar intonations knitted up or spun together. It’s soothing. In the voice memo from Easter, my father even comments that my mother’s, sister’s and my voice sound the same, braided up together.

With all the technology we have, this is almost the only recording I have of Hannah’s adult voice, a nearly accidental wrangling of a piece of Hannah. But, from the time I was two, and through the time my brother was born and became a child and my sister was born through her childhood, my father recorded our child voices on a Sony Reel-to-Reel, which miraculously still functions four decades later. There was no particular method to the recordings. They capture otherwise ordinary moments: my father and I reading — with my mother’s voice in the background on the phone with her mother; my brother and I talking about the springer spaniel, “Ruby dog”, next door who accompanied us on walks to the school playground and who would knock my four-year old brother down with her excitement to see him; my brother, sister and I telling our names, ages and grades in school. We didn’t mark every year with the tape player or any momentous occasion. Still, in its randomness in arbitrarily snipping out a piece of the year, the Reel-to-Reel is more like how I replay my memories of Hannah and my own life. It is mostly the seemingly unremarkable fragments that comprise the mosaic of the whole of our lived lives. Those minor, ephemeral moments make up who we are individually and together.

Others I know who have lost loved ones in similar out-of-time-and-place ways and young ages have told me that, years later, they can’t return to restaurants or stores they would frequent with their loved ones. I still cannot watch videos of Hannah. There is something about hearing Hannah’s voice that I could climb into everyday but seeing a video of her is still too raw. I should want to see those cuts of pixelated, animated fabric — slices of our more normal life — to keep watching until I rub them like a security blanket that becomes the matted, knotted, dreaded threads of what it was. Repeating those video moments are just too painful now. It reminds me, I suppose, of what is to come, of her body’s absence, of the blank space where Hannah is supposed to be.

Hearing her voice is easier because that doesn’t dictate her image to me; it calls my mind — the place where she is now — to imagine Hannah. Somehow seeing her image enlivened in videos booms her loss to me. People are also less natural in video, so I’m seeing a facsimile or a ruched-up version of Hannah, not the Hannah who was entirely bald with me in our interactions. That’s part of her, too; it’s just not the Hannah I keep inside me.

Just as she transfigured in her own life through the little moments that moved her through time, slowly pushing and transforming her into who she became as an adult, so does she continue to change in her death. Even if I did believe — as I sometimes do in harder, more nihilistic moments — that death was decisive, concrete and final, the person who is dead still changes in the minds of those who are left alive beyond them. Hannah doesn’t have authoritative agency in death over how we see her, but then none of us have that. Even for the living, in the eyes of others, we are their webbed perceptions of us. Who we are — in all the magnificent refractions of what we think, what we do, what we say, how we walk, how we dance, how we give, how we secret, how we love, how we grieve, how we share — can never be fully captured by someone else. We allow different parts of ourselves to be seen or expressed; we probably can’t even know all the parts of ourselves. This is the meta-living part of who we are, the way we are interpreted, seen and experienced by and through others, and it is with this part that I am developing a relationship with Hannah now. Yes, she is dead. But, through her spirit or through my memory of her or through the recordings and photos of her or however we want to categorize the “who” of what remains, Hannah and I are taking the tentative steps together down the path of the new way we integrate with and understand each other. And, she is doing this with people she knew well in her life, and strangely — but not that strangely — with people she didn’t. It is not lost on me that the voice recording I safeguard was on Easter, the Christian holiday marking resurrection, the body re-enlivened by spirit.

The bench of coming back

Last weekend, we held a dedication for a space in Hannah’s memory, a bench and plaque by the Farmington River. She loved water and the River and spent a lot of time there in newly emergent summers, her flourishing season. Moments before we were leaving my parents’ house to drive to the dedication — with my mother scolding us to hurry up, with my daughter upset and refusing to wear the outfit I wanted her to wear, with me uncomfortably overdressed as though I were going to a funeral — I suddenly wanted to stay home. I powerfully didn’t want to go to the dedication. I thought it was because we were all so frenetic; I didn’t see that as the output of our stress over what the dedication represented. In spite of feet and mind that were walking backwards and digging in, my family soon all got into our cars and drove down to the dedication site.

When we got to the spot where Hannah’s bench was, with over a hundred people gathered in waiting, I crossed the street but could not cross the sidewalk to the embankment with Hannah’s bench and the plaque with her name. It was an impassable moat dividing me from the grassy area and the bench. I stood, recalcitrant, unmoving. But, when it was finally time for the dedication, I could no longer delay the inevitable. I reluctantly crossed the threshold and took my place next to my mother, father (holding Hannah’s and now my parents’ dog), my daughter, my brother, sister-in-law and nephew. My family stood, semi-circle, at the front of the bench on the river-side on that clear, breezy day, while everyone else — family, friends, people who had given to the bench fundraiser, those who had installed the bench and given and planted the flowers around it — encircled the back side of the bench, in between the bench and spilling over onto the sidewalk.

It was at that moment that I understood why I had dug my feet in at my parents’ house. I felt the loss of Hannah-here completely then. Though I was looking out past the trees to the river, I could see in my mind the spot on the grass next to me where Hannah should have stood, an invisible stage marking abutting my feet. She would have had her arm around my waist, or we would have been holding hands. Our hot set was preserved and waiting for Hannah’s return. It was then at the dedication that I began to cry. I couldn’t cry at her funeral, but these months later, with my daughter’s arm around my leg, while I stroked her hair and looked down at her while she looked up at me with her beatific smile, I felt where Hannah should have been on the other side of me, where Hannah would have stood holding my daughter and me, where Hannah was not.

This was not Hannah’s funeral. This was not the process of closing her life on earth. Then, I had trouble breathing and believing that Hannah’s death was real, but I didn’t expect to see her at the church. I carried her ashes into the foyer, and then my arms refused to open to allow the priest to walk them down the nave. Instead, I walked Hannah, my once and still baby sister, to the crossing, stepping along the path of what could have been a second baptism or communion, a wedding. I placed the black box of her ashes on the table in front of the alter, the sanctuary. At the dedication, for the second time since Hannah died, my immediate family gathered together as a unit in specific and public celebration of my sister’s life and of those who were perpetuating her memory. This was not the funerial process, which we had passed, or her burial, which we forewent in favor of keeping her ashes at home. Instead, this was about how Hannah continues in a physical place after her death. This is about how both we who knew her and the people who never met her in her life meet the memory and spirit of the her that continues.

Acknowledging that is brutal. Confronting that is understanding the rest of my life is without the her I knew for 28 years. This is the rest of my family’s life without her, the rest of her friends’ lives without her. We can’t have her here as we once knew her. One of her best friends recently marked an occasion and wanted to text Hannah before she realized — again — that she couldn’t, so she texted me, Hannah’s sister. What do you do with a need that can’t be met in the way we are used to it being fulfilled? More often it is the smaller, minor moments where we feel jarred again by her loss. I’m distracted by the feeling that something is wrong, off. Something indispensable is missing. It’s psychic phantom pain, emanating from Hannah whose body is not here. Therapists have enabled amputees to mitigate or entirely relieve their phantom limb itching by creating a mirror box that reflects the limb that remains as the missing one. Scratching the real limb somehow allows the eyes that see the illusion to get the mind to believe the itchy limb that is gone is scratched. But, I can’t mirror Hannah, except in videos that I can’t even tolerate watching again. Hannah’s friend can’t mirror her, except to send me a text that she is “channeling her excitement” which would have gone to Hannah through me. An ersatz body-double, I try to do my best to stand in her wide, empty place, an imperfect emotional mirror box reflection.

At the dedication, I felt Hannah’s physical absence as deeply as I felt her spiritual presence. I sat down on her bench by myself, as The Beach Boys played, as people milled around behind and next to the bench, as children ran around and my daughter and nephew distributed the chocolate chip banana bread that was Hannah’s favorite, that my mother and her two friends had individually wrapped in my parents’ kitchen the day before.

The bench faces a wide bend in the river, and the rivets of the waves cascade directly towards the bench face, as though the whole river welcomes, opens to and speaks to those on the bench. The river’s rhythm complements the canoers, kayakers and paddleboarders crisscrossing it. The geese and ducks swim around the small bird-nest-sized islands to the right view of the bench, visible through the lattice of the silver-green backsides of the tree leaves. The greyed egrets stand attentive and proud in the shallows around the islands. Bicyclers and walkers pass on the sidewalk behind the bench, and the white-edged hosta and emerald-leaved pink astilbe to each side of the bench move sideways with the breeze within their half-heart shapes that Riverside Nursery that donated the plants created. To the bench’s left is the torn-out railroad bridge, its stone buttresses now holding nothing since the flood of 1955 washed the track away. Beyond that, the river moves under a bridge, with a short waterfall from where it was dammed to support the former axe factory two centuries ago, and after that the red buildings, mills and water wheel of the old factory line the river. Back below the bench’s embankment, little fish swim in the shallow, sandy shore, and behind the sidewalk, cars make a sweeping circle on the asphalt street: the parallel finger tracing the river’s curves.

All my childhood was spent walking that path next to the river. I was born a few hundred feet from the spot where my sister’s bench is, up the hill to a house my parents still own. When my parents were renovating an apartment house they had bought below that house on the hill and when we temporarily lived in that house while my father built the house in the woods where they live in now, I would take Hannah to the general store down the street from the bench. All of these collapsing memories in the narrow footprints of our early and formative years. It’s hard not to feel Hannah’s spirit embedded here. The river in its forceful, endless continuity draws forward, and — still — the pervasive calm of the midnight blue rivets flows benevolently forward towards the foot of the bench.