I have two images I remember every day. One for years, and one for days.
I have to Google her to remember the year. It’s not that I don’t remember when it was. It’s just that every morning feels like the one after I first got the phone call. It was a Sunday in December 2004, making it now nearly three years. It’s the third birthday we’ve missed. The third 21st of August that I call my mom in the morning either crying in my car or in my office or on a side street sidewalk to a sprawling metropolis many thousands of miles away. People in polite conversation say my sister passed away. It doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like she died.
“I remember it every single day” is a cliche, horribly overused. I used it myself until I knew what that was really like. People usually say it as a source of pride. That there is something – something – in their lives to be miserable about, and that having something to remember every day means their existence is somehow more meaningful. I said I remembered something every single day, but I never did until that Sunday.
It’s not something one sets out to do. I couldn’t (or, properly, wouldn’t) have a sticky note saying, “Think about our sister today.” Even if it could be like that, it would be a relief. If it could be a circumstance that was repeatable, some expected set of conditions that reminded me of her, then maybe this would be a little easier. But a person doesn’t remember something every single day like that. One remembers like a catching a shotgun to the stomach coming around a corner in West Oakland. One remembers like how men trip roadside bombs in Fallujah. Ones remembers like how children get bombed in Gaza. One minute your operation is routine and then suddenly and without provocation, in the middle of a meeting or dinner with a girl or beer with the boys your heart detonates. While paying bills or doing laundry, while saying fuck off to a panhandler on Market or while picking up a slice to go on Thayer, the weight you carry becomes all you know. In the cinema of your mind, only two frames play.
The first is when I touched my sister’s forehead in the mortuary. I was ahead of my mother, I wanted to “get it over with.” She didn’t even look like my sister. She wasn’t ugly or beautiful. I don’t remember her appearance much beyond the severe impression that it didn’t look like her. I don’t know why I did it. There are many days when I wished I hadn’t. But, when I touched her forehead I knew – not thought, not believed – but knew with horrible certainty I would never see Vickie again.
Each day since I’ll be doing something, anything unrelated. And without warning I’ll feel the coldness of her forehead that shot right into my gut. I’ve felt that for three years now, every day wishing I hadn’t.
The second image is recent. After work ma called and I asked her what she had done during the day. She had gone to the cemetary and placed some flowers. I am sure she prayed. She had taken her chiuahua out and had looked after her horses.
And, lastly, she told me she had gotten my sister some birthday cake and candles.
That’s all she said about it. But its all that I can think about now. I imagine my ma in a kitchen alone, even the air still in reverence. I imagine a cake picked above all others with my sister’s name in the icing. Two place settings on the table with my mom in front of one and a terrible empty chair in front of the other. With candles lit, my mom – the only family I have in this world - sings my sister “Happy Birthday” through heaving sobs. In my head she blows them out, crying like she did when I first saw her after the accident.
In my head I can’t see anything now but birthday cake and candles.
Every day since its like my sister – my Vickie – dies again.