Tumbling in the unknown
Hannah, my sister, died from a gunshot wound to the heart. The complete answers to how and why exist somewhere, but the reality is that — despite our best efforts — we may never know exactly what precipitated her death. Desolation comes from no answers, from inadequate answers and from the answers we must make up in our minds and submit to ourselves in order to patch the dark, unfamiliar, empty space of loss. We fear lack of resolution. And yet, we also fear conclusions that will be reached. We fear a terminal overhang of the now known-unknown. A dusty cliff and the boundless nothingness below it have torn into our vision of the present and the future.
I wonder if Hannah is found in the wind and if she has become — as my young daughter calls to her — the “god-Hannah”: some unseen, omniscient being who takes us by touchless hand and guides us vigilantly through the joys, sorrows and hazards of the rest of our lives. The exquisite mystery of the purpose of those lives, where the spirit goes, what happens to our loved ones after they die and how we continue without them has been hastily mashed to the prosaic. Our family is in the midst of processing the loss of Hannah and also enduring the other purgatory that is the long, ongoing criminal investigation into why she died. My family and those who love Hannah have been thrown and are tumbling in the unknown, fumbling in a murky otherworld, attempting to stand upright and walk out. I believe that may be an impossibility.
It’s now the dark, late, quiet Saturday night in the sleepiest and oldest part of Brooklyn, and I can’t sleep. I’ve been restless and lonely the whole day. I lie in bed, imploring my darting mind to send away its unbidden guests: administrative thought-zombies swinging to-do lists, reminders of birthdays not to miss, calls and texts that need to be returned.
They are gagged and vanquished by the powerful, singular thought: we — and I — have been robbed of Hannah. I am aware of being shackled still to the emptying silence without her voice, as I have been for these six months since she has died. My skin winces without her touch. Without her unflappable support and quick humor — making light of and redirecting from the inevitable trips and skinned knees of our lives — my legs are floppy as though from underuse. I’m trying to learn to walk again in this world, but my braces keep getting kicked further from my reach.
The walls of my sacred bedroom — which in times past have steadied me from tremulous gait onto solid footing — are now disquiet and restless. I want to run out. I want to hold something of Hannah. I want her writing and her stories about herself and her life that we couldn’t recover and that we fear were discarded after she died. I want to hold and put on my pillow the clip of hair I cut from her at the funeral home to be closer to her. Intellectually, it seems a macabre and Victorian urge, but emotionally, it feels right. I curse myself for having worn and washed her t-shirts and then negligently laundering the lingering of her perfume from them.
I turn the light on, irritating the midnight-dark room awake, and am compelled to get her purse from my closet. It smells warmly of leather and Hannah. I bought it for her years ago and secretly coveted it then. It makes me feel strange — and guilty — to think I gave it to her, wanting it for myself, and now I have it. It is still beautiful, but since she died, no part of me can even briefly entertain the idea of using it, so it just waits mutely in the closet.
I lose my breath as I draw my hands over and cradle the floppy pocketbook with its gently fraying metallic-rainbow strap and its leather bells dangling from the zippers, their sparking blue underbellies inverted and restrained jellyfish floating together in my hands. I murmur a mantra over and over again to Hannah, as though she can feel me, and I can reach her. My chest aches from the acute and frightening heaviness in my heart.
And then, without warning, it is pouring outside. Lightning and thunder nag the air, driving channels through it and smashing them closed. The rain mists the apartment at the sides of the window, wetting the heavy drawn curtain.
Most people’s fears are a jumble and mishmash of worries and suspicions we’ve carried since we were young. They descend or emerge from somewhere in our past, from the circumstances of what brought us to be and from the tangled genetics of our forefathers and foremothers. Some grow bigger and break off and float in us. Most are unsubstantiated and remain lodged in the haunted hollows of the recesses of our minds.
But, Hannah’s death is real. The police banging on the door at 8:30 at night is not the artifice of a crime show. It happened. It happened to us. What we could not control, influence or predict is a permanent in the rest of our lives.
There is so little we can really control anyway. We attempt to protect ourselves, surrounding and compartmentalizing the trauma, guarding against what can further deteriorate us in our exposed state. We are like wounded, immovable trees that must physically and chemically barricade against their trauma and its decay to generate solid, healthy growth. The trauma is interwoven into our dark eyes and spun through our genes that turn on and off in expression of the grief, handling in and down the fears of what other dens of uncontrolled beasts we must watch out for now as we patrol.
For, there are monsters. There are monsters everywhere. Each of us contains some of them like black and red demons arising and then rising out of our heads or scraping out of our mouths. Collectively, we must contend and wrestle with — or debate whether we supplicate to — some combination of the progeny of violence, shame, neglect, intimidation, disbelief, fear, grief, terror.
In that hot, red, burning core of the stomach, a few fingersteps above the navel, I fight against those shapeless monsters in the lucid nightmares that rehash what has actually happened to us. The first image that comes is of the three police in my mother’s scarlet-colored sitting room telling us Hannah is dead, standing there in rigorous force while my mother and I mirror them, as we are backed into the wall. I have just run downstairs from the shower on hearing my mother’s voice calling me and knowing with certainty — and without her saying it — that one of my siblings is dead. I am just not sure who. I am wet and unprotected, so unprepared for this new, horrific start to the next part of our lives. I wear the first towel I could grab, an ill-fitting one that I shift in as the policeman tells me Hannah is dead. I ask over and over again what he’s saying. I can hear his words, and I’m wondering why I keep asking. I know in my blood — that same dark sea that connects my mother standing next to me, my sister, my father and my daughter in the other room — the deed is done. I know that Hannah is gone, but I can’t process that there is no possibility for us to bring her back. I can’t understand why asking and asking again don’t resurrect her or make their story false. Surely, it must be another girl. Surely, there must be some small window where we can return this awful and broken news. “How do you know it’s her?”, I ask. He says by her license, and still I run him through a checklist of questions of how she looks. I am sure someone who looks like her must have stolen her ID.
The next scene of this nightmare — our deranged reality — is my immediate family’s private viewing of Hannah’s body at the funeral home. I continue to secretly harbor the belief that notice of Hannah’s death is a cruel prank. I am smarting, but I mentally promise to be imminently forgiving when the real Hannah just finally appears before us again. We will laugh at her awful, tasteless and incredibly committed joke. Or I will wake up.
At the funeral home, Hannah is lying in a coffin in a just-unpacked white cotton Hanes t-shirt that the funeral home has provided. She is laid out for us like something unearthed from a great beyond or like a doll, a mannequin, an imposter, a deception. This is Hannah. This is definitely not-Hannah. Her hair has been combed but not all the way through. This detail is almost more out of character than the static, non-breathing body in front of us and helps prop up my belief that this is a trick. Hannah’s usually soft, knotless hair is the result of assiduous attention to keeping it healthy in spite of perpetually dying, redying and bleaching. Indeed, the Sunday before we are standing in this funeral home, she redyed her hair obsidian black and cut new bangs, becoming a faithful copy of our mother when she was Hannah’s age.
Hannah’s smooth face is pale but not so drained that she looks truly lifeless, and her youth shines through to me in a way I have never seen before. Twenty-eight seems young to some and old to those younger, but she could be fourteen. We had asked the funeral director not to put makeup on, but without it, her eyelashes seem too short, her youth too apparent. Her large, Maya blue eyes are usually defined by dashing eyeshadow and inky mascara. They are closed, and her skin is soft and pliable, like living skin only slightly cooler to the touch.
I sigh, “Oh, Hannah”, and I bend down to kiss her forehead. Her head turns a little, and I am afraid her head will fall off. I have nervously, curiously and briefly touched the embalmed hand or clothed chest of other people at their open casket funerals. I have never put my lips to them, never wanted to pull them out and break away with them out of the funeral home. I have never considered how the embalming process will support or undermine their movement or my touch. I have never wondered at their fragility. I have been sad; I have been mournful. But I have never loved any of them with the same ferocity that seems to grow even greater with each moment that ticks by, as though the energies of my love can revive Hannah and draw back the curtain from this perverted play. I have also never so strongly doubted anyone else’s death as their prepared corpse has laid gentle in front of me.
The red-light filter of my mind casts over other flipped images, and the nightmares keep coming. I try to ride them through, to find what staying with them holds, but the fear is overwhelming. I open my eyes and shake my head. It’s a short, sharp movement like a strong shiver, as though I can exorcize my mind and this world. I draw my head up to the right as though truth, conclusion and salvation are found there.
I can contain and shut down most of the other unfurling nightmares, but I can’t stop reshowing myself the image of Hannah at the funeral home. I don’t know why this is the one I replay. My mind won’t focus on the last time Hannah and I hugged or laughed. In some ways, I am thankful it hasn’t chosen to pantomime the nightmare of Hannah’s last breathing moments in her apartment, which I never saw. What transpired then — and my anger, fear and frustration at the final, harrowing, real moment of her loss — has been traded for the last moment I saw her body. Perhaps I believe that by staying with her body, we will lure the answers and truths closer to us and to her resolution.
Unresolved loss (Can we ever truly resolve it?) and as-yet unexplained death (Can we ever truly explain it?) are the purview of the unknown. Touching the dark corners of the walls and divots in the ground of the unknown — if you can find that ground — is being blinded and finding whether you can conduct yourself safely through the dark. All your other senses pop, as sounds and smells become stronger senses to guide you. Your hands trace shapes and textures. Cool, smooth surfaces are immediately comforting and stabilizing, and sometimes the darkness is so complete, it is mesmerizing. But the unknown is not a place we can stay forever.
The complement to that unknown is the awakening. The prophecy is that some truth will be roused and activated, even from the blackest belly of unchartered grief, but it will not likely come in the form of the truth that you seek. What does that mean? It means that discovering truth is like anything else in life, tinged with unfairness and remaining, unsettled questions. Truth is a small, heavy, polished stone that you may find and then palm in your hand. It is inadequate and will never provide shelter. It doesn’t offer total life-transformation accompanied by inviolable gratitude. It won’t necessarily protect you from random future dangers. Instead, it will walk with you — in your hand or in your pocket — quietly humming with you as you traipse through the path that has only been loosely cut for you.
One truth is that you can’t really control anything. You can barely control anything. People say that you can control how you process your feelings, how you act and what you say. But that has its limitations, too. So, how can you proceed in a world where it feels — at these low times — that everything is chaos? I simply do not know. Perhaps the answer is in loving the people who remain around you. Perhaps the answer is in appreciating the simple breath that binds your mind, body and soul together. Perhaps we will never know the answer. Perhaps there is no answer. It breaks my heart to not be able to do better service to my sister, to not have found a constant reason for why her life was cut short. It breaks my heart to not always march with greater authority and purpose — for my sister and for my daughter — and to not have learned more yet from the value of the breath. I do not always trust or abide by the fundamental lesson so ripe before us now that we must honor every moment-to-moment, even, and especially, when it feels we have been sheared down to the basic posts of our limited bodies here.
I drive to the reservoir — trying to find Hannah. As children, we used to climb with our parents up the hundred steps that led steep up to the edge of the basin where we could see the panorama of the reservoir water and trees. When I get there, I find those steps have been cordoned off completely by a broad-gauge black metal fence. I drive to the narrow waterfall cliffs Hannah used to jump off of in the summer — that I have never been courageous or foolish enough to jump off of myself — but the road to it, too, has been blocked off. I drive down to the river that Hannah loved. I park in a dusty parking turnaround that narrowly traces a semicircle through the dun-colored trees. I am afraid of the isolation of this place.
I walk down to the river — it feels like something I need to do for Hannah — and I step into the cool, brown water in my sneakers to avoid the sharp rocks and the broken glass I fear may be below, partial remnants of uncareful past parties and visitors. Minnows swim in the shoals where I rest my white sneakers. I expect to be allayed by the water and the blue sky on this almost-September day, but my sadness does not change. I am so tired of not being able to flush out or get over this sorrow. What Hannah would have said to me now in her inimitably spirited way is, “Fuck it. I love you.” And, that would have been enough. I haven’t been able to generate Hannah strong enough inside me yet. Her unresolved death and the forever-lack of resolution that will remain for why she had to die so young, all of that has humbled me. It has cast me — and our family and her friends — into this unknown place. I am trying, I am trying. All I know is that I am still breathing.
But the lows of this day are balanced by other times — and recent times — where I can channel Hannah. In the drawing-down heat of summer dusk, standing alone in the weedy gravel by the hot blue aluminum of my car door, I feel her voice. Maybe I am connecting with her spirit, her essence or maybe just a concoction of my memories of her and how she spoke to me. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that I feel the decidedly Hannah sentiment that being who you are is enough. That each of us carries demons, yes, and nightmares, yes, but that each of us are consecrated by virtue of our being born. It is hard to spread that thought at times, but in order to keep her alive and vibrating, I must continue to love and to fight in the way that she loved and fought. Hannah tattooed a warrior on her back not two months before she died not to pass into the great beyond but to gird and brace herself for her future, that future littered — as all of ours are — with the debris of random chance, with the fiends found both within and without ourselves and with the sacred things that we must protect in ourselves and in others.