My world irrevocably changed on March 8th, 2000 when my sister, Lynn, fell to her death while hiking in California.
She would have turned 45 this past week, yet only barely made it past her 25th birthday.
Even though it was many years ago, not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. Seemingly out of nowhere, the ugly memory of her death pops into my head whether I’m cooking dinner, out for a run, talking with work colleagues or watching TV. My focus diverted, my energy sapped, my smile erased.
Don’t worry, I’m not on the verge of crying all the time. It’s far better now than in the past, but the feelings, while manageable, are still raw and powerful.
I was at a yoga class on the Sunday morning when the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others crashed. Upon leaving the studio and checking my phone, I was inundated with personal messages, tweets, and tags sharing the horrible news. I’m a huge basketball fan, but loved cheering against Kobe and his off-the-chart drive to ritualistically destroy my favorite teams. So many times I wanted him to retire, to stop playing, to go away.
And now he had.
I was instantly in tears. I sat at a bus stop, stunned.
The news of their tragic deaths made me feel so very sad on so many levels and I was instantly transported back in time to March of 2000.
The evening of March 7th was a fairly regular evening. I was helping out at a squash clinic before enjoying a drink and some food afterwards, talking and hanging out with some friends, enjoying myself. I rarely checked my voicemail when out, but for some reason, midway through the evening, I decided to. There was only a garbled, hard-to-comprehend message that sounded like a person in hysterics. At the time, I didn’t think much of it — probably a wrong number — but as I realized the next morning when my father called that it had been my mom attempting and being unable to share the worst news imaginable.
The abrupt sound of the phone ringing the next morning as I raced to get ready for work haunted me for years. The phone would ring, shattering the silence, and I’d instantly think, “Oh no.” Hearing my dad crying, telling me what happened, telling me to come home was like nothing I’d ever experienced before or since. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Every aspect of my world fell out of focus. I felt battered and bruised.
The next few weeks crept slowly by. I tried and failed to find some sort of meaning as the days felt so long and slow. Lying down, unable to sleep, barely able to eat or take care of myself, staring off into space, worrying about my mom and dad and younger sister. Exhausted, full of sobbing and weeping, wishing somehow that this had all been a huge error.
Praying that I could just press rewind. I wanted my life back when the worst thing that happened was a parking ticket or a student dropping my class or losing a squash match. I wanted to watch basketball or cook a curry or play a video game without a care in the world. The guy who lived in that world was like an alien to me now.
My mind played tricks on me as I denied reality. The park ranger or the police officer who called my parents had made a mistake. She couldn’t have fallen while hiking. The confident, smart, and very alive young woman I was proud to call my sister couldn’t have made one wrong step and been taken away. This had all been a dream, a nightmare, the sort of thing that happens to people in movies.
If I only tried hard enough, I thought in my permanent haze, I could mentally reverse this all.
It was all so hard.
I believe I’m intimately aware of how the surviving family members of the helicopter crash must feel, aside from the extra added attention due to the fame of Kobe. Full of guilt and regret and utter despair. Wondering how this could happen — your loved ones, so strong, so alive, and now not.
When not consumed with sadness for my sister — such an incredible human being full of life, humor, and love, who would no longer dance and create and cook and fill her days with adventure as she had for 25 years — I beat myself up.
She’d called a few weeks early and I’d been too busy. She had invited me to come visit, but I couldn’t. She’d suggested we talk more often and it never was high enough on my priority list.
Even though we were close, she had traveled for much of the final years of her life, only poking her head up at home from time to time. I was working, dating, at a different point of my life, and busy as she was always up to something new and cool.
And though I wished we spent more time together, I always figured there was no rush. We had all the time in the world.
For all of the guilt and regret I felt — and I felt a ton — my parents’ was 1,000 times worse. Though everyone told them it wasn’t their fault, they were unable to believe that. Had they subconsciously pushed her away? Had they been good parents? Hadn’t they hugged her enough? What did they do to deserve this?
She was everywhere in my parents’ house. You couldn’t turn or step without seeing her picture or remembering the past or feeling her presence. I both wanted to look deep into her eyes in every photo on the mantel and also to hide those very same photos in a big book or a box in the basement so as not to have to face her. It was the most emotionally overwhelming experience I’d ever felt — the pressure, the stress, the unrelenting sorrow.
So many times I woke from another restless sleep, only to wonder if I heard her voice. Or lying there, trying and failing to sleep at 2 a.m., seeing her face in my mind’s eye. Or wondering, if somehow I had been there, if I could have stopped her from falling.
Millions of times over the past 20 years, and especially in those first few months after, I imagined myself magically there, by her side, watching her slip, trying to grab her hand and either heroically saving her and instantly feeling truly happy again, or being unable to stop her and helplessly watching her fall again and again, as if on a loop, silently screaming as I dropped to my knees.
All I could think about on that Sunday was the moment the passengers realized they were going to die. What they screamed, how they looked, what they thought. I’ve thought about that moment for my sister more times than I can count. The look on her face as she slipped, the realization, the fear. The final moments before her life was extinguished.
She was so carefree and happy as a person. Always marching to the beat of her own drum. Doing what she wanted when she wanted and letting nothing stand in her way. She was invincible. Racing off to all corners of the globe, meeting wild and wacky and amazing people, going to places and doing things because she wanted to. Never slowing down even when a more cautious person would have.
Just as they were saying about Kobe, she’d packed her all-too-short life with more than many people do in twice as much time. But also like so many people are saying about Kobe, his daughter, and the other passengers, I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of moments thinking about all she’ll never get to do, all of the opportunities lost. As sad as I was for myself and my loss, I was infinitely depressed about her life ending at 25 for her.
She’d never finish school, get married, have children. She’d never write another poem, make a delicious meal, find herself. She’d never ride her bike, laugh out loud, or paint. She’d never grow old — stuck at 25 — never becoming this cool, hip older woman I could imagine, and we’d never have a chance to spend time together as a family. The hole her death created was infinitely wide and deep.
I worried my family would never recover.
I didn’t know how we could go on without her.
My family went to her viewing, but I just couldn’t go. I didn’t want to see her like that. I stayed in my small apartment, feeling like a loser. So many times since, as recently as a month ago, I’ve continued to beat myself up for being unable to see her the last time. I gave up the chance and I’d never have another one. But in my more positive moments, I know that it wasn’t her, that she was gone, that my not going didn’t speak volumes about me. I hadn’t been selfish, I just didn’t want my final, lasting image of her to be that one.
I gave a speech at her funeral. I’d never been more on edge in my life. The room was packed with so many people I’d never even met. She’d touched so many.
Those first few weeks were so hard. I listened and nodded my head when family friends said it would get easier. I wanted to believe that but couldn’t comprehend how. I followed the advice of caring work colleagues and went for counselling. I bought the grief books that were recommended but couldn’t will myself to open them. I wanted to feel better. I tried to feel normal, but I couldn’t.
Questions assaulted my brain constantly.
Why do some people get a scare and live? Why do some people have an accident and survive? Why couldn’t she have just had a warning? Why didn’t she listen when told that hike may not be safe? Why did she have to die?
Once back in the “real” world, surrounded by students, parents, teachers, and friends, acquaintances and strangers, it all felt so weird. Everyone around me was going about their days — shopping, exercising, chatting — and it was almost too much to handle. The trivial conversations about the weather or the reality show or the students who weren’t handing in the homework irked me so much. “Who the fuck cares?” I wanted to yell at people who were so wound up in things I used to care about and now didn’t or couldn’t.
I felt so different.
Not at all like myself. The world hadn’t changed, I had, and I wasn’t sure I could do it—I didn’t think I could “fake it till I make it” or go through the motions. I wanted to drop everything and hide.
I became deathly afraid of heights, quivering and shaking when on the second floor of a department store, unsure of how to leave. Slightly nauseous when at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Though I’d always been careful, now I worried about taking a wrong step.
I found myself angry, wondering how this had happened to us. We were nice people; we treated people well. We didn’t deserve this. I spent those days trying to keep it together while in public, being all-too-aware that my colleagues and students and friends were walking on eggshells around me, before collapsing at home. My dreams transformed from wishing it hadn’t happened — even waking up momentarily confused whether it had all been a dream — to ones involving hurting others or myself, punching and kicking things, drinking a whole lot. Suffering sucked. What was the point of living if this is how I felt with no obvious path out of this?
Not that I ever contemplated suicide, but after day upon day of feeling so incredibly down, with no reprieve in sight, I just didn’t think I could do it forever.
After all this time — the long walk through the desert — I can’t imagine being back at square one like the families of those on the helicopter.
I’m not sure when the shift started for me — I know it was gradual — but at some point the fog started clearing. Thankfully, time, as the expression partially goes, started to heal my wounds. I smiled a bit more, restarted some hobbies, looked forward to leaving the house. Feeling a little more normal. Actually, “normal” isn’t the right word, as I would never feel how I felt before again.
Often, when I was out, I thought I saw her. The back of someone’s head, a laugh, a feeling, the way the person’s hair moved in the wind. I was both sure it was her and positive it couldn’t be. Often I’d replay conversations we’d had, remember a unique experience, or relive times we’d shared. And though her voice — once so loud and clear and strong — slowly became hard to recall, her smile and some of her funny faces are permanently etched into my brain.
I grew. I learned. I changed. I still felt beyond sad, but I got stronger and I realized that there is life after.
Then, a little while later, a student of mine committed suicide.
Though that was the hardest time for me professionally — I’d only just started getting through whole days without long periods of sadness — it was also the most profound. Despite having the scabs torn off, I somehow found I was able to help others. These two experiences with death, though so, so difficult, helped me find my calling.
As a counsellor, I work with students experiencing some sort of loss often — the death of a family member or pet, the end of relationship, a friend moving away. I listen, I empathize. I don’t always say it, but I believe I know how they feel. I recognize the look on their faces. The slouch, the phrases they utter, the desperation. My attention is diverted. I try to stay present, but can’t help but remember my loss. I tell them it’s okay to cry. I encourage them to talk to me and others close to them, and though they don’t believe me, I tell them it does get better.
Not a full day goes by without thinking of her, feeling sad for her loss and for mine, wondering how with a little luck life could have been so different.
Wishing she could meet my wife, my kids — my first daughter’s middle name is hers, my younger daughter has her verve — and just be here. She was such an awesome person. I was envious of her carefree spirit, the way she touched others and the unique combination of intelligence, creativity, and joy she had. Though she was younger than me, I looked up to her. I never told her that — another thing I’ve beat myself up for over the years. Unlike me, she just did things. She moved people.
I wish so many things.
I wish I could look at a picture of her without feeling sad. I wish every time someone died, tragically or not, I didn’t think about her death. I wish I could talk to my wife and kids about her without feeling choked up, a tightness in my chest. I wish that such a happy person didn’t evoke feelings so diametrically opposite.
Most of all, I wish she was here.