In Memoriam S.C.W., V.C.
8 September 1915
By Charles Sorley
There is no fitter end than this.
No need is now to yearn nor sigh.
We know the glory that is his,
A glory that can never die.
Surely we knew it long before,
Knew all along that he was made
For a swift radiant morning, for
A sacrificing swift night-shade.
You died ten years ago today. I heard the sound of the phone ringing downstairs at Daddy's house, so early in the morning that I knew what news had to be waiting on the other end of the line. I listened to Daddy's slow walk up the stairs and raised my head when he opened the door, leaned into the room, and nodded. I buried my face in my pillow and sobbed, trying not to wake up the two year old snuggled into my side. I had a vision then of a version of you: this different you floated past me, no longer bound by your wheelchair or gravity or time and space, your cheeks filled out and healthy around your inimitable smile. I thought to myself that the next time I see you, I might not recognize your restored, glorified form; that was the first moment I felt like I might understand heaven.
A lot has changed in the years you've been gone. I started graduate school a few months after your funeral. I sat in my seat the first night, opened a fresh notebook and scribbled a few strokes to get the ink flowing in my new pen, and realized I was holding my breath as I watched the professor walk to the podium and unpack his notes. I studied and thought and wrote with my whole self for the next few years, waking up at 2:00 a.m. sometimes to finish reading or write papers in the quiet while everyone else slept. I took some risks with my writing and opinions, and my professors encouraged me to take more. One day I realized I had stopped scanning rooms for the seats around the margins where I would attract as little attention as possible. Grad school rolled into a teaching job which rolled into other things, and I'm a lot more confident now.
The kids are so much bigger. The oldest, your first niece and godchild, can pack herself a week's worth of clothes, shoes, and toiletries into a small duffle bag and a medium-sized backpack that looked like miniatures alongside the mountain of luggage belonging to the rest of the group on her first mission trip. She can navigate domestic and international flights without blinking and write an application essay that would make you cry. She refuses to allow me to take her for so much as a slight trim for her hair because the last time she got a haircut (almost a year ago now), the lady cut it too short. I don't force the issue because that haircut provoked extended wailing and whimpering, lasting three hours in its initial outburst and threatening to repeat every time she walked past a mirror for weeks. None of us have time for that kind of angst. She has friends and secrets and routines I know nothing about because she goes to school on the other side of the country, but sometimes she lets me do her laundry when she comes home. The grandfather clock you left her sits idle in the corner of the living room, still not fully unpacked from the move. I know you would hate that, but I can't have it chiming multiple times a day reminding me that neither one of you are there to wind and care for it.
The boy who was the youngest when you died, your nephew and second godchild, went to camp for the first time this year. He happened to be there the same week as one of the Joni and Friends retreats, and I watched two golf carts pull trailers full of smiling people with disabilities and enthusiastic volunteers towards the pool while I waited in the line to leave after picking up campers. I remembered how you were the poster boy for those retreats. I tried to explain that to my camper when another wave of trailers passed us, but I could tell he wanted to talk about blobbing into the lake and how he entertained his cabin mates with various antics all week instead. He's looking forward to starting a new school and playing baseball again this fall. I pray for him to find friends who will be there for him like the four boys in Stand by Me--I think of him as Gordie LaChance, the grieving boy who tells the awesome story about the hot dog eating contest; I don't know which one of the characters he would say fits him best.
There's a third child in the mix now, born on Mom's birthday five years ago, though I'm convinced you somehow know all about that. Some people might think I'm crazy, but the two lines on the pregnancy test came not long after I poured out my heart to you about wanting another baby while I was washing a sink of dishes in a home for children with disabilities and chronic illnesses in Peru. There were some boys who sat in their wheelchairs the same way you always did, sneakers in mint condition and the same mix of mischief and sweetness in their eyes as they watched more mobile kids chase balls around the courtyard. I stood at that sink in a pool of light behind a thick pane of wavy blue glass, and you felt so close I might have been able to reach out and touch you if I'd had the presence of mind to try.
When I found out I was pregnant, the due date was the day we celebrated your birthday in non-Leap Years. However, a week before she was born, I told several people that I knew you would send her to me on Mom's birthday instead, and sure enough, she came that day, flouting plans for a scheduled C-section. I stared up at the ceiling, on my back on that operating table in the most literally and figuratively vulnerable position I've ever been in, and I felt you, Mimi, Pop, Rodney, Robin, Ramsey, and everyone I love on the other side of the veil holding me together and keeping me calm. Her cries broke into that thin space as she was born, and the corners of her eyes and the curls framing her face carry a trace of that mystery even now. You would love her, and she would love you right back.
Mom is visiting us this week, helping with the kids during the day while I go to work. I got divorced and moved back to Texas almost a year ago. I know you would have been disappointed FOR me, not IN me, but I'm grateful you didn't have to live through it. It's been hard on everyone. Tonight the younger kids were with their dad (the oldest is still on her mission trip), so Mom went with me to a writing class where I work. Before class, we had dinner and went in search of a Starbucks Mocha to drink a toast in your honor. We couldn't find a Starbucks in walking distance, though, so we went to a different coffee shop and got their version of your favorite drink. We both agreed you would have liked it.
Daddy comes down sometimes and helps me with the kids or by fixing things the landlord doesn't need to know about (errant baseballs and soccer balls take no prisoners). He still reads more than any human being I know. His Spanish is so much better than mine now, and he went back to Cuba and on other mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries as an interpreter. He went through a phase of giving me books on tape, careful selections that seemed useful or like something I would enjoy. I finally had to tell him I can't ever make it through audiobooks--my auditory attention span is too short. He forgave me in the gracious way he always does.
Our sisters are both finished with college. Our little brother is a teaching assistant at a public university. You wanted to take care of all of us, and I feel like we owe it to you to take care of each other. Life is hard, and we are all so fully human. We do the best we can.
Your James Avery cross ring never leaves the middle finger on my right hand where we put it that day we decided to trade, right after I promised to wear it every day for the rest of my life. I find myself reaching for it, twisting it back and forth or squeezing it between the thumb and fingers of my other hand when I need to think about something. The kids are kind of fascinated by my unwillingness to take it off. There are only a few things they ask that I absolutely refuse and removing your ring is one of them, no matter how much they beg.
I'm happy to say the fear of public speaking that started as a gurgle in my throat and a pinched feeling in my chest during my one semester of law school finally loosened its grip on my potential. Teaching several classes of high school students helped, but the most noticeable progress happened about two years ago when I gave a talk at a faculty retreat in the spring. After that, I gave another talk to the whole school community, and I'm not exaggerating when I say you could have heard a pin drop in that gym, even though it was a long talk near the end of the day on a Friday. Both times, I talked about you: I told stories about us growing up and how being your sister was the making of me as a human being, things I learned from you, how I love and miss you. Somehow telling other people your story led me to the truest, most genuine version of my own voice. You've been gone ten years, and you still teach me so much.
I think you would like the 2016 me, though you were always an indulgent audience where I was concerned. I feel you near me often, and I like to think of the great cloud of witnesses that always surrounds me with you as the head cheerleader. Please keep cheering me on, sweet brother. Please never stop cheering me on.
All my love,
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.