It wasn't until the phone rang yesterday evening that we even remembered. "You know what day it is, don't you?", he said on the line. Then we all remembered. It sneaked up on us this year.
Fifteen years later.
She would be thirty-one years old on her August birthday this year, Ma Luffin' Mayun's sister. Thirty-one. That thought, of all the innumerable thoughts I have of her, caught in my chest and filled my eyes with tears. Thirty-one. She would be a woman, a thirty-something woman. Like me.
She would undoubtedly be one of my closest friends and dearest confidants. We'd walk through marriages and raise children side by side. We'd laugh together at the elements of family life that only the females pick up on, winking at each other across the room when the family's all gathered. She would be one of my kids' favorite people on the planet, and I hers. I would tell her what life growing up with only a sister was like and she would relate from the place of growing up sandwiched between two boys. She'd roll her eyes talking about it, but really secretly love the brothers' staunch and innate lifelong protection and pestering of her. She would be an amazing cook, like her mama, but would be determined to put her own spin on things because of that stubborn streak of hers. Even at thirty-one she'd pile onto her daddy's knee and nuzzle in to give him a hug.
Instead she's frozen in time at exactly two months shy of being sixteen. Gone in a blink and without a warning. June 28th, 1996.
How much she is missed. Even when we miss remembering.
There have been fifteen years of heartache; steps forward and lunges backward in the healing. Too many "whys" asked to accurately count. Fifteen years of learning that sometimes a thing - a circumstance, a disappointment, a loss - just is what it is. There has been pain in the remembrance and in the forgetting. Is it still okay to cry? Is it okay to embrace the moments when the heart seems to lift from the doldrums into - could it be - joy? Fifteen years of moving, in one direction or another, but moving away nonetheless from June 28th, 1996.
We are a family with a deep-seeded faith in a Life eternal, a Life beyond this. Reunions beyond this world are a sure thing and a blessed hope. But it is not a sure thing that this is always consolation to a father's achingly empty arms, or to a mother's relational heart now missing one of her dearest, or to the brothers' void found when their first companion is no longer in the flesh. Or even to the daughters-in-law who receive love from such an amazing family, but always know some potential profound relationship is distinctly missing.
I don't think fifteen years makes it easier. I think it just makes it habit, this living life without her.
But then I remember. I remember what I know to be true, but what I fear would sound callous or self-serving in others' immense loss. I remember that her death is the moment that brought Ma Luffin' Mayun back to my heart. After a month-long courtship, an abrupt end to it, an almost immediate sort of writing-off of him in my heart and mind, four months had passed when the call came to me between six and seven in the morning. I only knew I wanted to - had to - be where he was. I didn't know anything else. My plan was to watch him and gauge how I could help according to what he seemed to need, with a certain measure of keeping myself at arm's length. Because of her death, I was reunited with this family, this man, and given the opportunity to be a sort of bystander and observer of their lives and their loves and their caliber. Because of her death I was placed back into a space I would not allow myself to be otherwise - in close proximity to Ma Luffin' Mayun when he was still only "Anthony". Because of all this, two and a half months later I knew I could love him for the rest of my days, and in eight month's time we were married. I have been my beloved's and he has been mine for fourteen years.
I remember. I remember that the broken heart of a mother still had the self-awareness and courage to know she could - had to - still parent children. I remember that the broken heart of a father could still love a wife, his life partner, enough to trust her knowing they could do it. I remember that because of her death the wheels were set in motion to pursue adoption. I remember walking into a restaurant just before Christmas in 1997 and finding my mother-in-law in tears of joy. "Twins! We're getting twins!", she would say. A boy. A girl. Born to a woman who had such little regard for them and for herself that she fed a drug addiction throughout her pregnancy with them and birthed three-pound drug addicts. They would become our own family. They are thirteen.
I remember. I remember that she left this world with a deep peace and a deep awareness of Whose hands her life was in, in the living and in the dying. She was fifteen, so young to have such abiding faith, but she had it. I remember that her brother would find himself in the unique circumstance of standing in an African prison only months after her death with dirt floors, where prisoners had no more than sheets of tin propped over their heads for a roof. He would share the story of her faith and the reality that life is but a vapor. There were men, hardened and violent men, whose hearts would be cracked open by her story. Men on this dry and barren terrain whose tears would fall and lives would be challenged by the story of a girl two months shy of sixteen thousands of miles away who no longer had a choice to decide how she would live her life, but who had chosen abiding Faith while she could. Some of these men would yield themselves to the possibility of a forever-changed life.
There are so many things she never was, things she never got to be and never got to do. Too many events of our lives contain a space where we would rather find her face. But she used fifteen years well. She left us in grace and peace, with the depth and wisdom of a woman and not that of the girl she was.
Who would we be if she had never come? But I have to ask, who would we be if she had never left?
She is missed. Still treasured and still beloved. And today it is a consolation that I will see her, that I will know her, again.
Today I remember.