It isn’t the Gospel or the Tao of Pooh, a cult classic like Napoleon Dynamite, or a formal philosophy. I call it the Sunscreen Song. A set of truths to live by* that I can apply as easily as the tube of sunscreen I accidentally exploded onto a sunburning bridesmaid at a wedding I happened past while visiting Northern California with my uncle 14 years ago. [I am always prepared to make matters worse by pulling something out of my bag that shouldn’t have been there in the first place–this is the true reason for the 3-1-1 liquids rule in airport screening. If you forget about altitude changes and pressure differentials, you may also be the reason for the rule, the angry bridesmaid, and the dry cleaner’s successful business.]
This “apply liberally” song met my ears in 1999, the year I graduated from high school. Since it was written as a hypothetical commencement address, the fact that the version I know begins with, “To the Class of 1999,” gives it immediate applicability. While I still identified with the groups I had been a part of, I wanted to define myself on my own terms as well. This song sunk right into the spaces in my brain where I was rapidly forgetting everything I had just learned in high school. Especially the Kreb’s Cycle. I hated that hairy mitochondrial monster.
These words have struck me as true many times now:
Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday. (The Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich, June 1997)
Wednesday morning, November 29, 2017 I received a phone call that set all my mitochondria into high gear: My little sister, who had just turned 23, was in the Emergency Room after being hit by a car. Blindsided at 8 am on some typical Wednesday. All I grasped was “lost some teeth, getting checked for head and internal injuries, and has her husband with her.” Sometimes the real trouble in life is how easily our loved ones could suddenly not be in it.
I relayed the news to my sister and sister-in-law. I notified my husband. And then I continued to deal with my baby and 3-year-old with barely a moment for tears. A friend happened to stop by, and I gratefully told a real person what had happened in a voice that sounded far away from the resigned mother bouncing a baby. Something wasn’t really engaging between my feelings and my words.
My husband returned from work that evening with evident concern in his voice, but he seemed ready to move on to the “now what?” phase of our joint reaction. I don’t recall whether I began to seethe with anger then, or if I just deferred it by bringing up some other problem to sink my teeth into.
I waited until I had gone for a walk with my friend. I waited until I had tried to control some part of my life by making her worries my business. I waited until I had stepped into concerns that weren’t mine to begin processing what I felt inside. I returned home to kids in bed, a baby on his way to sleep, and a husband grateful for his wife’s company.
And that’s when I realized there would not be that conversation. The one that started with, “How are you feeling about all this?” That one that I would need to initiate even though I felt like I was the one who had been hit by a car. So I just let the words come spilling out until the tears had permission to follow.
My feelings had morphed from the expected shock and fear to anger, resentment, and pure confusion. It took a good fifteen minutes of purging the secondary feelings that were clouding my mind before I landed on the source of my pain.
“What if the Natalie I know is gone? What if she doesn’t look like Natalie or think like Natalie or sound like Natalie anymore?” I hadn’t lost my sister, but this irrational fear of never getting her back consumed me.
For the next several days, I let my twin and my brother just younger than me visit her in person since they all live in a neighboring state. I kept up the home front and did admirable things, like donate money, post and delete my processing of events on Facebook, and keep her in my thoughts and prayers. I tried not to overly relate her experience to the car accident I was in just days before she, with a predictably gap-tooth smile, turned nine years old. And then I watched for her to share on social media about her recovery so that I could know how she was doing without “bothering” her.
I found out that weekend. In her words, Saturday, Dec 2, 2017:
Facebook is asking how I’m feeling, so for once I will break my silence and let you know straight from my fingertips.
Frankly, I feel like I got hit by a truck. This fact is unsurprising, considering that is exactly what happened…
…For the next month or so, I will be on a liquid diet until I can either get dental implants or something else. I miss being able to smile and talk.
Her next words are now something I try to live by because they are made precious by what she gave to bring them to light:
Please, don’t rush saying goodbye to your loved [ones] when you part ways for the day. Hold your spouse just a little tighter. Come to know God and be prepared to meet Him. And, please drive carefully and responsibly. Nothing is worth the price of taking somebody’s life away, even if she lives.
Even if she lives. My fear that I could lose my sister even if she lived was not as ridiculous as I’d let myself believe. When my brother-in-law texted me the following evening and asked if I’d like to talk to her, I hardly dared hope that I would recognize her voice, knowing that her jaw was wired shut.
It took me a few minutes to settle into this new reality, the one where my sister, always possessed of strong feelings, a mastery of context, and articulate speech could not even say my name correctly. When we realized that we could do a video call, I tried to take in the abrasions and swelling with some clinical detachment, as I would have done ten years ago at a trauma patient’s bedside. I didn’t want her to see me react in a negative way to her injuries. For a moment I felt grateful that she could not smile. Fear gripped me at the thought of seeing her toothless grin. I didn’t want to see what had been taken from her.
I was feeling reassured by the time we ended the call, though, that I had not lost my sister. But the certainty of that knowledge didn’t come until I spent time with her over Christmas at my parents’ home. With her four top front teeth missing, she truly looked and sounded like my little (think 8-year-old) sister again. But this time I was not the one with fading bruises and memories of the moment of impact. She was at once my little sister who had been hurt and, seeing me in pain, the person reassuring me that all would be well.
And then I remembered that this was not the first time following a devastating blow that she had comforted me. The day after the Sandy Hook shooting five years ago, I was reeling with the now-familiar confusion of feelings I experience after a tragedy like this robs me a little more of the crumbling belief that I can keep my loved ones safe from harm. I realized that no one was going to ask me how I was doing with all of this, so I told Facebook, “Today I’m just sad.” I then deleted it because I knew the tragedy wasn’t about me. But my sister, with whom I had just celebrated her 18th birthday a couple weeks prior as the result of a road trip with my twin, had already seen it and sent me a message.
She told me to hang on because she was sending me something. I gave a half-hearted thanks back as I felt beyond help. Two gifts arrived in the mail that week, a book and a music CD. I took three years to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because of the thick philosophy and the heavy plot that felt doomed to turn out terribly in the end. Instead, it brought me a redemptive hope in my battle with mental and emotional challenges. I had not expected such a journey, and now I try to apply the practical guide to my sewing machine since I break it every time I touch it.
The music album, The Best of Nat King Cole, seemed a bit before Natalie’s time. I wondered if my sister had gravitated toward this artist because his moniker was her nickname. In any case, soulful music held a knife to my swollen heart. I didn’t want it to pierce my shell of anger and resentment, the secondary emotions I hid my initial feelings behind. But the fear and sadness only grew, and no matter how angry I became, I could only hide from my true feelings for so long.
As I listened to the song that she had suggested, my heart understood what my mind still found confusing: I would not bring anyone back to the living world with my sadness. I could not change anything for the better or love my children with the precious time we had by freezing in fear (to the contrary, I had actually gone crazy yelling at them about something after two days of feeling like I was the only one who noticed or cared that children had been slaughtered at their elementary school. I honestly felt such a burden of invalidated sadness that I felt something akin to survivor’s guilt at still having my children. I remember sobbing as I fell on my bed, begging God to take my children before I did any more harm to them. It is also important to mention that I was trialing a non-pharmaceutical approach to treating my depression, which proved disastrous).
I despise the idea conveyed in the adages “Grin and Bear It,” “Fake It ’til You Make It,” and “Suffer in Silence.” Whether it is the cause or the cure in my mental and emotional health issues, I feel like I must express my feelings (if I can even identify those mystifying sensations) with words and analogies else the feelings take control of me and wreak havoc on my relationships and reputation. But a smile is a simple thing. It might not be beyond me to try one on when I am losing hope. And it also conveys a feeling that is silenced when I am suffering.
That feeling is gratitude. Gratitude that I have children who get to witness the unrestrained emotion of a human who is suffering. Gratitude for my voice when it apologizes and comforts my children. Gratitude that I have a smile to share. Gratitude that my sister forgot herself and spent her hard-earned money to show kindness when I felt cut off from all of humanity. Gratitude that I live in a world where both tragedy and triumph abound every day.
My sister looked different to me this past Christmas. She sounded different. She moved differently because her whole left side of her body had been hit. But her smile–gaping window and all–still held the same meaning. It was the smile that encouraged me through Mexico when sights, sounds, smells, and smoke stymied me. When her sudden illness and hospitalization terrified me. The smile that came running after me the night I fled my parents’ home–as fast as an eight-months-pregnant woman can–after I lost my temper and thought I could never face my mother again. The same smile that has greeted me over and over again for twenty-three years since I witnessed her birth (her smile looked like a good cry at that moment).
Her first Thanksgiving 23 years ago went rather poorly by some measures. Though my parents can typically whip up a gourmet feast, the chaos of having a newborn and four other children took its toll on our victuals. The gravy went lumpy, so my mom put it in the blender. But when she forgot to put the lid on before hitting the ignition button, gravy hit the ceiling. A hot glass bowl cracked when doused in cold water. The corn had ice in it that wouldn’t melt. Because it was actually glass.
And Natalie, just one week old, had to get her bilirubin level checked to see if she could discontinue her in-home phototherapy. I felt so grown up as I accompanied my father and baby sister to the hospital for the test. The nurse pricked and squeezed Natalie’s heel for a few drops of blood. It wouldn’t kill her, but her pitiful wail awakened in me a desire to protect this vulnerable person from harm . I fought tears and felt my throat tighten. I had not expected that loving her would hurt so much. Equally unexpected was the joy of comforting her. I had only begun to understand how deeply a person can love a tiny new life, but I surely felt gratitude that Thanksgiving for a healthy little sister.
I hardly thought of my sister this past Thanksgiving. A few days later, however, I felt again the pain and fear that accompany loving another person who could depart this life as unexpectedly as she had arrived in it. I feared for what I might have lost. Her smile had seen me through so many of life’s challenges that it seemed impossible for her to be okay if she couldn’t even smile. Fortunately, her smile comes from somewhere much deeper than her teeth. Her kindness to my children–when she isn’t recovering from an auto-ped accident, she actually plays with them–I don’t even do that! Her love of all things Mexico–this shirt and mango pit are merely the trappings of an honorary Mexican. We cried together when she tried to speak Spanish without her front teeth. That loss hurt more than the smile. And her love of the Lord–I have been led many times back to His encouraging smile because of my younger–but more courageous–sister.
Thank you, Natalie, for proving with your choice to keep smiling that even when things go painfully wrong, life truly is still worthwhile.
*If I had been consulted, I would have changed just one line of the Sunscreen Song lyrics. Rather than, “Your choices are half chance; so are everyone else’s;” I would have gone with, “Your choices are half hormone-driven; so are everyone else’s” since hormones help regulate wakefulness, hunger, sexual drive, self-defense, perceptions, temper flares, etc. and are far more involved in our decisions than we usually give them credit.