Just over a week ago it was the 22nd anniversary of my little sister Helena’s death. I forgot. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m glad that grief—this grief; I have others—is no longer front-and-centre in my life. On the other, well, I forgot. And she was my sister, knit through my life for 24 years, the one I went to the ends of the earth to protect and, in the end, failed.
In Stay, Aud says, “Grief changes everything. It’s a brutal metamorphosis.” And it does, it is. Helena’s death taught me that. When I heard the news of her death I felt as though someone had torn off my skin, just yanked it off like a glove. I felt red raw. Everything—other people, sound, breath—felt like sharp salt. For a while, I think I understood what it meant to be mad.
So. I forgot. And yet, physically, I knew I should be paying attention to something. For several days that week I was emotionally labile: what Kelley, kindly, labels mercurial and what others, less politely, call being a moody bastard. For days I felt irritable, morose, jumpy. I felt unmoored. I had no idea what was going on. No idea why I felt so tense. Someone suggested that perhaps turning fifty was a bigger deal than I’d thought. I shook my head; I knew it wasn’t that. Fifty is just a number.
Then I realised: it’s the anniversary that counts. And then I understood what anniversary I’d missed—consciously. My body knew. Our bodies always know. We remember, deep down, on the cellular level, what happened long ago on an almost-autumn day, when the air looked and felt the same, when the sun was slanting at that angle, when the leaves rustled with just that still-green-but-beginning-to-dry whisper. We feel uneasy. We know something wicked this way comes. And, yes, this anniversary is bound up with my birthday.
Here’s an excerpt from my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer’s early life. It’s 1988, September. Kelley and I had recently met at Clarion and then had to part. Kelley was back in Georgia and I had returned to Hull, England (to the house in Stepney Lane I shared with my partner, Carol), half mad already with missing her. Carol knew, of course, but none of my family did. It was too private. So, one afternoon on my 28th birthday, love, grief, and birthday got melded forever. This is how it happened.
On Kelley’s birthday, just nine days before mine, I phoned her for the first time and for five precious minutes, all I could afford, I clutched my grey plastic phone to the bones of skull and jaw and listened to the marvel of the pressure of her breath on the handset microphone membrane, of her hand repositioning itself on the receiver.
The next day, on the same grey plastic phone, I listened to my mother tell me Helena was dead.
It was about dinner time. Carol answered the phone. She passed it to me silently.
As my mother spoke I felt a vast internal shudder. This was not the soft shock of falling in love, but a much more brutal metamorphosis. My bedrock shifted, and the world was poised to fall on my head. I took a breath–I remember that breath, every slow-motion swell and stretch of muscle and expansion of cartilage–and stepped to one side.
She’s dead, I told myself. Cope.
So I coped. I switched to automatic pilot–very calm, very reasonable; I told Mum I’d be with them the next afternoon. In the morning I went to work, and negotiated time off, and took a train to Leeds, where I began the process of phoning relatives, and helping to bring Helena’s body back from Australia, and mediating the sudden deadly family squabble about whether she should be buried or burnt.
Two days later, the autopilot failed. I felt as though someone had ripped my skin off: red raw, so exposed I couldn’t bear light, noise, smells, people.
Helena was woven into my earliest memories. I couldn’t understand a world without her in it. Helena would never read my first novel. She would never meet Kelley. She would never see America. Everything I ever did from now on would be less real in a particular way because she wasn’t there to share it. My life in England felt even more dreamlike now because Helena, the only one in the world with whom I’d shared much of it, had vanished.
I had already felt as though I were living in a strange double-printed story. Now I felt unmoored, lost between worlds.
Kelley was farther away than ever. I wrote to her, told her about Helena, but I knew she wouldn’t get the letter for about ten days; her world strode on without me at her side.
On my birthday, my entire family showed up at Stepney Lane to celebrate, to prove that life goes on. I let them in our seating-for-four living room. I made tea. I sat on the carpet in a daze.
The phone rang. Everyone–Mum, Dad, Anne, Carolyn, Julie, Carol–looked at the phone, looked at me: Who was this outsider disturbing our grief? I answered.
“Hi, honey,” Kelley said. “I love you, Happy Birthday! How…”
“Stop,” I said. “Wait. Helena’s dead.”
A moment of satellite-bounce silence. “Dead? Oh my god. Are you–”
“Everyone’s here.” None of them even knew who the stranger on the phone was. She wasn’t real. But they were all looking up from their tea: they had heard the tone of my voice. Something was happening. “I can’t talk.”
“I love you,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.”
Carol put down her tea and left the room.
“Everyone’s here. I have to go.”
I put the phone down and met the Griffith family basilisk stare. I stared right back. It had now been seven weeks since I’d last seen Kelley–longer than the time I’d spent with her at Clarion.
When I remember the anniversary of Helena’s death consciously I can label and identify the weirdnesses, I can take into account what’s connected to the here-and-now and what is being reflected through that emotional wormhole to the past. When I forget, it’s much harder. I don’t think I’ll forget again.