For Kari it started in the summer, looming like the forecast of an oncoming hurricane, still distant but with 100% certainty of landfall. On a specific date: the location, her heart.
For me, I only became aware of it in the three or four weeks preceding its landfall. It arrived like a twister, dipping into my psyche in the grey light of morning and quickly taking flight having ravaged my calm. I woke up an angry self, shaking fists at the ticking clock and cursing the hands of time Jesi had been gone.
Three years…three years… so many anniversaries, birth days, death days, holi days… I am already having difficulty recalling where and how we have spent them all. And this next one? How to manage it, to best fit each of our family members individual needs.
Kari reminds me that months ago I had suggested focusing it on something Jesi loved. Making it a celebration of her life. I had thought of a family horseback ride. Perhaps last years remembrance weekend together, Saturday’s muted grey day, the hike around World’s End, standing, peering out over the water of Boston Harbor and beyond… were we all secretly wanting some apparition to appear, some sign from beyond the horizon? … happening upon the landscape art and losing ourselves in that mirror maze, reflecting perhaps too much of our inner selves that we could not bear to face. Were we all still struggling with understanding the complexity of, the futility of life that could be snatched away like that, a young girl with so much to offer the world: ended?
And then on the anniversary day itself, our visit to Walden Pond, the massive thunderstorm that swept across the pond like a curtain as we stood sheltering under the trees. And fifteen minutes later the sun appearing and the clouds parting, revealing soft pastels and sun sparkling on water.
But Alan is highly allergic to horses he later tells me. So the horseback riding idea fizzled, though somewhere inside me I still have the need to be near a horse…
Then Kari said she did not want to be in Boston. Nor did she want to be surrounded by grief, rising and engulfing her like a storm surge. It already did. Anyway, she would just have returned to college and a rigorous semester workload and the unsettling storm of emotions of being together with family like that would leave too much debris.
So on the weekend when the sunshine state succumbed to Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose lurked somewhere in the Caribbean, a whirl of memories hovered over me reminding me of the tumult of grief. Chris and Alan and I made our way to Cleveland and Oberlin armed with ideas to distract, yet also quietly acknowledge those aspects of life that Jesi loved.
And secretly I wonder now whether the secret to getting through these times is more to focus on moving forward than standing still and looking out over the horizon like we did last year at World’s End.
The sun shines cool with a gusting wind in Cleveland as I sit staring out over Lake Eerie. Chris is watching a volleyball game on a sand court behind us. Alan looking out over the city, behind us. It is Friday afternoon and Kari is finishing her classes at Oberlin before she heads into Cleveland to pick us up. I am mesmerized by the water, steel grey swirls with white caps. Chris turns around as the game finishes and asks about the lake, whether ships ever sink and Alan responds with the story of the Robert E Lee in the days when liquor was prohibited in the United States and illegally shipped from Canada, the border being somewhere in the middle of the lake…. I stare into the depth of the water, listening the tale.
Perhaps it is that water is somehow special to me, perhaps it is all the time I spend in Walden and the connection I feel with Jesi there for that image of the swirling waves and white caps stays with me.
That evening we discover a benefit concert where the Red Cross is raising money for Hurricane Harvey relief is to be performed by the members of the Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Institute of Music, Credo Music and Oberlin Orchestra. We are sitting in the front. The concert begins with the Star Spangled Banner. The audience stands. Towards the end of the program I see that Barber’s Adagio for Strings is to be performed.
Hardly have the first stands of music sounded before I feel a shift inside me. It is as though I have fallen from a rock ledge. I am poised, held by a whisper, on the brink of tragedy. The swirling grey waters appear before me. Walden, Lake Erie, the Caribbean where Hurricane Irma now threatens her brutal force. I am submerged under the weight of it. Yet those are not my tragedies. Jesi is dying. Inside my body everything whirls and spins. I am losing my grip. I know it is too late. The music reaches up into the heavens and Jesi is gone. I am back in her bedroom three years ago with Alan and Chris and Kari and Jesi has gone into the light. Tears dribble from my eyes, a dam which holds them tight. I will myself back into the performance hall and reach for Kari’s hand and squeeze it. I know she understands. She turns to look at me and smiles faintly. I think about an essay she read to me earlier, an assignment for one of her classes when describes the twin relationship as the essence of her being. That which came before her and which will endure after all else, “outliv(ing) any separation that death might bring” (she wrote), “as her eternal truth.” **
The following day we visit Cleveland Zoo. Just inside the entrance Alan finds the map painted on a large wooden board. “Hey, they have an Australian section,” he calls out excitedly. I am positive Jesi had a hand in steering us to the zoo. Animals and Jesi are synonymous in my mind.
The kiddie train passed in front of us as we waited to enter the Australian Adventure. On a cyclone fence a large wooden board with a map of Australia had painted on it the words ‘Dog Proof Fence’.
“Dog proof fence,” I read excitedly. “I’ve never heard of the dog proof fence.” I crossed the tracks and went up to the board to trace the line drawn across south eastern Australia. Then I posed for a photo and read about how it kept the dingoes out so they didn’t kill the farmer’s cattle and sheep.
We wandered off to begin our adventure. I began to feel a little let down. The dingoes were hiding in the shadows and would not be coaxed out. Across from the dingo enclosure was a petting zoo with goats and Shetland ponies. That didn’t feel unique to Australia to me? A large sign boasted camels (granted, they had been imported into the outback and used for transport across the desert due to their ability to store water in their bodies for days) but there were none to be found. Then we happened upon the homestead nestled in amongst the trees…
These turn on the century type dwellings still abide in the suburbs of Sydney and in the Blue Mountain township where I used to live. The verandah, encircling the entire home, with its low iron roof makes shade from the scorching heat. There was a hat and coat peg at the entrance and a genuine Drizabone stockman’s coat hanging on one of the pegs. “Hey, I have one just like that, I shouted with glee picking up the Drizabone, the layered leather coat the stockmen wear on horseback to keep them dry while they herd sheep in torrential downpours.” It was as heavy as a lead X ray apron. “All they need is an Ekubra” I added. *** (the stockman’s wide brimmed hat)
I had no doubt in my mind that Jesi had steered us in this direction. She knew how much my homeland meant to me. …We had had a secret plan, perhaps not so secret but more like a dream as I look back on it now, that together she and I would vacation there once she got free of her treatment after the bone marrow transplant. Many times I had imagined that trip back to the Blue Mountains with her, doing some real bush walking, exploring Aboriginal caves and painting and learning bush craft. In 2013 on our family trip we had done a short bush walk together to Birdwood Gully in the Blue Mountains and Jesi had adamantly stated “I have to come back here”. She never did have the opportunity. But she would do everything she could to bring Australia to me. I knew that. We opened the door and went inside.
Inside was a large open plan homestead. The kitchen, though not familiar to me, was to Alan. “We had a fridge just like that when I was a kid,” he told Kari and Chris. I was busy investigating the cupboards and shelves. They had done a pretty good job collecting stuff. Vegemite of course, pavlova magic, milo, a tin of billy tea, Arnotts biscuits. There was the library to explore yet. I wondered if there were copies of the children’s story books I used read to the kids… but I couldn’t find anything I knew. But there was a pretend gum tree with an oversized stuffed koala perched in it in the middle of the lounge area.
We left the house to see the real animals… kangaroos, wallabies, a black swan who was busy building a nest and trying to dissuade zoo visitors from coming to near the fence that protected him from us (the male builds the nest), an emu who we could not find, an aviary of lorikeets, a lonely cockatoo, a building housing a Koala encounter …
We were on our way out of the Australian Adventure when I suddenly remembered I had four Minties. These are a traditional Australian mint chew lolly (translate, candy) that everyone in Australia knows for the slogan At times like these, you need Mintes. Each wax Mintie wrapper has a different cartoon joke on it. Jesi loved them and used to collect them. Funny, but now I seem to have adopted that habit myself. I had shoved a few in my bag from a supply Alan had bought me after he went to Australia in May. They were still soft, juicy and delectably chewy. I raced over to everyone and placed one in the palm of their hands. Hmm, I wonder how I remembered about them exactly then!
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the zoo and on Sunday afternoon before Chris Alan and I flew back to Boston, together with Kari we visited another place the Jesi would have loved. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jesi was a Beatles fan. Abbey Road, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, Let it Be. Jesi was a Beatles fan because Alan was a Beatles fan and exposed the kids to all sorts of rock and roll music. So naturally, Kari and Chris were too. I grew up listening to Here Comes the Sun and one of my fondest memories waking up from a nap in the family car were the golden rays of afternoon sun stretching out over the peaks of the Kosciusko Mountain Range in south east Australia on a skiing trip . But there was also John Lennon’s Imagine and the complexities of the lyrics and messages woven into the etherial chords of Revolution No. 9. Chris was fascinated by what The Beatles knew and were trying to tell us.
But I also wanted to see the Taylor Swift exhibit. I couldn’t let go of the fact that Jesi had met Taylor just over a month before she passed away. And I don’t know how many times since, when Taylor had released albums or been mentioned in the news I had thought of that meeting. A part of me tinged with guilt that I didn’t protect Jesi well enough. The staff of the hospital suggested Jesi not use her oxygen for the visit. So Jesi didn’t. She dressed in her prettiest hospital johnnie. She smiled, but it was a weak, pale smile. She hardly had the energy to joke or to talk. I stepped up to do the talking, concerned for her. I knew she was struggling but I said nothing.
Now I wanted to look Taylor in the eyes and say, Do you remember that young girl. Do you know she doesn’t exist on earth anymore. You were the last famous person she ever met. She didn’t make it. She was one of those kids that cancer took away from us. Can you help the rest of them???
But of course I am looking at her discarded clothes and her microphone, decked in silver sequins with the album name 1989 written down the side. Jesi wasn’t born then, I think.
The visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes to an end, as does our weekend. Yet it is not yet September 11. Chris, Alan and I board our flight back to Boston leaving Kari in the hands of her friends. Kari has built up a network of amazingly supportive friends and assures us that besides her classes she has plans, support and a lot of work for the following day. I wonder what I will do, except for knowing I will go into the animal rescue and work with the dogs, something I do more and more all the time. Something I believe Jesi set me firmly on the path to pursue. It’s like that bumper sticker I often see which reads Who rescued who? I’ve asked Chris what he will be doing, given he is in Boston and most of his friends aren’t. He is not sure, but he assures me he is ok. Alan… ,I have not enquired… What ultimately happens is Chris and Alan go out to dinner. They invite me but as I am collecting Mimi from the pet sitter, the timing doesn’t work. I’m ok with dog cuddles…Jesi speaks to me through Mimi.
But I do surprise myself when, getting ready to go to the rescue the following morning instead of heading down Route 2 to Boston, I head in the opposite direction to Walden Pond. I am not dressed to swim. In my back pocket I am carrying Jesi’s prayer card and my phone. It is a beautiful morning. My lips are a zipped purse.
I lean against the wall on the beach where we, who continue to swim past the finish of the season leave our gear. A bag slouches next to me. I am silent inside and out. I look across the pond and my eyes come to rest on the spot where I last remember Jesi sitting on a rock. It is at the near end of Red Cross Beach. She is thin in her short shorts and tee shirt. Her skin is blotched, badly marked from the fungal infection she is recovering from. But her smile is so large that no one would see anything of the scars she wears. Nor would they know what she faces. She does not hide, but protects her bald head from the early May sun with a baseball cap. Large sunglasses protect her eyes. She munches on an apple.
Now on September 11 three years later the beach is deserted. I wander over in the direction of the rock and am dismayed to find I can’t locate it. So much has changed. So much has changed…
I try to remember where the rock might have been. I turn to look at the water, wanting the eyes back that looked out from that Mothers Day afternoon at the angle of the pond from where she. I look up and down the beach and back at the clump of long grasses and white river stones piled in front of me. Suddenly I have an idea. I take Jesi’s prayer card out of my back pocket and wedge it in among the grasses, enough so I can see her angel face, but also enough so it is not too visible. I stand back to check its location and readjust it a couple of times. Then, still hesitant that Jesi will be safe, I leave her to look out over the pond for the day. I will return for her in the evening light.
When I do return to swim I look over toward where I left Jesi knowing she is watching over me. It is late and the sun is falling behind the hills by the time I make my way, wrapped in a towel, over to the place where I left her. My eyes scour the grasses. I have not imagined the exuberance I feel when I first get a glimpse of her peeking out over the pond. It is not only as though I have had some enormous secret, but also there emerges an incredible sense of the connection that I have with Jesi ballooning around me to fill the dusky void of the sunset three years after she passed away. I stand in silence allowing myself to be engulfed by this, wishing for the feeling to last, knowing that like all messages from Jesi, it is fleeting and not to be held onto.
And so it passes. And so I pick up the prayer card, grateful for what I have just experienced, and move back along the beach to make my way home.