Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Seven Years

For each of the last two years on today's date, I've been tempted to write something like what appears below. For various reasons--not the least of which is that we just don't do much personal blogging here--I haven't. But this year, for some reason, I feel compelled to do so. Or maybe just more able to. My apologies for this lengthy, self-indulgent post.

Seven years ago today, my only sibling--my sister, Julie--died in a car accident. She was 27 at the time. She was traveling between the two families she loved the most: after spending a long weekend with her boyfriend and his parents in Pittsburgh, she was on her way to our parents' house for dinner in New Jersey. Julie worked in Brooklyn and lived on Long Island, so she'd planned to spend the night in New Jersey, head into work the next morning, and then return to her own home.

Julie had managed to touch a lot of people in her 27 years. Following her graduation from college (which, unlike me, she completed in four years), she joined the Peace Corps, living and teaching in Burkina Faso, a small nation in West Africa. She worked for a few years as a youth minister in Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania and New York. Eventually, she returned to school, earned her master's degree, and became a teacher. The 2003-04 school year was her first as a full-time teacher; she taught English at a public school for gifted and talented kids.

Julie's death was devastating for me, as it was for so many others. I can remember that terrible, terrible phone call from my parents as though it were yesterday. I was talking on my cell phone with my best friend from law school, chatting about women and football. Monday Night Football was on the TV; the Bulger-led Rams were playing. My land line rang; the caller ID said it was my parents. Thinking they just wanted to chat at the end of the holiday weekend, I'd told my friend to hang on for a minute (and that I'd ask my folks if I could call them back). Then my dad's voice: Donald, I have terrible news.

Still without any premonition of what was to come, I told my friend I'd need to call him back. Back to my dad: Your sister has been in an accident. Oh my gosh, I thought, she'd just gotten a new car, had she totaled it already? Where is she, I asked. Donald, it was bad. She didn't make it. Julie died.

With those last two words, my world changed. I think it's only recently I've realized how much. Part of who I was--who I am, who I'd always been--was Julie's brother. I don't think she knew exactly how much that was true. I was a year ahead of her in school. We'd gone to different grade schools, but the same high school. Since I was there first, a lot of teachers came to know her as "Donald's sister." But socially, the opposite was true. Among the student body, I was Julie's brother. To this day, I have friends (or at least "Facebook friends") who stay in touch with me only out of a sense of loyalty to Julie.

In October 2003, I'd been living in West Virginia for a month. I'd graduated from law school the previous May, and had just begun a year-long clerkship for a federal district court judge. It was supposed to be a great year, full of intellectual challenges and the beginning of learning my craft. Instead, work was a necessary distraction from what seemed to be a huge hole in my soul. The only people I knew in town were the people I worked with, and I'd only known them for a few weeks. Thank goodness that they are among the most caring, wonderful people I've ever encountered.

Work was a useful distraction for a while, but it, too, eventually became an all-too-painful reminder of what my sister had meant to me. As kids, Julie and I fought as often as any closely-aged siblings do. But as adults, we'd been really close, even though we weren't living in the same state. We regularly talked about our personal and work lives. She was beginning her career as a teacher, and I was beginning mine as a lawyer. We called to tell each other about the cool stuff we were doing. And suddenly, that was gone. Six months after my sister's death, I was sworn in as a lawyer at a ceremony in Columbus. And I couldn't stop my eyes from overflowing with tears. I couldn't shake the thought: my sister didn't live to see me become a lawyer.

It took a while--longer than I could have imagined--for the wound left by my sister's death to begin to harden into a scar. As anyone embarks upon their profession, they want to believe that what they're doing matters, that their work has meaning. But I couldn't shake the feeling that nothing mattered. After all, my sister had done as much as could be expected of her, and she had still died far too young. Making matters worse, probably, was that the circumstances of her accident yielded no one to blame. It was just a freak occurrence, one that 99% of the time would have resulted in a fender-bender or no accident at all.

Learning to be a lawyer (which is really what a lawyer does for his first two years in practice) is tough. It's even harder when you no longer have a firm conviction in the value of your profession--or any profession, for that matter.

I'm always amazed by the people who find meaning in tragedy. I've been moved, over the last couple years, by Kate the Great's discussions of her niece's illness and death. Why couldn't I find such serenity? Why couldn't I let go of the sadness, the bitterness? I remember the platitudes offered by well-meaning people: God needed another teacher in Heaven was a common one. I wanted to scream back, Really? I can think of a couple He could have had instead.

Work wasn't the only hard thing. When I returned to Cincinnati in 2004, my friends welcomed me back with open arms. Or at least, they tried to. I'd never been a really big party animal, but for a long time after Julie died, the thought of just hanging out with a bunch of people was intolerable. One or two was OK, but more than that? Couldn't do it. Weddings were out of the question. Every time I received an invitation (to a wedding, or a party, or just a happy hour), I really wanted to come. I'd even say yes. But I usually found a last minute reason--a headache, a work project, undone laundry--to skip out. It became so common, my friends had a name for saying you'd show up somewhere and then not doing so: "pulling a Caster." I avoided meeting new people. First dates were unbearable; inevitably, the question comes up: Do you have any brothers or sisters? How was I supposed to answer that? No. Oh, so you're an only child. Well..... Or: Yes, a sister. Really? What does she do? Umm.....

Thanks goodness for the patience--and loyalty--of those friends. My best friend--the one I'd been talking to when my dad called that terrible night--was amazing. He knew when to call, when to worry a bit if he'd not heard from me. He knew when to prompt me to talk about how I was dealing with things, and when to talk about anything but. And over time--a long, long time--things got better. Over the last couple years, I'm no longer just accepting invitations, I've begun actually showing up. I take joy in being an attorney again. As I begin a new chapter in my life and my career (more on that in the next few days), I'm filled with a sense of optimism. For a long time, change--no matter what kind--only brought a sense of dread. I enjoy my friendships and the company of others again. I'm not sure I could have ever predicted this when I chose to make it my home, but it turns out that Cincinnati was a good place to learn to live again.

I can't say that "hole in my soul" has healed or closed completely. That will never happen. But I've learned to fill it with other things. I've learned that it's OK to let go of some things, and grasp hold of others. I've learned that it's OK to move forward--and that moving forward isn't the same thing as "moving on."

So why do I write this here, exposing myself in such a public way? I don't know. Partially because I'm sure there's someone reading this who is where I was five or six years ago. Someone who experienced some loss recently, who feels stuck in the mud, and who can't seem to gain any traction. My message: keep the wheels turning. It gets better. You'll start to gain some momentum. Just be patient with yourself. And for those of who know someone in that spot: don't give up on them. Keep throwing them lifelines. Eventually, they'll grab on to one of them, and let you help pull them onto solid ground. Just be patient with them.

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