There are certain dates that get seared in one’s mind—dates that, when everything around you changes or you suffer the loss of other kinds of memories and information, the dates still remain. I’m not a neuroscientist…um…not even close…so I have very little idea what is going on in the brain that has allowed me to retain the birthdate of my 6thgrade boyfriend (April 17th—Happy belated birthday, Eric Brown!) though I haven’t talked to him in over 25 years. My neural pathway game is apparently strong.
There are dates that we are taught to celebrate, to mark, to remember. They are imprinted in our minds from frequent repetition both verbally from those around us, combined with the yearly practice of celebration. Birthdays, anniversaries, national holidays.
Then there are the dates that are seared because of their impact—dates where you knew after which, you’d never be the same. Dates where you think in terms of before and after _____. Dates that never pass you by, dates you never absentmindedly forget, dates that you are acutely aware that you anticipate, even prepare for, in some way.
August 14this that kind of date for me.
It is the day my sister, Marci, died.
Every August 14th, I’ve tried to take a moment to pause and reflect on what that day was like for me, to remember how shattered I was so I can rejoice in the fact that, by God’s grace, I didn’t stay shattered. Each year has been a little different. Sometimes I’ve been home, sometimes I’ve been traveling. In the early years I dreaded the day. In these latter years, I’ve actually looked forward to having the space in the midst of my busy life–now filled with a cast of characters who didn’t actually know Marci in person–to remind myself that she was real, the twenty years of sisterhood and friendship we had was real, the pain of her loss was real, the impact of that loss is still real, and the healing I’ve experienced, God’s presence, and the deep joy I feel are also real. Regardless of what emotions are swirling around the day, the ritual has more or less been the same—I grab an hour or two to myself at one of my favorite cafes, and I re-read the journal that I had been keeping at the time and the immediate reflections I had on learning that she had died. For the past couple of years, I’ve written some kind of tribute on Facebook and have enjoyed reading the responses of those of you for whom she was a very real person as well. I’ve also loved reading the responses of those of you for whom I am very real, even if you didn’t know her, since you know that the whole story of her life and her death is part of what makes me…me….for better or worse!
Of all of the August 14ths I’ve been through, this past one is the one that has felt the most poignant—not the saddest (that was the 1stfor sure), not the one where I was the angriest (that would be the 2nd), not one where there was a sweet nostalgia and deep peace since I was experiencing so much love and joy in my life (there have been many of those). It is thisone that has felt the most significant.
This year marks that I have now lived more days without Marci than I lived with Marci.
It has been 20 years since she died. Exactly half of my life.
I spent the first 20 years of my life with a sister, a teammate, a witness to our shared life. For many of those years it really did feel like we shared everything: a bathroom, make-up, clothes, music, inside jokes, late-night talks, hair color (thanks to the same bottle). Once or twice we even shared the same love interest (um…not at the same time, thankfully!!) But, we didn’t share everything. We disagreed, we fought, though we always made up. In the last year of her life, we were heading into new seasons of adulthood, of making individual choices that would change our relationship from being “the Gulbranson girls” who were always together, to being two distinct, vibrant individuals with different skills, gifts, passions, and pursuits. She had just gotten married in May of 1998 and I was in college and pursuing my then dual dreams of singing and dating Italian men while studying in Siena, Italy. While I knew we were heading in our independent directions, there was never a thought in either of our minds that we would be like those weird sisters who never talked or weren’t best friends. And certainly, there was not a thought in either of our minds that the beginning of this exciting time in both of our lives would end with her sudden death.
I’ve spent the past 20 years of my life…now 20 plus….without her. As I’ve written about and talked about before, God has been so good, so gracious to me and to my family. Last year I wrote about how when she died I was convinced that I would never sing again, never laugh again, never love again, and how I do those all three of those things, while differently than I had planned, I sing, laugh and love with more depth and richness than I ever could have imagined. These things are all true and are measures of God’s deep and transformative grace. But equally true is that there is always more healing to be done….
When I thought about this August 14th, knowing it would be the one that would lead me into that odd territory of “more years without” than with, I knew I wanted to mark it in a significant way. I knew that I didn’t just want to read my journal from that day—I wanted to go back to where I was when it happened: Italy.
Conveniently, this year also lined up with other significant events and moments in our family. I turned 40 in May, my parents celebrated their 45thwedding anniversary in June as well as the 25thanniversary of my dad’s senior pastorate at their church. In addition, if my husband and I had stayed at our old church we were on a sabbatical rhythm of every seven years and this would have been a sabbatical year for us. While this wasn’t a full-blown sabbatical in any sense of the word, I was able to save up one month of vacation time to go with my husband and kids on an extended trip that would include a mini pilgrimage to the place I was when I found out that she had died. My parents and some of our dear friends who are like family were all able to come for various parts of the trip. I was able to explore new places, to visit old ones, and most importantly, to remember.
But what does that even mean?
The prefix “re-“ in front of a word historically has meant “back to the original place; again, anew, once more,” and some meanings even include a sense of “undoing.” Our modern word “remember” comes from the Latin rememorari combining “re” with “memorari:” “be mindful of.”
I titled this post “A Trip to Re-Member” because a) I am a word nerd for sure—the way to my heart is through is etymology (and maybe shoes). And b) this is so much of what I set out to do in re-visiting where I was when Marci died. I was returning to the original place once more, even “undoing” it to a certain extent, in an effort to be mindful of that time in my life.
But there is an even richer way to look at this word. There is a sense in remembering that we are doing the work to “re”-“member” as in the Latin membrum “limb, member of the body, part.”
For me, this is what this significant anniversary was and still is about: remembering—naming, reclaiming, putting all of the pieces and parts back together—both parts of the story as well as parts of myself. In approaching this 20-year mark, I was starting to look at my life and name some of the things that had been lost as a result of her death, not just relationally as in losing her, but what it meant that her death happened at a time and at an age for me where I was on the mere cusp of adulthood. There were dreams, plans, ambitions, practices, pieces of myself that I have known that I’ve missed—I’ve felt it in rumblings and heard it in echoes and whispers–but that I have just started to name and count as real and necessary for me reclaim in order to fully live, thrive, and flourish.
Additionally, another meaning of “member” is a person who belongs to an organization (and sometimes they wear jackets that are only for them, apparently!!) My whole relational life was re-“membered” after Marci died. We had the kind of relationship that centered…on us. We both had friends of course—she had two or three really close friends throughout her life, I was once described as someone who views strangers as simply “friends I haven’t met yet” and that is embarrassingly accurate. I connect quickly and deeply but will always be somewhat limited by the mere 24 hours I’m given in a day and an introverted husband who is in an extroverted job. But, when Marci was alive, she was, without a doubt, the person with whom I spent the most time. She was my very best friend and closest confidant. One of the ways God has worked most profoundly in my life is bringing me both friends who are like family and family who are my very best friends. In this trip of remembrance, I was able to reflect on the relationships that have sustained me from that very moment of her death through these past twenty years—too countless to name here–but people for whom I am deeply grateful for and…to use a favorite old-school word…absolutelygob-smackedby, every. single. day.
This is just skimming the surface of the work of remembering: It is about acknowledging the people who, by even small acts of attentiveness and presence, have saved your very life. It is as much about re-claiming the present and re-dreaming the future as it is about reflecting on the past. It is intentional. It is hard. It is vulnerable. It is messy and it will mess with you. But I will tell you: it is worth every lump in the throat, every tear, every bittersweet laugh, every difficult and awkward conversation, every repentant thought and word uttered, every regret named, every story told, every dream re-claimed and re-configured for the future. And this is just the beginning.
Here’s to re-membering….